October 1, 2003 - From the October, 2003 issue

Design Matters! Lawrence Scarpa Offers Blueprint For California's Socially Conscious Architects

The importance of the built environment in creating public spaces necessitates active involvment by the design community. So why are design professionals so often left on the sidelines? TPR is pleased to present this interview with Lawrence Sacrpa, AIA, Principal of Pugh + Scarpa and co-founder of Livable Places, in which he discusses sustainable building, his experience in development and why design always matters.


Lawrence Scarpa

Larry, you were a featured speaker at the recent California AIA design retreat in Monterey talking about the relationship between design and development. Can you elaborate for our readers on the thrust of your comments?

As I began to get more clients, particularly in the affordable housing arena, I found that really good people with good intentions often lose sight of their vision of providing quality places for people with low incomes. People tend to get lost in numbers at the expense of quality of place. As I set out to provide a quality environment for people, particularly low-income people, I became increasingly frustrated with the perception that design didn't matter in that arena-design was really reduced to the lowest common denominator. I found that the only way to show design matters was to take control.

Let's take a half step back. Why does design matter?

Everyone cares about the quality of the environment, particularly in affordable housing. Just because people have less money doesn't mean that they should have a poor environment. Quality design and affordability are not mutually exclusive. They can work together, and they should work together.

Why has design gotten lost as a criterion for approval of affordable housing projects, or any projects, in our dense urban centers?

Affordable housing is an incredibly difficult arena to work in because most affordable housing projects have multiple sources of funding. Often those funding sources have conflicting guidelines or requirements, so you tend to get the lowest common denominator in meeting everyone's requirements.

How did the design profession forfeit its standing to advocate for the built environment? How do you explain a lack of public and political support for good design and sustainable development?

That's a good question. I don't know what happened, but architects and design professionals should be more active. If you go back hundreds of years ago, the architect was also the planner, the artist, and the contractor. Our role in society has diminished greatly to the point where architects are now just one small player in a big development world. It's our own fault. Where contractors and developers are willing to take more risks, architects and design professionals want less and less risk and less responsibility. Therefore, our roles have continued to diminish.

There is kind of an irony here because right now architects are riding a wave of historic popularity in that they've almost become superstars for the design of marquis buildings. But, when it comes to building communities, we're irrelevant. Very few of us show up at public meetings; very few of our organizations have effective lobbying groups; we're not politically active; we're not in a position actually to make an impact. Harvey Gantt, an architect and former mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, once told me, "I did more for architecture in one week as the mayor of Charlotte than I did in a whole career as an architect." Architects have to be more involved in politics, they have to be more involved in the community, and they have to get their voice out there.

Your firm, Pugh + Scarpa, has received much acclaim for the Colorado Court project. Elaborate on that project's design, what makes it unique, and how some of its elements can be replicated?

Colorado Court is a 44-unit affordable housing project that produces upwards of 95% of its own energy needs. Affordable housing is the sector that needs energy efficiency the most. People living in affordable housing have the highest percentage of their income dedicated to utility bills. They're the people who are in greatest need of a reduction in their utility costs. On top of this, almost every affordable housing project is deed restricted for a long period of time, therefore the payback on these projects are much more reasonable which makes them even more feasible.

Colorado Court incorporates almost every technology available, both passive and active, and many of those technologies are replicable for affordable housing projects around the country. Most people look at this as a real technological feat, where in fact the technology is quite simple. As with anything, people are afraid to try something new.

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Elaborate on the challenges faced in designing and building green buildings in today's fiscal and regulatory climate?

One of the challenges is that even municipalities don't understand sustainable design. On Colorado Court, we had to teach the Building Department how to inspect our building. We had inspectors from all over the state of California visit our building to see how it was done. Municipalities are not familiar with it, which therefore makes it difficult to just get through plan check. You have to have a lot of intestinal fortitude just to make it happen. But, that's changing very rapidly.

In last month's Planning Report, we interviewed California Secretary of the State and Consumer Services Agency Aileen Adams, who articulated the state's commitment and efforts to have all new state buildings be green and sustainable. How much of an impact does the state's effort in this area have on advancing the agenda that you so persuasively articulate?

It's huge. It's the single most important thing that can be done. In fact, there was a bond issue passed for the building of new community colleges and new community college buildings that required all of the buildings to obtain some form of LEED designation or to have an environmentally sustainable design. As the old adage says, follow the money-every architect now in Los Angeles is suddenly a green expert. When it becomes a requirement, it makes a big difference. But, it just shows that instead of architects leading the charge for sustainable design, we're really following suit. We should be out in front.

This interview will appear in the October issue with a piece by Cape Town's Dave Dewar, who you joined with on a CA-AIA panel in Monterey. According to Dave, "Developers are actually just pushing cities around. There is often a contradiction in terms of conflict between the public good and what constitutes the short-term good of the developer, and I think that has got to be brought under control." He goes on to say, "We're not talking about money, I'm talking about some guys making decisions about roads, there are other guys making decisions about hospitals, there's another guy making decisions about education, but nobody's pulling it together beyond the silos to think about integrating and building neighborhoods and communities." Do you endorse or reject Dewar's thesis?

I would agree with him. A good example of that is the Department of Transportation. We try to make walkable communities and you go into meetings with this goal. But the Department of Transportation tells you they want a100-foot highway dedication, which is the antithesis of trying to make communities. You encounter a lot of situations where no one is actually willing to take a risk or no one is really looking at creating community. There's not a lot of strong leadership in dealing with making better communities.

On the other hand, 20 or 30 years ago when the federal government took charge of housing, it was really a disaster. What's happening now is a lot of the private nonprofits are making much better housing projects. But that's not really community building. On the large scale, I would agree with David that someone needs to step-up to the plate and provide some real leadership in the government and it will make for a better place and better community.

Let's conclude by focusing on your firm. You already implied and suggested that you've evolved into being a developer/architect. Elaborate on the operation of your firm, how it has evolved and why it works.

In some ways we operate like a traditional architectural practice. We have normal commissions, but we're getting a lot more respect for our input into the projects because of our more active role as developers. Our firm is not a developer per se, we're just co-founders of a nonprofit called Livable Places. Livable Places develops affordable, sustainable communities. There are some other architect/developers who have been successful and who have been effective, and if we're going to have an impact, we're going to have to think more like that.

The mission of Livable Places is to provide for-sale sustainable, affordable communities-mixed use communities-primarily focusing on housing. Our group met not with a vision of starting a development organization, but more to look at issues of sustainability and housing and communities. We all had ideas about why projects like this weren't being developed and we eventually jotted down some ideas of what we thought would work and wrote some grants. We wound up getting some fairly large grants from the Irvine Foundation, Fannie Mae, Bank of America, Cal Fed, and a host of other organizations that put us on the map. At that point, we were actually forced to do something. So we now have four projects in the works. We go in and we tackle projects that other people don't want to touch-projects that aren't really zoned for a use that makes sense.

The other thing that was key to our organization was to have a policy arm, and we have a policy director who works strictly on policy issues and tries to inform voters and decision makers about smart growth, about what makes good development, and helping to push our projects through. We've had some pretty good success with that even for a young, new group, with projects in Los Angeles, Lincoln Heights, and Long Beach.

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