Sam Bell is a project architect with a passion for sustainability who recently joined the living studio from the healthcare studio. Jennifer Sodo sat down with Sam to learn more about his unique perspective on architecture – from his formative experiences traveling in Wisconsin to his hopes for a sustainable future. (Interview edited for brevity.)
Jennifer: Can you tell me about your journey to become an architect in our living environments studio?
Sam: My first job out of college was for a small firm doing multifamily projects, specifically affordable housing. That was a world I was totally unfamiliar with, but the importance of that work to the community really resonated with me. I’m from a rural, small town, and my perspective on sustainability was what I saw around me – grassy, green fields. But working on multifamily projects, I came to understand that density and creating communities was just as important to creating a healthy environment.
When I came to EUA, I started in the healthcare studio to expand my knowledge base. After a couple years, I switched to the living studio when a need arose, and it was interesting to see how these two markets have such different understandings of sustainability. Healthcare providers are very interested in high performance buildings because they see the whole picture of occupant wellness, long lasting buildings, and resilient systems. In living markets, I wouldn’t say there’s a pessimism about sustainability, but there’s an uncertainty about how to apply and see returns on sustainable practices in the market.
Jennifer: Growing up, did you have any “lightbulb” moments that shaped your outlook on the built environment? What did you take away from those experiences?
Sam: My family vacationed a lot in Wisconsin when I was a kid and going to Spring Green to see the House on the Rock really stuck with me – it’s part museum, part art gallery, and part carnival show. The house is literally built on a rock ledge, hence the name, and it has this massive cantilever that hangs out over the forest. When you’re inside that space, it feels like an infinity room: this long, narrow room continues out to a point where you can stand to look at the trees below and feel the structure swaying. It’s a room that scared me as a kid, but as I grew older, I thought – wow, we’re floating over the forest right now, in this building. It’s an exhilarating blending of indoors and outdoors and gives you a hyper awareness of the world around you.
To me, it really highlighted how buildings can change your perspective on your surroundings. Many of us live in single family homes one or two stories tall and that’s our expected “living” experience. But when you enter a building that lifts you into and over treetops, it’s a unique feeling that doesn’t leave me.
Jennifer: With your passion for sustainability, is there one aspect of a building’s design or construction you’re particularly passionate about improving?
Sam: So much of modern building design seems to center “creating” views with nice big windows, continuous from floor to ceiling. However, with work from home becoming more prevalent, I think people are noticing how those large windows in multifamily buildings can cause glare issues and put a larger demand on our HVAC systems. I think it’s a fun challenge to figure out how to balance those experiential desires of having big windows with the reality and function of our spaces.
Additionally, I think reusing the built environment and infrastructure we already have is critical – reducing greenfield development and focusing on improving the physical capital we have in built-up areas.
Jennifer: What advice do you have for me and other designers to help us create sustainable environments?
Sam: For me, I say practice what you preach. If we’re telling our clients to follow sustainable design principles, we should be doing the same at home and in our personal lives. It can be anything; something as big as installing solar arrays on your roof or as small as having a couple vegetable pots on your balcony, biking to work, or changing your lightbulbs to LEDs… it all adds up, and I find that the sustainable philosophy really spills over from my personal to professional life.
This interview with Sam is part of a new series this year that highlights the unique experiences and perspectives of our living studio team members. Check out previous interviews on creating a sense of home and empathy in design. Stay tuned for the next installment!