SOM’s connection to people

The other day I spent lunch over a talk given by SOM‘s Luke Leung, director of Sustainable Engineering for the prestigious architecture firm, at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. I knew I was going to get more insight and info into SOM’s engineering process, but perhaps the coolest part of the talk was how aligned Leung and SOM’s Bill Baker were in emphasizing the essence of the firm. I attended a talk by Baker a few weeks ago where he expressed SOM’s focus on management, design, and technology. Leung took it a step further by stemming the talk from connection. And that starts with the people.

SOM is a leading firm in designing skyscrapers towards “net-zero energy”, where the building would efficiently generate the energy from systems within, instead of draining outside resources to function. To do this, Leung is amongst the leaders responsible for reducing the building’s economic footprint to as little as possible, with an example being a large wind turbine in the middle of the Pearl River Tower in China (highlighted above).

It’s an especially difficult challenge for a high-rise unless you create special energy sources with the surrounding environment. Knowing this, Leung and SOM create from a simple question: How do we make peace? Leung cites that SOM’s earliest designs were driven from the civilization making peace with the environment. The Pearl River Tower is a more modern example (designed in 2006, completed in 2011).

To further break down the urgency of why SOM is so focused on designing buildings with net-zero energy, Leung presented these stats:

2% of the earth’s surface is cities.

53% of people live in cities today.

By 2050, 75% of the world’s population will live in cities.

As you can see, urban development is moving at a rapid pace and the architecture industry, as a whole, is adapting for it. Leung then presented this quote, masterfully revealing at the very end that it was said in 1968 (!)

The strategy of accomplishment (to make cities humane) must come in the next 15 years. The urgency is greater than that of developing the atomic bomb in the 1940s or reaching the moon in the 1970s.

- Nathaniel Owings, Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill, to TIME, 1968

See? We need to adjust. And that’s what the industry is doing in what Leung calls an “Urban Sustainability Revolution” that we’re in now. To combat the rapid urban growth of higher populations, SOM is among the firms emphasizing on creating with less energy in the city. Leung states that to do so, SOM is connecting people in the city. And therefore, with a higher population, more ideas will be created in the city through more collaborations that happen at a 150% ratio as the population increases. It was a great idea to wrap my head around and more testament to the power of working together. After all, Leung concluded the talk by bringing it back to the people. SOM sees the most opportunity through the people and believes that we are our greatest hope. I left lunch with a renewed, gratifying feeling that we’re in good hands when our design leaders are creating from this platform.

Luke Leung, Director of Sustainable Engineering at SOM, presents at CAF Lunch Talks. | Photo: Sgt. Tibs

Luke Leung, Director of Sustainable Engineering at SOM, presents at CAF Lunch Talks. | Photo: Sgt. Tibs