Going Green: Advice on Integrated Design, Life and Business with Craig Applegath

Published on January 5, 2017 | by Archipreneur
Craig Applegath Architect Dialog
A very warm welcome to Archipreneur Insights, the interview series with the architectural, design and building communities’ movers and shakers. In this series we get to grips with their opinions, thoughts and practical solutions and learn how to apply their ideas to our own creative work for success in the field of architecture and beyond.

This week’s interview is with Craig Applegath, Founding Principal of DIALOG’s Toronto Studio.

Craig is a passionate designer who believes in the power of built forms to meaningfully improve the wellbeing of communities and environments in which they play a part. Spending his childhood summers in the forests of Northern Ontario, Canada where he learned all about forest ecosystems, it came as no surprise when he later enrolled in biology.

But biology didn’t satisfy his additional passion for designing and making things, so he switched courses to architecture. His early passion for biology, however, remains visible in his work, many of which include sustainable practice, green design, integrated design, and urban resilience among others. The question that defines his work is: How can we shape our built environment so that it is more effectively and constructively integrated with the natural systems within which we live?

DIALOG was able to position itself in the Toronto market as a leader in integrated design and green design. The company grew from a one-person operation in 2003, when Craig founded the Toronto studio, to the one-hundred-and-fifty-person operation they are today.

Keep reading to learn about environmentally integrated design projects and Craig’s vision on how climate change, artificial intelligence and automation will change architecture for good.

Enjoy the interview!

Could you tell us about your background?

I trained as a biologist at the University of Toronto, with an interest in ecology and marine biology, and then as an architect at Dalhousie University, in Halifax. After graduation from my first professional degree in architecture I worked for a year in the studio of O.M. Ungers in Frankfurt, Germany, where I was introduced to the importance of the critical relationship between architecture and its urban context. It was that interest that led me enter the Master of Architecture in Urban Design program at Harvard’s GSD.

The next 5 years was spent qualifying as an architect and beginning my own architecture practice in Toronto in 1992. After leading my own practice for six years I joined Dunlop Architects as a partner in 1998 to focus on institutional projects and lead the development of their green design efforts. In 2003, when Dunlop was purchased by Stantec I didn’t relish the idea of being a corporate architect so I left to found the Toronto Studio of DIALOG, lead the firm’s green design strategy, and be part of DIALOG’s institutional design team.

Since joining DIALOG, the Toronto Studio has grown from myself to an integrated team of 150 architects, planners, interior designers and engineers. My primary role now is to lead the Higher Education design team, coordinate the efforts of our computational design group, and continue to push the envelope of green design. The project that I have most recently completed is the Bill Fisch Forest Stewardship Education Centre – a facility designed to be a LEED Platinum and Seven Petal Living Building Challenge facility – the greenest building in Canada.

You started training as a biologist. Is this were your awareness for the environment came from?

Since as far back as I can remember as a kid I was passionate about making and designing things, and fascinated by the natural world. I was extremely lucky because my uncle was a science teacher, and I spent a lot of my summers as a kid tromping around Northern Ontario forests with him and his daughters learning all about forest ecosystems and the role that various plants and animals played in those ecosystems.

The thing I remember most about those outings was how my uncle refused to simply explain things to us, but instead encouraged us to figure them out for ourselves by developing hypotheses and then proving them or not. He provided us with just enough clues to build a hypothesis so that we ourselves could figure it out.

I think this early experience with the scientific method instilled both a sense of wonder about the natural world, as well as a deep love and respect for the scientific method. I also had an amazing biology teacher in high school who continued to inspire my love of all things biological. Upon graduating from high school I entered the science and biology program at the University of Toronto with the intention of pursuing a career as a biologist and academic.

What changed your mind and made you follow a career in architecture?

Although I had started university with the intention of becoming a biologist, I found that as a study, biology didn’t satisfy my other passion for designing and making things. Also, I came to realize that what was really starting to fascinate me was the intersection our built environment and natural systems, and how we could shape our built environment to be more effectively and constructively integrated with those systems. So the more I explored opportunities to do this, the more I was drawn to architecture.

So now, years later, I still find myself still as interested in biology as I do in architecture and urban design, and I am finding that I am able to more and more integrate all three passions in my work.

When did you found DIALOG’s Toronto Studio and how has the studio evolved since then?

I started DIALOG’s Toronto Studio in the fall of 2003. DIALOG (then Cohos Evamy) was well known in Alberta, but new to Toronto. A classmate from the Harvard GSD, the late Tom Sutherland, and I had had parallel careers for many years and when I left Dunlop Architects we agreed that I should start a Toronto Studio for DIALOG. It was really the absolute best of both worlds. On the one hand, it was a start-up, with all the excitement and fun of a start-up. On the other hand, DIALOG’s Alberta studios provided significant knowledge and resources to backstop the Toronto Studio in our first couple of years.

As it turned out, we were very quickly able to position ourselves in the Toronto market as a leader in integrated design and green design, and to win some key projects that really started our growth, allowing us to grow from a one-person operation in 2003 to the one-hundred-and-fifty-person operation we are today. We now have a truly integrated studio of planners, architects, interior designers, and structural, mechanical and electrical engineers.

This integration is critically important because not only does it allow us to do very green design, it provides for a highly collaborative and creative environment to design in. It is also turning out to be very important to our ability to leverage the use of computational design (also called parametric design). The integration of architecture and engineering disciplines significantly enhances our studio’s ability to integrate all aspects of the building design into the computational design process.

So for example, a parametric exploration of a building façade design can be wholly integrated with the design of the building structural system. In the time that it used to take us to do three options, we can now do two hundred. The use of computational design is also serving as a launching pad for the exploration of cognitive computing and AI in the design and projection process, as well as more effectively tying our design process into the future realities of the construction and building operation processes.

I would argue that cognitive computing is the next space race for our profession. I think it will change just about everything we do.

Could you give as an example of one of your office’s environmentally integrated design project? What was the biggest challenge?

Probably the best example of an environmentally integrated project is the Bill Fisch Forest Stewardship Education Centre. It is 4000 sf education centre designed to be both LEED Platinum and achieve all seven petals of the Living Building Challenge. It was designed as a Net-zero water and Net-zero energy building.

The biggest challenge on this project was to achieve the requirements of the Living Building Challenge Materials Petal, Red List. Many of the materials and product manufacturers and suppliers we researched were unwilling to provide us with the information we needed to make a determination of whether their material or product complied with the Red List requirements. However, it was such a compelling project to work on that these kinds of problems could be taken in stride.

York Region Bill Fisch Forest Stewardship Education Centre South Facade
York Region Bill Fisch Forest Stewardship Education Centre South Facade | © DIALOG
York Region Bill Fisch Forest Stewardship Education Centre
Interior South Facade of the York Region Bill Fisch Forest Stewardship Education Centre | © DIALOG

How do you define urban resilience? And how does it define your work?

I became interested in urban resilience some years ago when our studio started to discuss the challenges that our cities would face as climate change started to bite. In essence, planning for urban resilience asks the question: how can we plan and design cities and buildings in ways that will allow them to rebound from the shocks and stresses that will be associated with the climate change impacts that will be increasing in frequency and intensity over the next century?

These explorations were actually the starting point for us to expand our study into the broader question of how we can plan our cities, and the regions they are part of, to be environmentally symbiotic rather than pathologically parasitic. It’s clear that we have a lot of work to do to both reduce our harm and prepare for the impacts of climate change.

You created the Symbiotic Cities Network in 2012. Could you tell us about the network’s mission?

The creation of Symbiotic Cities Network was an opportunity to bring together like-minded professionals – planners, architects, engineers – to explore how we can shift from being pathologically parasitic and environmentally destructive species, to being mutualistically symbiotic and regenerative species. Although this might at first hearing sound hopelessly naïve and optimistic, there are actually a number of important things we can do to move in this direction.

Over the past couple of years we have boiled it down to three overarching and interconnected strategies:

First, we need to radically reduce the harm our species is causing to the biosphere. At the moment we are consuming somewhere in the order 1.7 planets worth of ecosystem services per year (obviously, the world only produces 1 per year so this is obviously not sustainable). This means we are now chewing into our natural capital. We are also pumping millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and have reached over 400 ppms of CO2 in our atmosphere (350 ppms is considered the highest “sustainable” concentration).

To significantly reduce the harm we are causing we will have to economically internalize the costs of using our natural capital, and move toward a much more circular economy, and radically reduce our CO2 emissions. The good news is that we have the technology to do this. The only question is whether we can deploy it soon enough to be effective.

Second, we will have to learn how to adapt our cities and communities to the mounting impacts of climate change, including rising sea levels, increased frequency and intensity of severe weather events, as well as stress that a changing climate will cause existing ecosystems. This is where resilience comes in.

Third, we will have to invest significant resources to repair and regenerate the damage we have already done to the biosphere. We will be adding between one and two billion people to the planet over the next 25 years, so this will be particularly challenging. This is where regenerative design is important.

What’s your opinion on the architectural education? Are the architects to be prepared to work with complex challenges like the climate change, population growth and climate-induced migrations that our cities are facing nowadays?

It is probably impossible for any faculty of architecture to adequately prepare students for the complexity of challenges that they will face young architects.

Climate change, population growth, in-migrations of climate and political refugees are all big picture challenges. New building technologies, new design technologies, artificial intelligence, and cognitive computing, and the increasing commodification of architecture are additional emerging professional challenges.

I think that many faculties of architecture in North America are struggling to maintain their currency and relevance in this rapidly changing environment. There is no silver-bullet fix, but I think that both the profession and academia will have to find more effective ways to cross pollenate and collaborate in developing effective learning strategies for both educating and training future architects if they are to be successful.

DIALOG is quite a big partnership; it has four studios in Canada and one in the USA. What are the challenges to work in such a large-scale office structure?

Although DIALOG has over 500 people working across 4 studios in Canada, and one new studio in the USA, it doesn’t feel that big – and was designed that way. We are not a hierarchical organization, but rather a networked organization. There are 50 principals and 75 associates, and work is team-based and very collaborative. Because we are an integrated planning, architecture, interior design, structural, mechanical and electrical firm collaboration and design thinking are powerful cultural drivers in the firm.

I suspect that new interns that have worked in very hierarchical, top-down firms must wonder when they arrive at DIALOG just who is running the place. It takes a while for them to figure out that as a networked organization there is actually no one ‘running’ the firm, but rather, there are people entrusted with carrying through both the studio and firm level strategy that has been developed by the principals consensually.

The other important ingredient for success in DIALOG is expertise, leadership, and entrepreneurialism. Principals are only as successful as their ability to provide the kind of expertise and experience necessary to win good projects and clients.

What is your strategy to find new customers?

Two simple words: expertise and service. Our clients hire us because of the expertise we can offer them, and for our commitment to excellent client service. New business comes from either referrals, or from clients seeing us speaking at conferences, expert roundtables, or reading about us in professional journals.

The best advice I have ever seen on how to win new business was written by David Maister in his book, Managing the Professional Service Firm. As he points out, people want to hire experts who care about them, and experts are people who do research, write about it, and speak about it.

Do you have any advice for archipreneurs who are interested in starting their own business?

When I first started my own practice I thought everyone wanted to run their own practice. It turns out not. Most people just want to work in a great practice run by someone else. But for those who are real archipreneurs – and you know who you are – I will tell you that there is nothing so thrilling and fun as starting your own business; and nothing so scary and anxiety producing as starting your own business! They are the flip side of the same coin. But in terms of general advice for people starting their own practice or business here are a few lessons learned:

1. Design Your Life:

Before starting your own business, make sure that starting a business is the right thing for you, and figure out what kind of business you want to be in. One of the best ways to do this is through something you are probably pretty good at already: design thinking.

However, to really see design thinking very effectively applied to designing your career, reading Bill Burnett and Dave Evans’ book Designing Your Life, is one of the first things you should do. (I am actually using it right now to design the next decade of my career.) One of the things that they very effectively show you how to do is ask the right questions so you can solve the right problems.

The last thing you want to do is start a business that is smart as a business idea, but does not succeed in helping you develop the career that will be most fulfilling to you, and that you will be most successful in.

2. Business 101:

Most architecture schools do not provide good training in the business aspects of the profession of architecture. So before you quit your day-job, it’s worth taking a community college or continuing ed course at your local college or university on how to start and run a small business. It will teach you the basics of sales, marketing, book keeping, and managing people.

I would also recommend taking a course in negotiation. Architects, for some reason, are typically terrible negotiators, especially in negotiations for fair compensation for their services!

3. Find a Blue Ocean:

This is a reference to W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne’s book Blue Ocean Strategy that suggests that entrepreneurs look for business opportunities in uncontested waters – blue oceans – rather than competitive, bloody waters – red oceans. This is good advice if you can find your own blue ocean.

One thing is for sure, in North America and Europe, architecture is a mature market with limited opportunity for new traditional practices. If you are a traditional practice, you will be up against dozens, often hundreds of competitors who will have much deeper portfolios than your new business will have.

So you will need to offer something that really differentiates you from your competitors. Maybe you will be the new expert in computational design? Maybe you can team up with an emerging builder to become a niche design-build practice? Maybe you will be a developer-architect? Whatever you do, you need to develop a secret sauce that your competitors will find difficult or impossible to copy.

When I started my own practice just as the Internet was emerging, I positioned myself as a “virtual architect” and pulled together consultants form all over North America to do projects – mostly buddies from grad school. But it sounded cool, and got me speaking gigs at conferences, and conferred a degree of uniqueness on my practice that got me noticed.

4. Build and Support Your Network:

I have not met any successful entrepreneurs who do not have a deep network. Networks are for support; networks are for leads; networks are for advice; networks are for collaboration. Networks are the important bonds that allow you to see and realize potential opportunities.

One of the best guides to developing your network is Harvey Mackay’s book, Dig Your Well Before Your Thirsty. One of the most important lessons in Mackay’s book is that networks are not to be milked, but rather supported. You build a network of people whom you will try to support, and care about, and they will in turn do the same for you.

I can’t say enough about how important building a good network is.

Without a good network success will be virtually impossible.

5. Take Care of Yourself:

You will be pulled in a thousand directions at the studio, and you will also have a private life with its own demands and stresses. So you will need to learn how to take care of yourself and manage your energy and manage your physical and mental health. There are two very important things you should be doing, even when things are crazy busy – in fact especially when things are crazy busy.

First, you should set aside an hour at least three to four times per week for exercise – both cardio and resistance training. Second, learn how to meditate and do so each day. If you are new to meditation try the Headspace App on your iPhone or Android. I have talked with a number of entrepreneurs who say they could not function without exercise and meditation, and most accounts by successful entrepreneurs I have read have said the same.

6. Make a Difference:

I think to be successful you need to lead a meaningful life – that is, a life that provides you with a powerful and meaningful reason d’etre for what you do. As part of designing your life (above) you will be thinking a lot about this. You don’t want to get to being late middle aged and wonder what the hell you have done with your life! Life is short and needs to be lived with passion and intent.

7. Read, Read, Read:

I think that one of the most important ingredients for success is to be constantly at the intersections of culture, technology, and business, and to do so you will need to be constantly reading – reading books, blogs (like Archipreneur), newspapers, and journals of all sorts.

You need to read both broadly and deeply. You need to understand the bigger world around you; but you also need to maintain your expertise in whatever your specialty niche is (and you will want to have at least a couple of specialty niches!).

How do you see the future of the architectural profession? In which areas (outside of traditional practice) can you see major opportunities for up and coming developers and architects?

The world is changing so fast I am not sure what to say here, except that the chances of getting it right are highly unlikely. Having said that, there are a number of trends that smart archipreneurs should keep theirs eyes on.

The first is the transition from green design to resilient design. I’m not sure how fast this will happen, but once Miami, NYC, Boston and Seattle all start flooding on a regular basis because of climate change, resilient design will be much more of an opportunity.

The vertical integration of design, construction, and building operations is another thing that is coming, being driven by the transformation of everything into digital information – BIM is the future. Parametric design and BIM will smooth the way for this to be ever more a reality.

Prefabrication, like the work SHOP does will also be a possible blue ocean for archipreneurs.

All the above lead to the conclusion that

to be successful young architects will have to be capable of swimming in the worlds of design, information technology, business, and fabrication/construction.

The world of digital information is turning us into craftspersons once again – but craftspersons on amphetamines!

About Craig Applegath

Craig Applegath is the founding principal of DIALOG’s Toronto Studio, and a passionate designer who believes in the power of built form to meaningfully improve the wellbeing of communities and the environment they are part of. Since graduating from the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University with a Master of Architecture in Urban Design Craig has focused his energies on leading innovative planning and design projects that address the complex challenges facing our communities, as well as on his advocacy of sustainable building design and urban regeneration and symbiosis.

Craig’s area of practice includes the master planning and design of institutional projects, including cultural and museum, post secondary education, and healthcare facilities. In addition to his professional practice responsibilities, Craig speaks about his research and design explorations at conferences and workshops internationally. This has included recent presentations at conferences in Prague, Munich and Beijing.

Craig was a founding Board Member of Sustainable Buildings Canada, and a Past President of the Ontario Association of Architects. Craig has lectured or taught at Harvard, the University of Toronto, the University of Waterloo, as well as at many professional and sector related conferences around the world. In 2001 Craig was made a Fellow of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada for his contributions to the profession.

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