Since founding his Vancouver, Canada, firm in 1984 (and prior to that, with the office of Norman Foster, Hon. FAIA), Peter Busby, Intl. Assoc. AIA, has been a pioneer of sustainable architecture, demonstrating new ways to use natural resources and energy more efficiently even as his work ultimately focuses on human need and experience. In 2004, Busby merged his firm with Perkins+Will and in 2012, moved to San Francisco to head the firm’s office there.

In his new book, Architecture’s New Edges (Ecotone Publishing, 2015), Busby distills the lessons from his career into an inspirational message about sustainable design, using a host of case studies, from the District of North Vancouver Municipal Hall (1995) to Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre in Whistler, Canada (2006).

Peter Busby
Perkins+Will Peter Busby

Yet focusing on Busby’s portfolio is missing perhaps his greatest strength as an architect: his conscience. “Our work should combine aesthetic, emotional, cultural, social, and environmental missions,” he writes. “Rather than churning out drawings for office spaces that warehouse workers in chicken coop-style cubicle rows, why not challenge ourselves to create physical spaces that motivate people to do and be better?”

Brian Libby

Busby recently talked with ARCHITECT about his book and his approach to the profession.

ARCHITECT: This book acts as a kind of master class in how to engage in a meaningful career as an architect: full of passion, embracing the latest technologies and materials, with human physiology squarely in mind while harnessing local climates. Was that your intent?
Peter Busby: I think you’ve identified a key purpose for why I put the book together. Architecture has changed so dramatically over the last 30 years in every conceivable way: what we think of as design, our role in society, the tools and technologies we use to design areas of urban life. And there’s a generational change going on. Folks like me are retiring and a lot of young architects are coming into the industry. I wanted them to understand that the wide variety of things they’re facing today is not the way it always was, in that it’s much more challenging, exciting, and meaningful. There’s much more innovation involved and, in terms of outlets for their creativity, and it can span all kinds of different areas. Thirty years ago architecture was basically extruded buildings and you picked the color of the glass or the finishes in the lobby.

Today, as the book indicates, we cover so many different things. We’re designing whole systems for communities and buildings where energy and water and waste flow between buildings. We’re designing to incorporate nature in everything we do and to be part of nature in the way we design. We’re designing for the health of people.

Brian Libby

Many worry the profession is fragmenting and that architects have ceded some of their responsibility to other building team members. Not so for you?
Certainly for the majority of my career, most of the older architects in the business have worried about people encroaching upon our turf. Fear has pervaded the architectural world over the last 30, 35 years—that we’re not the masters of the built world anymore, that everybody’s taking our space.

Has that always been the case, or did something change?
I think it goes back to the postmodern movement when architects abdicated their responsibility for doing anything except for the skin and look of the building. They forgot about systems design. They didn’t care much about whether the windows opened or not, or the comfort of the people inside. The Portland Building [by Michael Graves] is a classic example: crummy little windows and great big floor area inside that building. It’s the nadir of architecture. Of course it spawned tens of thousands of types of copycats. But that’s when architects ceded ground to others who could build more efficiently, or build more cheaply. At that point we were reducing ourselves to being architects of the 6 inches of the perimeter of the building.

Contrast that with the rich variety of ideas in my book, which is the way we practice today: What a wonderful opposite. I’m trying to convey this excitement of opportunity to a next generation of designers that we can contribute to the solutions for climate change, health, and the social betterment of our society through how, what, and where we design. It’s an exciting realization.

Brian Libby

Maybe architects have ceded some responsibilities, but haven’t they also gained access to teams of specialized experts and collaborators?
We’re not the masters anymore. We don’t sit in a loft and make sketches to hand off to the engineers to make sure the plumbing works. We collaborate. When the landscape is your plumbing system, you know something has changed. We share information and we broaden what the solutions can be. The largest section in the book is about innovation, which is the key.

Is that more true today than it used to be?
Going back to my early days as an architect, innovations were frowned upon because they brought risk. You might be sued, or the building might leak. Or it was just, "We’ve never done that before." Today we innovate continuously in how and what we design.

You also write in the book about how innovation is encouraged at Perkins + Will. Employees can pursue their own ideas, and some are underwritten by the firm, almost like a grant system.
It’s called the Innovation Incubator. It’s grounded on the idea that good design needs constant innovation and refreshing new ideas being brought to the surface. Twice a year we have an internal competition and mostly younger folks are putting in ideas that they would like to explore. They get a check for expenses and a certain number of hours to explore a particular idea if they’re selected. This is actually a badge of honor. I was talking to one fellow who had won two Innovation Incubator grants in three years, and clearly he’s a young star.

What are some examples of Innovation Incubator projects?
Geeti Silwal, a senior project manager in our San Francisco office, conducted research on the Resource Infinity Loop​, an example of eco-shed planning, which reclaims wastewater through natural processes and reuses it for urban farming.

Jason Wilkinson, [AIA,] a project manager also in San Francisco, engaged potential community partners in a workshop to brainstorm a collaboration project around the design of a prototype aquaponics system, combining aquaculture (fish production) and hydroponics (farming without soil), to promote urban food production, local resiliency, and green-collar jobs.

Jason and Geeti have recently combined their interests into a project located in San Francisco's Bayview neighborhood, The People's Harvest farm. It will be a commercial-scale operation that will grow leafy greens, fruits, and vegetables in an organically certified aquaponic system. More than just a farm, this social enterprise will also train, employ, and advance community residents with barriers to work in one the nation's first commercially-viable aquaponic farms in a major urban area.