Rooftop garden

Work For the Greater Good, Part 2

Sustainable Design

Work for the Greater Good, Part 2

In the second part of our interview with architect John Brittingham we discuss wellness architecture and current and future design trends.

By George McClure

rooftop garden

ARCHITECT JOHN BRITTINGHAM HAS HAD A LONG AND VARIED CAREER. A graduate of Bowdoin College in Maine and the Graduate School of Design at Harvard, he has worked with such prominent names as Sasaki and Associates and Antoine Predock, and taught at the University of New Mexico, the University of Arizona, and for 25 years at Montana State University in Bozeman.

In this second part of our interview, we discuss wellness architecture, current and future design trends, and more.

GEORGE McCLURE: Let’s talk about the concept of wellness architecture — going from health of the planet, and health of the ecology in terms of building practices and all that, into health of the people that live in the buildings or have to work in the buildings. How involved do you get in the wellness architecture, from your standpoint?


JOHN BRITTINGHAM: I think of wellness architecture differently than a lot of people. I guess my version is partly about what we normally think of as wellness architecture, but I also think of it in a lot of other ways. Wellness architecture is defined as the practice of architecture that relies on art and science to design a built environment with socially conscious systems, and socially conscious and environmentally conscious material palettes that don't off-gas, and things of that nature. It's thinking about the health of the occupant. I think that's the bottom line on it. I also think of it at the scale of a home, the scale of a room. But, I also think of it at the scale of a large, urban intervention.

Say, for instance, the Highline in New York City, or the new Seattle Waterfront proposal. That's all about reconnecting tissue from the core of the city to the waterfront. That project's by a guy named James Corner. I think of it in regards to Olympic Park in Seattle. You've got all these conflicting circulation systems of vehicular trains, freight, people, bikes. And, that project's a masterful weaving of all these things together in a beautiful, beautiful environment that just makes you feel good.

I cook a lot. When people talk about slow cooking, I think of it very differently. Slow cooking, you put it in a pot. You put a lid on it, and you walk away for eight hours. I think of it as a ritual. The slowness is the act of the ritual of the cooking, and I really enjoy that. It's therapeutic for me, and I consider that a big piece of wellness architecture. I think things like ritualistic daylighting are very important. For instance, having morning sun in the kitchen, the place where you go first thing in the morning.


Nature stack

I think of tracking the sun through the sky vault seasonally, and marking it in some way, experientially, in a building is super important. So, one is always aware of the change of seasons, where the sun is. And then, you start thinking about, "Oh, well, it's fall. It's time to harvest. It's spring. It's the Spring Equinox. It's time to plant." I think that's another, for me, big part of it. And then, your obvious stuff about materials, or carbon footprint, manufacturing processes, off-gassing. That's obvious stuff.


JOHN BRITTINGHAM: I think that's what most people think about when they think about wellness architecture. I think about, and this is not new news ... I think about fitness architecture from Southern California, where we case study houses in Palm Springs, and all the architecture being done by people like Richard Neutra. And this attempt to blur the boundary between inside and outside, I consider that highly important, so that you always feel that you're part of your greater environment. And you're putting more emphasis on the environment, and less emphasis on the thing you made.

Another example of that would be this house that we bought, has three courtyards that are all distinctly different. And they each have a different personality. We're going to overhaul a bunch of it, but this is an inwardly looking house. Most Mexican architecture is inward looking.

GEORGE McCLURE: Because they have the courtyard.

JOHN BRITTINGHAM: Yes, and I think courtyards are very valuable spaces, whether it's in a large urban building, or a small home of 2,500 square feet, or whatever. That's very important to me, and there's all the talk about... well, plants are a big thing, right?


JOHN BRITTINGHAM: It's bringing the environment inside. There are many ways to do that. There's a guy who I'm very fond of, though I don't know him personally. His name is Patrick LeBlanc. He's French, and he does these vertical growing walls, which are very interesting from a technology
standpoint, but also from an artistic standpoint. They actually look like paintings, but they're all natural plants. Plants that are indigenous to the area, and he carefully sculpts big facades into these big growing walls. They're amazing things to see. He's crazy. He's got green hair, and he does really beautiful stuff. He's done a bunch in Miami, Seattle and Europe.

GEORGE MCCLURE: That sounds great.

JOHN BRITTINGHAM: It's very interesting, beautiful stuff. Of course, it's cleaning the air at the same time, potentially harvesting water from a site. It's very interesting.


Some other good examples are, I think, Amazon's headquarters in Seattle, which are these biospheres. It's like working in a greenhouse, almost. But, they've got the technology to control the temperature and humidity for daytime and nighttime.

GEORGE MCCLURE: That's awesome. I'm fortunate, because my wife has a real green thumb, and she gardens a ton. She brings a whole bunch of plants inside in the winter, so we have this greenhouse in our TV room. I love that.

JOHN BRITTINGHAM: Yeah, we garden a lot as well, and use our own herbs and vegetables. To me, that's a ritualistic wellness way of thinking. You grew it. You know what's on it. It makes you feel good.

GEORGE MCCLURE: It absolutely does, I think it's better on your digestion. Every time you eat something that you grew in your own environment, and put in your body, it just makes sense that that's going to be better for you.

JOHN BRITTINGHAM: Well, spiritually, I think it's enriching, too.

GEORGE MCCLURE: Absolutely. Well, I know my wife, I think, feels most alive when she's out there playing in the dirt. I help with the stuff, when she needs some heavy lifting.


Gtrand Canyon

GEORGE McCLURE: You touched on it already, when you were talking about some of these things. What are some of the current trends and trends that you see on the horizon?

JOHN BRITTINGHAM: Well, I think things have moved beyond the word sustainability to a bigger picture, a more comprehensive picture, a picture that can make a bigger difference. Resilient design, regenerative design, they're not going away. I think Jeanine Benyus and the Biomimicry Guild and Institute, they're making some big moves. That's all about studying nature, plants and animals, insects, to see how they make their world work. And then, using those strategies in architectural situations, and even at an urban scale. I think that's going to continue to grow. I think biophilic design, that's a natural. That's just a no-brainer. I don't think that's going to go away. And, we should all be thinking that anyways, but that's not new news. That's stuff, in a large part, we've been practicing for thousands and thousands of years.

Resiliency, certainly, collaboration... I think the field is... it's not the hero architect anymore. Clients want more, better, faster, cheaper. You cannot do that working in a silo of your own office. It's got to be much more participatory design, including the client, as well. I describe it as more hearts, more heads, and more hands can get more done than one person.

GEORGE McCLURE: Oh, that's good.

JOHN BRITTINGHAM: That's how I sell stuff to my students — how I get them to do these collaborative projects, because oftentimes in architecture school, everybody wants to be the hero architect, right?


“It's highly important that you always feel you're part of your greater environment, that you're putting more emphasis on the environment, and less emphasis on the thing you made."


JOHN BRITTINGHAM: They find that they feel like they've had handcuffs put on if they have to work with another individual, or a whole group of people. I think digital fabrication and mass customization are going to continue to play a big, big role. That's, of course, all tied to different kinds of technology.

In terms of trends, I think performative design is going to start playing a bigger role. We talked about that briefly. I think downsizing is going to come our way. We lived in a big home in Bozeman, but we consciously decided we wanted to live in a smaller home now. We got rid of a lot of furniture, artwork, clothes. And it feels great. It's like my great uncle said, "One good move is like two good burnings." You just get rid of so much stuff. You have less to worry about. Less to take care of. I think that's going to become more prevalent.

GEORGE MCCLURE: I am a firm believer in letting go of attachment to stuff, even though I have it. Again, my wife's pretty good about Marie Kondo-ing our place — “If it doesn’t bring you joy, time to get rid of it.”

JOHN BRITTINGHAM: We've gotten rid of a lot of stuff, and we've given a lot of it away to people that need it, don't have it, are underprivileged. That's wellness architecture too, by the way. Just helping somebody else out with things that you don't need anymore, rather than trying to make a couple bucks off of it. Why not give it to somebody that could really use it?

GEORGE MCCLURE: Yeah, I totally agree with that.


JOHN BRITTINGHAM: I don't think this is a mystery. If you're a responsible architect, designer, you're thinking about this stuff all the time, although I'm not looking into a crystal ball. I think that many people think this way, and I think many more people are beginning to think this way. Everybody's just so much more conscious, or I should say this; a lot of people are more conscious about the environment, and their impact on it.

GEORGE McCLURE: Yeah, like the biophilia, you said that's not new. But unfortunately, it seems like we got away from it for a long time. And now we're coming back to some of the older ways of doing things.

JOHN BRITTINGHAM: Yes, you can look at the Middle East, and all kinds of environmental strategies that they use over there that are so simple. Yeah, we lost touch with a lot of that thinking, but it's circling back around, which is a good thing.

water and trail

GEORGE McCLURE: Is there anything else that you'd like to say, or make us aware of?/

JOHN BRITTINGHAM: I think in the discipline of architecture, currency is critically important. Staying on top of what's happening out there. The weirdest things come up.

I know somebody that won a big design award for a project in New York City, and they built bricks out of mushroom fungi. I think currency's crucial in the design discipline. I also think, and this is tied to wellness, I think this Japanese concept of wabi-sabi is really important, which means, in my words, perfectly imperfect.

I think I try to do things that way, perfectly imperfect. My wife thinks that way a lot. And then, the other thing is in the design discipline, particularly in architecture, because you're dealing with so many other disciplines, and the things are getting built, and people are occupying them, an architect has to be a whirling dervish. You've got to be able to juggle 10 balls at the same time. And, let somebody throw three more your way, and pick those up, too. The design discipline, especially architecture, you have to love it. If you don't love it, you shouldn't be in it. If you're not trying to make the world a better place, you shouldn't be in it.

GEORGE McCLURE: Absolutely.

JOHN BRITTINGHAM: But we could walk around the corner and find countless examples of structures that aren't attempting to do that. We don't have that long-term vision like Europe does, where they've been dealing with this stuff for thousands of years. We're pretty young and still, I would say as a general rule, fairly short-sighted, which I hope changes.

It's kind of an Eastern versus Western way of thinking. Antoine used to talk about that a lot, as well. I learned a lot from that guy. He's 87 years old, and he is still working as hard as he ever worked. And he doesn't need to work. He just likes doing it.