Design Manifestos

Feature Interviews with Architects & Designers from Around the World

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    Design Manifestos: Chris Iwerks of Bertaux + Iwerks Architects

    Eli Laipson
    Sep 4, '15 11:25 PM EST

    Leonard Bertaux and Chris Iwerks co-founded Bertaux and Iwerks Architects, located in Boston’s Leather District. The core of the practice focuses on Outcome-Driven design (ODD), which is a breakthrough methodology for re-structuring the design process around what’s most critical to stakeholder success at occupancy. Iwerks has been recognized nationally and internationally for his works and has received the highest architectural achievement in Boston — the Harleston Parker Medal — for the “most beautiful building in Boston.” Last week, Modelo had the pleasure of meeting with Chris Iwerks and learning more about the firm’s approach and philosophy on design.

    On becoming an architect
    My pathway into architecture started early. I grew up in LA, and in the summer transition following sixth grade I was notified by my future junior high school of the courses I would be required to take in the fall. One of those courses was entitled, “Drafting.” At this time the Vietnam War was in full swing and the fear of being drafted was a real worry — within a few years you could be swept up before ever making it to college. Having no idea that “Drafting” meant something else, I spent the entire summer dreading this prospect. But on the first day of school I walked into this large open room with rows of tall tables equipped with specialized machinery for making drawings. My misconceptions were quickly reversed — the emotional swing from fear to relief was dramatic. From that point on I stayed with drawing and design from one school to the next, and ultimately became an architect.

    On the evolution of the firm
    Prior to forming our firm, Len and I were principals in architectural practices that focused on transportation, infrastructure, and institutions. We continue to work primarily with public sector clients, although there have been a few private clients along the way. The thing that’s probably evolved the most for us has been the utility of Outcome-Driven Design techniques for engaging our clients, their stakeholders and the decision-making process. Developing and refining this process has been the real focus or our evolution — it represents a new way of framing the design process and has been the place where our innovation skills have grown the most.

    Vent Building 8 and Highway Architecture for Leveret Circle Viaducts and North Station Platforms, Boston, MA” Photo: Chris Iwerks

    On his research/preparatory skills
    In the world of product and service design, there’s a company called Strategen that devised a methodology that they call Outcome-Driven Innovation (ODI). They are able to systematically identify innovation opportunities through the lens the Jobs To Be Done theory of innovation (also known as JTBD). This approach says that the basic unit for analyzing potential innovation opportunities comes through a deep understanding of what jobs people are trying to get done. In other words, if you can identify things that are important on one hand, and poorly satisfied on the other — the Importance/Satisfaction formula — you’ll find opportunities to address unmet needs. On close inspection, nearly every innovation can be seen to have this trait as part of its foundation: “it was something that was important, or perhaps latently important, but it was not optimally satisfied.” The music industry is a great example of JTBD evolution: music delivery has gone through many innovations, fueled by the continual discovery unmet needs: early phonograph records and LPs gave way to portable 8 and 4 track tapes, cassette tapes, CDs and DVDs, culminating in the explosion of digital music delivery systems over the internet. Music delivery platforms kept changing and they did so because innovators continued to figure out ways to satisfy unmet needs. We have now arrived at a milestone of extreme portability and near infinite selection of content.

    From the beginning we have been asking the question: ‘How can we organize outcome thinking to help our clients succeed better?’ Outcome-driven design has been the product of this inquiry and an approach we have developed for use on all of our projects. We begin every project by having conversations with the broadest possible stakeholder group to understand perspectives. When we get a project like the WoodsHole Ferry Terminal, for instance, we interview people inside the operations to get insights on what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, who they’re doing it with, and what’s important to success. And we also interview external community groups, in this case the business and neighborhood associations, as well as the Falmouth town planners. At the end of this process we have a lot of information. What the evolution of the firm has been able to do is to filter this detailed material into primary outcomes that can be used for evaluating design alternatives later in the process.

    City View Magnet School, Worcester, MA” Photo: Chuck Choi

    On Outcome-Driven Design (ODD)
    We’ve had different ways of thinking about outcomes over time, but there are aspects or attributes to outcomes that we have discovered are constants. One is that they tend to be directional — an outcome is something you’re trying to increase or decrease, maximize or minimize, and that means that the actions you take to create the outcome will either be concerned with minimizing the likelihood of an outcome occurring, or maximizing it. This insight is important to design and planning. For instance, master plans tend to focus exclusively on positive actions that will maximize outcomes. It’s as if in football you were to only focus on passing offense because successful passing maximizes point accumulation. A master plan can be like that, but as in sports, best intentions can be undone by ignoring the importance of defense. If you don’t recognize and anticipate threats, the intended maximize outcomes may ultimately be compromised.

    We also see outcomes in a second duality: being either empirical/functional or emotional/experiential. We want to know how stakeholders will think about success and failure in the future. One of the questions we ask is: ’10 years from now, how will you know this has been a successful project?’ This can take some real introspection, as success will have several facets. We want to know the emotional and experiential aspects of success in addition to the functional and pragmatic sides that are closer to the surface. This technique concludes in a distilled collection of 20–30 outcome statements that define the objectives for a project, all based on the range of things that people said are important to success.

    I think the best thing about the process is that it helps distance people, ourselves included, from their preconceived solutions — there’s always more than one way to solve a problem.

    And it gives us all freedom to think about what could be the best way to satisfy all of the outcomes, some of which may be in conflict. Of course we come to the design process with our own biases about what good design is going to be, but it really does allow us to move laterally in search of optimal solutions.

    The firm’s design philosophy beyond ODD
    ODD forms a framework for targeting design opportunities and is valuable for evaluating solutions, but it is not in itself a design-generating tool. Since we work primarily on public buildings, our projects are always wrapped in constraints and divergent goals. We try to do great design on every project, to make enduring spaces that support the kind of experiences that stakeholders want to have. But we are often challenged to justify our proposals in the face of public scrutiny over how public money is being spent. The outcome framework turns out to be a really helpful tool for gaining public acceptance and support.

    In our work we pursue what we think of as authenticity in the use of materials and forms to create places that will resonate with people. But, we don’t follow a particular formal design approach and a lot of what we’ve done hasn’t been attempted before. For instance, the methodologies we came up with for the MBTA Wayfinding Signage Project came out of our thoroughly documenting the state of the system, with all of its shortfalls, and then devising solutions that involved custom software applications and digital tools for sign design and fabrication.

    On the Central Artery Project I was responsible for several infrastructure projects, including Vent Building 7, which is over at the airport. We did as much design on that as we could to express the qualities of how that building works, and it went on to win the Harleston Parker Medal fifteen years ago, which is the award that the BSA gives each year for the most beautiful building in Boston. This was really unusual for an infrastructure project. It didn’t set out to be the most beautiful building in Boston, rather, what we set out to do was to make an elegant piece of infrastructure, that expressed its purpose — pulling fumes out of the tunnel and pumping fresh air in, while being a good neighbor to the airport campus.

    University of Massachusetts North Campus Garage Entrance, Lowell, MA, Photo: Chris Iwerks

    On advice he would give himself before starting
    Like many young architects, my primary focus in the early part of my career was directed towards design activities and the goal of creating significant buildings. The structure of design offices enables this kind of concentration where entire teams of people are inwardly focused on creative tasks. While this internal focus is needed to produce great design, it can be at the expense of outward exposure and the cultivation of connections with people and clients beyond the office. It takes regular effort and practice for people who are not naturally outgoing to become comfortable with the engagement side of practice. At our office, we look for opportunities for our staff to gain exposure to the people side of practice. Ultimately, finding this balance is essential to being able to launch and sustain a practice.

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About this Blog

At Modelo we want to know what drives the world’s design and architecture talent. This is why we invite select architects and designers to share their stories, philosophies, visions and favorite works with the public — their manifestos. For more information on how we're working to change the architecture and design world at Modelo please visit us at:

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