Boston Home Winter 2010: Need for Speed: Cambridge's Single Speed Design: sustainable architecture

Boston Home: Why Boston?
JH: Like a lot of young designers, we met at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Jinhee was finishing her master’s when we got our first project, a three-townhouse complex in Cambridge called the Valentine Houses. Because the city gave us our first opportunity, we settled here.

BH: You have a New York office and projects in Asia. What is it about Boston that keeps you here?
JP: The people and the clients. There is an international influence here, and Bostonians are willing to experiment.
JH: People choose to live in New England because the landscape is so beautiful. They come here from all over with different perspectives, yet no one can stand living in small boxes with low ceilings. Much of our work is helping these clients fit more comfortably into their homes. I also find that the established firms watch out for the younger architects, more so here than in other places. That’s been very rewarding.

BH: What’s your philosophy regarding sustainability?
JH: Mainstream approaches to sustainability are too product-based. We think devices like solar panels are only part of the equation. At the end of the day, thoughtful design should accomplish more. Downsizing—changing the way space is configured, rather than building bigger—can also make a house sustainable.

BH: How do you incorporate this philosophy into your work?
JH: We’re just finishing a house in Newton that we hope will become a model for our kind of sustainability. The house is naturally ventilated—there’s no air conditioning—and the windows bring in plenty of light. Because a lot of potable water is wasted on a suburban yard, we replaced the grass with a productive landscape of vegetable gardens and shrubs.
JP: Our work doesn’t end with buildings. We’re also designing the Clover food truck in Kendall Square that will serve as a tasting lab for a future restaurant. The food is organic, and we use the leftover cooking oil to run the truck itself.

BH: Are there any local projects you’d like to tackle in the future?
JH: The house is really the core of architecture, and we love doing homes, but I think there are ways we could better contribute to the public sphere. We’d love to do a library, for example.

BH: How would you improve the city’s planning strategy?
JH: We have to stop being so isolated. The problem with our urban environment is that it is actually suburban in attitude. That three-foot side yard typical in places like Cambridge makes everyone believe they are alone. The result is that although we’re politically progressive, when confronted with the public review process, we say, “I don’t want other people near my space.” It doesn’t have to be this way: In New York, the buildings abut one another—there’s an expectation of collision.

BH: What specifically would you like to change about Boston?
JH: Transportation, sidewalks, density—these have to realign to become more public, more social. Zoning, for example, could change to allow more housing near T stops. We also need a better public review process to increase awareness of the larger agenda. Right now, the public says, “We don’t like this because it’s tall and made of metal.” A city planner at these hearings could help mediate between personal concerns and the larger public needs.

BH: Have you ever proposed this?
JH: [Laughs.] No. We’re too busy.