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I am joined by Ting Chin, founding principal of Linearscape, an award-winning New York City-based design firm. Linearscape was awarded the prestigious 2012 AIA ENYA Award for their submission “Sym’bio’pia” to the Harlem Edge Competition. Known for its unique designs, the firm focuses on connecting the urban environments to architecture, and architecture to landscape. Today we discuss the ways that buildings and landscapes can be integrated effectively and efficiently with thoughtful designs.
Ting also shares her experience designing Wild Walk, an interactive nature walk at the Wild Center. Built-in the forest, this project guides visitors into the treetops to offer a new perspective of the forest. It is a seamless integration of nature and the urban landscape, pushing the boundaries of innovative design. Through her designs, practices, and teachings, Ting continues to inspire future architects by cultivating connections between people and place.
Join us on this week’s episode as we discuss the design process of Wild Walk, how to connect the urban landscape with nature, and her experience as the founding principal of an award-winning interdisciplinary design studio based out of New York City.
Ting Chin is a founding principal of Linearscape, an award-winning New York city-based design firm focused on the interplay between landscapes and buildings. She began her career at HOK and TPG Architecture and is an alum of the Harvard Graduate School of Design. As the Co-director of the Bachelor of Architecture program at the New York City College of Technology, she inspires future architects with her teachings and practices that engage in research, exploration, and collaboration.
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[00:00:00] Announcer: What goes into making an iconic building in America? What are the stories and who are the people behind the next generation of architecture? If your work touches the real estate industry in any way or you’re just curious about what goes into one of a kind cities and towns all across our country, join us on the American Building Podcast.
In season two, we learn about everything from skyscrapers to single family homes. From the famous and soon-to-be famous designers and developers responsible for them. This season focuses particularly on the pandemic and how our buildings will change in response. Our sponsor is the iconic design firm, Michael Graves Architecture & Design. And now your host award-winning architect-turned entrepreneur Atif Qadir, AIA.
[00:00:59] Atif Qadir: This is American building. And I’m your host Atif Qadir. I’m the CEO of Redis, a technology company focused on innovative public financing for real estate projects. We are recording from the historic home of world renowned architect, Michael Graves in Princeton, New Jersey. Check out this amazing space for yourself at the Michael Graves, architecture and design YouTube channel.
Now let’s build something today.
Today, our guest is Edwin Harris, the co-founder and design principal at evoke studio architecture and design firm. Based in Durham, North Carolina. He is also a professor of architecture at NC state university prior to starting his own firm. He worked at Perkins and will. The Freelon group and due to pain architects, we will be talking about the new elementary school that you’ve focused designing for Durham, public schools.
More broadly. We will talk about the extreme challenges in getting quality schools built and operating. Thank you so much for being here with us. Edwin,
[00:02:03] Edwin Harris: thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.
[00:02:06] Atif Qadir: Absolutely. So let’s start out. Why are you a architect?
[00:02:11] Edwin Harris: I’m an architect in short because of my grandfather.
And so I was raised part of my life by my grandparents. And when I went to go live with. My grandfather noticed that I was really into art. I loved drawing. I drew cars and design shoes and all this sort of stuff. And I really wanted to do that growing up, but I couldn’t figure out what that was called. I later learned that was industrial design, but my grandfather couldn’t figure it out either.
And at that point he was like, look, maybe she’s just being honest. And I was like, okay, I’ll be an architect. And so when I took a drafting class, I fell in love. I really love the idea of one. I love drawing, but the idea of being able to get paid to draw and to design stuff was something that I was just enamored with.
And so, because of that, I eventually went to go on to pursue art.
[00:03:04] Atif Qadir: I think, uh, for me, I actually had my grandfather as my inspiration as well. So when I decided to leave working for a real estate developer XL development to start my own firm, I named it in honor of my grandfather. So amount of properties and particular, I think the skill of observation is something I really value and I think is really important.
And that’s something that he really emphasized as well. So for example, when he came from Pakistan to live with us, Uh, he had said the first week when he was here, he was like, uh, Arthur, can you find me a synagogue to go to and a church to go to in the town? And I was just so confused because we’re not a John, as we call it grandfather, oh, we’re not Jewish and are not Christian.
So why would we go there? And he said, there’s a lot of things that you can learn from people that are very different than you. And then I was like, like play and that he said that they aren’t that different from you.
[00:03:59] Edwin Harris: Yeah, that’s amazing. I think it’s interesting to hear you speak about your grandfather that way.
I think for me, you know, a lot of people could look at being raised by grandparents in a, you know, is a different as a detriment, but it was a real opportunity for me, because if you think about it, at least for me, my grandfather was 91 years old. And so he is a child of the different. Hmm, the depression era.
And I think email as a society, we forget a lot. We really forget about, we have a very short term memory. And I think the perspective of those who are older than us, the lessons that they learn in the lens in which they view the world, not that it’s right or wrong. And it’s something that we can learn from.
And so I think about my grandmother and my grandfather, and I think, you know, I replay a lot of the lessons and a lot of the insights that they had about the world. Um, and that kind of test it through the lens that I have now. It’s just really interesting. So now I really appreciate this.
[00:05:02] Atif Qadir: That’s really fascinating.
So there were a number of, I guess, applications that you made. And then I believe there is an architect named Phil Freelon who’s helped shape your career going forward. Could you tell us.
[00:05:16] Edwin Harris: Yeah, Phil absolutely was a tremendous impact and mentor for me. And his first impact on me. It was me actually getting into design school.
And so the way that occurred is after the second time of me not getting in, I was still adamant about becoming an architect and I wanted, if I had to transfer to go to a different school, I was going to do that. My grandfather. Found, you know, architects in the area and he, it found a Phil Freelon. He actually called a couple others before and they either weren’t willing to meet with me or they kind of brushed me off, but Phil actually was willing to meet with me.
And so this is my freshman year of college. And so, um, I met with Phil on a good Friday in April, and he basically sat down with me. He said, You know, this is not the first time at the time, you know, NC state in terms of African-American presence in the architecture program, there was pretty low, very low.
And that was something that he was really adamant about championing in terms of getting more African-Americans into the school that were qualified. So he looked at my drawings and my portfolio, and he was like, there was no reason why you shouldn’t be in design school. And so he had me. The associate Dean of student affairs, her name is Marvin Molly, and I showed her my work.
And then from there I was able to actually get into design school. And so he started off getting me into design school. He didn’t know anything about who I was or who I was likely to become, but he was willing to vouch for me. And that helped me get into design school. And we can talk more about his impact as we started to work with.
Uh, later on.
[00:07:02] Atif Qadir: Absolutely. Could you talk about the time that you spent working at
[00:07:05] Edwin Harris: his firm? Yeah. So fast forward, I ended up graduating from design school in 2005 and I ended up working with, uh, due to pain architects and I worked for them. You know, almost three years. And then at some point I actually just saw fill out in about one day and I knew that he had just gotten the commission to do the programming for the national museum of African-American history and culture, which is just the programming component of it.
But I was like, you know what? I want to work on that museum. And I, I got to be a part of that and I saw him out and he said, you know, what you interested in working with? I was like, absolutely. And so he brought me in and he said, look, you know, I see your design talent and that’s something I want to take advantage of.
And I want you to, you know, be a part of this. And so I immediately gravitated toward that. And. I went to go work with him. And so in 2008, I worked with him almost not well, right at nine years. And so while I was there, we worked very closely together in terms of any project that he was working on. I’ll usually be the project designer or the lead designer for, and so I was able to work on the center for civil and human rights and.
And then, uh, that was a competition. So international competition, and then also the, uh, competition in which we were, you know, team with, uh, David J. Smith group Davis Brody bond, or the national museum of African-American history and culture. And then I worked on, uh, I was the lead designer for emancipation park in Houston, Texas.
So I am forever indebted and grateful to feel. Maybe even becoming an architect period, but then also the design opportunities that I, I got, you know, an opportunity to work on. One of the things I tell people a lot is feeling. He could have easily hoarded the, you know, the design to himself, but he identified people.
He felt had, you know, talent and he gave them opportunities. And so that’s something that I really appreciate that he was willing to do that. And he had. You know, empowered me and inspired me to, you know, continue to work in, which is why we started evoke.
[00:09:31] Atif Qadir: So speaking of starting ILOP, uh, after working at the Freeline group, you had an opportunity to work at Parkinson.
Will, what was that experience like? And how did you know that it was time to start your own.
[00:09:46] Edwin Harris: Yeah, I finished. That’s a great question. The Freelon group was purchased by Perkinson will in 2014. So March of 2014, that’s when the acquisition happened. And for me, you know, prednisone wheel is a global farm. I think at the time it was 2000 people and that was fine.
There was nothing wrong with that. But I think for me, I was. Very proud to work for the Freelon group. And, you know, an African-American owned firm. We did mostly cultural and our education work. And I think at the time while we were still doing some. Cultural work. At least the office here locally, we were veering more towards healthcare and that’s fine.
There’s nothing wrong with healthcare. Healthcare design is very important and very critical to our world, but that, wasn’t what I was drawn to. I was really drawn to more of the, the cultural, you know, uh, higher education, those libraries, museums, parks. Those are the things that really, I was drawn to an ex excited about.
Also with excited about more kind of an intimate setting in terms of the size of the firm. And so, because of that, you know, I decided that me and my partners, we decided it was time to do something different. And so we ended up starting evoke studio. So we’re, you know, a local farm and we really do specialize in creating work that specifically, you know, Most of our work is public.
And most of our work is very much, you know, rooted in the idea of trying to make the world better. And so that’s, that’s really the thing that we wanted to take away from it. And when I, you know, I told you, I remember the day I told him it was January 16th, 2017. I’ll never forget as soon as office. And I tell him, and he just kind of put his head down.
And he was like, you know, I’m disappointed, but I’m proud at the same time. He said, you know, anything I can do for you, I’m going to do. And he’s like, you know, you have the talent and the ability to. And, you know, I believe in you. And so he ended up coming to our grand opening and giving a speech, which I wasn’t prepared for him to do that.
And so I really appreciated that. So, yeah. So that’s how evoke started.
[00:12:05] Atif Qadir: That’s true. Uh, I think the, the role of mentors in, uh, education and career. Can’t be underestimated. And particularly, I think in our field, which is one that has traditionally had many barriers to participation. And also the fact that it tends to be one where you have to have a lot of experience in order to become very competent in what we do because of all the different asset classes.
We work in all the different geographies and all the different types of, of customers, our clients. So definitely can. Absolutely. Let’s switch over to the project that we’re focusing on today, which is the new elementary school. Tell us about the particular site. What makes it unique? What are the opportunities?
What are some of the challenges that the site before.
[00:12:54] Edwin Harris: Yes. So again, this project is really amazing. The site is interesting because again, Durham Raleigh chapel hill is really booming. It’s growing rapidly. And a lot of the land that was once prevalent in terms of was really easy to. Large one level schools throughout North Carolina, and that’s no longer the case, particularly in the triangle area and because of the population growth, Durham really needs additional schools.
And so this is a 33 acre piece of land that’s fairly adjacent to downtown Durham and is fairly, it is a green site, a Greenfield. Because I think the last time it was really developed was probably in like the forties, there was a farm, it was a farmland in the forties and it’s terrorist pretty, you know, a lot.
There’s probably about 60 feet of great change on a 33 acre site. And so what’s interesting about this is obviously because there’s so many subdivisions around it. It is kind of this pocket on this Oasis of a green untouched forest. And so that’s something that DPS is very sensitive to and we were as well, you know, we’re really careful about one second
[00:14:02] Atif Qadir: on DPS stands for,
[00:14:06] Edwin Harris: and so we’re really careful about that, because again, you don’t want to take away, you know, a resource like that, a natural resource like that.
And so one of the challenges and one of the charges for them, uh, to us was how can we retain as much of this. As natural area as possible. And we fully embrace that because that was something that we believe in as well. And so, uh, the current design really only uses a, roughly a third. Of the areas, the other area is going to be undisturbed.
And this is, you know, an 800 student elementary school. So it is not small, 133,000 square feet. So these are things that we were able to minimize the foot. And then really think about how we can sustainably and lightly touch the site as much as, as lightly as 133,000 square foot. But, you know, it’s funny because it is typical that for most elementary schools in North Carolina, you want it as one level.
All those aside you flattened. And you clear cut everything. And that that’s what it is, but this is atypical in that fashion because of what they asked us to do. And so we, you know, fully embrace that. And again, I think it made for a really fantastic design, and this is an experience that I’m really excited to, to see, uh, kids and parents interface.
[00:15:35] Atif Qadir: I very much appreciate what you described, which is the norm, not just in school construction, but I think particularly multi-family construction as well is the idea of clear cut and then build on top of it. And in 2021, I had the opportunity to do essentially work from home road trips. All year. So I spent 12 months in about 30 different cities that were all within driving distance of New Jersey.
So I was in Durham actually for two weeks. And what I found is that some of the most unfortunate constructions were the ones where I couldn’t tell whether I was in Jersey city or Durham or Jacksonville. It literally looked exactly the same. And I think some of the absolutely most memorable ones or the ones that took advantage of the site, characteristics that presented materials and forms that were unique to that city and that area, and actually used bit of forethought in advance of making that first shovel in the ground.
Yeah. I could not agree with you more. So then, particularly in this site, you mentioned that huge, great change. The first thing I thought of right away is that’ll make for a really slick snowboarding or like sledding, you know, what were some of the ways that you try to incorporate that grade change without having to do like a
[00:16:54] Edwin Harris: lot?
Um, yeah, so that, that was the other thing that was really helpful for us because of the grade change. What we incorporated is one, we have a fairly competitive. So the other thing that’s important to note is that site has a lot of rock because it has so much rock. The more you try to build, you have to be pretty strategic about where you build the, try to avoid the rock, which would incur a lot of costs.
But the grade change allowed us to kind of reduce the amount of cut and field that we had. To implement. And because we’re able to do a multilevel elementary school and we are able to again, have a smaller footprint. Now, what we also did this, uh, the design for this is almost it’s a courtyard in some ways, but the courtyard is actually falling down the hill and he was falling down the topography.
And so, um, the media center and they aren’t winging is actually a bridge. The building is actually a bridge and underneath that bridge. So you pass through the, uh, the courtyard, you actually can pass through to the open wooded area. And underneath that bridge is actually a play environment for the students.
So, you know, rain, snow shine, they can always play outside in a covered area if they wanted to. So there’s the ability for that. There’s also the ability, obviously. With COVID and the pandemic, but the outdoors has become a lot more kind of important in terms of providing that flexibility and people feeling safer outdoors in terms of air quality.
And so there’s covered areas for eating outside, and we think there’s something really powerful about that in terms of this being connected back to nature. Um, the other thing I didn’t mention about this site is there’s significant stress. That’s on this site as well. And so there’s a fairly large stream buffer and this courtyard that we have actually opens up to the stream.
And so I think that, you know, that’s going to be a very tremendous opportunity for the students to learn about the ecology of the. And so there’s no better example you can read in the books, you can see it on YouTube and television, but I think being able to see and have nature trails that go out to the stream and go down throughout the site is going to be really powerful for them.
And so DPS is very, you know, ambitious about this and this was something they were intentional about from the onset. And so, you know, we were, you know, again, pleased to be a part of this.
[00:19:24] Atif Qadir: So speaking of DPS and being a part of the process. What did that process actually entail? Where’s the, where they, did they call you?
Or was there a process of submitting applications or how did it work? Yeah,
[00:19:36] Edwin Harris: this was actually a public bid. So you basically, it was a public RFQ. We responded to it. Uh, we were fortunate enough to get shortlisted, but what was interesting, you know, at the time we did not have extensive K through 12.
Experience. So to your earlier point about, you know, architecture being difficult, if you don’t have the experience to thrive in it, we did not have that experience, but what they wanted was what we specialize in, which is they want something authentic and specific to the site. And they were really drawn to what our ethos is in terms of our goal is to create buildings that are, that make the world better.
That’s literally, it’s as simple as that. And we speak to that all the time and we. Other examples of public buildings that thought differently in that kind of thought of a way to inspire people. And in our interview, when we interviewed with them, we talked about how do we create an experience for students that is inspiring and they were captivated by it.
And that was the only thing they talked about. They didn’t speak about what our past experience was in terms of how many schools have you done, you know? Cause that’s usually the thing, how many schools. That are specifically like this, have you done within 75 miles of this area? If you say that there’s no way that we can qualify for that, but they weren’t that way.
And so they really were just, again, drawn to what they believe that we, we brought to the table and they wanted to try something different because. It would have been easy for them to go to a firm that had done, you know, 50 of these.
[00:21:13] Atif Qadir: Um, and I think what it sounds like is if that requirement is set on a decision-making process, it feels like.
The same old people that will always be to sign it because you went from the jump at 50 50 projects.
[00:21:30] Edwin Harris: Exactly. I mean, and if you could say that, well, they didn’t meet the qualifications. No, one’s going to meet that qualification if that’s the qualification that you set. And so, you know, I applaud them and I think we’ve done what we can do to show that this.
A worthwhile gamble that they took on on us, because I think something really special came from this. And you know, it’s not for my own doing. It’s a collective team effort that we are where we are. Right.
[00:22:00] Atif Qadir: And I think what I have so much respect for is the area of focus for your firm in terms of institutional and public projects is so different than say, firms that focus on multi-family or office or industrial namely, because there is really no.
Particular end user that they, they know of. It’s always through the context of their developer. And I think in the types of projects that you do and particularly in the school, I think that I’m imagining that your process of customer discovery, your process of understanding your stakeholders from students to parents, to neighbors.
Cafeteria and ground staff to teachers. And beyond that, that was an intense part of this process. Tell me about how those early parts of your process worked before you actually started doing floor plans and elevations and schematics things.
[00:22:53] Edwin Harris: Yeah, absolutely. You know, that’s one of the things that’s critical about public work, right?
Public work is one, the funds are usually finite and they usually don’t build very often. These buildings need to be here for 50, 60, 7500 years. And I need the function well. And so from an engagement standpoint, you have a bra. Array of people that you’re going to interface with. So like for the school, not only are we, you know, hearing from the administrators, we’re hearing from the teachers, we’re hearing from parents, we’re hearing from students, we have public engagement sessions.
We’ve had them before we even started to your point before we even started designing the actual school, what is your vision for the new, you know, public. And what would you want? What do you want to feel like when you’re there? And so all these things are things that we took into account and then everything, you know, throughout the entire process, Durham, public schools has been very intentional about asking the question.
If we do this move, is this actually hitting the mission statement of Durham, public schools? You know, in their school, their mission is about igniting the imagination and the potential of their students. That’s what they say at every meeting. Is this going to help the students achieve that goal? And that’s something that, again, as a wayfinding kind of goal for us to kind of always test against this really powerful, because again, Unfortunately, most school systems, particularly in North Carolina, that’s not the way they go about it.
I think a lot of times they look at schools as commodities and just buildings that have to kind of serve a purpose, just get it built and less put the students in there and the space doesn’t matter. But the reality is. These buildings actually impact the way people learn. There’s plenty of studies that talk about the spaces in which you live, really affect how you see the world and how you learn and your overall health and wellbeing, all those things matter.
And it’s a real investment. It’s not just an investment in the building at the time, but it’s a really, it’s an investment in the future. And those who actually didn’t have that space. And I think Durham, public schools, they haven’t always been this. But now the new administration, I think they’ve really said, you know what, it’s time to look at things differently.
And so because of that, this is where we are.
[00:25:23] Atif Qadir: That’s excellent. So you mentioned a couple of numbers and I want to make sure I got those rights. So 33 acres, 133,000 square feet. And your budget was how much?
[00:25:35] Edwin Harris: 55 million for construct.
[00:25:38] Atif Qadir: 55 million and it’s meant to serve 800 students. Yep. Okay, cool. Any other things that we should know about number wise to understand the scope of what’s what’s going on here?
[00:25:48] Edwin Harris: I think the thing I’m proud of is, again, we’re really only disturbing a one-third of the site. Good point.
[00:25:55] Atif Qadir: Yeah. And you said two stories,
[00:25:57] Edwin Harris: two and a half storage
[00:25:59] Atif Qadir: to an asteroid screen. So schools involve lots of materials because they have to be fully built out with all the technology, the equipment, the furniture, which is a little different than say a condo building or a rental building, which the end user is meant to finish all of that stuff.
So what are the issues that you have seen or you foresee will need to be mitigated and how is the project team mitigating? Those, those constructions?
[00:26:29] Edwin Harris: I think there’s, there’s a lot of issues. Um, one given the time in which we live right now in terms of supply chain issues and availability of materials.
So the price of steel, the availability of, of installation paint, like there’s like white paint pigment right now is there was a shortage of that. There’s all these different things trying to paint other colors then. Right? Yeah. Which is awesome. Right. We can do that, but I think, you know, thinking about.
Those things on top of just the actual, like pragmatics of how you build a school in terms of durability. Like we said earlier, you know, these schools are meant to be here for, you know, 50 years plus. And so creating something that’s durable, but also. And tactical enough for these elementary school students.
And so you don’t want to create a fortress either, but you also want it to be, you want it to be welcoming. You want it to be safe. You want to be secure. So there’s got to do all of these different things. Some of which are kind of diametrically opposed, but what we’ve done, we’ve done a lot of research.
We’ve done that. We’ve been really fortunate one because most of the projects we’ve worked on have been public buildings. And so we have a pretty good idea of which materials work well. Long-term in terms of holding up to a lot of. Not intentional abuse, some intentional abuse, some just, you know, love quote unquote, but that’s been something that we have to work with as well.
And then also within the framework of what does Durham public schools need in terms of the type of, uh, furniture they’re used to. Yeah. For their students, the standard equipment. And then if they have any, you know, the special needs students, what do they need? And so, you know, serving a lot of different users, um, but making sure that we’re considerate of, you know, the feel of things, how bright things are, and then overall waste wayfinding.
Again, elementary school students, they’re very young. This is going to be a large school for them. So how do you make sure that what we build is approachable for them? And it doesn’t feel like this scale, this thing that has endless corridors, that they don’t know where they’re going.
[00:28:42] Atif Qadir: I think that there is something so beautiful and these ideas that you’ve described, which is how do you present a place that is.
Welcoming, but safe and secure. How do you present a place that can be flexible and adjustable, but still allow people to find their way from, from a to B? And I think in particular, what, what your description made me think of is I was in Georgetown for the past two weeks in DC. And when I would go for runs, I would see the embassy of France looks like a bunker.
The embassy of. Looks like a bunker. I would say Canada. Well, it looks like a bunker and it makes you realize that as architects. It isn’t a matter necessarily of discounting all of those very, very salient, important issues, but perhaps there’s a way to do it without foregoing beauty and without forgoing a positive environment.
And it sounds like that’s something that, that you’ve really took to heart on this project as well,
[00:29:41] Edwin Harris: right? Yeah, absolutely. If the building looks like a bunker and then we have not done our job at all, the reality is again, we have to create a safe. However, that is not the top priority of Durham public schools.
The top priority is how do you create an environment that inspires the students and ignites their potential in doing so it needs to be safe. It needs to be secure, but the top priority is it’s got to inspire and it’s got to help them reach their potential. And so. You know, we’ve worked with their security, the security staff, and, you know, what’s really been encouraging is before, you know, as opposed to just saying, Nope, that won’t work.
That’s the last thing we hear from them. What we hear from them is, okay, well, this is what we would need to make this work. And that’s incredibly encouraging when you come at it from that standpoint, as opposed to a defeatist mentality. Yes. From why this won’t work while we can’t provide. More transparency and classrooms, why we can’t do certain things or why this has to be fenced everywhere versus, you know, strategically located that changes everything.
And so, again, it, it takes buy-in from everyone, not just the designers, the clients and the users. Everyone’s got, got to buy into it in order for this kind of synergy.
[00:31:08] Atif Qadir: So I had a chance to interview and roll into is a partner at effects collaborative. And she’s one of the leads of the firm’s school studio.
So her entire career has been built on doing schools all across the country. Many of them are in New York city. And what she had mentioned in one of the projects is there was a particular concern for that project about, uh, safety for the students, because the area that was located and what they had come to the conclusion is that there is no.
Oh, bomb-proof walls. There’s no number of fences. There’s no number of barriers that are going to prevent everything from happening, but there is a conscious decision that can be made to lead and to design with love as opposed to fear. And what she said particularly is that they came up with creative ways to say, you know what, let’s augment the staff.
And during key times of. The students are coming and going, let’s have extra staff outdoor just looking and seeing what’s happening. And perhaps that might be enough without having to build a four foot concrete
[00:32:08] Edwin Harris: wall around everything. Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. And I mean, I think, again, it’s, it’s a mentality to it, right?
Like, cause again, you can try. I’ve worked on plenty of public projects, whether it was the Smithsonian or where there are real like requirements for blast proof, you know, stopping truck bombs, all those things. Those are things that we had to consider and you realize, you know, you can mitigate to some point, but at some point, you know, you, if you want this to not look like, uh, you know, a prison, which again, unfortunately, you know, I’m not going to go on a tangent, but I think that on the show, don’t worry.
You know, I think it’s really unfortunate that there are a lot of schools that if I look at the floor plan or I look at the school, I can’t differentiate outside of the barbed wire and razor fence. I can’t differentiate that from. You know, a correctional facility. I think that’s problematic. I think that’s very problematic.
And I think, you know, as a society, we have to look at things again. And I think you, you spoke about that before about, you know, you come to a different city and you look around you like, man, I could be anywhere, anywhere in the United States. There’s no semesters specificity. There’s no authenticity about where we are.
And I think we have to embrace that, you know, that specificity and. Honestly, as an effort thing, you kind of have to try harder to say, you know what? Building maps. Building is an investment of resources and as an investment in people. And I think, you know, whether it’s doing public work or doing private work and, you know, housing, that level of investment is important all around.
I think that’s what would make our built environment better. I really believe that.
[00:34:00] Atif Qadir: I think that I’ve had the opportunities. I’m a trustee of a private school in Hoboken, New Jersey. The Hudson school and I’m a city planning commissioner in the city as well. So both have given me very, uh, a reaction to the city, just floated a bond for a $270 million bond for a new high school, which got a lot of press because of its size, the money.
Uh, and I think I have this stronger understanding now about how. As someone with an authority over the future of a school or the future of the city of overall in terms of a planning commission is there’s a very deeply cynical approach. One can take to public construction and to say whatever’s the fastest.
Whatever’s the cheapest. And I think there is something that perhaps you get, you get that building fast insurance there, but there’s something incredible that you lose as well. And I think the more folks that I hope have enlightened perspectives, like ours that have the capacity to have the time and the ability to take on public roles, then maybe we’ll get less schools that look like.
[00:35:10] Edwin Harris: Yeah. And I, I think those, the other thing which you spoke about, which at least it made me think about is, you know, if you’re planning these things and you’re on the planning commission, I think it’s easy and it’s not lost on me. That budgets are real, you know, I understand that, but I’d also want, you know, 50 years from now that the next person on the planning commission, who’s looking back at the things that have been doing.
Did they don’t look back and say, what on earth were these people thinking they left us with this mess that we have to.
[00:35:44] Atif Qadir: A hundred percent. So all these amazing things, all these beautiful ideas that you have put in cooked into this, this amazing building, walk us through the building as it will be when it’s complete.
Like say, if I moved from New Jersey, North Carolina, with the two little kids and I’m sending them to this school, what are they going to see when they walk through?
[00:36:03] Edwin Harris: I think the, before you even get to the site as your. Uh, south Roxborough, but the site, like I said, is roughly about 60 to 70 feet of grade change that you’re going to arrive through.
And so as you come up, the, the buildings actually, you won’t see it from the street is actually a wooded site. Again, we are creating, uh, keeping most of the site. Which we’re really proud of, but as you drive in and you’ll see the buildings actually, uh, situated at the highest point of the site. And so it is going to be kind of a beacon.
So you’ll get a little glimpse of it from the tree tops. Cause this is heavily wooded, mostly a pine trees, these pine trees. You know, they range from 40 feet to 70 feet tall. So they’re very tall. I mean, that’s really, really interesting. And then there’s a really cool canopy or wrap feature that really is, it’s got a golden color to it.
So it was really vibrant. I mean, there’s a really kind of edge points this way to the entry. As we said before, this is more of a corporate. Design, which is very intentional because of the size of the school. We wanted to make sure that there was no long corridors. And so we were able to reduce the size of the corridors.
And so the inside of the courtyard is mostly glass. And so no matter where you are in the building, you know where you’re going. So you never worry about how do I get to this next area? So you always are connected to light. You always connected to the outdoors. And I think that’s something that’s really interesting because of the way the courtyard is situated.
At the end of each corridor, it opens out there’s a window of. To the wooded area. So you’re always connected to nature as you’re on the upper floors, you really get these great views and great vistas out into the woods and you can actually kind of see into the tree canopies. And so as you move outside and in the courtyard, again, you can see the media center.
Almost a bridge is literally a bridge. Um, there’s no columns underneath his fans, clear span, you see the, uh, the player underneath, and then as you move underneath the bridge, you’re opened out into the wooded area that’s facing the stream. So again, that stream is roughly a hundred yards. Uh, away from the school.
So you’re really immersed in nature. I think it’s going to be incredibly dynamic. I cannot wait.
[00:38:37] Atif Qadir: I’m going to take a break here to let our listeners know that we will be having the wonderful Louis Shump on the show. Louis is the creative director at Gensler, the San Francisco based design firm with over 50 offices worldwide. We’ll be talking about the west side pavilion project in Los Angeles.
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Okay, let’s go make a picture. So, uh, you’ve done work for educational institutions like duke and South Carolina state. And this project is you have two current projects that are public schools, both this one and one a I believe nearby in North Carolina as well. So as you’re getting going with these projects on the boards, tell us a little bit more about what public schools in North Carolina look like.
[00:40:30] Edwin Harris: I mean, I think again, I don’t want to, you know, put everybody in a mass generalization, but I do think it’s important to know the landscape in North Carolina is historically schools have been seen really more as a commodity. Uh, one land, uh, historically has been kind of bounced a full and it’s really easy to just, you know, clear, cut a site and build something as fast as possible.
I think the other thing that is important to know is how fast North Carolina in general has, has been growing. People will have been transplanting planning into North Carolina. There’s been a need to build schools relatively fast, but there’s also been. Balance of fiscal responsibility, quote unquote. And the idea is, you know, what, how can we build these schools as you know, economically, you know, as cheap as possible, quite frankly.
And I think that has been problematic. So what has happened in North Carolina? There is a prevalence of prototype schools. And so you go from one city to the next city, one community of community. They’re the same. Schools, you know, maybe situate a little bit differently on the site, but ultimately it’s the same thing.
That’s a result of the budgets being very tight. There’s also because of that, the design fees for architects is very low. So a lot of architects, you really can’t even afford to actually try to design something specific. I mean, you just, you don’t have the time nor the, the, the ability to do. And so these prototypes have been prevalent throughout the state of North Carolina specifically.
And so that has basically caused this kind of ubiquitous kind of, you know, a generic way of creating schools, quite frankly, because of one it’s a. Kind of complicated mess of budgets, population time and land, land availability. All those things have made for a very challenging climate with regard to designing schools, our elementary schools in particular.
[00:42:41] Atif Qadir: So, uh, all of that said, talk to us at the process of school development in this state. So are these typically, uh, like bond offerings that are issued or how does that.
[00:42:52] Edwin Harris: So for public schools is typically bond bond, referendums. And again, so this is public money. And so I think, you know, the politics of it are important to mention as well, right?
Because it’s easy to say, well, we’re going to cut spending and we’re gonna, you know, we’re going to cut spending and we’re not, we don’t, we don’t need to spend this much on schools. And then there’s also the issue of equity, right? Because equity comes into play to where, if I gave this neighborhood, this.
It can’t be nicer than this school over in this neighborhood when the reality is they all should be nice, but. Because of deferred maintenance and budgetary issues. And quite frankly, you know, historically there have been the haves and have nots. There’ve been, you know, intentional places where there’s resources being given to certain places that weren’t given an allocated for other places.
So all, it’s a real fun mess that you have to kind of sift through to get to why, why we are, where we are. But I think, you know, It is problematic because you’re seeing all this stuff bubbled to the surface and it’s under the guise of fiscal responsibility. And I think there has to be a balance and there, there has to be a real kind of reworking of what does that really truly mean?
One and then two, I think there’s a, there’s a lack of knowledge by the general public. Of understanding how much it costs to build anything and the resources that are considered and needed to do these types of buildings, even as deferred maintenance. If you look at an existing schools, they’re there in great disrepair.
And I think a lot of schools need that, you know, and understanding that there, the furred maintenance is not just in K through 12 is also in higher education as well. Buildings require maintenance and they, they cost. And I think as a society, we don’t, we don’t understand that as much as we should.
[00:44:55] Atif Qadir: I think that there are a few things that your description made me think of.
And one of them in particular is this idea that politicians and elected officials live by their election cycles. So it’s a lot sexier to be able to cut a ribbon on a new elementary school than to cut a ribbon on the load of toilet paper and cleaning equipment that just can, so. I spent money to build, but not as easily to maintain.
And I think that the, this idea that you talk about, so eloquently of, of equity, which I think asked to be in the context of race, and it has been the context of class, which are the two definers in the United States that are often used to divide. So given all that, you know, now about the process of public school planning, public school financing, design, and construction of schools.
Give me a few ideas of things that you would change procedurally that could help have a really positive impact on the students of North Carolina.
[00:46:02] Edwin Harris: So I think one of the key things, which I think I alluded to it before with the selection for us, for Durham, public schools is experience when you’re selecting.
And this is not just to design. This could be for any other field qualification. What does qualification truly mean in terms of, can this person do the job? That’s what it really means. It doesn’t mean that they’ve done. If I’ve done 50 of them, does that mean that I know everything there is to know about designing K through 12 school.
Maybe, maybe not. I don’t think it does. And so I think that’s one way to, to, you know, check out. School districts and facility planners to think beyond risk management. Because I think a lot of times that’s the other thing that comes into play is how do we avoid lawsuits and how do we avoid those types of risks?
And so if we say we have someone who’s done 50 of them, then that, that mitigates our risk. So I think that’s one thing that could happen. I think there’s also just, again, The school board and you brought up a very good point about elections and election cycles and the politics of being elected. What message are you telling me?
And how do you educate the general public about building and why we build and how, and what metrics are we using to show performance and show fiscal performance. And then also, how are we using that to show what our students, how our students are performing in terms of test scores? You know, we hear about test scores on exam.
Well, what does that really mean? Relative to them? Does it, you know, there’s a test score, truly get us the students who are empowered to go on to, you know, create whether they go to college or go elsewhere. I’m probably jumping around a lot, but I do think those are questions that are. I think we have to ask ourselves in terms of rethinking and recalibrating what the priorities are in terms of building schools.
Cause I think if we start to look at things as an investment and that we’re really trying to, and I keep going back to this, cause I, I just truly believe in that because if we looked at it that way, as opposed to trying to, you know, All right. I’m going to get on soapbox is a tangent, but it is very similar, right?
If you look at like the stock market and you look at speculation, the moment you get in trouble is when you basically say, you know what, I’m going to be a speculator. And I’m just trying to play the stock market for, you know, a quick. But if you really want to build wealth, you play the stock market. You don’t play the stock market.
You invest in the stock market and you actually are an investor over the longterm, as opposed to, how can I make money as fast as I can and get as much as I can get. And I think when we look at schools, unfortunately, we’ve been looking at schools in that way. How do we build them as fast as we can to get as many students as we can get in versus thinking.
From a long-term perspective in terms of we’re building this school, not just for. The next five years, but the next 50 to a hundred years. But I think that’s kind of a great way of thinking.
[00:49:27] Atif Qadir: I think that was an excellent response because it talked about this idea of perspective and being able to think beyond oneself.
And I think that is something that is both useful in planning for schools and many other parts of our country. So thank you so much for joining us today on the American building podcasts.
[00:49:47] Edwin Harris: Thank thank you for having me. I really appreciate
[00:49:49] Atif Qadir: it. Absolutely. And listeners, if you want to hear the behind the scenes stories of how I conic buildings in our country were designed and built.
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My name is Atif and this has been American building.
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