KMA exec discusses the changing role of architecture

Recently, the editor of CREW Corner spoke with Heather Mertes, a senior associate with KMA Architecture and Engineering (KMA), about the changes and challenges in the field of architecture in San Diego and beyond.

Q: How has the business of architecture changed in the last 10 years?

A: While in the past architectural firms could be more discerning, I now see them taking any work that they can get – something I didn't see ten years ago. Prior to the recession, architectural firms were able to be more selective and willing to pass on projects that didn't fit within their strategic plan or corporate vision. Additionally they are now often selected for projects based only on price – when the differential between firm fees is small, sometimes less than $1,000.

Criteria for selecting architects really needs to be about finding the firm which offers the best working relationship. Architects become a trusted advisor to all parties involved in a project, and when they are a good match for the client and the project, anything is possible. I have always thought that the process of design and the relationships that are formed along the way are really what makes our industry valuable -- and leads to the best and most innovative buildings.

Another change I have seen, especially in the San Diego area, is more architects pursuing government contracts by teaming with general contractors. It has been hard for a lot of architects to shift their mindset and way of working – and become a subcontractor -- but many have been very successful in this arena. Our firm saw a huge part of our portfolio shift over the last five years to more design-build government work and we have since built strong relationships with large general contracting companies throughout the west coast. This strategy has kept us very busy and opened our eyes to new approaches in design, as well as new methods for running all types of projects in our office.

Q: Now that the economy is recovering, how do you think the business of architecture will change -- or needs to change -- in the next 10 years?

A: Architects will be needed more than ever over the next 10 years to help building owners transform older and outdated properties into something more appealing to younger generations. For example, San Diego is really saturated with condos and apartments that were built 20 to 30 years ago -- many of which are not interesting to renters and buyers looking for something new and different. Also increasingly important is sustainability. People are becoming more interested in the sustainable aspects of a structure and are making choices about which buildings to live in based on those attributes.

Additionally, condominium and single family residential designs are going to change, as we see more buyers take an interest in smart design and find more value in architect-designed properties. The size of a home is not as important as it used to be. Instead, consumers are gravitating towards carefully designed homes where every inch of space is maximized and functional rooms and features -- even outdoor -- spaces are offered.

With all of this in mind, I think we are going to see a lot of investment in renovations in the San Diego market, especially downtown. It is going to get more and more expensive to permit and build new properties so I think we are going to see a renewed interest in refurbishing older properties.

Going forward, I also think there should be more thought put into the long-term life of a building -- as well as the two, three and even four generations of people who are going to utilize it. The buildings that we build today need to be designed so they can endure, and continuously appeal to changing populations for decades.

Q: What are some major influences today on architectural design?

A: Ultimately, people are happier living and working in spaces and environments that improve the quality of their lives. They also want to have access to green spaces and see better integration of people, nature and the built environment. Architects understand these needs and are responding in their research and approach to design.

The best building designs often emerge out of ideas about how to give people better access to natural ventilation, daylight and improved indoor air quality. There is also a lot of interest now in alternatives to mechanical ventilation – in which buildings have thermal mass and stack or cross ventilation, which affect the design.

Another major influence today on architectural design is building envelope technology -- the exterior ”skin” of a building -- and its contribution to producing ultra-low energy buildings. This is especially critical in high-rise design featuring expansive glass facades. These buildings are aesthetically appealing, but the desired transparency of the glass can often negatively impact the overall building performance. Shading devices or double skin designs for the façade can be effective, and also significantly influence the overall design aesthetic of a project.

Q: What is your dream project? Why?

A: My ultimate dream project is to design an old radio museum. My dad has an immense collection of old radios dating back to the 1920s and I would love to see them all displayed in an interesting and functional space. To me, these radios are pieces of history as well as works of art. I’d love to design them a new home.

Mertes is a licensed architect in the State of California and a LEED AP (BD +C). She is a senior associate at KMA, and plays a key role in the day-to-day leadership of the San Diego-based architectural firm.

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Heather Johnston AIA 1:12pm October 3, 2013

Thanks so much for the informative interview, and Heather Mertes comments are spot on. Particularly regarding the need for architects to partner with builders to help build a better San Diego. We're moving into the development arena ourselves, realizing the only way to make a positive impact is to have more control over the built product in terms of the design yes, but also overseeing the financing, entitlement and actual construction. Architects need not wait for clients to come knocking, they can get buildings done themselves.