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9 July 2013

A Conversation With Peter Ruggiero, HOK Design Principal

Peter8002Peter Ruggiero, AIA, is a design principal based in Chicago. Since joining HOK in May 2011, he has led the design of several major projects. His favorite question is, “Why?”

How can architects be leaders in addressing society’s challenges?

PR: It is fairly easy to design attractive buildings using a toolbox. But that isn’t enough.

To create work of real merit, our solutions must have an embedded intelligence. Rather than responding to preconceived notions about what looks good and works, a solution should solve unique challenges. If we do this, the value will be intrinsically embedded in the building’s DNA. This is where smart, timeless, great design lives.

How does your interest in cities influence your approach to projects?

I’m interested in being a strong voice for smart urbanization. The world is going through massive urbanization. All indications are that young people want to live in urban areas. The challenge is to redefine our cities for future generations. To do this, we need to ask some tough questions.We look at each project as an opportunity to engage clients in a discussion about how future generations can live and thrive in cities.

We are working with clients that are making major commitments to US cities’ downtown cores. Their leaders have determined that this is where talented young people want to work. As architects, it’s our responsibility to respond to their program needs while designing an engaging building that helps them fulfill their corporate goals and obligations.

Our design for the Planetarium, Science Museum and Technology Center in Austin is an example. To be located half a mile from the state Capitol and opposite one of the main entrances to the University of Texas’ campus, our design explores how this project, at the intersection of education, government and science, can contribute to the making of a place and enhance its context.

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Austin Planetarium in Austin, Texas

How do you apply this approach in suburban projects?

Whether a project is in a city or the suburbs, we always want to start a dialogue between the building and its context to create a sense of place.

One example is the campus expansion project currently in construction in West Houston. The campus appears to be one of suburban office buildings when, in fact, the urbanism and place making reside in the spaces between the buildings.

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Campus Expansion in Houston, Texas

We looked at amenities such as food service, fitness, conferencing, retail and training. The challenge was that these particular spaces can have different architectural requirements than those of offices. This becomes the basis for not locating them inside an office building. They also proved wonderful opportunities to activate and enliven the campus.

We designed a high-performance computing center for a global energy client at their Houston headquarters. Most of the space is reserved for computers but this is also where incredibly bright geologists will use supercomputers to identify important energy explorations.

We began by defining the right balance and placement of silicone-based versus carbon-based life forms. In other words, where are the machines and where are the people? The team realized that this building could not simply be a hermetically sealed box because it needed to provide a home for the bright scientists and high-performance computing experts that our client employs. The project needed to focus on contemporary issues of workplace while highlighting the company’s innovative research. The result is a building that will ultimately serve as a front door to the campus, which is located on a prominent site in Houston’s Energy Corridor.

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Computing Center in Houston, Texas

Rather than depending on existing data center paradigms, we asked questions and did research that enabled the project to have a more unique definition.

Why is it so important to ask questions?

Asking questions is a critical part of bringing value to our clients. We take our cumulative knowledge and experience, marry them with an inquisitive nature and rely on constant research to discover new, appropriate solutions.

One of our first questions often is, “Why?” We aren’t shy about challenging assumptions regarding what a project should be. Are existing paradigms relevant – especially if we are building for the next 50 years?  We need to consider changes in our world: how we work, where we live and how we commute – and respond with our solutions.

How is your approach to sustainability rooted in research?

Most clients expect a high level of LEED certification. In today’s market that is like satisfying a building code. There is an inherent expectation. The challenge is to go beyond LEED.

The idea of researching how nature solves design problems – biomimicry – is important. If we are going to design a building in the desert, there is merit to understanding how nature responds to heat. If we are going to build in a cold environment, there is validity to understanding how nature responds to environmental changes.

What drives your interest in staying involved with students and the world of education?

We want to get to know students who are not only talented designers but also great thinkers. Engaging with students and academia keeps us current with new ideas about architecture around the world.

I participate actively in architecture education. I serve on the board of the United World Colleges, an education movement that includes 12 international schools and colleges. I remain active on student reviews at architectural schools. When I lived in New York, I taught at Columbia University’s School of Architecture. I am also a member of the Rice Design Alliance in Houston,  the Chicago Architectural Club, the Urban Land Institute and the Midwest High-Speed Rail Association.