Concrete Thinking Think Concrete
Thinkers> John Boecker  
L. Robert Kimball & Associates
Aesthetics – the challenge of designing a beautiful building – was what drove John Boecker, AIA, for the first half of his nearly 25-year architectural career. He was strongly motivated by the awards he received in recognition of the beauty and elegance of his designs. Yet, the beauty of design alone failed to bring complete meaning to his work.
John Boecker

Boecker’s professional epiphany came in 1995 when he was working on the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s South Central Regional Office Building, later to become the state’s first green building. During the project’s schematic design phase, a concerned citizen attended a planning meeting and asked the state to make it a more environmentally responsible building.

“I realized that my life had just changed,” Boecker recalled after a phone call from that concerned citizen the next day. “Integrating green design is so much more meaningful than simply pursuing aesthetics; more importantly, it provides a means by which I can measure the impact these buildings have on people, their health, and ultimately the health of the planet.”

balancing art with science

“I then made a significant personal discovery: many of the components that help make buildings green offer exciting aesthetic opportunities, as well,” Boecker said.

For example, solar shading devices that protect buildings from high altitude summer sunlight penetration offer wonderful sculptural opportunities. Boecker used such design elements in the Clearview Elementary School, a nationally heralded example of sustainable design.

Boecker designed a two-story “sunscreen” wall in front of the school’s south-facing single-loaded corridor. Not only is the wall a unique design feature, it also blocks the sun’s direct rays from penetrating the corridor’s windows in the summer, reducing the load on the cooling system. In the winter, when the sun is at a lower altitude, the window-shaped holes in this wall allow the sun to stream through, providing much needed warmth and light.

Architecture is a wonderful balance of art and science, Boecker believes.

He already had a strong grounding in the art of his craft; however, Boecker realized he needed to devote himself to learning its science. A never-ending pile of books about the environment and building performance helped to raise his knowledge level about the science of his profession and the impacts his decisions were having on the environment.

“I began to understand that many of my past design decisions had not made a positive contribution to the environment; rather, many of them were hurting it. As I learned more about these impacts, I felt a terrible guilt,” Boecker said.

bending a straight line into a circle

Boecker often points out that sustainable design “is not genetic engineering”, it’s actually quite simple, and in many instances comes down to common sense. However, it does involve change, which can be difficult for a conservative industry that has been operating in a certain way for decades.

He actually thinks of himself as a change manager, helping to bring others, from developers, engineers, and government officials to fellow architects, into a new way of thinking and working together.

Sustainable design requires moving away from a linear process where each individual member of the design team, including the architect and engineers, works on separate components of the project.

Boecker believes that such an approach results in “tremendous redundancies.” There isn’t enough communication about how systems can work together or about the potential synergies that can result from the interactions between systems, he said.

The new paradigm literally comes down to the various “experts” sitting down at the same table before design actually begins to integrate their areas of expertise, learn from each other and develop creative ways to address the structure’s unique challenges. It’s a more circular process.

“Everyone’s goal should be to find synergies that allow for the downsizing or elimination of systems components in order to decrease energy, water and non-renewable resource consumption during construction and over the life of the building, while at the same time neutralizing or even reducing first costs,” Boecker said.

A simple example is choosing a paint color for interior walls, which can reduce the size and cost of the cooling system as well as energy consumption and associated environmental impacts over the lifetime of the building.

Boecker believes that durability and sustainable design are closely linked. The architecture of the Romans, which often relied on cementitious materials “is unbelievably enduring, and we’re still learning from some of these techniques today,” Boecker said.

A significant advantage to concrete is that it usually doesn’t need to be replaced over the life of a building and when the building reaches the end of its useful life, the concrete can be recycled back into new concrete or into other materials with minimal environmental impact, Boecker said.

“Architects are trained to take complex issues and resolve them in simple ways,” Boecker said. “That is much of what sustainable design is all about.”

Looking to the Future

Sustainable design is moving into a mainstream pursuit, Boecker said. However, much work still needs to be done across the profession of architecture and more broadly throughout society.

“A great deal of our thinking comes down to how can we prevent a little less damage when we construct a building. But that’s not enough,” he said.

“We need to make a fundamental mindset shift and believe that the decisions we make can be regenerative and restorative,” Boecker said. “We, as architects, can contribute to the health of a place.”

case studies
Clearview Elementary

L. Robert Kimball & Associates