Kevin Sullivan joined Payette in 1987, became a partner in 1998 and became President in 2014. His body of work includes seminal healthcare, science and campus planning projects which have been consistently recognized nationally for their attention to detail, social geometry and the integration of the landscape into transformative spaces.
Kevin believes that an in-depth understanding of a buildings program and site provide the fundamental palette for each project. This knowledge is combined with the concept of transparency, both literal and phenomenal; to provide a deep logic to forms and spaces. In 2012, Kevin was elevated to the AIA College of Fellows in recognition of his achievements in design. Kevin received his B.Arch from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and his M.Arch from Harvard. Recently, Modelo had the opportunity to learn more about Kevin's unique approach and design philosophy.
On becoming an architect
As a kid I liked drawing and I was really into baseball. When I was young I used to imagine baseball stadiums and make models. I was about ten. I first drew them on paper and made rough cardboard models. I realized that I got a lot of joy out of that process, but I didn’t know any architects. I didn’t know that much about architecture – I just knew I wanted to do it. In fact, when I said I wanted to major in architecture in high school, my guidance counselor said ‘do you want to pick something else because I can’t help you with that; I’ve never done it before.’ We gave it a shot anyway. I did take some mechanical drawing classes in high school.
On discovering his voice as a designer
For me it took time to not only find confidence, but also find my authentic voice. I had very distinct parts of my education – one built around the process of making and drawing at Virginia Tech, which involved the making of artifacts, where everything was absolutely precious. There was deep study, but every model was like finished jewel. It was very good for me at the time, but I felt a thirst for exploration. It took me a while to get comfortable with exploration – on some projects things may happen very quickly than others.
I came in contact with a number of different people that allowed me to find my voice and find a methodology and a process for thinking about architecture. I had a mentor here at Payette, John Wilson. He used to drive a lot of people crazy because he took his time with each project. Before I went to grad school I realized that the journey throughout the project fueled me for years to come. The journey wasn’t just about that project; it was about all these other potential things that came out of that project. That was very liberating and it was liberating to go to grad school with no pressure to create a precious thing, but the pressure to refine process and methodology. My undergraduate education was very drawing-based. My graduate education I focused on models, which was a deliberate choice. In our studio we have the remnants of old models around. Those artifacts of the process are incredibly important tools that everyone in the firm can learn from and re-explore after a project ends. For me, it’s continuous exploration and fascination. One fascination is about surface – that we study surface in very different ways and push it to the limits. The Northeastern University project studied surface one way and the Tufts University project is the extreme in another extent. I take great joy in that. The work of this firm and the partners here don’t all look the same.
On joining Payette
I moved to Boston after undergrad, joined Payette for 3 ½ years, got registered and then went to the GSD at Harvard. I came back to Payette after that. At that time I was interested in immediately refining my voice. This was possible at Payette and I’d reached a good place before I went to grad school so that when I returned I was able to immediately start some of my own projects. I don’t think I would’ve gotten that experience elsewhere.
On how his approach has evolved
Fundamentally, a number of things have influenced me along the way. When I was educated as an architect, architects were in one building and landscape architects were in another building. We don’t have engineers at Payette, but when I first joined the firm, Tom was passionate landscape architecture and buildings. There have always been a handful of landscape architects embedded in the firm. What’s changed in my approach to architecture is the role of the landscape, how it relates to the building form and the integration of landscape has continued become more nuanced and developed that I was not initially thinking about. I was into formalism and I still am. But the landscape is one of these areas that you can allow people to engage the building and architecture in a meaningful way.
When I look at my projects, the context is the landscape. It’s about the landscape itself and that can mean many different things in an urban setting versus other settings. Our buildings tend to be sited on college campuses or in healthcare settings. I find landscape means different things in those places. In a healthcare setting it’s about embedding nature in the design of hospitals, clinical settings and bringing connectivity to landscape to the significant treatment spaces in the hospital. For example, that project at Northeastern with the pedestrian bridge and the flow through the site, that all came about through a larger landscape idea of how to organize the project. The building forms emanate from that. In that project we were trying to link the Roxbury and the Fenway neighborhoods and link to polarized points on campus with a meaningful landscape experience.
What’s changed that I find the most interesting about architecture right now is this confluence of everything that’s going on with technology. It’s fascinating as I think about formalism, which was very important in my early education. That type of thinking about the structure of the logic of a building was important. I love the way that you can overlay the building performance on that type of system now and come up with something that’s very different. In the office I’ve been calling it “performalism.”
On specific principles at Payette
This concept of embedded nature, whether defining a courtyard on a campus setting or as an organizing principle in a hospital, that’s been at the root of almost all the successful projects from our firm for 40 years. Look at the Aga Khan University and Medical Center in Pakistan. The fundamental principle of that project is embedded nature and it was one of the early hospitals the firm designed. I also want to mention transparency and plans in terms of allowing natural light to anchor ends of corridors and be an organizing device. I also think about transparency in terms of the way different programs interact. When you walk through our buildings, they tend to look “raw,” which is unusual for some of these buildings. Many of our buildings are like this where you see systems, the layers and everything in terms of what the assembly of the building is. It’s harder to do in a hospital setting, but it’s still achievable in some spaces.
The root of our philosophy is also based on typology. There’s a deep level of inquiry and innovation that goes into some of the more prototypical elements of our projects, whether it’s a synthetic chemistry teaching lab or a new patient room in a hospital. We’re driven to develop new models in the industry in those areas. To that end, we have a fairly large fabrication lab in South Boston right now with a CNC router. We’re building a full scale mockup of a hospital project with a million SF of perimeter. It’s important what that typical patient room is, so we’re building both sides of that wall to understand how that room might change based on building orientation. We’ve worked on projects where we invented a new lab bench that was then implemented industry wide or another where we designed a new light fixture for the lab bench that has become an industry standard. One key innovation was the open laboratory concept. Throughout the 60s and 70s, most laboratories were compartmentalized individual cells; faculty members didn’t interact. We blew it apart and came up with an academic loft lab that fosters a different way of interacting, a higher level of transparency and provokes a different way to engage with the building.
The level of craft that you’ll see in our projects is part of our exploratory process. It might be deep inquiry to the reflectivity of different types of glass, like on the project at Tufts University. Or the way we analyzed and dove into the development of the skin system for the project at Northeastern University. Both of these instances took us to Europe to find an appropriate façade system.
On the type of buildings Payette designs
People always ask me why I design for healthcare and academic science. I look at it in a very simple way. We have the opportunity to bring architecture to quite possibly the most important moments in people’s lives: when they’re sick, when they’re born, when they’re healing, when they’re learning or when they’re discovering. All of these things are incredibly important for society and if you can bring architecture to these tactile moments, who wouldn’t want to do that? People go to a museum to expect to be blown away. They don’t go to a hospital with that expectation. If you can allow them to discover the power of architecture in that setting and you’re bringing architecture to a greater segment of society. There are no barriers to that experience in a healthcare setting. There are barriers in a museum – a portion of society doesn’t often experience museums. That’s why I love it.
On his role at Payette
I’m the President of the firm right now and I’ve been in this position for just over two years. That was a big change for me. The previous president, Jim Collins, is also still part of the firm and we’re really good friends. A lot of people ask, ‘as president, you don’t do design anymore, right?’ And that’s not the case. We don’t work that way. I’m still very involved in a lot of the high profile work that I would’ve been involved in before. Instead of only designing buildings, I’m designing the firm and the way people interact.
It’s an interesting time in architecture in terms how we practice as a profession. We’ve been talking about who we need in the firm now and the way we’re going to practice in 5 years. We’re asking, “How do we structure ourselves to thrive now but also thrive then?” I’m responsible for helping curate the vision of the firm. However, what’s different about Payette is that I have 10 partners, one is the COO and then there are nine of us who design buildings and are all intimately involved in the work. We don’t segregate management from design responsibilities at the Principal level. It’s not a firm where you can say ‘this is the singular design leader of the firm. We feel that more than one principal on a project makes the project richer. Overall, all the partners are very involved in the design process. I think it’s a good model for collaboration works because you can make projects richer by opening the process rather than closing it.
On his design toolkit
We have one model shop at the office and a bigger fab lab. We have a number of 3D printers and we still do a lot in cardboard, but we use laser cutters for that. I love using the model process in the beginning of design to help find the voice of the project. It gives teams a tremendous amount of confidence to see this initial study that has great integrity and great conviction. Because our projects are so programmatically intense, I believe you have to explore both sides simultaneously otherwise you’ll just let the program dominate everything. By introducing this aspect of the models early in the process, you’re using that to inform the way you put together the program of the building. The polished 3D renderings are very successful too, but when you’re having a first meeting with the client, it’s the model immediately connects people with the project. No one’s afraid to ask questions.
On the future of architecture in the next 5-10 years
Until recently firms could sustain many generalists. What I’m seeing with the evolution of technology is need for a core of generalists and a need for experts in particular aspects of the practice. One example at Payette is our Building Science Group. Andrea Love leads the group and works with Alejandra Menchaca and Chris Mackey. Andrea and Ale both teach at MIT and Chris wrote Grasshopper scripts that are used industry-wide. They all bring depth of knowledge and rigor to our work. This group is a perfect example of something that didn’t exist 5 years ago in our firm. We absolutely need a core of people skilled in this area and they’re doing a tremendous job influencing the performance of our buildings. We’re designing buildings that use natural ventilation pretty aggressively alongside to mechanical ventilation, which is pretty unusual in a science building. One of the projects, the Biosciences Research Building at the National University of Ireland, Galway, is an intensive lab that makes use of natural ventilation in 45% of the building. Because of the mechanical intensity of the BRB, the energy saving in comparison to the Labs21 baseline is equivalent to the energy use of 400 houses per year, which is comparable to a large residential subdivision. That data is based on over a year of actual energy performance, so we know these strategies are working. That type of success allows us to liberate ourselves with the exterior design of these buildings, where you can have something that looks beautiful works. I think the general population is starting to appreciate these things. When people look at a big tall building with a giant south facing piece of glass, they look at that and say it is excessive and irresponsible. Even though it may look beautiful, people are developing a new ethic about defining beauty as it relates to sustainable buildings.
On advice he would give his younger self
Be more patient at times. It’s incredibly important to be idealistic and to not lose that idealism, but at the same time it’s important to understand how architecture happens. I probably spent the first 20 years of my career just trying to be the best architect that I could be and learning everything that I needed to do that and be a consummate craftsman. I wasn’t thinking too deeply about networking and the ways commissions happen. I feel like I’m finally getting it. There’s something that happens to an architect as you age, you finally accumulate experience and relationships. There’s this point where that converges and tends to be in the middle of your career. I wish I wasn’t so damn naive about that because you’d very easily create more opportunities for yourself by considering that. You’re in a ton of different social situations in your twenties and thirties and not even thinking about it or trying to take advantage of the situation because maybe this’ll be important later. You realize those things later.