Interview: Peter Busby
INTERVIEWER Elsa Lam
Peter Busby was born in 1952, and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Toronto in 1974. He completed a Bachelor of Architecture from the University of British Columbia in 1977 and established his own practice in 1984, teaming with Paul Bridger to form Busby Bridger Architects in 1986. Busby + Associates Architects followed in 1994, and in 2004, his firm merged with the US firm Perkins+Will to form Busby Perkins+Will. He was appointed Managing Director of Perkins+Will’s San Francisco office in 2012.
Canadian Architect recently caught up with Peter Busby in a two-part telephone interview. We reached Busby at his office in San Francisco and in Honolulu, Hawaii, where Perkins+Will is designing eight rail transit stations.
You started out studying philosophy at university. What interested you in architecture and the built environment, and who were some of your earliest mentors?
I studied political science with a major in philosophy at the University of Toronto. What I got out of that was a strong moral and ethical conviction that’s stuck with me over the years. To be quite honest, I was a hippie. As a group, we wanted to fix the world, we wanted to do the right thing.
How I got interested in architecture? I was working construction on some renovations of older buildings in downtown Toronto. I also took an architectural history course from Professor Douglas Richardson at U of T, and he just opened my eyes to architecture. I thought: maybe architecture is right for me in that I can take my ethical position and actually have an impact on the world, actually build things, spaces, places–places to work and so on–that are more just, that are more environmental.
In the spring of my final year, I applied to all of the schools of architecture in Canada. I chose to go to the University of British Columbia because I wanted to live on the West Coast–and it also had the shortest course.
At UBC, Ray Cole became a friend and a collaborator–he just connected the dots with this environmental approach, this ability to do the right thing. He’s a powerful lecturer. Every class was just a rocket ship. Started with a deep breath, and he’d wind up and he’d go for one hour and ten minutes like a freight train. He came to UBC as a 22-year-old PhD with a long ponytail. He got me started on the road to environmental responsibility.
Tell me about your career path after graduating.
I graduated in ‘77 and went to work for Rhone & Iredale, which at that time was quite a firm. Rand Iredale and Bill Rhone ran an interdisciplinary practice. A guy named Art Cowie was a landscape architect and planner. Peter Cardew was lead designer in the firm. Both Bobby Hull and David Miller (who later founded Miller Hull in Seattle) worked there. It was a vibrant place. We had 70 employees. It was far and away the biggest office in the city, with this interdisciplinary approach.
In 1979, a recession was biting pretty hard and there was no work, so I got on a plane and I went to England. I was very interested in the high-tech movement in the UK, and decided I was going to work with one of the big high-tech guys: Nick Grimshaw, James Stirling, Norman Foster or Richard Rogers. I spent three weeks in London and in the country looking at their work, and I decided Norman Foster was the best one.
I went to his office and applied for a job and, of course, they wouldn’t see me. Everyone was applying for a job. At that time, the office was 26 people. Today, it’s about 2,600 people. I camped in the reception. I went there at 8:00 every morning and I left at 5:00–for a whole week. At 4:30 on the Friday, Norman said, “Okay, I’ll see you.” By 5:00 I had a job.
I turned around and went back to Canada, my wife quit her job, we sold two cars, rented a house and we were in London two weeks later. I worked for him for two years in London and a year in Hong Kong. I worked on his own house, and then I worked on the Hong Kong Bank competition. We won the competition, and I worked on the early stages of the project, had principal design responsibility for the Banking Hall.
My wife and I decided we wanted to have a family and London and Hong Kong aren’t that kid-friendly, so we decided to go back to Vancouver and set up a home. Again, it was another recession, so I worked for the government–a public Crown corporation called BC Place. We worked on a plan for what’s now Concord lands. We were the client–we worked with Arthur Erickson and Fisher-Friedman out of San Francisco as the architects. Then Expo ‘86 was coming along and I figured it was time to start my own practice.
In November of 1984, I opened the doors to a one-man shop. I spent five months building the shopfront, as I wanted it to represent my own talent. It was on Granville Street, which at that point was a derelict place where you picked up hookers. I decided that I wanted to have this kind of social intervention aspect to my practice, so I deliberately opened in a place where there was a lot of poverty. I formed the Granville Street Merchants’ Association and lobbied for changes at City Hall–eventually it got rezoning and became the Entertainment District for Vancouver, which it still is.
What was the atmosphere of practice like when you were starting out at that time?
Well, in those days, it was all PoMo–Postmodernism. Everybody wanted us to put hats on the buildings. It was soul-destroying because what I was doing was an environmental approach, and the British high-tech influence that came from Foster was really out of favour in North America. It was a struggle to establish the practice. It grew slowly. I got a partner, Paul Bridger, in 1986. We practiced together for the best part of eight years. We got to about 10 people by 1992. Then he moved on, and I built a practice up to about 45 people by 2004, which is when I merged my practice with Perkins+Will.
I want to stay in the ‘80s and ‘90s a little longer. Many of the environmental strategies you were advocating for were about reducing, reusing and recycling building materials. I’m wondering if you could speak about the reception to these strategies.
As a young architect with a small practice, you don’t get clean buildings to work on. You start with whatever you get. One of my first clients was the Granville Island Brewing Co., which was a renovation and an insertion of a brewery and bottling plant in a bunch of ramshackle industrial buildings. That building is still there today, much as I designed it. But there’s not much capital A architecture in there. It was more piecing together and making functional space by recycling industrial buildings.
The North Vancouver Municipal Hall was a renovation and an addition to a very tired 1950s building, and it was really the first strong environmental approach to a building. There are shading devices on the windows. The windows are operable. There is natural ventilation. The extension was built around a beautiful beech tree, which we preserved. From every place in that building, you can see the outside and nature. I didn’t know it then, because we weren’t doing this kind of analysis, but because of the shallow floor plan for cross-ventilation, it’s actually 100% daylit.
The North Vancouver Municipal Hall starts to use customized building components, like canopies to control daylight and bespoke mullion caps. What was the role of Designlines, the industrial design practice that you founded in 1987 and that continued until 2010?
When I came back from Europe, there was no such thing as point-fixed glass or castings for this, or extrusions for this, that and the other thing–it was British Columbia and it was 30 years ago. So I got into industrial design to give my architecture the kind of detailing that I’d been used to working with in Europe.
I set up a company called Designlines to do industrial design and manufacturing. At one point, I had seven industrial designers working for me under Designlines. We started to get outside contracts–we even designed a set of telephones for Nortel. We designed furniture, and a lot of things for our projects: lighting, handrail castings, point-fixing castings, extrusions, break forms, laser cuts.
Designlines got quite busy and was quite successful, but I couldn’t give it the kind of energy that it needed, so I phased it out. We had created another company called Components, which was an actual manufacturer. Components continued to do well, and we started concentrating on just industrial design that related to architecture. The experience with Components was up and down. But eventually I sold that business.
Speaking of allied design, you’ve had a longstanding working relationship with Paul Fast.
Paul Fast set up his practice just months before I did in 1984. It was called Fast + Epp Structural Engineers, located just a few doors away. We became good friends and his practice built up at the same time as mine.
We think the same way–there is just a really good chemistry there. We went through a lot of different things using wood, for example. The first project we used wood for was in 1986, a lab for MacMillan Bloedel, where we used parallam to make the stair structure. In 1994 we used composite parallam and steel trusses for an atrium over the District of North Vancouver City Hall, which is absolutely the first of its kind in Canada. We’ve always been interested in hybrid structures, modular approaches, prefabrication.
Just like I set up Designlines and Components, Fast + Epp set up StructureCraft to build the things that we were inventing. That’s been a successful business for them, and it continues to this day.
It’s very similar to a relationship I’ve had with Kevin Hydes and Blair McCarry, both from Keen Engineering (now merged with Stantec). We were on the same wavelength in terms of realizing that the smaller mechanical got, the more you could use architecture to solve sustainability issues. They fed off our ideas and we fed off their ideas. Between the three of us we made all the early watershed green buildings in Canada–and often Paul Fast was the engineer.
In many of your early projects, it sounds like it could be a challenge to convince clients of basic sustainability principles–like using natural ventilation, or that having a temperature range was okay.
Starting out in BC, we said, “Well, we don’t need air conditioning. Let’s not have it. What can we do to make these buildings stay cool?” Shade them properly, have natural ventilation, windows that operate. We were on this operable windows kick for 15 years, trying to convince a lot of clients they actually needed windows that opened. It sounds ridiculous today, but that was an uphill battle for 10 or 15 years. Still occasionally we hear, “Aw, no, we don’t need those. We’ll just put fans and ventilation in.”
Coming out of the ‘70s, the thermostat on a wall was God and it had to read 21 degrees day and night. The breakthrough building was York University Computer Science, where we had an agreement with the client as to the temperature ranges that were permissible for the type of space. So, work spaces, where people were sitting and working eight hours a day, had a tighter range. There’s a great big lobby there with a thousand students pouring in and out. We said, in the wintertime these students are wearing coats, and in the summertime they’re wearing T-shirts. They can handle a much wider range. So we embedded gradients of allowance in the design principles for the project. This saved enormous amounts of energy.
Until LEED came along, the whole angle on sustainability was energy savings, and therefore performance mattered. It was the only argument you had: “We can save you money.” Of course, after LEED the conversation got richer and we started looking at other issues–water, materials, material health, recycling, salvaged materials.
Tell me about your decision to merge Busby + Associates Architects with Perkins+Will, and what kind of opportunities opened up as a result.
Perkins+Will had decided in 2003 that environmentalism was a future need in their practice. USGBC had been around for 10 years at that point, but the traction wasn’t what it is today. In the US, I was known through work in Seattle, and through publications and lectures.
When Perkins+Will came looking for me, I told them it had to work from the top as well as from the bottom. I said, “I’ll join your firm when all your principals and associate principals become LEED-accredited professionals. I mean everyone. I mean the CEO and everybody.” It took them about 12 months, and about six months after that we tied the knot.
The reason I did it was for opportunity. At that point, I was pretty well-known, but the market in Vancouver for environmental approaches to buildings wasn’t that deep. I saw Perkins+Will as a vehicle for spreading my knowledge and my ability to work nationally, for infecting others with my ideas. Inside a year, we’d developed an approach to education internally within Perkins+Will, and an approach to demonstration projects. I led off an internal education program and we got over 1,000 employees LEED-accredited. So, I had a profound impact on their practice.
At the same time, they made a longer ladder for me and my office in Vancouver. They were able to work on more interesting projects in a wider geographic base than you would find just from Vancouver. That practice, as a result, grew from about 45 people when I joined Perkins+Will, to being about 90 people when I went down to San Francisco two years ago.
What opportunities became available with the move to San Francisco?
The Bay Area is the most exciting marketplace in the US. Think about head offices that are within 50 miles of where I sit right now: Apple, Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Genentech–it just goes on and on and on.
Think about the kids that work for those rms. What’s their number-one priority in life? Environmentalism. All these companies are being driven to reposition their businesses, reposition their facilities, to have a strong environmental mindset, and they’re listening to what we have to say. Those opportunities don’t exist in Vancouver, but they do exist in the Bay Area.
With these larger projects and new opportunities, how are you bringing your practice beyond LEED?
I always felt that LEED fell short in terms of environmental performance as measured. The point-checking system is great, and certainly LEED has had a profound impact on our industry, and I’m very supportive of it. But I’m always interested in the cutting edge, so for me it was about investigating further ways to develop sophisticated approaches to energy performance.
I’ve worked in collaboration with Keen Engineering, and gradually, we started to get to the position where we could really get close to net zero. The CIRS Building is 85% below ASHRAE 90.1. At that point, you can put renewables on the roof, capture some waste steam from adjacent buildings and you’ve gotten to net zero. I never realized there was a whole conversation going on out there about trying to reach net zero. I realized that we had the skills to do that and that it was achievable. Then the Living Building Challenge was published by Jason McLennan and it had this further relationship with nature in it that I found intriguing. I went back to Ray Cole and we developed this approach to regenerative design.
To me, that’s the most interesting and profound part of what I’m doing at the moment. It goes all the way back to an ethical and moral position, working with nature, getting us to think and act responsibly. Our biosphere is fragile: the carbon count is going up, the environmental conditions have not been solved. We have to do more radical solutions, we have to do more inventive solutions, we have to be more committed than ever to make sure that the building sector and the community design sector carries its weight in terms of carbon reductions.
How do you manage being involved in so many projects globally at this time?
I don’t really author very much. I’m a design critic. Depending on the phase of a project, I’ll be meeting daily or weekly or monthly with the design team, they’ll put their ideas up on the wall and we’ll kick them around. I’m good at selecting ideas that I think are going to be progressive, and encouraging new ideas. Of course, I bring a wealth of experience in terms of sustainable design, so the charrettes that we have at the beginning of projects are ways for me to move the project into the sustainable design theatre that I think it should be in.
I rarely sketch. I don’t have a pile of sketchbooks. It’s more of a studio. It’s a conference. It’s a pinup. It’s a crit. That’s the way I control and develop the projects I’m responsible for. I didn’t invent this. When I worked at Foster’s, I saw it there. Certainly Richard Rogers works the same way, Renzo Piano works the same way, Raymond Moriyama worked the same way. These are all people that I’ve watched design.
What are your next plans for the San Francisco office?
We’re about to move into new office premises here that’ll be net-zero energy–we also leased the roof and we’re putting photovoltaics all over it. I’m having fun. I’ll stay there until I feel the studio is restructured and they’re able to stand on their own feet. Much like leaving Vancouver, which is a practice that can survive on its own now without me.
It’s a time of growth and change in my own career. I’m not retiring soon–and I don’t want any more lifetime achievement awards because I’m not done yet. CA