Designer Ken Wilson Takes a “Rational” Approach

Jennifer Busch

Ken Wilson, FAIA, FIIDA, LEED Fellow, Design Principal, Perkins+Will

Ken Wilson, FAIA, FIIDA, LEED Fellow is one of the A&D community’s earliest and most well regarded sustainability leaders. His own firm, Envision Design in Washington, D.C., was known for its pioneering approach to sustainable design principles, and also had some 90 design awards to its credit when it was purchased by Perkins+Will last year. Now, as a design principal for the firm’s DC office, Wilson leverages the resources of his larger firm to continue his binary approach to his own work and that of his team, standing firm on his belief that good design and green design are one and the same, and the industry should be 100% committed to both.


How would you describe your design process in one word?

KW:  Rational.  (As defined by the Encarta Dictionary:  “governed by, or showing evidence of, clear and sensible thinking and judgment, based on reason rather than emotion or prejudice”)

What do you enjoy most about your work?

KW:  I really enjoy working with engaged clients who understand that good design will help their business.  I equally enjoy the collaboration I have with my design teams, promoting innovation, and building enthusiasm for our projects.  I am invigorated by how good our younger staff is.

You were an early advocate and design leader in the shift toward sustainable design practices. How have you seen the industry evolve in terms of that shift?

KW: There has been a huge evolution since 1999 when we designed the headquarters for Greenpeace and LEED was in early development. I give the USGBC credit for changing completely the way the design profession thinks about buildings and interiors.  LEED gave us a common vocabulary with which to talk about green design and showed that green building isn’t just about energy reduction.  A lot of people today continue to criticize LEED unfairly and I just don’t get it.  Sure, LEED is not perfect but it has done unbelievable good.  I can’t imagine where we would be without it.  With regard to building products and furnishings, almost everything has gotten better.  Problem areas have been identified and creative solutions have emerged.  But there is still a lot of room for improvement.  What concerns me these days is that the design community and our clients have become complacent. Everyone seems to assume that green design is just going to happen when we should be pushing for even better designs and products.

What do you believe to be the primary value of good design to your clients?

KW: The primary value is money, plain and simple.  It is astonishing how many clients still don’t get this.  You don’t need a Harvard study to tell you that a happy and healthy staff is going to be more productive, will have less absenteeism, will have less turn over, and be the best recruiting tool you have ever seen.  Good design supports all of this.  Of course it is important for a company to have a good culture as well, but you can’t have a good culture and bad design.  On an annual per square foot basis, businesses pay 10 times (and often more) for the cost of their staff compared with the cost of their space.  Given that disproportion, a relatively small investment in a better design can yield huge results.

What are you working on currently?

KW: I’m working on a very progressive law firm that is in the process of rebranding itself completely.  It is a perfect time to design a new space that supports the new branding effort.  The legal profession is changing and I have really enjoyed working with them on what that might look like.  And of course they want to be LEED-CI platinum.  I’m also involved in a number of other projects that are all over the map in terms of size and project type.  I love variety!

How does flooring contribute to the overall design solution for a project?

Flooring plays a big part because it is everywhere.  You want the flooring to be supportive of the overall design strategy but never THE design strategy.  Nowadays, with offices being so open and walls coming down, flooring is taking on new importance in defining different areas within a project.

If you were able to give one piece of advice to young designers just starting out, what would it be?

Work on being as well rounded as possible.  Design is only a small part of what we actually do.

What’s next on the sustainability horizon?

KW: There is greater emphasis now on human health and wellbeing.  This includes taking a hard look at what is going into the materials we specify and what their lifecycle is.  We spend over 90% of our time indoors so the design of healthier interiors could even be considered preventive care.  Imagine that?

You are the ONLY person who has achieved FAIA and FIIDA, and is also a LEED Fellow! How cool is that?

KW: Last I counted, there were about 11 or 12 of us who have fellowships in both the AIA and IIDA.  We used to joke about forming a club.  I suppose it is pretty cool to be the only one in the world that is also a LEED fellow.

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