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A Conversation with Todd Bertsch, Design Director for HOK in Atlanta

When he was six years old, Todd Bertsch, AIA, moved with his family to Atlanta from Pocatello, Idaho.

Through what he calls “serendipity,” Bertsch never left. He earned his architecture degree from the Georgia Institute of Technology and has spent his entire professional career in Atlanta. In 2008, he joined HOK as design director in our Atlanta office.

Bertsch and his wife, also an architect, live with their daughter in a house they designed together near Piedmont Park in Atlanta’s vibrant Virginia Highland neighborhood.

“I have seen Atlanta undergo a tremendous transformation over the past 30 years,” says Bertsch. “It is still young compared to Paris or New York, but Atlanta is on its way to becoming one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities. We love this community.”

What do you enjoy most about being an architect?

TB: I love our clients. I get to work with scientists, educators, corporate executives — brilliant people who are changing the world. It’s exciting to share in their mission.

Practicing architecture is this incredible collision of solving technical problems, exploring philosophical ideas and expressing creativity. We have the opportunity to affect what our communities look like, how society operates and how people live. We can blend beauty and poetry to create these high-performance buildings that have a positive influence on the world. These challenges thrill me every day.

I love the energy that our young architects and designers bring. They are our daily vitamin — the Red Bull that energizes us.

How do you share in your clients’ missions?

We kick off projects with visioning sessions to uncover our their goals and aspirations, learn about what they do every day and talk about the environments they imagine for themselves.

As we design a building, we need our clients’ facility teams and the end users to keep participating in the process. We want them to be ambitious about their goals and to challenge us every day.

What is a typical day like for you?

My days are all different. But there are those special times late at night, often at the dinner table at home, when I have a pen and a roll of tracing paper in hand and a deadline in front of me. I can quietly work through all the issues and find the inspiration to inform a project. Designers live for those times.

How do you know when you find the right solution?

When I sketch, I’m relying on the proven connection between hand and brain. My hand doesn’t work on autopilot but, after 25 years, it works in a very natural way. As I’m drawing, my mind is stimulated and I begin to get a feeling about the right direction.

We know we have the right solution when we can explain a concept to a room full of clients who will occupy the building and they are as excited about it as we are. The real test comes after a building has been operating for a few years and the client is still psyched about it.

I was recently watching a young soccer player on ESPN explain that all the hard work between games that we never see is what leads to their victories on the field. Creating a great building is like that – it’s the culmination of a lot of hard work. There is no single creative burst or big idea that provides all the answers. It’s a long, challenging process that demands a commitment from every team member to resolve thousands of issues.

What were the challenges for the design of Porsche’s North American Headquarters and Customer Experience Center in Atlanta?

Porsche is a client with a distinct design signature for its products: performance expressed in an elegant, understated language. A project driven by performance and simple beauty is right up my alley!

HOK won this commission through a design competition. Porsche provided a three-page design brief and we had three weeks to design a building. We spent the first week engrossing ourselves in Porsche’s brand. We didn’t allow ourselves to think about the program or the site or begin to contemplate a design solution. We thought about what it means to be Porsche — the essence of its brand and design. We studied the history of Porsche and Ferdinand Porsche’s philosophy for designing automobiles.

Next, we spent a week brainstorming, charretting and challenging each other. To consolidate the team’s energy, we dedicated one room in our office to Porsche. People talked, sketched and referenced written material. In the end, we developed a design solution that solved the technical challenges while capturing Porsche’s poetry.

Can you describe the design solution?

The architectural language is representative of the simple, yet refined and performance-driven aesthetic of Porsche.

It is an incredible brownfield site at the edge of one of the world’s busiest airports. The site is at the intersection of multiple modes of transportation: highways, trains, rail lines, buses and airplanes. It is the perfect location for Porsche’s headquarters.

Porsche has a challenging program that is seeking to create a single home for all its communities. They are bringing employees from traditional office buildings to this unique headquarters that celebrates their automobiles. There’s a training center where Porsche mechanics and technicians will learn about their automobiles. There’s a customer experience center where people will learn to really drive the cars in all conditions. Our design solution provides a single, integrated home for all these communities.

From the moment they arrive on site, the design keeps all the users connected to Porsche’s automobiles on display inside the headquarters and out on the track. The corridors have glass walls with views to the track and airport.

The performance track actually passes under the building. As the automobile moves through the track and under the building, people feel a powerful connection to Porsche’s brand.

In addition to creating a high-productivity work environment, our design addresses energy efficiency and sustainability. This includes the building’s solar orientation and giving Porsche’s people access to lots of daylight.

Tell me about the University of Florida Lake Nona Research Center.

This is a new building on the University of Florida’s satellite campus in Orlando. It is part of the Lake Nona Medical City, which includes the Burnham Institute and several other healthcare institutions and research organizations. The site is a confluence of organizations aspiring to improve people’s health.

The building’s unique attribute is the blend of undergraduate teaching and learning space with state-of-the-art research. We wanted the undergraduate students to see and get excited about the cool research going on inside the building. Our solution combined these activities under one roof while providing a bridge between the university and other Lake Nona research institutions.

This is a very modern building, with a design driven by ideas of energy efficiency and sustainability. To link it with the main University of Florida campus in Gainesville, which is a beautiful, traditional campus with brick as the dominant material, we introduced a high-performance, terra cotta rain screen.

What is your project for Georgia Regents University?

We designed the new J. Harold Harrison, M.D. Education Commons at Georgia Regents University, a commons building for the Colleges of Medicine, Dentistry and other departments in Augusta, Georgia.

The building supports new teaching pedagogies and learning strategies that complement and replace the traditional lecture format. Our design emphasizes the social nature of a commons building. It has state-of-the-art classrooms and simulation labs that support experiential learning. Yet the spaces that surround and connect these classrooms are as important to the learning process.

These medical students spend long hours in the classroom. The design provides a café and lots of nice, informal and touchdown spaces where students can gather and work together.

There are 13 learning communities that act as a home away from home for 20 to 40 students. Each has a lounge area with a small kitchen, a private conference room and casual seating to support aspects of student life that aren’t about work and books.

How do you create environments that help your teams design great projects?

As design leaders, it’s our job to create a safe zone where clients and team members can drop their preconceived ideas, suspend reality and contemplate the possibilities.

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