“Design Should Educate and Uplift”: VMDO’s Rob Winstead on Social Justice and Building Sustainable Futures

Shaping the future begins with education. For VMDO Principal Rob Winstead, learning spaces go hand in hand with sustainability. As a nationally-recognized expert in education, Winstead is an advocate for blending thoughtful design with high performance goals. In an exclusive interview with ArchDaily, Winstead talks about his personal background and experiences, as well as his role in shaping how VMDO approaches sustainability, education and social justice.

Rob Winstead. Image © Sarah Cramer Shields
Rob Winstead. Image © Sarah Cramer Shields
 

Why did you choose to study architecture?

As a military kid, I lived overseas and was fortunate to visit many of the great cities of Europe in my formative years. I’m confident that had a significant influence. Further, my mom always said that I work equally on both sides of the brain – right and left, creative and analytic. Architecture is a profession that allows my mind to play in both those modes. But in the end, I chose to study architecture because I wanted to make a difference, and design was the skill set I had to offer.

Discovery Elementary School Solar Lab. Image © Lincoln Barbour Photography

Discovery Elementary School Solar Lab. Image © Lincoln Barbour Photography
 

Can you tell us more about VMDO and its mission?

Founded in 1976, VMDO designs community-centered environments that connect people and place through design. In two offices in Charlottesville, VA and Washington, DC, our 70 employees support the firm’s three educational design practice areas of K12 Schools, Higher Education, and Athletics + Community. We are connected by a common belief in the power of design to educate, inspire, and uplift. As such, we have focused the entirety of our practice on designing for public, community-oriented institutions and transformational projects that help our clients realize their highest aspirations for their communities.

An exciting new milestone in our history and mission is the opening of an office in Washington DC. We had been considering an office in the DC Metro area for some time, but then city leaders passed the Clean Energy DC Act, which aims to create a Net Zero Energy city by 2032 and is arguably the most ambitious clean energy law in the US. The Act will radically transform the building industry in and around DC.  Given our growing list of net zero energy projects, we felt like we had something to offer in helping our clients meet this challenge and we knew we wanted to be part of this Net Zero Energy revolution. The Act passed in in March of 2019, our DC office opened in June, and we are already working on a NZE project in the District.

VMDO Staff. Image Courtesy of VMDO

VMDO Staff. Image Courtesy of VMDO
 

VMDO supports a culture of learning as a JUST organization; can you tell us more about this and what it means for the firm?

VMDO is a values-driven firm and our participation in JUST is an extension of our commitment to taking responsibility when it comes to sustainability – not just in our built work but also in how we operate as a firm. While we have always sought to create a fair and equitable practice, JUST gave us a transparent, internationally recognized framework for assessing and improving who we are and how we operate through a social justice and equity lens.

The JUST label appealed to us for several reasons:

  • It provides a comprehensive vision for an equitable and socially just organization – a way for us to go beyond best practices and to identify where we could improve in ways that aligned with our values.
  • It’s transparent nature engages staff at all levels of the organization in the conversation around firm operations and provides third-party verification of our achievements.
  • It allows us to compare our levels of achievement against those of other national firms (who, in our experience, were eager to share how they succeeded where we were experiencing challenges).
  • It is recognized by the leading green building rating systems (required by the Living Building Challenge, and eligible for a pilot credit in LEED), providing benefits to our projects undergoing certification.
VMDO Staff in Front of Charlottesville Office. Image © Sarah Cramer Shields
VMDO Staff in Front of Charlottesville Office. Image © Sarah Cramer Shields
 

While we were able to celebrate many areas where VMDO was doing well (like non-discrimination, pay scale equity, worker happiness, continuing education, responsible investing, and positive products, as well as all indicators in the safety and local benefit categories), we found that the JUST system was not able to capture some of the good we are doing (like an exemplary retirement benefit and the pro-bono work of the VMDO Design Corps). And, of course, the JUST process highlighted areas where we have important work to do. Two of the most important are included as examples:

Gender Pay Equity and Gender Diversity: JUST caused us to look comprehensively at gender pay equity in the firm, which led to the realization that the firm lacks diversity in a few key leadership roles. As a result, the firm is focusing on increasing equity and representation in the next generation of firm leadership, developing specific professional growth/mentorship plans to extend our mentorship program beyond licensure, and exploring inherent bias training for both senior management and the office as a whole. Gender pay equity and firm diversity will now be directly monitored as salary adjustments and promotions are made.

Ethnic Diversity: Ethnic diversity has always been an issue in our profession, so we were not surprised to find that we scored poorly for this indicator. However, the way JUST frames ethnic diversity was profound for us – how well does the diversity of our firm reflect the diversity of our community? This has led to larger discussions about how and who we recruit, and about the importance of growing the diversity of our profession through our VMDO Design Corps initiatives. Recent events have increased the urgency of this effort, and we are now undertaking a firm-wide initiative to address equity, diversity, and inclusion in our practice, our projects, our process, and our profession.

 

Discovery Elementary School Aerial. Image Courtesy of Digital Design & Imaging Service, Inc
Discovery Elementary School Aerial. Image Courtesy of Digital Design & Imaging Service, Inc
 

VMDO was very proud to be the first architecture firm in Virginia and the third firm in the Mid-Atlantic region to achieve the label. It has put us on a path of continuous improvement that is changing our culture and, through sustained dialogue, planning and action, will lead to a more just and equitable practice aligned with our core values.

What are some recent projects the firm is working on?

Over the past year or so, VMDO won two national design competitions for the University of Miami’s Centennial Village and George Washington University’s revitalization of Thurston Hall – two significant projects that are creating iconic student destinations that will re-define what it means to live, learn, work, and meet on these urban campuses. These projects are contributing research on student belonging, well-being, and health within the context of addressing the mental health epidemic in higher education. The University of Miami’s Centennial Village is currently the first residential complex to undergo WELL v.2 certification.

University of Miami Centennial Village. Image Courtesy of VMDO

University of Miami Centennial Village. Image Courtesy of VMDO
 

Scheduled to open in the summer of 2020, Lubber Run Community Center will become VMDO’s fourth net-zero energy facility in Arlington, Virginia. It recognizes the value of the 4.5 acre open space in a rapidly urbanizing area for human and environmental health as well as community life. The project replaces a former 1950s-era community center with a state-of-the-art, highly energy efficient building that conceals much of the program under a vast green roof that helps treat and manage stormwater while providing additional space for community amenities. Through the integration of building and landscape, the project offers a holistic response to an urban challenge – ultimately creating greater and greener public space for the community.

We are taking many of the lessons learned at Lubber Run and applying them to the early design phases at Stead Park, what will be the first net-zero energy facility for the DC Department of Parks and Recreation, and what we hope will be the first in a long line of projects helping DC clients meet the goals of the Clean Energy Act.

Lubber Run Community Center. Image Courtesy of VMDO

Lubber Run Community Center. Image Courtesy of VMDO
 

Reed Elementary School is currently under construction. When completed, it will be the third net zero energy elementary school designed by VMDO in Arlington, VA and is the first NZE project to include a significant renovation scope. When all three school projects are completed and operating as designed, they will provide an incredibly rich data set for the industry and a wonderful example of change and innovation at the community scale.

Fleet Elementary School Aerial. Image Courtesy of Digital Design & Imaging Service, Inc

Fleet Elementary School Aerial. Image Courtesy of Digital Design & Imaging Service, Inc
 

With changes to climate, technology, and construction techniques, how do you think architects and designers will adapt ways of practicing to advance the profession?

Wow!  That’s a big question. To help focus a response, I’ll point out that we are at the beginning of what experts are calling the “decade of decarbonization”. This is tremendous challenge that will transform many aspects of our society but will certainly radically transform the building industry.

I imagine that this will quickly lead to an increased focus, if not a requirement, for Life Cycle Analysis, including carbon accounting and reporting (like the Building Energy Performance Standards in Washington, DC and the Green House Gas Inventory in New York City). This will lead to a shift toward radical renovations of existing building stock, low-energy buildings, electrification of buildings, and the integration of energy generating technology. This move toward decarbonization will be supported by smart, responsive and networked systems and buildings, or precincts of buildings. And construction will shift toward low-carbon materials and techniques, supported by prefabrication and advanced fabrication (robotics).

Reed Elementary School. Image Courtesy of VMDO

Reed Elementary School. Image Courtesy of VMDO
 

Of course, as important and urgent as decarbonization is, we cannot forget the people and communities supported by these buildings.  This suggests an increased focus on healthy, high-quality urban environments, including biophilia and integration with natural systems.  This also suggests that we design for future climate conditions and include the resilience of buildings and communities as a primary design strategy.

VMDO is committed to sustainable practice, and you were the firm’s first Director of Sustainability. How do you bring these values into your work and through your K12 and educational projects?

I’ve been on a journey toward sustainability for a long time and I am grateful to VMDO for believing in me and creating that opportunity before anyone really knew what that was. I’ve served in that role at three very different firms and have learned a great deal along the way. I think that the biggest lesson I have learned is that as long as sustainability remains “the other” – an extra set of criteria that is applied to a project or practice – it will have limited impact.  I think that the industry, and society in general, is recognizing that the true power of sustainability comes through integrating it into how we think and all that we do.

George Washington University Thurston Hall Renovation. Image Courtesy of VMDO

George Washington University Thurston Hall Renovation. Image Courtesy of VMDO
 

I am so passionate about our K12 and educational projects because I feel like they are the ultimate sustainable building type:

  • They hold precious cargo;
  • they serve their primary function during the day, when there is free and abundant daylight and solar energy;
  • they are de facto centers of communities;
  • they are places where worldviews are shaped; and
  • they are expressions of our greatest hopes and aspirations for future generations.

As such, they are held to a higher standard. It is not enough for them to be safe, healthy, beautiful, high-performing buildings. They must also teach, inspiring future generations and showing them a path to a more sustainable future.

I feel so fortunate to work in a place where there is a shared commitment to sustainability and we no longer spend time talking about why it is important. We have an incredible Director of Sustainability in Michelle Amt and she is focusing our efforts and leading us to exciting new places. I feel like my role now is to the create conditions and opportunities for our company and our industry to accelerate progress and meet the great challenges of our time with creativity and optimism.

Reed Elementary School. Image Courtesy of VMDO

Reed Elementary School. Image Courtesy of VMDO
 

As you look to the future, are there any ideas you think should be front and center in the minds of architects and designers?

Health and wellness are already major drivers, but I think the current pandemic has certainly brought it front and center. Design response to public health issues (including infectious disease) will transform the built environment, particularly the community spaces that are the focus of our work.

Similarly, recent events have once again focused our attention and created the opportunity for deep soul-searching around issues of equity, justice, and inclusion. As individuals and as a profession, we have a great deal of work to do here, beginning with a lot of listening and learning. There are visionary architects and organizations already working in this space, and I hope that we follow their lead with bold and sustained action.

These latest crises have been tragic, the effects will be far-reaching, and a meaningful response will be difficult. But experts suggest that these are just a few of the many shocks and stressors society will experience as we adjust to a changing climate. Complex systems are very resistant to change when they are in motion. But shocks to these systems are opportunities to pivot. Architects are particularly well-suited for this task, to imagine, plan for, and take a leadership role in bringing about a more just, resilient, and regenerative future

Author: Eric Baldwin

This article was first published in Arch Daily and is republished with permission.

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Green Building Africa promotes the need for net carbon zero buildings and cities in Africa. We are fiercely independent and encourage outlying thinkers to contribute to the #netcarbonzero movement. Climate change is upon us and now is the time to react in a more diverse and broader approach to sustainability in the built environment. We challenge architects, property developers, urban planners, renewable energy professionals and green building specialists. We also challenge the funding houses and regulators and the role they play in facilitating investment into green projects. Lastly, we explore and investigate new technology and real-time data to speed up the journey in realising a net carbon zero environment for our children.

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