Interview: Peter Busby (Winter 2010)


COMPETITIONS: What led you to become an architect?

PB: I studied philosophy at the University of Toronto as part of my arts undergrad. In studying philosophy you study good and evil, right and wrong, laws and ethics. In the long run I decided philosophy was too sedentary, so I looked for a profession where I could live out some of what I had come to believe about right and wrong and essentially be able to do good. Architecture appealed to me as a place where I could affect the lives and futures of people in a non-political way. I also worked in construction to pay for the university—I did drywall—and got to know architects through that rather circuitous route, and talked to a few of them and went and visited some of their offices, and I took some introductory architecture courses in my final year of philosophy.

COMPETITIONS: You must have had people who influenced you greatly along the way.

 PB: I credit one of the professors at UBC, Dr. Ray Cole. for awakening me to the environmental aspects of architectural design. At that point he was a 23-year-old PhD, a new professor at UBC fresh off the boat from England, and he had all these wonderful things to say about environmental issues and foreshadowing what everybody knows today about global warming. As best friends, we have mentored each other over the last 35 years and worked on some projects together.

Brentwood Skytrain Station, Burnaby, BC

I took some of the knowledge from him and went off to Europe. At the time I graduated in 1977, work was pretty scarce in Canada due to a recession. So in 1979 I went to London, looked at Grimshaw’s work, Renzo’s work, and Foster’s work, and decided I wanted to work for Norman Foster, and spent three very great years at his office. He had a great effect on me. Of course he was interested in environmental issues at that time, and had just finished the Willis Faber, a very pioneering green building. Buckminster Fuller was in the office at that time doing some experimental work with Foster, and I got to meet and know him. Charles and Ray Eames were in and out of the office. It was a very interesting time to be there.

Otremare Marine Theme Park, Riccione, Italy (Photo: courtesy Busby Perkins & Will)

COMPETITIONS: Foster must have been a lot smaller in those days.


PB: It was 25 people when I joined, and 160 when I left. We won the Hong Kong Bank competition [in 1980]; that was pretty exciting times – a small 25 person firm winning an 800 million dollar project.


COMPETITIONS: In contrast to many schools of architecture at that time, you were exposed to green architecture pretty early. In most schools they weren’t even talking about that.


PB: Absolutely. In some ways, schools of architecture were the last place to get green. The faculty tenure process usually involved institutionalizing the oldest thinkers, so schools of architecture were very slow to learn sustainable design. The industry essentially learned it before the schools. But now the schools all get it, and teach it, and of course the kids want it all.


Revenue Canada, Surrey, BC (Photo: courtesy Busby Perkins & Will)

COMPETITIONS: Deciding to merge with a large firm can be a momentous decision after running your own firm for several years. What was the rational on your part?


PB: It took about 18 months to come to terms with an offer from Perkins and Will. They wanted to green their firm and wanted me as a partner to help in that process. I had my own studio for 20 years, and it was reasonably successful. The attraction of Perkins and Will from my side of the table was the immense organizational capacity they could provide. I was already working in many cities internationally, but each one of those was a joint venture with someone I didn’t know; so it complicated things with emotional content and legal and other issues. So here was an opportunity to partner with a firm that could pave the way if I wanted to work in Chicago, New York, LA, wherever, I would have a partner already who spoke the same language as me. I had been working in China at the time under very difficult financial circumstances, had difficulty getting paid. Perkins and Will already has that all figured out. It’s an extremely well run company. They valued what I valued and allowed me to keep my office and its culture intact without any significant dilution or absorption. I could have my own identity. So today, my office is still very much intact; we do the projects we want to and continue to do research – and Perkins and Will has the ability to support us financially. They take away problems of IT and infrastructure. It’s been a great relationship and it will continue for as long as I practice, I’m sure.


COMPETITIONS: In dealing with projects across the border, you run into different project liability laws. Canada’s laws account for more flexibility. What has your experience with that been?


PB: I don’t place as much substance in the argument. Whether you’re working in Canada, Europe, or the US, you’re liable for what you do – whether it doesn’t work or it fails, anywhere in the world, you are liable for what you do. What I do find in North America is that the engineers are generally more conservative and more likely to resort to repeating what they have done before because they know it works. Structural engineers [in Europe] like Arup and Buro Happold are more willing to take risks, to experiment, to research new ideas, to travel and look at other work. I remember [about four years ago] meeting with the people who run the architectural renovations of the United Nations in New York, and suggested a series of strategies that could lead them to a far more environmental approach. They said, “Well, has that been done before in New York? We won’t do it if it hasn’t been done in New York…or New Jersey.” There’s just a reticence to try new ideas, and it’s a shame. All the great architects and engineers travel and look at things, learn from each other, and to me that’s one of the joys of our business. We can move ideas from one corner of the earth to another: we can learn about tropical architecture and bring those ideas to the Deep South; we can learn from dry climates in other parts of the world and we can bring them to the desert; we can learn from Northern Europe and bring those ideas to New York, Chicago, and Toronto.


Gilmore SkyTrain Station, Burnaby, BC (Photo: courtesy Busby Perkins & Will)

COMPETITIONS: Several of your recent projects are connected with the rail transit system. Some might consider designing a light rail station as pretty mundane. But it doesn’t have to be. What do you look for in a project like that that others may not see as important?


PB: My interest in transportation systems is born out of my environmental ethic. We have to get people out of their cars and the best way to get them out of their cars is to give them a great experience in an alternative form of transportation. So in looking at transit stations, we are looking to make them safe, comfortable, warm, happy, dry. We’re looking to give a pleasurable experience. When America built the great railways in the 1800s, they built beautiful train stations. They wanted people to see rail as an attractive and noble experience. It’s only in the ‘60s and ‘70s that rail stations become backwaters as they fell out of fashion. Now you have the idea globally (not yet in America) that air travel is a grand experience; so you see the building of some fabulous airline facilities. So I wanted to bring that ethic to transit systems. All my transit stations feature warm lighting and wood – they are cocoons of comfort and safety, and I know people are enjoying using the stations.


COMPETITIONS: If you were building stations in Vancouver, it would be different than if you were building them in Santa Fe because the weather is so different.


PB: Well, I’ve designed 34 transit stations in Riyadh, 13 stations in Ottawa, one in Seattle, and about six or eight stations in Vancouver. They are all different, they are all climatically responsive, use local materials, and reflect the local culture in one form or another. In Riyadh we had the opportunity to harvest solar energy, so the skins are shading structures but also power generation structures.


COMPETITIONS: You are presently involved in a competition. Would you like to discuss the challenges you see in that program.


PB: There is a beautiful piece of land in Edmonton that was an inner-city airport covering about 86 acres. The city has closed the airport and would like to develop the land into a new community for about 10,000 people. They are interested in deep environmental strategies to make this community trendsetting. I know they have seen our work in Dockside in Victoria and are interested in the strategies we used there, so I think that is the reason why we were included. There are five firms in the competition: BNIM, a team from Sweden, a team from Holland, and Foster.


COMPETITIONS: Invited competitions have become the norm these days. How do you decide whether or not you are going to enter one?


PB: I limit myself to one competition per year, and always look at what the opportunity represents, at the jury, at the marketplace to assess whether it’s something that is worth chasing. There are many competitions in China and other places that are perhaps more fashioned based or more arbitrarily juried, so I try to avoid those and try to chase things based on sound, rational analysis of the scheme rather than simply whether or not it looks attractive.


Blusson Hall, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, BC (Photo: courtesy Busby Perkins & Will)

COMPETITIONS: Simon Fraser University was originally a competition won by Arthur Erickson back in the 70s. This is almost like a castle on the hill. How did you decide to deal with the expansion of what some might consider an icon?


PB: First of all, Arthur was a great architect. I never worked for him but I certainly appreciated his pioneering ways. It’s not so much a castle on the hill; it’s more of an acropolis or an agora – an incredible collection of spaces. Subsequent to his original scheme, there were a series of additions designed by less capable architects who lost the train of thought and didn’t see the spatial qualities that Erickson did. So when we were invited, there were two buildings side by side over about five years that would form the principal pedestrian new entrance from the east to the campus. We went back to Erickson’s vocabulary and decided to limit ourselves to the exact same materials that he chose, we carefully studied his rhythm of fenestration and the proportions of his work, and decided that we were going to be loyal to his ideas but update them from an environmental perspective. We created a significant courtyard and a great pedestrian entrance that’s related to the new eastern end of the campus called “UniverseCity.” I think it’s been a very successful project, and certainly won the hearts and minds of the administration at Simon Frasier.


COMPETITIONS: Sustainability is an evolving phenomenon. Where do you anticipate the next advances in our building culture?


PB: The environmental approach to architecture has been around for about 15 years in North America, and it’s been a process of organic growth. There’s no textbook on how to do it, but we’ve learned a series of strategies that have improved over time. We learned about thermal mass eight years ago, natural ventilation strategies, sophisticated tools for analyzing solar shading and internal day lighting strategies. It’s been a process of incremental learning, and we’ve reached the point today where we are doing much “less bad” than we used to do. LEED silver is less bad, LEED gold is even less bad, and LEED platinum is even less bad.


What we are interested in at the moment is the living building challenge where buildings are actually truly sustainable and do no harm whatsoever. We look at whether they are self sufficient for water, energy, and carbon. We have two such buildings currently being built and certified. There’s also the concept of restorative design, regenerative design, where the final building actually puts resources back into the environment. It might support biological diversity or ecological systems, or clean air and water more than it consumes. That to me is very appealing and very interesting. Again, we look to our partnership with Ray Cole to define what that means, and we’re developing a regenerative design tool to be part of our future investigation into deeply environmental projects that really make a difference. Buildings consume forty or fifty percent of the energy in North America, and in some cities even higher, and if we can turn that around and have buildings that generate energy, clean the air and water, and interface between humans and nature in a positive way, it’s a pretty bright future in my mind.


Centre for Interactive Research UBC, Vancouver, BC (Photo: courtesy Busby Perkins & Will)

COMPETITIONS: There are a lot of people investigating how to generate electricity very cheaply, such as using hydrogen.


PB: I don’t believe that the fuel cell fix is a real fix, or in the hydrogen story – that’s a technology, righting a wrong that is the overuse of energy. We have to look at basic principles, create better envelopes, and understand natural solar gain opportunities and harvesting waste energy. We have to look at more passive strategies. The Japanese build a whole series of very sophisticated technological solutions to environmental building needs, and to me they’re just more machines and don’t get to the root of the problem which is consumption. They ignore the opportunities that are there in a local climate or in natural materials.


So I am much more interested in design solutions that are more simple and passive, that relate to climatic and regional solutions. At the end of the day, we have to make better envelopes and consume less energy. We can design a laboratory at a university that uses 72 kilowatt hours per square meter per year whereas the typical building uses four or five hundred, and that’s just through the improvement of day lighting, envelope, passive solar – all the simple strategies that make so much sense to me.


COMPETITIONS: The nice thing I see about buildings in Europe is they have operable windows, which we don’t have much of, unfortunately.


PB: Well, the engineers in the ‘70s, after the first oil rush, decided that the solution for energy consumption was to shut the building down and breath stale air, rather than heat and cool fresh air. Generally speaking the outside air temperature in North America is usable from forty to eighty percent of the time depending on where you are and the time of year. So having buildings with operable windows makes a lot of sense to me. Also, in the last ten years we’ve seen the development of extremely efficient heat recovery equipment, so you can take all the energy out of exiting air and put it into incoming air. The entropy wheels now are 95 percent efficient, so waste air does not have to be lost energy anymore. There’s no excuse for not ventilating buildings properly. We know that people spend 98 percent of their time in buildings in one form or another in North America. They’re breathing air that’s been through a machine, so you want it to be healthy and fresh. It’s one of the great benefits of the environmental movement that healthiness of buildings has come to the forefront. It’s our job as architects to get there.


Nicola Valley Institute of Technology, Merrit, BC (Photo: courtesy Busby Perkins & Will)