DISCUSSING GENSLER

A Conversation with Jorge Barrero, Senior Associate at Gensler.

Approaching their 50th anniversary, Gensler was amongst the first to establish collaborative workflows to create spaces. Today they are the largest architectural firm in the world. Senior Designer Jorge Barrero sat down with Chaos Group Creative Director Christopher Nichols, a former Genlser employee himself, to discuss how Gensler has influenced architecture and give his take on design and visualization.

Chris: Tell me about the history of Gensler.

Jorge: Gensler started almost 50 years ago. We're coming up on our 50th anniversary in 2015. It was started by Art Gensler and his wife, Drue Gensler. Their first employee technically, I guess you could say, was Jim Follett.

They started in San Francisco. It was very much an effort to create something. He started the firm based on a new practice area, or a new market sector you could say that didn't exist before, which was workplace. Back in the day when architects were designing buildings, they just focused on the exterior and nobody was really paying attention to the interior.

That's, I think, what really catapulted him into the growth they experienced early on, just getting those opportunities to demonstrate that there's as much thought and design possible on the inside as there is on the exterior.

That was sort of the big springboard, I think, that created a unique opportunity for this firm to establish a new market and create something that didn't exist before. I think that spirit carries on today. Gensler is very much an innovative place. It's become a platform for people to do and explore their passions.

I think Gensler is very much about providing those opportunities for people and then getting out of the way. Their intention wasn’t to become the largest firm or the biggest firm in any specific field, it's really about creating an environment for people to thrive in.

A lot of people are naturally attracted to this. Once they come here, they understand that there's a lot of opportunity. There's a lot of different roles.

We're not just an architecture firm, we’re a design firm.

Jorge Barrero, Senior Associate at Gensler

Chris: Do you have any thoughts on the impact that Gensler has had? Like some examples that you see in other firms, trends that you notice in architecture that you look at and you think, "This is something that's very Gensleresque" in terms of how firms do business or structurally like similarities with projects that you see.

Jorge: I think our company culture is pretty unique. Gensler is very entrepreneurial, but It's a very of collaborative environment. It's like a huge, large design incubator in itself almost. The projects that are the most successful are the ones that involve the largest number of different points of view. We're definitely not shy about bringing different people from different offices together, regardless of where the project is and regardless of where those people come from.

I think it's really sort of forging an example of how by being so open minded and providing this platform for design, it's just really successful in terms of how they proceed forward. I think it's just a great place to be in terms of being able to have some freedom to pursue your own opportunities, your own projects and everyone's interests. It's a pretty interesting way of doing business and managing a design firm.

Chris: It sounds like this is something that's sort of ingrained in your DNA in a way. Having such a collaborative environment in a firm that's been around for 50 years is impressive. That's actually a very progressive way of thinking and running a business when you think about that.

Jorge: It is. It really is. To be honest, I have to give credit where credit is due. I think it really starts with Art setting that precedent and now with our executive directors, Andy, Diane and David. They really spend a lot of time crafting the vision of what Gensler needs to be and how we can make an impact. It's really about finding those opportunities that are going to make things better. Once they set the stage, they just kind of get out of the way and let the designers just go to work. It's pretty amazing.

Artwork by Gensler

Chris: You’ve spoken about the broad range of work that you guys do. Some of the new areas you're getting into, like sports and health and wellness for example. What I think is so interesting about Gensler is that it's not just big projects, but there are all kinds of projects. What are some of the different types of projects, just to give an idea to someone who doesn't know about Gensler.

Jorge: It varies. I guess the projects really come about per our clients. I think what people find is that when a client approaches us to, say, do an office building. We do that office building but then they realize that we can do so much more in terms of branding. So that's another opportunity for them.

Then, depending on what other investments they have or what other people they're interested in, it starts creating a connection in terms of likely opportunities.

We've done people's residences. We've done wine labels. We've done, obviously, really super tall buildings. The range is incredible.

Jorge Barrero, Senior Associate at Gensler

In terms of practice areas, we consolidated them into four major areas to try and get a handle on them, like “Lifestyle.” Lifestyle would be anything that is related to people's everyday activities. We’re talking retail centers, office buildings...

Chris: Hospitality and stuff like that as well?

Jorge: Exactly, hospitality, hotels and all that stuff is lifestyle. “Community” is when you start talking about projects that have a little bit of residential, where there's like senior housing. Some of it may be schools, colleges, churches and things of that nature.

Then there is “Work” which is the more typical workplace scenario. Interior build-outs and corporate headquarters. Much more related to the workplace side of things. Lastly, the newest one is “Health and Wellness” which is more about health centers, rehabilitation centers, things like that.

Chris: You guys also do airports and even urban planning. You go all the way from branding all the way up to urban planning.

Jorge: Absolutely. Pretty much. We definitely have a very strong brand group across the firm. We have a great aviation group. We have urban planning for sure.

I think we're starting to find that there's a lot of value to bring in people who, say, know airports really well; however, what if we had somebody that does retail, what if we have a hospitality person, what if we have a branding person? We could have somebody that does something completely different, like workplace, but start bringing all these other practice areas to the table to design say an airport where you start mixing all of these things.

It creates a better experience for the user when you start bringing those elements that typically are not found. A person who is very good at designing airports might not understand retail as well. We have all that stuff in house so when we start planning projects out, we can rely on our expertise instead of waiting for a consultant to come on board, etc.

Chris: Do you think the fact that there is such a broad range of work is what allows Gensler to be successful, that they can integrate themselves into almost any part of the project?

Jorge: I would say yes. We very much operate as a “one firm firm.” It makes it very easy for teams to pick up the phone and reach out to the expert on any particular subject, regardless of their location. There are really no boundaries. We're unlike, I think, some other firms where we operate as one entire unit at the end of the day, regardless of the number of offices we have.

Chris: Can you explain that a little bit?

Jorge: At the turn of the century Gensler prior to that was Gensler Architecture and Urban Planning and then they ditched the Architecture and Urban Planning, and it became just Gensler. So Gensler became the name of the firm.

With that came an identity. Out of that effort, the phrase "one firm, firm" came about. It really explained to everyone that we are one firm and we operate as a single unit regardless of your location and regardless of your office and your studio.

The one firm, firm concept is very much alive today. We still talk about it.

On every project we reach out across any physical or virtual boundaries to put together the best team for that particular project.

Jorge Barrero, Senior Associate at Gensler

Chris: Where do you fit in this? What is your specialty or your role at Gensler?

Jorge: I split my time on two things. Primarily I live on the front end of the process of design, which is the conceptual and the schematic design. This has allowed me to live on the other half of my other passion, visualization. For me, visualization became a means of communicating my ideas, and it still does today. It's much more about the process of design and communicating all those thoughts, and using the tools to basically get whatever it is we have in our head out into something that people can understand clearly.

Artwork by Gensler

Chris: Great.

Jorge: Within the visualization role, I've been involved in the visualization community that we have at Gensler, and have helped lead that community. I help steer the technology and where it is going. It's sort of a natural collective effort of our community, testing out different technologies and see what works best, based on everybody's needs.

Chris: I think it was interesting what you told me on our email exchange, that basically the 3D or visualization community is almost a non-issue anymore. Is that because everyone does it anyway?

Jorge: A while ago we started to notice that pretty much everyone we hired knew how to render. Obviously, there are different levels of expertise and quality, but rendering was never a thing we needed to teach. There's always best practices, but everybody kind of knew what results they wanted out of the workflow. Ten years ago, 15 years ago, visualization was cutting edge.

Chris: It was also the thing that you had to hire an expert to do.

Jorge: Absolutely. You'd need special hardware, special skills, a lot of money. It was just unbelievable the things that you could do, but also the effort it required to do them, which was incredible. It was very much cutting edge. Then what we started noticing is that visualization had become mainstream to a certain extent.

In terms of our world, in terms of the design world, there's still some sort of a sense of awe when you receive some really cool images, but at the same time, rendering has become part of everybody's workflow. So visualization was very much a group, a specific group with specific leadership with specific support from our firm-wide group. Then last year, visualization sort of disappeared. It's no longer a specific item because it just happens throughout the process. You don't have to call it out.

Chris: So when does V-Ray fit into this process. V-Ray is basically a rendering agent you use, and you mentioned Rhino. Is Rhino sort of your main design package that you are working with in terms of 3D?

Jorge: Not necessarily.

We've been using v-ray for 10-plus years. It’s very much the firm standard as far as rendering engines.

Jorge Barrero, Senior Associate at Gensler

A few years ago when V-Ray for SketchUp and V-Ray for Rhino were developed, I was very much for introducing those tools into our firm.

I knew SketchUp usage was starting to go up really, really quickly. Rhino was not picking up as fast, but I knew it was going to pick up fast. When we introduced V-Ray into our workflow back then, it was an easy decision on my part because it gave us a common platform and a common language to collaborate.

What happens is often people try to bring in new tools, and the biggest thing that prevents us from adopting new tools is not the tool itself; it's the fact that we don't have support for that tool. We built a very good internal V-Ray community and we have a very good support system so we feel very comfortable addressing any issues that come up on deadlines, on projects.

In terms of the platforms that we use, very much the Autodesk family, Revit, 3ds Max, Solidworks from that end. Then definitely Rhino and definitely SketchUp. I would say those four, Revit, 3ds Max, Rhino, SketchUp are the most utilized programs. You'll find a few people using Maya. You'll find a few people using SolidWorks. They're very unique cases. They're doing industrial design or different things.

Chris: I think that architecture visualization in general has just gotten to astronomically high quality. Which I think has been wonderful but it sounds to me that you guys don't actually worry so much about some of the high quality rendering, in sense of for the process. You guys really think of it as part of the design tools.

Jorge: Yes.

Chris: So photorealism, how important is that to you in general?

Jorge: It's not very important. I would say on occasion. It depends. The bulk of the rendering that we do is very simple white clay model type of thing. With renderings we will start throwing a little bit of materials, a little bit of lighting. When it gets to photorealism, if we are trying to produce something for a presentation, we can take it up to a certain level.

I'm always amazed at how quickly the V-Ray users can take it up a notch with just a little bit of guidance. Great results. We can get pretty close to a photo-realistic image, but that's never our intent. When it comes to the money shots and marketing images and things of that nature, we outsource quite a bit of that work.

Chris: Interesting. That’s a different experience now. There were no real archviz companies when I was with the company so you had to do everything yourself. It would be interesting to be able to share that information now. It's a very different sharing experience.

Jorge: Oh, yeah. I would say in my experience, the firms that I've worked with, they've all preferred 3ds Max models. The majority of them do use V-Ray. Most of the studios that we work with here in the states or in South America, they all use V-Ray, which makes it really easy for us and for them too. If we give them a 3ds Max model with V-Ray cameras, they can just take it and go.

Chris: What do you think the future of visualization or the next level of technology that's going to change the way that you guys think of things.

Jorge: The question for us, as a sort of a leadership group, is, "How do you sift through all that is out there and make a good decision on where things are really going to settle into?" The main thing that we've noticed, and we've noticed it for a long time, is obviously GPU rendering. It started a while back but took a little while to gain steam.

Chris: Yeah, it's definitely turned a corner.

Jorge: I think cloud rendering is definitely up there. Maybe it is both, GPU and cloud rendering. To me, I've always been concerned about the architects and designers that don't really know a lot of visualization, but they really have a need to render something so they can talk about it and put it on the wall or send it to a client. It has to be super simple.

Five or six years ago, when we first introduced V-Ray for SketchUp, to me that was the main reason. We have hundreds of SketchUp users, none of them know how to render, but if I give them 3ds Max and V-Ray and they open it up for the first time, they are going to fall out of their chair, just like I did when I opened 3ds Max and V-Ray, right? It's like looking into the cockpit of a fighter jet.

When we put V-Ray and SketchUp inside of an environment they were really comfortable in, just by the mere fact that it was inside this super simple tool, they were like, "Oh, that's it? That's how you set up a rendering? Oh, that's super easy." There was a comfort level there, and it just became much more quickly accepted just because of where the software was and the environment.

Chris: Let's say you open up SketchUp to do a rendering, and there's an option that says connect to the cloud. Whatever that is, whether it's your own local cloud or whether you are renting time on the Amazon system or whatever, and you're using GPU or CPU.

Let's say there's even a switch that you can flip to make that. Let's say, even further than that, all of the GPU's are in a central location that anyone in the entire firm can access at any point in time. You just hit render and your render comes back to you. That would be the ultimate goal right there.

Jorge: That would be the ultimate goal. I think the whole technology side of it needs to be invisible for the majority of our staff. The bulk of the rendering that we do is all design process. It's funny because every time we outsource rendering, it's always for final renderings because no one has really figured out a way to do a quick workflow for the hundreds of iterations that have to get created, that wouldn't cost an arm and a leg to hire somebody else to do. That's why I think a lot of that gets done internally.

Chris: It lets you focus on the design instead of the marketing.

Jorge: Right, exactly.

Chris: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us.