Analysis

Better together

The merger of Schmidt Hammer Lassen and Perkins+Will enables both firms to work together to create smarter buildings driven by human behaviour, Sanne Wall-Gremstrup and Phil Harrison tell Stu Robarts


When Perkins+Will (PW) bought Schmidt Hammer Lassen (SHL) in early 2018, the US behemoth knew it was getting the Danish firm’s expertise in human-centred design. For SHL, it was a chance to develop that expertise further.

“It’s always been core to us to take a hard look at human behaviour,” SHL’s managing director Sanne Wall-Gremstrup tells CLAD. “We are constantly looking for ways to improve our understanding of how people and spaces coexist, as it drives productivity, joy and health.”

Tracking and gathering that sort of data has become easier over time, but it’s something that Wall-Gremstrup says SHL has been able to accelerate further under PW’s ownership.

“We’re currently involved in projects where we’re making use of advanced sensors in our pursuit of learning more about how people use buildings. We used to simulate it, but now sensors empower us to explore things in real-time with real data.”

Among the metrics the sensors are being used to track are things like movement, acoustics, temperature and light. By applying custom algorithms to the data collected and combining it with subjective data from users gathered through surveys, questionnaires, and observations, SHL are able to develop their understanding of how people behave in, perform in and appreciate space. They are then able to modify spaces accordingly.

“As an example, in the common spaces of libraries, we can tell if people are concentrated or stressed,” says Wall-Gremstrup. “When stress arrives we can offset this through, say, reshuffling interiors and work processes. Then we validate the prototype, and if it works, we stick with it and capture the learning, and if it doesn’t, we’ll try something different. It allows us a life more in beta, always dynamically testing and pursuing perfection.”

 For PW, the acquisition was never simply a matter of asset gathering – in SHL they saw a firm with both a similar philosophy and, as CEO Phil Harrison explains, the ability to render complicated ideas into its space-making with “elegance and beauty”.

“A lot of this comes out of the Danish ethos – they’ve been at it a long time – the ideas of democratic architecture and democratic space, the philosophy that space is for citizenry and that buildings serve a larger purpose than just being for the owner or the person that happens to occupy them at a certain point in time.”

By way of example, Harrison cites SHL’s Dokk1 project in Aarhus, Denmark – a library and public square, the place you go to get your passport and driving licence, a pre-school and an arts and culture venue.

“It transforms the idea of what a library can be,” says Harrison.

Wall-Gremstrup also cites Dokk1 as a good example of SHL’s approach – specifically in exploring the impact of its architecture on the experience of its users.

For the Monroe Blocks masterplan project in Detroit, meanwhile, SHL have been using energy performance, daylight and people-flow simulations to understand potential massing and to inform elements such as the location of entrances and lift capacities.

And, for the Seaport World Trade Center in Boston, SHL have been using weather scenario simulations to assess site resiliency and how to adequately protect the building against extreme sea-level rises.

“We’re just scratching the surface on all the technology components entering into the design field, says Wall-Gremstrup. “It’s tremendously exciting and we’re going to learn much more about building materials, upcycling, recycling, intelligent lighting, energy consumption and how to deliver sustainability goals.

“We can use these insights to fuel our essential belief that quality architecture enhances people’s lives. Now, it’s smarter, faster and comes at a lower cost. It’s not that everything becomes scientific, it’s more that our creative decisions become better informed.”

The innate human-centredness of SHL’s design will be something PW can draw upon with the practices now working alongside each other in New York and San Francisco studios – and for Harrison, who has led the company since 2006, it’s a timely opportunity.

“Just in the last couple of years, I’ve seen a notable shift where most clients – or at least the clients we want to work with – are very focused on how buildings are used and experienced as the primary design driver,” says Harrison.

“The qualitative, experiential and environmental aspects of space have become that much more central to most client’s missions. It’s a fundamental shift.”

Although PW and SHL will continue to work separately on plenty of projects, they will also work together – with each taking the lead where appropriate – on certain projects, including an upcoming mixed-use development in Toronto and a mixed-use masterplan in Vancouver.

“Our inspiration is not to have a single style or a single methodology across the firm, or even a single voice, but a recognition that we’re much richer and that we have greater excellence in our work if we embrace a notion of diversity,” says Harrison.

“This goes for the people in our firm, our clients and the places in which we work. And we think having a Danish voice in a diverse organisation in which you share certain core principles that may be put into practice by different people makes for a richer design conversation.”

Schmidt Hammer Lassen

Completed buildings 

Skanderborg Town Hall, Denmark (2016)

Thor Heyerdahl College, 

Larvik, Norway (2009)

Vendsyssel Theater, 

Hjørring, Denmark (2017)

Malmö Live, Sweden (2015)

ARoS Museum, 

Aarhus, Denmark (2004)

Ongoing projects

Monroe Blocks, Detroit, US

Fisketorvet Copenhagen Mall, Denmark

Sports and Culture Campus Gellerup, Denmark

Dahlerups Tower – Carlsberg Byen, Copenhagen, Denmark

Seaport World Trade Center, Boston, US

Perkins+Will

Completed buildings

Albion Library, 

Toronto, Canada (2017)

Historic Emancipation Park, Houston, US (2017)

National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, US (2016)

Northwestern University Ryan Fieldhouse and Walter Athletics Center, Evanston, US (2018)

Shanghai Natural History Museum, China (2015)

Ongoing projects

Destination Crenshaw, 

Los Angeles, US

The Meadoway, Toronto, Canada

The Stage, London, UK

Suzhou Science and Technology Museum, China

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Company profile: Willmott Dixon
Willmott Dixon delivers the social infrastructure that people depend on in their daily lives. We partner with our customers to focus on the services they want to provide, not just the building we construct, and we are committed to achieving a higher social purpose through our work.
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