How to translate sustainability goals for cities into action?

An interview of J. Robert Hillier by Gernot Riether

J. Robert Hillier (Bob) is one of the leading and most highly respected architects in the United States. He is perhaps best known for having built one of the largest and most successful architecture firms in the world. Mr. Hillier is distinguished for his design, for his business acumen, and for his contributions to the field of architecture as a practitioner and educator.

Bob has been on the core faculty of Princeton University’s School of Architecture since 1992 where he teaches two graduate seminars. He has served on the AIA National Fellowship Jury and as Chair of the Selection Committee for the Dean of Princeton’s School of Architecture.

He is the recipient of over 350 individual honors and awards including an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from New Jersey Institute of Technology and an Honorary MBA from Bryant University. Other honors include the Legacy Award from the Urban Land Institute, the AIA’s Michael Graves Lifetime Achievement Award, and The President’s Medal from New Jersey Institute of Technology. He is also a Trustee Emeritus at McCarther Theater. He has given over 200 lectures and participated in dozens of design juries. He and the firm have been widely published in national and international journals, newspapers, and magazines.

In May of 2019, the New Jersey Institute of Technology renamed its College of Architecture the J. Robert and Barbara A. Hillier College of Architecture and Design.

GR: To be that successful in Architecture you say that you need to be a good designer and be able to sell it. How do you design? As your projects are all so different it is difficult for me to pin you down as an architect.

JRH: There are three characters in a project: There is the client, the architect and the site. It is very important that you look very carefully at the site. And to understand the client, you need to be a really good listener. Each client is different, and each site is different and that makes up the language. Therefore, there is no Hillier style.

GR: When you were at Princeton Jean Labatut taught there. I think you were his student and even worked for him?

JRH: Yes, I just finished my thesis and he got this commission to build an all-girls catholic school for the Sacred Heart Order. I worked for him for two years. It was a great learning experience.

GR: You mentioned that site is very important to you. I know that the color of the concrete walls of that school is different because of the local gravel that was used as an aggregate. Did working with Jean Labatut shape you as an architect?

JRH: Oh yes! And there were a lot of these site-specific details. The school was all done with rough saw lumber as formwork. We left a 3/8” crack between every board so when the concrete was poured it leaked out through that crack until the gravel stopped it and so when you took the form off you had this wonderful unique texture of the boards separated by this little 3/8” flash.

GR: During your time at Princeton Buckminster Fuller, Louis Kahn and other big-name architects visited the school. What lectures do you still remember from that time?

JRH: When Jean Labatut went on sabbatical, they brought in Buckminster Fuller. He came for one term and we did a project about energy flows around the world and we build a geodesic globe of the world that was published in the New York Times with a picture of me and Jean Labatut and another student.

GR: Thinking about what challenges we currently face in the world, especially regarding energy, what energy flow diagrams would you publish in the New York times today?

JRH: I would site the statistics that buildings are creating 49% of CO2, are using 79% of electricity and that we spend 90% of our time in buildings. These are statistics that we don’t appreciate. If you manage things from a sustainable standpoint you need to attack those numbers, figure out how we can create the 79% of electricity with wind and solar and use of batteries and figure out how to deal with the 49% of the carbon being created by buildings. You can go to geothermal, solar and wind and you go to better insulation.

Just last week they apt the energy code in the US from a 47% to 60% R-Factor on everything. Now you can get glass that helps insulate. They require that the extra insulation has to go outside which will lead to some interesting rain screen designs. That’s a great step forward and we just need more of those steps. We also need to look at the water supply which soon will become as valuable as oil and we need to look into water management. So, we are doing cisterns in our buildings and take the rainwater to flush the toilet. Why spend all the portable water flushing the toilet? There is also the possibility to use shower water, but it needs to be filtered and treated more carefully than rainwater. Rainwater you can just run through a UV and you are good.

GR: As an architect or developer is the client asking for that or is it you educating the client and pushing for that?

JRH: It is both. We have more and more requests for proposals where clients are mentioning sustainability. They want to know what you have done in sustainable buildings. And we have done a lot. We did the first solar municipal building in New Jersey. And they also want to know how many LEED certified architects you have on staff.

GR: As an architecture firm you operate within a system of building codes, etc. Rather than wait for the building code to become more sustainable what do you do to push sustainability further?

JRH: You have to design it that it is not more expensive. That is where the creativity comes in. You cannot just through money at sustainability. It may cost 2% more to get a platin LEED building but to get a silver LEED building it’s just a matter of being really careful how you construct it and again the site becomes very important because in the LEED scoring system a lot of the points have to do with the site.

GR: We talked about the building scale – what about the urban scale?

JRH: We need to think about how to make cities more walkable and attractive to live in. This is happening now because a lot of younger people moved to cities but to keep them there you have to improve the education system and you have to clean up the crime. My daughter grew up watching all the right TV shows where living in the city was the way to be: Friends, Seinfeld, Sex in the City. So when she got married she got a condo and became president of the condo association and one day a homicide detective wanted to see the security camera on the top of her building because of a murder down the street and then two weeks later a gun fight broke out on that street and at some point it was enough and they moved outside of Philadelphia. And if you have a bad reputation as a city no company wants to put their headquarter there and yet Philadelphia is a wonderful walkable city.

GR: But that is mostly a political issue then. Beside politics what can you do as an architect?

JRH: In New York there is a little deli on every corner, which is wonderful. We don’t have that in Trenton, Camden or even Newark. If you would have those kinds of neighborhood stores people would just walk rather than drive. The reason those stores are expensive and don’t make any money is because it’s all small orders. The question is how to make them profitable. You could have Amazon set up little stores that would get restocked on a daily basis. And that little store could do very well. This would be economic, efficient and it would be right there in the neighborhood.

GR: How would you go about realizing something like that – call up Amazon?

JRH: Yes, you need a larger company like Amazon as a partner to do that kind of thing – they might do it to create convenience and we would get people out of their car and walk and its affordable and profitable.

GR: You talked about sustainability and safety in cities. Another issue is affordability, especially housing. How can we provide more affordable housing?

JRH: You do really smart prefabrication. Part of the development requirement of one of my client’s project is to provide 20% of affordable units. I put him in touch with a prefabricator. His site is in New Jersey where the minimum cost per square feet is $250 and if there is any government money involved you have to go union and prevailing wage and that raises the price by 40% which gets you up to $350 per square feet. A pre-fabricator can deliver a house for $110 per square feet which is less than one third of what it would cost to build it on site.

GR: Anther way to make housing more affordable is to make the unit smaller. What do you think of Micro Housing?

JRH: It’s great in an urban environment. It’s for the missing middle. Right now, we are building 70 micro units in downtown Princeton so someone that earns 50k can live in Princeton.

GR: Micro units are very small. What kind of space do you provide to socialize? Where do you have the party?

JRH: Where we are building it in Princeton the library is 3 minutes away, the YMCA is 5 minutes away, the university campus with museums and theaters is 6 minutes away and so the micro unite becomes a place to sleep or to maybe prepare a meal. If you watch Seinfeld or Friends, there are always two scenes: one is in the apartment and the other is on the sidewalk. There is no architecture, the environment feels friendly because there is a lot going on and that is what cities should be. It’s an energy that you don’t find in the suburban town.

GR: There are urban spaces that look similar, have the same kind of program activate them but one is more successful than the other. Is there a trick in the detail that makes an urban space more successful?

JRH: It’s the scale and the program but then it’s also the type of stores for example. I think they should not always be corporate. If mom and pop own and run the store, they know the customers and they care about them. There is a place called Small World Coffee in Princeton that is owned by a woman, it’s just as expensive and good as Starbucks but it’s packed all the time. Starbucks is around the corner from it and is not as busy because the people at Small World know the customers and care about them and Starbucks is just about numbers.

GR: Similar to the store we have the same client / corporate relationship in housing where the landlord is a hedge fund or some anonymous entity. Is there a better more personal / collective / community alternative for housing?

JRH: You do have that with the coops in New York where you get interviewed. I had two experiences where a group of couples that wanted to create their own community where they would all knew each other’s neighbors and friends and at the third meeting it was about the exterior of the building and one said I definitely want brick and the other said I don’t like brick. At the same time, they wanted it to be consistent, but they couldn’t agree on anything and it was difficult and didn’t go anywhere. In a city you have large projects that require large companies but if people like where they are living and renting, they stay. We have one building, an old school that was converted into 34 apartments and people are just staying there because they like it and they like their neighbors.

GR: How does the way we are now working online, or hybrid require a rethinking of existing typologies of apartments and offices. Do we need new typologies?

JRH: We are doing apartments where you have his and her office in there because both are on Zoom. But I am not sure about remote working. Architecture interns are learning by overhearing conversations with contractors and clients. You know the song in Hamilton where it says to be “in the room where it happens.” That’s what they are missing. Architecture is a team sport.

GR: In the first year of COVID you transformed your office into a “Free Store” for the community. What was that about?

JRH: It all started with our CFO who was reading about the need of masks and face shields at the beginning of COVID and in the first 6 month of the pandemic we used our 3d printers in the office to produce 2,500 face shields for hospitals. And then we found out that there were food supplies like restaurants but no place to distribute. So, we made the office into an outlet to supply food for the neighborhood.

GR: And what is the Princeton Business Partnership?

JRH: Princeton currently has 17 empty retail stores because the rent is too high and there are not enough people coming through. So, we are finding ways to promote Princeton as a place to come and shop, enjoy and have fun. We are currently branding it as “Experience Princeton” and then we are arguing of what the tag line should be – mine would be “It’s culture, it’s people, it’s fun” but talking to you maybe we should say “Experience Princeton, the best little city in the world.”

GR: How do you help stores to fill these vacant spaces?

JRH: A lot has to do with the approval process. We represent merchants who want to locate in Princeton, and we go to the townhall with them and expedite their approvals. People spent $30,000 for getting approval to put dining on the sidewalk and they get turn down and are told that they can’t do that because they don’t have enough parking. We are trying to make a walkable city and miss out because a dance school, for example that can’t provide 20 parking spaces. The Princeton Business Partnership (PBP) therefore advocates for such businesses.

GR: We talked about making our cities more sustainable, safe and livable. How can we and the Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization (CSU) and the United Nations help to promote this?

JRH: You need to have an agenda of things that need to be done. I talked about the energy code for example. You need the politician to put it in place and enforce these rules. The problem is the cost of it. Going from 47% to 60% in R-Value costs a lot. CSU has to become an advocate and deal with the governments to make those changes. The State of Jersey finally allows timber structures to go more than three to four stories and heavy timber structures are now being built all over the West coast. That’s the kind of thing we need to focus on – to change building codes.

GR: What do you see as the mission of the Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization (CSU) to promote the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

JRH: The mission of CSU should focus on HOW to get to these goals. CSU should focus on the technical language that need to be made into law. The UN Climate Conference in Egypt last week was alarming. Everyone is talking about goals, but no one is asking how we get there.

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