The Architect and Design Thinking; Navigating the business sector’s eager adoption of architecture’s iterative process and language, and architects’ potential role in its acquisition and deployment…

I recently edited an interview for the Young Architect’s Forum “Connection” magazine featuring a conversation at the 2016 AIA Convention between Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA and national President of the AIA in 2015 and Virginia E. Marquardt, AIA.

When asked what changes Richter would like to see 15 years from now in architectural professional practice, she replied, “ We [architecture professionals] have talked about expanding our services so that we don’t bracket ourselves within ‘just’ design. Architects need to find ways to apply our set of skills, knowledge, and ability to solve problems creatively.  I think being able to find options is one of our main strengths as architects.  We are not formulaic and that’s what makes us so valuable when it comes to weighing options and helping our clients sort through whatever issue might need a solution.”   She proceeded to say that, “While architects shouldn’t bracket themselves, it’s very important to realize that architects build.  We build buildings, we build spaces.  We can’t forget the core of our profession.”

Richter’s comments regarding the architects’ ability to think iteratively and in an option-oriented manner highlighted one of my favorite aspects or our profession. When approaching a design problem, we already know that there is no one perfect solution, but rather, a multitude of options that must be studied and explored in order to build consensus regarding which option is most appropriate given a specific array of constraints and overarching project goals.

This past week I began to think through the potentials of diagramming a site for a new project. Wrapping my head around how I might create 4 distinctive options that solved a similar problem but in different ways was teased out in a quick sketch exercise, followed by study and some preliminary testing, conversation, and of course, more drawing.  The results felt exciting and latent with potentials that will continue to be tested against our client’s vision, needs, and long-term goals.  Already I am excited to see which scheme has the most promise, and do not feel married to a specific parti in favor of recognizing that the iterative process needs to once again be fed through a literal feedback loop that will garner new strategies and results.

Having returned this past May from C2, a conference in Montreal geared towards “Commerce and Creativity,” it seems that “big business” is also seeking this type of iterative thinking– and with great marketing gusto and enthusiasm.  During my time at C2 I attended a Master Class taught by a partner with Deloitte Digital, a self-described “digital consultancy” that “brings together all the creative and technology capabilities, business acumen, and industry insight needed to help transform our clients’ businesses.” The class was titled “Innovation in the Digital Era,” and focused on “exploring how leading innovators are able to disrupt their markets.”

Not sure what to expect, I was amazed to find myself in a class that was teaching principles and strategies of design thinking and prototyping paired with product development and outcomes. When I met someone in the class that worked for Deloitte Digital, they mentioned that some of their staff was comprised of architects, and that these individuals were achieving success in their new roles.

Much in the way that IDEO and other companies that aim to use design thinking as a lens with which to solve problems, architects’ process of working iteratively to generate quick solutions to evaluate and refine is being adopted and celebrated across industry sectors and various forms of media.

When I asked Mia Scharphie, founder of Creative Agency, a social impact design firm based in Boston, about the concept of “design thinking” being appropriated across a wide range of business sectors as a tool for re-thinking existing issues or initiatives by engaging users directly and prototyping potential solutions, I appreciated her initial response “they [the corporate sector] stole our words!” She then countered by adding, “The design process allows for uncertainty and creativity, which is deeply optimistic and imaginative.  To see examples of that being valued in the world outside of design is something I feel great about.  Design thinking as the marriage of ethnography and open-ended problem solving is a great process that can produce great things.”

As for my personal opinion, I second Richter that architects’ unique academic training instills a certain juxtaposition of rigor and “what if” that helps facilitate diverse, rich dialogues and thinking that hopefully result in, as Richter reminds us, amazing built work. What I also hope is that architects continue to sit at the table in multidisciplinary settings, where the rigor of the design process might add value to problem-solving even when built solutions aren’t required, not only as a means of generating unique solutions to various problems, but demonstrating a certain level of rigor and process that goes beyond the adoption of sometimes ambiguous or slippery words like “innovation.”

And I think it will: it seems like there has never been a better time and appetite to think iteratively not only in our work, but  in the diverse and applicable ways architecture professionals may want to utilize their varied skill sets.

Alternative Practice(s) In Denver

When I’m not architecting or blogging, I’m editing for the Young Architect’s Forum “Connection” e-zine, published by the AIA.  One of the best parts of editing is getting to source new content, and in the process, the chance to meet people that are being bold and brave in pursuing their passions and making them realities.

Over the past year or so, I’ve met a lot of people that are pursuing what I might call “alternative practice.” This isn’t a new term, but perhaps a varied term in regards to how it’s used. I would define this as individuals that are pursuing design in methods that correlate with architectural tools and processes, but their intentions and outcomes often diverge from a functional “building.”

For example, for the upcoming issue of Connection, I interviewed a Professor I worked with in London, Alain Chiaradia.  While he began his career in architecture, he quickly realized his passion for design research and analysis on the urban scale.  He now teaches at Cardiff University, while researching and practicing urban design aimed at transformation through spatial analysis.  Prior to featuring Alain, I showcased the work of Viktor Venson, Co-founder of “No Right Brain Left Behind.”  As an ad-man-turned-designer, Venson has been working to create prototypes of new learning environments meant to facilitate learning and creativity in schools.

While architecture lends itself to being interdisciplinary (each project requires becoming a pseudo-expert in a different type of program, building typology, etc.,) I have become increasingly interested in the range of applications architectural tools and thinking can be applied to for various problem-solving efforts on a wide range of scales.

As a resident of Denver, what is interesting to me is that the Colorado design community also seems to have a growing number of professionals that are pursuing “alternative practice.”  Here’s a quick snapshot of two dynamic individuals based in Colorado that balance architecture with other multidisciplinary pursuits, Kelton Osborn and Julie Spinnato:


Kelton Osborn

Kelton Osborn

Kelton Osborn,  Artist and Architect

(1)    What is your background (educationally and professionally)?  How did it get you to where you are now (professionally)?

My undergraduate degree is in Architecture with a minor in Printmaking from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Right out of school I worked for an adobe home builder where I gained immense knowledge about construction. After building several homes, I secured a position working for Antoine Predock also in Albuquerque. After two years, I moved to Denver to attend the University of Colorado at Denver where I earned my Master of Architecture degree. While in graduate school I was lucky enough to cross paths with professor Douglas Darden. Douglas became my mentor – motivating me to operate outside my design comfort zone and pushing me to uncover my true design process.

Over the years I have worked for several Denver architecture firms, each offering valuable personal and professional experiences. Looking back, I’m proud to have had a hand in many exciting projects.

In 2009, I was laid off from my full time architectural position. I decided to take advantage of the situation by switching my primary focus to art. This also allowed me to spend more time with my young daughter. In the past several years, I have completed my first public art commission for the city of Denver and my first solo show at a downtown gallery – while continuing to practice architecture. The difference is, I am able to take on a wider variety of project types.

(2)    What role does architecture play in your current work?

My art and architecture have always meshed and influenced each other. To me, it is all design, whether it is painting, building furniture or designing a building. I am fortunate in that I am able to create things from a very small and intimate scale to a large habitable scale. The Berkeley Lake public art commission I completed last year is a combination of landscape design, architecture and sculpture.

(3)    Can you give an example of a project you’ve completed that employs architectural thinking or processes that yield an unexpected or “non-architectural” outcome?

I suppose that my recent paintings are the result of my “architectural thinking” because I believe most everything in our lives can influence design. I tend to start with a notion or process that is very intuitive. I believe that any starting point in the design process is valid and if you allow your intuition to lead, you can discover many unexpected outcomes.

My current show at the Carmen Wiedenhoeft Gallery “fragments revealed: a continuous process” illustrates this process.

Some impressive examples of Kelton’s work, on display now at the Carmen Widenhoeft Gallery, as well as his recent commission for Denver’s Urban Arts Commission:

StrataGall IMG_1187 Buoy_cropDSCN1709 - Version 2Linear_crop Berkeley Park Public Art


Julie_headshotJulie Spinnato, Architect, Yoga Instructor, and Artist

(1) What is your background (educationally and professionally)?  How did it get you to where you are now (professionally)?

I received a B. Arch from Carnegie Mellon University and spent a year studying abroad at University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.  I spent a summer during college working as a wrangler at Colorado Mountain Ranch in Gold Hill and fell in love with Colorado.  Upon graduation, I interviewed at firms in Denver and was offered a job at one office’s Vail office.  I worked in three firms in Vail before opening my own firm, Studio Spinnato in 2007.  I moved to Denver recently and have recently accepted an associate position with a friend from Vail, Ken Bridges at Blueline Architects.

(2) Do you find any overlaps between teaching yoga and practicing architecture?

I think that through teaching yoga I have learned to communicate effectively as well as listen throughly.  I also think that clients can be overwhelmed in the design and construction process and to teach them through the process is a valuable tool.

(3) What type of art do you do?

Primarily I am a painter.  I usually paint what is in my immediate environment.  While living in Vail, I painted a lot of landscapes, primarily aspen trees.  I spent time in New Mexico and have painted a lot of Western scenes.  I currently I dabbling with the idea of a juxaposition of the West and the cityscape.

(4) Can you cite a project you’ve completed that employs architectural thinking or processes that yield an unexpected or “non-architectural” outcome?

I entered a recycled art show last year and painted on recycled shutters from Habitat for Humanity. The piece, “Dark Horse Shuttered” won first place.

Some examples of a range of Julie’s work:

dark horse shuttered practicing yoga  aspens-potrippin bootsARCOBCCOHEN0357

And we are live – ARCHITECT LIVE!

Good Morning Everyone!!!

Your AIACO_EP bloggers were busy representing at the 2013 AIA National Convention! We gave our presentation “Do You Know Your Emerging Professionals?” on Saturday morning. You know it’s a hit when over half the audience stays after the presentation to talk to the presenters. Just saying.

Then we had breakfast (or in Nathan’s case, Second Breakfast) and scooted off the Architect LIVE studio on the Expo floor. Click HERE for the link to our Architect LIVE video. 

Below are a few photos from our experience.

Thanks for all the love and support! We couldn’t have done this without our great mentors, friends & families. Enjoy!


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Discovering Denver: The Highlands, Sloan’s Lake, and Edgewater

As our loyal readers can tell by now, Denver is full of great neighborhoods to fit every kind of personality and lifestyle. To that admittedly diverse collection, I would add the whole of the Highlands and Sloan’s Lake/Edgewater.

I’ve been living in the area, Edgewater specifically, for almost 2 years now and have been exploring the surroundings on foot, bike, and a bit of driving, and I’ve just barely tapped this area’s potential. From restaurants to parks to houses, this area has some of the best in Denver.

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Stapleton International Airport was Denver’s proud contribution to air travel from 1929 to 1995, ferrying millions of travelers to and from this great city through its decades of operation. Today, the nearly 7.5 square miles of land that once was home to miles of runways and acres of parking lots, terminal buildings, and a vast complex of support facilities is called home by a new resident: the young professional.

Sure there are a few outliers, as the master plan probably calls for, but my experience thus far (disclosure, I do not currently live in Stapleton, but close on a house in a few short days so have spent a fair amount of time there) is that there is largely a population of thirty something’s with babies.

And I haven’t even experienced Halloween there yet.

Apparently toddlers appear from mid-air, climb out from behind bushes, over-populate the surroundings and eventually the parents can be seen riding a massive title wave of young people all grabbing at a sea of candy.

Ok, so this may be an exaggeration. But maybe not.

That may sound terrifying to many people, but strange enough, this is part of the appeal to my family. You see we have one of those little people to contribute to the masses. And frankly, the thought of him participating in an involved and burgeoning community sounds great. Stapleton is one of America’s largest, and in many respects, most successful and sustainable master planned communities and we’re excited to be a part of it.

Stapleton today is a mix of single family homes, multi-family and apartment homes, retail destinations, entertainment venues, and even a strong and growing educational system. What you perhaps give up in personal space, you are in turn rewarded for in quality of life (I can bike to work as opposed to a 45 minute car ride) numerous options for spending your time (amazing trails, a park system that will keep my boy busy for years) and proximity to both urban and natural environments (downtown is only 7 miles away and the bluff lake nature preserve is just across the street).

Of all the things Stapleton is, it is foremost a young community. The complexity of the story unfolding is going to be written with both failures and successes. Drive by The Berkshire on a Friday evening and you will see a thriving example of success. Look at the extensive fencing system that separates Stapleton and its neighbors to the south and east and you will see how rapid, planned, and in some ways invasive development can be at odds with existing contexts.

But things are still growing.

As the thrust of development moves north in the form of massive building efforts, the fabric just laid in my neighborhood of Bluff Lake (eastern Stapleton) is being filled in. A new elementary school is being built, the roads are being connected to the surrounding grids, and fences are being removed. There is a second town center slated for eastern Stapleton that will place more restaurant and retail opportunities within walking distance. And although the trees are barely taller than I am, the xeriscaping is growing and the children are keeping pace.