On the Ground with CRTKL: US Leaders Tackle an Evolving World

Clare Sausen May 19, 2020

‘On the Ground with CRTKL’ is a three-part series capturing perspectives from across CallisonRTKL’s global offices and exploring how we are responding to COVID-19 locally, tactically and personally. In this edition, US leaders share the surprising solutions they have found in the face of an ever-evolving world. Read part 1 here

Matt Billerbeck: Human-Centric Design Initiative Leader; Seattle, WA

Jeff Gunning: Shopping and Entertainment Districts (SEDs) Practice Leader; Dallas, TX

Jim Henry: Healthcare Practice Leader, Wellbeing Initiative Leader; Dallas, TX

Jodi Williams: Workplace Strategy Leader; Washington, DC

What are some of the unexpected byproducts your team has developed in response to COVID-19? How have you optimized resources—both across sectors and cultures—to respond to the crisis?

MB: One great thing about being a global firm is having such a broad network of connections. For example, when Asia was at the peak of the disease curve, the offices there relied upon our North American healthcare team for equipment, guidance and general support. Now that our Asian offices have begun to return to work, we’re relying on them for operations support and their outlook post-lockdown. We can use each other to brainstorm and test solutions from halfway across the world. We have that synergy already in place to have a robust conversation on how to support one another’s work.

JH: One major byproduct has been how we organize ourselves. We have been coalescing our approach to ensure efficiency — time is certainly of the essence in this crisis. We’ve optimized our design processes and the deliverables we can provide and are constantly considering what we can do to provide the greatest meaning and value to the world right now.  To that end, we focused our efforts early on creating design solutions to help our clients pivot in the face of the pandemic. We examined a handful of solutions, including single rooms and open bay conversions.  Working closely with our client, Patriot Construction and Industrial alongside the US Army Corps of Engineers, the DC Healthcare team transformed the modular PODS storage units into isolation patient chambers for COVID care– allowing negative pressure isolation in an open bay configuration; in a way optimizing lessons learned from both scenarios.

Since this is a crisis of health, we’re looking at a holistic, health-based approach to design in every sector. We are predicting a future in which people are more focused on how all their choices affect their health: whether it be in terms of travel, entertainment or social connection. Elements common to us in healthcare like sanitization, administrative versus engineering controls and isolation have now become integral to the design of many sectors. It’s grown into more of a continuing dialogue about how we can make all of our spaces healthier as opposed to something that is only relevant to one specific project. Such is the case with the recent work we’ve been undertaking alongside our hospitality specialists and how we are transforming hotel rooms into hospital rooms for overflow patients. We want to be able to implement this solution globally wherever it’s necessary, not just in one location.

JW: The healthcare team has been instrumental in our understanding of what we need to make our designs healthier and safer wherever they are implemented. In the workplace sector, we’re in constant pursuit of design solutions that not only drive productivity and efficiency in our office environments, but ones that make us healthier and happier: access to natural light sources, active workspaces to combat a sedentary lifestyle, etc. I think that there will be a broader conversation following the pandemic about what wellbeing means holistically – not just in terms of physical health and lack of illness, but also health socially, economically and mentally.

How do you plan for the future in such an unpredictable social climate? What do client conversations look like at the moment?

JG: Even before this happened, the retail sector was facing incredible transformation. We have been at the forefront of developing innovative solutions, like the addition of entertainment and hospitality offerings, to lay to rest the “death of the shopping mall” rhetoric. Now, we’re optimistically hoping that people have a pent-up demand for experience once the restrictions are eased.

We’re also closely monitoring different markets, like China and the Middle East—which seem to be stabilizing a bit and will likely return to “normal,” or their new version of normal, before we can in the United States.

JH: In the healthcare space, our client conversations are focused on instilling consumer confidence with evidence-based design. A lot can change with the introduction of a vaccine, and there will be new protocols put in place for all types of businesses in terms of capacity and cleanliness procedures, so we can be there to assist with navigating these new challenges. We also need to be wise and create cautious elements with multiple back-up plans so we can pivot when necessary.

MB: This situation requires a lot of agility and re-strategizing as new information unfolds. We’re in the business of serving and adapting to consumer behavior, so this is just another shift—like the so-called “death of the shopping mall” Jeff mentioned. We’ve always been a firm that can offer strategy as well as stability. That’s a huge testament to our research department and the experience of our employees. It makes me feel privileged to be a part of something that’s both innovative and tried-and-true.

JW: I think one of the most interesting spaces to watch right now is coworking. Pre-pandemic, these spaces were more crowded than ever with no signs of slowing down. In terms of social distancing measures, this model faces obvious threats. On the other hand, once we can safely return to work, I think flexible schedules and remote work will be more prevalent than ever. In that case, there will still be a need for these types of spaces—not all of us have a proper remote work setup at home (and no, the couch doesn’t count). I think it will all be about culture shifts and a deep trust in both the coworking crowd and the operator to ensure safety and cleanliness.

How do you predict consumer interest and behavior will shift post-pandemic?

JG: I think there’s an entirely new layer of meaning in our projects and the user’s experience. People are seeking reinforcement of life itself, and that’s certainly a tall order. I predict that we’ll see people more interested in spending time and money on life experiences than ever before. They will also be seeking that sense of togetherness. Our project Thanks-Giving Square is a great example of this in action, as the project and concept itself are imbued with a moral value. A simple transaction can take place online, but a unique connection and a transportive experience cannot.

MB: I’m with you Jeff—I’ve personally become more focused on my value and what’s really important as a result of the pandemic. My family and I have gotten the opportunity to connect on a new level and spend much more time together, which has given us all greater perspective on wants versus needs. No doubt there will be a fall back to some behavior, and old buying habits will re-emerge once given the chance, but I think this experience has given us an entirely new consumer perspective. In the same way the Great Depression shaped consumers of that generation and created in them a different opinion of luxury to a necessity, so too are we likely to come out of this valuing quality time with family and friends over material goods.

Consumerism will strengthen again. What we’re likely to see is a renewed emphasis on higher-quality goods and a willingness to invest in durability and functionality. This will extend to consumer consciousness.  Purchasing decisions will consider a brand’s morality and sustainability more than ever. There’s a civic layer at play here — where people are starting to see the good of the many outweighing the wants of a few, perhaps this individualistic nature will begin to collapse in favor of community and commonality.

JW: I believe that each generation will be affected very differently. For example, older people are much more likely to have those private office spaces at home and, often, live only with their family. Younger people, however, are co-housing and living in smaller spaces in order to achieve that urban experience. One interesting example of this is happening in the Tik Tok community. Many popular content creators are either temporarily quarantining together or living together permanently so they can use each other for ideas, filming and editing. That need for socialization and collaboration in young people isn’t going to just go away. We need to take these living situations as a given and design with them in mind just as much as we’re designing for the traditional multifamily home.

JH: We will never be able to totally predict the future. There is no crystal ball, but we can already see a growing shift toward wellbeing– both in terms of personal health and the health of our communities. This also speaks to the holistic health Jodi mentioned earlier. While COVID-19 may have begun as a focus on sickness, it is daylighting a whole plethora of related issues. For example, in a low-socioeconomic community where many people cannot shelter in place or telecommute, there are bigger issues that need to be addressed here beyond the virus and we have greater opportunities for impact. Issues that have long been swept under the carpet or overlooked in our societies are beginning to be addressed through this process and it’s been fantastic to see healthcare and technology at the forefront of these solutions. People have become more open to how we accelerate the adoption of technology in the hopes of a more egalitarian future.

How have you seen these broad consumer interest shifts manifest themselves both personally and professionally?

JG: Building and maintaining relationships has always been a priority for me. In the past, that would mean getting on airplanes and traveling around the country to plan pitches, assess opportunities, and help with interviews. Luckily, a lot of what my practice area does is long-term master planning, so client work is continuing as usual, so our focus now is on facilitating the same levels of collaboration in a virtual teams environment and finding a way to recreate that hands-on interaction through a screen. You will always find our cameras turned on during calls for that very reason – we want to maintain that personal connection as much as possible. At first, there was a formality of having the video on, now it has a sense of normalcy and enhances connection at a deeper level.

MB: Agreed, it all comes back to connection and relationships. For all the damage it’s done, this pandemic provided us all with a shared experience – it has affected each and every one of us. In doing so it has acted as a global equalizer and as they say, having something in common is the beginning of any relationship. In that sense, I’ve witnessed people from various backgrounds and levels of seniority better able to connect and relate to one another.

In terms of how that connection is kept alive in a remote working and living sense, trust and consistency have been key to this. Especially with clients, where the company’s legacy has been a real strength in these times and meant we can provide a certain level of reassurance others cannot.

JH: Naturally, many of us get caught up thinking, “how can we do this better, quicker, easier; how can we continue to improve.” This experience has forced us to step back from that and to slow down. We’ve had to stop and focus solely on the present, to check-in more regularly with ourselves and each other.

It has restored balance and has brought consciousness to our decision making: whether it’s realizing all the travel wasn’t necessary, or the investment in technology and alternative energy really is. A lot of it is things we always or may have thought deep down, but the pandemic has been the kicker. Now it’s important that we don’t lose sight of this idea that things can be better, that we as humans can be better.  Let’s not jump straight to how quickly can we go “back to normal.” Hopefully, we’ll also remember the value of our collective wellbeing and emerge with a more thoughtful, gentle global community.

Matt Billerbeck

Human-Centric Design Initiative Leader; Seattle, WA

Matt is EVP People & Communities with a strategic focus on Every Person Counts and a regional focus on Asia-Pacific. He has spent more than 20 years planning and designing retail and mixed-use projects around the world. His expertise includes guiding the design and roll-out process for large-scale domestic and international retail developers. As the link between the client and design team, Matt ensures a client-driven process so the design team’s agenda is in line with the developer’s agenda.

Jeff Gunning

Shopping and Entertainment Districts (SEDs) Practice Leader; Dallas, TX

Jeff has spent the entirety of his career with CallisonRTKL, dedicated to the design of retail and retail-driven mixed-use projects. He utilizes consumer insights and a focus on the guest experience to create synergistic environments known for their commercial success and a lasting sense of place. In addition to leading his own projects, Jeff has served in several key leadership roles over the years, including a leader of the firm’s Retail sector globally, and more recently of the Commercial Practice in North America.

Jim Henry

Healthcare Practice Leader, Wellbeing Initiative Leader; Dallas, TX

Jim has an extensive portfolio and two decades of architectural experience. His visionary leadership and commitment to innovative design enriches lives, promotes humanistic principles and is pivotal in exceeding client expectations and delivering award-winning projects. A few of his most notable projects include UT Southwestern, John Hopkins, Parkland Hospital, The Ohio State University, Rush University Medical Center, Kaiser Permanente and Penn Medicine.

Jodi Williams

Workplace Strategy Leader; Washington, DC

Jodi brings nearly 15 years of experience in workplace strategy, facility planning and change management. She leads strategic planning efforts for public and private sector clients and has been a featured speaker at industry events such as IFMA World Workplace, Greenbuild and NeoConEast.



Author Spotlight

Clare Sausen
Clare Sausen is a Content Writer for CallisonRTKL. Based in Washington, D.C., she leverages her personal and professional experience in journalism, radio, and nonprofit communication to serve as a valuable member of the global firmwide team. Since attaining her Bachelor of Arts degree from George Washington University in Communication and American Studies, she has honed her craft of architectural storytelling across multiple platforms.