Front’s Marc Simmons on Client Values
As a consultant working largely on building-envelope design and detailing, Marc Simmons and his firm Focus Inc., headquartered in New York City, have a client list that features some of the leading designers in the world today: Ateliers Jean Nouvel, Beyer Blinder Bell, Burt Hill, Gehry Partners, Gensler, Herzon & De Meuron, Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects, Rem Koolhaas, Renzo Piano, Richard Meier & Partners, Snøhetta, Steven Holl, Tadao Ando, and Zaha Hadid, to name just a few.
Among the insights he will share in his panel presentation at the VSAIA Design Forum X in Charlottesville on St. Patrick’s Day are that his firm is by design multi-disciplinary so that every aspect of a building-envelope design is considered from the outset for constructability, performance, and security. Above all, he says, the design team must understand the goals, aspirations, values, and resources of the client.
Here he explains what it is that his firm provides and the frame of mind from which they work.
Inform: Your work tends toward the avant-garde. In that respect, do you see the building envelope as the embodiment of a building?
Simmons: It is over-reaching to call the envelope the embodiment of a building. That’s just fashion. Historically, the envelope has always played an equal role along with the building interior, its context, and the landscape. So, from that point, we’re quite the traditionalists because our job is to help people build the envelopes of their buildings.
Inform: How does your firm work as a consultant to design architects?
Simmons: If you were to describe what we do, I’d say we are completely vested in the world of ideas. It’s where everything starts for us.
The firm here is about 40 people at the moment: architects, structural engineers, mechanical engineers, business managers, construction managers, computer engineers. We had always set out to be a multi-disciplinary group. We do a bit of our own architectural design work and we do a little of our own engineering work. We otherwise consult with other people.
On the side, we also do a limited amount of design-build through another entity, although we don’t brand that publically because it’s not our main focus. Nonetheless, we consider even a side focus on design-build to be a logical extension of consulting. When you consult, there’s sometimes a feeling that you’re not really taking responsibility for the things you suggest or draw; that you’re kind of handing it off. Nonetheless, we are obviously interested in complete and total responsibility where it is appropriate. In some projects, having that design-build edge has made all the difference. It gives you something of a moral bully pulpit when someone asks: “Will you stand by this design?” And we can say: “Not only will we stand by it but we’ll build it for you.” They’re most likely to respond: “Well we don’t need you to build it, we just want to make sure you’re committed.” But that offer gives you a voice to stand by your contributions to a project.
Inform: Water infiltration is always a concern, of course. But what else do you look at regarding the realization of a building envelope?
Simmons: Waterproofing is a rudiment, yes. If you’re not handling water condensation and moisture vapor as well as seismic loads and all those rudimentary external forces, you don’t belong in this profession. But as far as the scope of what we consider, we don’t draw a line anywhere.
These buildings are environmental artifacts, and they need to do everything that they’re being asked to do, bar none. I will say, though, that in the last 15 years, the building envelope has become a focus for a huge body of knowledge with regard to security. With 9/11 and other national concerns, security has become institutionalized. And security requirements now probably make up 20 percent of everything we do. Then you have to reconcile that with augmented environmental and performance concerns. And that all will fit within the client’s branded value and design aesthetic.
Inform: Structural engineers and constructors often tell us that too many architects do not design for constructability. Is constructability something you look at as well?
Simmons: Complaints that some architects don’t always develop their designs for constructability are legitimate. Our main focus is existential when you talk about how an envelope system needs to be built. That it needs to work on-site is fundamental. In the end, we are very honest about who is building and what they’re working with.
This goes to the concept of any building: People build when they have resources, a need, and a set of values. Any group on the design and construction team that doesn’t strive to understand these values, needs, and resources—the concerns of those who are asking them to build—then they’re not engaging the issues. So it’s client-focused, but not in a corporate way, in a very fundamental cultural way. That’s at the root of everything that we do.
When the client walks through our door, usually it’s an architect, then we are concerned with their client. Who is the originator of this project? And what are their goals and values? The moment we understand that—we as a group who are well-read and sophisticated culturally, and understand architectural history and theory, economics, and politics—we can situate our projects where they need to be situated. We can then work with the general team—the owner’s rep, the owner, the architect, and all the other consultants—to strategize a way to handle the building.
Our responsibilities are strategic at the very beginning. We call it as we see it and are apt to say: “For this kind of level of ambition of performance, this site, budget, and schedule, here’s what we think. What do you think?” We come into a lot of our work at the beginning of a project where we’re fundamentally engaged in defining the parameters of whether it happens or not and advising what needs to be modified, either in increased budgets, managed expectations, extended schedules, or changes in design.
Inform: Do you have a geographic or project-specific firm focus?
Simmons: We’re global, working in 25 different countries, and have a broad range of experience from public housing to fancy retail, towers to institutional work. For us it’s a broad range of projects, clients, and geographies to work in. Not all of it is expensive, although some is. A lot of it is conventional with very aggressive price points.
Inform: Looking ahead, then, what do you see for the construction markets?
Simmons: When you think of the construction markets from a macro standpoint, we’ve just reached a world population of 7 billion people, and it’s still growing. Moving forward, then, there’s an ever-growing need to house and accommodate all these people, so the long-term trend in construction is bullish. It has to be. Moreover, because so many buildings in the built stock are poorly constructed, there is an ongoing need for renovation and adoption.
At Front, we don’t think of our work as being that heavily toward adaptive reuse, but we did an audit recently, and people are asking for that specifically. About 25 percent of our entire body of work is re-cladding or adaptive reuse of some type. It’s a very strong American trend.
The world markets for us are mostly North America, Asia, and Europe. Certain markets, such as Dubai, are a little speculative, whereas other markets have a more solid base line due to their macro population. In the U.S., even in a bad economy, the inherent need to build to support infrastructure renewal continues, and that includes airport and railroad projects, which mean a lot of ongoing work. The housing market is coming back, and is pretty solid in New York. On the other hand, most of the speculative work in the U.S. is on a slow burn, although the institutional work is pretty strong for us. In Europe, everything is still pretty slow, of course. We have significant projects ongoing in the Middle East, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, and Abu Dhabi. And we’re optimistic for 2012, moving forward.
Inform: Is there a strong market for sustainable design?
Simmons: I’ve always had the simple view of sustainability: It’s a good thing to do and the right thing to do, morally, to use less and build more intelligently. But unless you have an enlightened client, it doesn’t happen. So, therefore, it needs to be legislated. I think legislation is the root. Naturally, when it’s legislated, people will complain. But it’s a change people will adapt to and develop new languages for as we invent higher-performing envelope systems. It’s a nonstop trend that will be required throughout most of the world.
We see China, Hong Kong, and other Asian countries developing more aggressive legislation. Europe and Scandinavia have always been there, ratcheting it up. Here in the States the private sector has a peer-pressure approach, although there are many institutional clients that demand a certain minimum benchmark. The codes are still lax. For instance, the New York State Energy Code requirements are pretty easy to achieve. And many buildings, because they are being self-certified by architects, actually are not compliant because the calculations are not being done properly or certain realities of construction are not taken into account. Because there’s nobody to check whether the designs are energy-code compliant, they’re not.
Unless architects are better educated about how this all works and draw a line in the sand in the face of pressures from some clients—usually private-sector client—things won’t improve that much. But there is top-down pressure. Here in the city, under the Bloomberg Administration, as just one instance, there will continue to be recognition of the importance of environmental sensitivity. We, for one, are taking advantage of that as we develop lower-cost modular wall systems that incorporate insulation and rainscreen elements. We’ve already used that in a housing project in the Bronx and are finding that, through innovation, we have been able to increase the envelope performance affordably within this competitive market.