Nov 30, 2015
BY: and
THEME: Point of View

15 Minutes with Arlen Stawasz

As world leaders gather in Paris for the historic COP21 conference on climate change, designers across our firm continue envisioning buildings that tread lighter on the earth and are capable of handling the environmental vacillations we must become accustomed to in the not-too-distant future. One such designer is Arlen Stawasz in our Boston office, recently cited in the Boston Globe  regarding how European cities may become a model for how to apply resilience thinking in the United States.

What is your role at Perkins+Will?

My official title is Arch II, but to spare you from deciphering what that is, here’s a synopsis: I am an architectural designer, project designer, and sustainable/resilient design team leader. My role really shifts throughout the various projects I take part in and I like it that way. Keeps me on my toes.

Since I started working at Perkins+Will in mid-2014, I was immediately impressed with the commitment the firm has made towards sustainable design since it was my passion. It was easy for me to recognize the firm’s momentum on this subject so I immediately immersed myself and got involved. Here are a few firm initiatives I have since dived into: (1) I currently serve as the Boston office’s key figure for the resilient design and climate adaptation task force, (2) I was also recently selected to continue my flood resilient architectural research in Miami, Florida through Perkins+Will’s Innovation Incubator micro-grant program.

A secret about my job? The people I work with on a day to day basis are the icing on the cake. I work with an incredible and dedicated team that is willing to push the boundaries and think critically about advancing ALL projects in the office to be more sustainable and have a smaller carbon impact on the environment. I feel very lucky to have them around and can’t imagine taking any credit without them! After all, a cohesive team is what makes a firm flourish.

 What are your workspace must-haves?

Physical flexibility is a major component to the success of my work place ‘must-have’. At Perkins+Will, every employee has laptops with docking stations, moveable desks, and plenty of pin-up / work surface. It is easy for project teams to move around, adjust, and prepare for team meetings and presentations. Flexibility in my mind allows for new ideas to surface to the top quicker, thus making the magic happen! I confess– I am a perfectionist and somehow obsessive compulsive, so my desk needs to be immaculate before leaving the office every night.

Arlen's mobile, moveable, (obsessively tidy) workspace. Image courtesy of Arlen Stawasz

Arlen’s mobile, moveable, (and obsessively tidy) workspace. Image courtesy of Arlen Stawasz

What’s your most coveted design object?

My most coveted design object is a graphite mechanical pencil (yup, I said it…boring but true) I was given while researching sea level rise planning in the Netherlands. I bring it with me everywhere. It was given to me by a close and dear friend who is internationally recognized for his artwork using pastels. My graphite mechanical pencil isn’t the most exciting item to others, but to me it symbolizes a great friendship and inspires me to draw without boundaries during the design process. It frees me from the bounds that society sometime imposes on us and allows me to think more creatively.

Which designer do you most admire–and why?

There are many designers that I look up to, but the one that stands out to me the most is Paolo Soleri. Arcosanti is an impressive project in the middle of the desert of Arizona that was designed by Paolo and which is still being built today; beyond Soleri’s human lifetime. His vision of a self-sustaining city in the desert encompasses a variety sustainable and social goals that I very much value, connect with and appreciate. I wish more of such architecture would be built.

Paolo Soleri on site at Arcosanti. Image courtesy of LIFE Magazine.

Paolo Soleri on site at Arcosanti. Image courtesy of LIFE Magazine.

What’s your dream project–real or imagined?

I like to believe that dream projects can become a reality, so this is a “real and imagined” project! How’s that? My ultimate heaven project is to create architectural climate preparedness for cities like Miami (USA) and Dhaka (Bangladesh). These locations are two of the most vulnerable regions affected by sea level rise and storm surge than any other coastal cities around the globe. This dream would involve working with public and private agencies, city governments, institutions, and community members to re-imagine the concepts of living with water while most importantly, making room for nature. This, to me, is something I believe is deeply sustainable, and looks far and beyond the short term solutions, bringing people together to address issues. This is the only way we are going to be able to live in the next decade so why not start thinking ahead? It can be REAL.

Cities like Dhaka in Bangladesh are going to be among the first to experience the negative effects of a warming planet and rising sea levels. Image courtesy of Arlen Stawasz.

Cities like Dhaka in Bangladesh are going to be among the first to experience the negative effects of a warming planet and rising sea levels. Image courtesy of Arlen Stawasz.

The 60 Second Charrette: Take a (literal) minute to sketch out an idea or building you find inspiring, and share it with us: 

A quick sketch of floor resilient architecture, courtesy of Arlen Stawasz.

A quick sketch of floor resilient architecture, courtesy of Arlen Stawasz.

If you weren’t in your position at Perkins+Will, what would you do instead?

If I wasn’t in my position at Perkins+Will I would be teaching more architecture studios, travel more, and focus on urban design and planning. I believe that education is the key to making the largest impact on society. As we inspire others, so is our purpose in life accomplished.

What lesson would you share with the next generation of designers, or what do you wish someone told you as you started your career?

If you have an idea, write it down, believe that it can happen, visualize it, and it WILL happen. This is the story of my life and it’s never failed me. Once you write something down it is no longer a thought, but something visual that you can read and look at over the course of time. I think you will be surprised with the outcomes if only you follow these simple instructions. Just jot down the things you want to do, there are other things that will appear in your life to make the thing that you want to do actually happen. Sometimes things may not seem to work out for you the way you wanted. However, this allows better things to come your way later. Trust in the process that you are in the right place at the right time.

In ten words or less, why does design matter?

It is our greatest responsibility to be good ancestors; let’s build for the future.

  1. Yani Cui
    3:23 pm on December 5, 2015 | Reply

    The one minute sketch is a brillant way to express Arlen Stawasz’s concept of sustainable deign. Piloti the building up and make the street level serves both human access to the building and nature access through the building. I am visiting Miami for the Art Basel right now. Water are stays on the street because of the large amount of rain drop. In my point of view, this quick sketch is a brilliant idea which can happen in few years later in city like Miami and Dhaki.

Leave a Comment