In Conversation with Anna Wendt

“Design for the people means looking at design in a multi-disciplinary fashion and not being afraid to look constructively to existing and past designs in order to quantify experience to design better buildings for tomorrow.”

Our next guest is Anna Wendt, who is currently a Director at BuroHappold Engineering responsible for leading both facade specific and multi-disciplinary projects. Anna has a particular interest in the broader application of an integrated engineering approach to building design addressing the complex demands of the built environment. Our discussion below touches upon how multiple engineering disciplines, including specialists such as façade engineering, lighting, and inclusive design, can come together for a common goal to design for the people, namely for well-being.

Anna Wendt.jpgFor more information about Anna and her work, please refer to the following link:

Kat Chan, facade engineer and Future of Design Symposium committee member: Anna, first off, thank you for taking the time to discuss some questions about this year’s Future of Design Symposium theme.

Anna Wendt: Happy to discuss, and thanks for thinking of me!

Kat: Without further ado, first off, what does the theme Design for the People mean to you?

Anna: Design for the People to me means people-centric design, essentially designing buildings with the end user in mind. As a façade engineer, I’ve found myself in a multi-specialist role. It’s about identifying links between what we do to bring the most value to a project. Specialist disciplines like façade engineering, lighting, acoustics, and sustainability can sometimes be regarded as first world disciplines. They aren’t disciplines that you’d associate with a growing economy or a country that is dealing with a disparity for resources. However, studies have shown that lighting, daylighting, and the environment in the building itself can have a profound effect on people’s physical health, mental health and thereby their experience in the building. It’s about making the space better to live in, about engineering the experience.

Kat: What do you think has changed recently that allows us as engineers to engage in affecting the user experience?

Anna: I think we as engineers have talked about integrated and multidisciplinary design for a long time, and now finally, after all these years we’re finally doing it. We’re doing it because clients are driving to have more adaptive and higher quality design, which can manifest from a mental and physical perspective. Coming from facades, which is innately multidisciplinary, this sort of approach is easier to grasp since façade engineering already looks at all these difference disciplines. For example, it is quite usual for facades to investigate integrating lighting or accommodating acoustical requirements. So, the next step of identifying opportunities for adding quality in the design is quite tangible. It’s about expressing the value added from both a design perspective and an owner’s perspective. This can also be about looking forward to integrate sustainability and adaptability.

Kat: Speaking of adaptability, one of the main themes we’re tackling this year at the symposium is adaptability and resilience, could you touch upon that?

Anna: Sure – we talk about designing a building for say a 50 year lifetime, but really big projects need at least 3-7 years to be built in the first place. This requires a shift in mindset and approach with sustainability targets and how building will be used in say 20-30 years time. We need to think now about how buildings will operate in the future. We need to build flexibility into the design to allow re-purposing, upgrading and so on. It should be easily adaptable from the start so that in 50 years the building can be redefined and reused in a new capacity rather than becoming obsolete.

For renovations and re-purposing, and designing for that second lifetime, we have to ask what will the building become after its first 50 years?

Kat: How do you think we as engineers and designers can encourage this process?

Anna: It’s about looking at the brief and really seeing what opportunities there are. Engineers historically have answered project briefs with solutions by making something work quickly, but we can now challenge the brief. Rather than take the word of the developer, we can suggest where value and cost can be realigned. There is a time and place for it; and it’s about identifying that.

Kat: Has there been a specific project that speaks to this approach of seizing the opportunity to challenge the brief and integrating those suggestions successfully?

Anna: Yes, we’re currently working on The East Bank Stratford. The client is the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC). On this waterfront development project, there will be a new branch of the Victoria and Albert, co-curated by the Smithsonian, a  dance theater by Sadlers Wells, recording Concert Hall for the BBC, and the London College of Fashion, which is part of University College London. The development is in east London, which has been undergoing quite a bit of development and growth after the Olympics.

Our inclusive design team have been heavily involved in defining the brief. The team focuses on making buildings and their use accessible to a variety of people of different abilities and backgrounds. This includes, for example, making way finding accessible for those with learning disabilities, limited sightedness, and linguistic proficiency.

For this project, the inclusive design team put together a design brief for the client that effectively acted as a manual defining minimum standards to be met. They really challenged the guidelines and codes to build solutions that think about how people now and in the future will use the buildings – making them inclusive and usable for all.

East Bank Stratford

(The image is Copyright of the architects Allies and Morrison / O’Donnell + Tuomey.)

Kat: In your opinion, how can we as engineers/designers/built environment enthusiasts get the greater public engaged and talking about the built environment?

Anna: As engineers, it’s about finding a way into the conversation. It’s about finding a way to speak to the client. It’s good PR and marketing for them to have an iconic, smart building design that embeds sustainability. But, beyond that, there are key areas that we can highlight for people outside the architectural and engineering industry. The people that use the building care about how the feel when they are in it – are they comfortable, do they get a wow factor. When you talk about carbon content, it isn’t as tangible as way finding or daylight or fresh air. People understand the tangible and by making them feel part of the story of a building design, showing them it is accessible to them, you’ve engaged them into the conversation.

Kat: For sure, bringing our engineering goals down to earth and making them accessible helps us come to the table. One thing that’s come up in conversations, especially with owners, is the question of effectivity of tweaking the design for improvement. They ask: Really? Does that really help? What do you think is the greatest hurdle we face regarding our design went according to plan?

Anna: We don’t do as well reviewing the success of our building. Post occupancy evaluations are often met with some reluctance from clients. It can be quite controversial to go back and look at those past decisions that were often ultimately driven back to cost and back to budget.

Kat: Sort of like passing judgement on those past decisions?

Anna: Yes, exactly – and, we don’t get all we aspire to. But, it’s about lessons to be learned from the past. As engineers, there is value to looking at those findings in a non-criticizing way. Well-being is on its way to becoming its own specialty – its about thinking how all experience the building. And, to quantify experience, whether than be physical health, mental health, productivity, etc.), we can only do that through data.

Kat: Data from existing and current buildings?

Anna: Yes, we’re moving toward using more technology and globalization to see how effective past designs have been and are in the current day. Back to the question about engagement, legislative change will be positively affected by this data-backed feedback.

Kat: Absolutely, industry engagement is very effective with legislation when there is data and a wealth of studies.

Anna: Exactly, and it’s important that we look at the data and the design collectively. Whilst engineers are becoming increasingly more specialized we need to ensure we don’t take a silo’d approach when determining legislation. Good design, safe design, high performance requires input from around the table.

Design for the people means looking at design in a multi-disciplinary fashion and not being afraid to look constructively to existing and past designs in order to quantify experience to design better buildings for tomorrow.

Kat: Awesome. Let’s end on that note that sums up the full picture. Thanks for taking the time today to discuss Anna!

Anna: Thank you!

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