Stevie Rotella

Rico Quirindongo, AIA, has dedicated his career to creating social change. After 17 years of working with Donald King, FAIA, at DKA Architecture in Seattle, the firm closed because of the Great Recession, and Quirindongo found himself starting over again at DLR Group. Six years later, he’s re-earned the title of principal and leads the firm in growing its civic presence. At the same time, he’s embraced the idea of sustainable design as it pertains to reuse and renovation: taking what already exists and making it better.

I grew up in an affluent white neighborhood in Washington. My parents moved from Seattle to the suburbs to provide us with a college-track education that they otherwise could not afford. That meant I did not grow up, culturally, within a community of people like me. As a young adult, I did not see myself, nor the culture of my family or community, reflected in the built environment around me.

At our small black-owned firm [DKA Architecture], a lot of our clients were not-for-profits providing social services. As such, we often worked on existing, underutilized buildings in neighborhoods of need. This contributed to an increased focus on adaptive reuse and preservation as vehicles for sustainable design; we were trying to help those groups take their existing building stock and make the most out of it.

Of course, it’s about more than that. Considering the embodied energy from existing buildings, and the amount of energy and waste that goes into demolition and construction, saving and restoring buildings is the most sustainable thing we can do. Getting to the level of efficiency that we’re aiming for is going to come from smart renovations, not just ground-up projects.

We also must consider the idea of placemaking. Taking an existing building and reinterpreting it means breathing new life into what was forgotten while maintaining the fabric of communal history. It brings hope; it allows residents to say, “This transformation is happening for this building. It is restored, and it is beautiful. This is an example of what my life, my community, can be.” It stands in the face of gentrification and displacement.

We can maintain the elements of cultural value in existing buildings, elevate them, and then provide new programming for a new occupant. Preservation for the sake of preservation is not the point. What matters is that communities evolve over time, and buildings must evolve along with them and reflect the surrounding spaces. Our lives and our communities are made richer by capturing and celebrating the history of where we live and work and play; that is what creates sustainable place.—As told to Steve Cimino