“Social Value Underpins How We Design”: Matthew Ollier on Hawkins\Brown and Expanding to Los Angeles

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"Social Value Underpins How We Design": Matthew Ollier on Hawkins\Brown and Expanding to Los Angeles, Courtesy of Hawkins\Brown
Courtesy of Hawkins\Brown

Architecture is defined by the ways people bring spaces to life. For Matthew Ollier, Partner and architect at Hawkins\Brown, the best buildings encourage interaction, collaboration and exchange. Currently, Ollier is leading the development of the firm’s expansion into the North American market in Los Angeles. In an interview with ArchDaily, Ollier shares the team’s approach to community engagement and building social value.

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© Monica Orozco
© Monica Orozco

Why did you choose to study architecture?

The honest answer is that I didn’t give it a huge amount of thought, it was more of a process of elimination. There were plenty of subjects that I didn’t want to do! I enjoyed the idea of a vocational degree, and architecture ultimately appealed to me because the end result was something tangible that you could touch and experience. I think, in the end, that has served me well as I didn’t enter education (or the profession) with any preconceived ideas about what I wanted to achieve. It allowed me to go with the flow to a certain extent. I also think a certain amount of naivety is a good thing. Had I known how long the course was, or what was involved in getting professionally qualified at the outset, then I doubt whether I would have even started, but once I ‘boarded the train’ I didn’t want to get off!

© Taiyo Watanabe
© Taiyo Watanabe

Hawkins\Brown’s work centers on socially sustainable buildings across multiple sectors. What are some guiding values to the firm’s work, and in your personal approach?

Hawkins\Brown pride ourselves on not having a house style, more of a house approach. Social value underpins how we approach design across every sector and every scale of project. Ultimately, social value must be seen as a responsibility across every stage of a building’s life, from design and construction through to occupation and demolition.

Where possible we encourage the design process to be as inclusive as possible. Engaging the local community as a valued stakeholder and ensuring any development offers opportunities for community activity or local economic betterment is important to a project’s success. We also strive for outward-focused buildings that engage occupants and the wider public alike, rather than being inward-looking, with a focus on active streetscapes and improvements to the public realm that support greater community engagement.

Personally, I believe there is always opportunity to bring joy to any project. Architecture should facilitate social needs, personal enjoyment and fulfillment. Whether that’s by introducing artwork, adding some color, or simply considering where you hang your coat. It doesn’t matter how big or small, design gestures that speak directly to those that engage with a building raise the social capital of any project.

© Jack Hobhouse
© Jack Hobhouse

You’re expanding the firm’s European expertise to the North American market. What kind of projects are you hoping to take on?

We look at our experience in two ways – sector based, and specialism based. In terms of sectors, we are focusing primarily on Higher-Ed, Workplace and Multi-family residential projects, building on a strong European portfolio that allows us the opportunity to bring a unique perspective to the North American market. Where we think we can bring fresh expertise is around our specialisms, which include our approach to sustainability, our experience in Industrialized methods of construction as well as our research-led design initiatives.

We have recently published a joint research paper with JLL titled ‘Industrial Rehab’ investigating the value in re-purposing ex-industrial buildings into creative workspaces. Having successfully renovated the 1.2m sqft broadcast center on the London 2012 Olympic site into a new creative campus, we are looking to translate this specialism to the huge opportunities that exist in Los Angeles with this building type.

Courtesy of Hawkins\Brown
Courtesy of Hawkins\Brown

What are some recent projects you’ve been working on? 

In January we completed our first project in the US, a 50,000 sq ft TI project in Playa Vista for an international production company – which is a great milestone for us.

We are also working on two large-scale mixed-use commercial projects in Hollywood combining workspace, retail, and hospitality uses. We are lucky to be working with a great client team who recognize the value in good design that not only achieves a ROI, but focuses on how we can improve the streetscape experience, enhance the public realm and sensitively introduce much needed urban density into emerging commercial neighborhoods.

In addition, we have been working as Specialty Prefabrication Design Consultants on a new 1,300 bed student housing project for UC San Diego, leveraging our European experience in Industrialized Methods of Construction to help unlock the potential for a more component-based approach to design and construction.

Courtesy of Hawkins\Brown
Courtesy of Hawkins\Brown

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

As architects we have a great opportunity and responsibility to be at the forefront of these major advancements to shape the construction industry for the better. As a profession we must not simply react to these changes, but lead the charge. Technology offers incredible opportunities for us all to work more closely together in a more integrated and efficient way to drive innovation. At HB, we have invested heavily in our Digital Design Studio to explore new initiatives in addressing sustainability and construction improvements.

As an example, we have recently released a new open-source Carbon Reduction Tool-kit (HBERT) that links directly to BIM software, which enables us as designers to make better and more informed decisions around the selection of materials to greatly improve the embodied carbon footprint of each project. This initiative has just won the AJ100 Best Use of Technology Award 2020 in the UK. We decided to make this open-source as we felt a responsibility to encourage other firms to do the same.

Advancement in construction is long overdue. No longer should we be thinking about constructability at DD phase, but ensuring opportunities for Modern Methods of Construction are considered at the very outset. Prefabrication is a term that often brings with it negative connotations about design quality. We want to dispel these myths by demonstrating that more industrialized methods of construction can be utilized to achieve great architecture. As architects and designers, we must work more closely with our construction partners to push the boundaries of what is possible.

© Taiyo Watanabe
© Taiyo Watanabe

Changes due to COVID-19 have been swift. How do you think the pandemic will shape design?

Covid has helped accelerate a much-needed shake-up in how we work and how our workplaces (and homes) are designed and operated. Offices and workspaces will remain important, but there is likely to be a shift in emphasis of what the workplace will be used for and how it will be designed. For many industries, the office will become the shop window as opposed to the workshop. It will showcase the brand and embody an organizations culture, but not necessarily support 100% staff occupation or certain activities.

It’s becoming clear that the office might not be the most productive space for certain activities. More focused work or individual tasks could be done at home, and more collaborative tasks should be done in the office. This shift will allow a more purposeful approach to work and ensure we go into the office because we need to, not because we have to.

This will inevitably impact on design. No longer will the rigid lines of desks be the driving factor in efficient space planning. A more flexible and adaptable approach to design, that accommodates a greater level of interaction and collaboration will become prevalent. As companies support a greater amount of home working their office space footprints will likely shrink, meaning, as designers we will be challenged with creating spaces that work harder to support a fluidity of functions.

Also, the health and well-being of staff is thankfully now becoming more and more important. Airflow, daylight and connections to the outdoors all help support healthier and more productive work environments.

Courtesy of Hawkins\Brown
Courtesy of Hawkins\Brown

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

Above all else is our responsibility to help reduce the impact of climate change. All other challenges will either pale into insignificance or became more and more exacerbated if we can’t address this issue. Buildings are large contributors to overall carbon emissions, so we can have a big impact if we adopt sensible approaches to more sustainable design solutions.

In addition, attitudes around density and mobility should be front and center, especially in a city like Los Angeles that has a fantastic opportunity to embrace these ideas. More robust and diverse public transport infrastructure, coupled with a proactive approach to density and urban placemaking, can provide positive change to support more affordable and equitable cities.


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