In Dialogue: Resilience and Mentorship

As part of our “In Dialogue” series celebrating Women’s History Month, we sat down with Patreese Martin & JoBeth Hancock to discuss mentorship, resilience (in all of its forms), and the interplay between academic and professional worlds within their design practices.

Prior to the pandemic, resilience was something architects were already exploring, and now it’s taken on new, deeper meaning. JoBeth, what led you to explore this topic in your research?

JoBeth: Last semester I was part of the Net Positive Studio at Kansas State University, which focused on affordable net zero housing for various communities in Kansas, and the home I designed was selected to be constructed later this year, which is exciting. I really enjoyed working with the net zero principles and looking at how affordable housing can help create a socially resilient community. We were looking at ways to respond to the housing crisis and the climate crisis in Emporia, Kansas and show that net zero homes can provide a viable long-term solution to local affordable housing shortages. That was a really important project for me and has started informing my thinking around what architecture can be and how it should be responding to climate, community, and cultural influences.

“I wanted my experience to help other people be more prepared or avoid the damages that might come into their lives because of disasters worsened by climate change.”

The natural disaster aspect of my research was informed by experiencing one first hand. Five years ago, our home sustained significant damage from a Tornado. These are pretty common in Kansas, but you always think it’s not going to impact you personally until it does. That event drove me to take my experience and power as an architect to give other people an opportunity to have a home, workplace, or business that will be able to withstand whatever the world throws at us. I wanted my experience to help other people be more prepared or avoid the damages that might come into their lives because of disasters worsened by climate change.

Patreese: I think it’s really interesting that many of the questions that you’re posing were technical — about how to build more robustly or higher to withstand the moment of disaster — but I was also really impressed with how you were exploring how people deal with the aftermath: the social, emotional, and cultural impacts of these events. Designers don’t always think about that, so it’s great that you are.

As two people who are deeply involved with the internship experience at BCJ (both helping to shape it and experiencing it for the first time), what can folks expect at an internship at BCJ?

Patreese: We integrate interns into the practice and the daily work. We don’t have a formal process, but we really try to put people into roles where they are contributing to projects in a meaningful way. We create experiences that go both wide and deep to get a sense of the practice as a whole. JoBeth, you participated in the Sustainability Liaison group — that’s a good example — we want interns to engage in the culture of BCJ. I think it’s interesting to be in this transition from online to in-person, and while there are some challenges with the studio being a bit quiet, there have been opportunities for you to engage in some pretty high-level conversations over Zoom. I think that’s a really great opportunity that we weren’t able to offer before.

JoBeth: This is my first internship at an architecture firm, so this has been my first experience in a practice, and hopefully I’ll see more what it’s like to be in the office once we’re all back. As Patreese mentioned, it’s been really interesting to be kind of thrown into a project — the first day was almost a bit overwhelming, but it was a great introduction. I can see how the things I’m doing contribute to the project and how they’re being used by the consultants and clients. I’m actually doing something real rather than theoretical like a school project. I’ve definitely learned a lot at a variety of scales and new ways of working.

Patreese, expanding into the human side of resilience, as you’ve worked with JoBeth and students in the studio you’re currently teaching, how has the pandemic presented challenges for folks who are new to the profession? JoBeth, what has your experience been like?

Patreese: The students are back in studio, but much of the social and cultural events like studio happy hours and presentations still aren’t happening at the level that’s needed. It’s evident that this has had a huge impact on students and has informed the way I approach teaching. It’s been gratifying to have a supportive teaching cohort. These are people I know well in a professional context, but collaborating with them on the course has been a new experience that I am enjoying. Similarly, we encourage the students to look to each other for support. It’s an entirely different experience than on-line.

I learned as much from my fellow students as I did from any of my professors. Those are the lessons that stayed with me the longest. There are one or two students who stand out as amazing mentors, and I think it has surprised them how much satisfaction they get out of it. It’s encouraging to see folks stepping in to help others grow.

JoBeth: I would agree that the studio culture disappeared for a few years, and last semester was the first time we were all together and able to see what everyone is working on — to walk across the studio and talk to someone who you haven’t seen in over a year has been great. Something that’s always stuck with me that I once heard is “teaching is always the best way to learn how to do something yourself.” I’ve found that to be really true. It’s beneficial in a studio culture to give and receive help and share ideas. It’s hard to do that over Zoom.

Patreese: And you can see momentum building even in our Seattle studio as we are starting to return. You always see a little cluster forming around JoBeth, since her team comes in nearly every day. It’s great to see. You begin to envision what the full studio culture will be like in a few months.

JoBeth: Yeah, I’m really interested in seeing the studio culture here. I imagine it will be like studio at school but to another level.

At BCJ, our thinking about sustainability has always been grounded in designing humane environments, and much of the humanity of our work feels intimately connected to the people who work together to create it. We often describe our design ethos as “For People by People.” Can you both describe why this inclusive, human-driven approach might be important in the context of designing resilient buildings?

JoBeth: I think every person just wants to be comfortable and happy and live and work in places that are enjoyable. We have to take our experience as people to inform how we are thinking about designing buildings, but also taking careful considerations of the thoughts and experiences of the people the spaces are intended for. It’s a mix of how you and they would want to experience a space, using your design expertise to direct their desires in what they’re looking for to be beneficial in the long run.

Patreese: I love that. It’s not sustainable if people don’t want to live there or it doesn’t meet their needs. It’s not just designing for the people who the building is serving now, but if we’re designing a truly resilient building, there are future generations with different needs and perspectives who will come after them. There is the future element to it. We can’t anticipate exactly what those people will need, but it’s an important challenge. Are we looking broadly enough at those future needs?

“I invited about a half a dozen BCJ architects and designers to give them the opportunity to benefit from what JoBeth mentioned earlier — teaching is the best way to learn something. It’s a mentorship cycle.”

As two people who are embedded in both the academic and commercials worlds of architecture at very different points in your careers, can you describe how the interplay between these two worlds informs your practice?

Patreese: There is skill learning, but also building students’ confidence and a sense of conviction is important. I ask more questions in the academic arena to draw the students out, and I encourage them to take risks. They’re in an environment where they don’t need to worry about constraints like budgets, schedule, or clients. In the short time frame of a course, there’s not a ton of time to ruminate and iterate, so it’s important to solidify an idea with clarity. The transition from conceptual thinking to the reality of practicing architecture can be a uncertain and confusing time for some students, so it’s so important to have that foundation.

It’s been great to have people from BCJ join me in the studio as well. I invited about a half a dozen BCJ architects and designers to give them the opportunity to benefit from what JoBeth mentioned earlier — teaching is the best way to learn something. It’s a mentorship cycle.

JoBeth: I think your point about always asking questions in studio is definitely valid. We’re always being asked questions and asking them of ourselves to create something we may not have thought of before.

I really like the point I’m in where I’m taking ideas to the point where they are something that can actually work, so this transition from academia into practice is kind of my favorite part. It’s been great to see how that actually happens in an office setting. I’ve been working with other people on a team and I’m seeing how all of our ideas come together into a drawing on a page that will become a building someday.

Patreese: I hope you’ll also have a chance to see architecture in person. I’ve noticed that because of Covid, many of my students haven’t physically experienced local and regional architecture as much as they could. They are viewing architecture through a screen as sanitized, photoshopped images. Buildings can be messy and dynamic, but that’s where the richness and the human element comes into play.

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Bohlin Cywinski Jackson

Bohlin Cywinski Jackson

Designing buildings that inspire connection and wonder in every person who experiences them.

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