W&C Architect Profile of the Month: Chris Dixon of NBBJ
No doubt readers will recognize this month’s W&C Architect Profile of the Month Chris Dixon. He has been one of the magazine’s contributing editor’s now for several years with his column Straight Green.
As his bio states, he is a registered architect, Certified Construction Specifier, and LEED AP. He works for the architectural firm NBBJ. Founded in 1943, NBBJ is a global architecture, planning and design firm with offices in Beijing, Boston, Columbus, Dubai, London, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Shanghai.
The firm provides services in architecture, interiors, planning and urban design, branding, consulting, landscape design, and lighting. The firm is involved in multiple markets and building types including: civic, corporate, commercial, healthcare, higher education, science, sports, and transportation.
Name: Chris Dixon
Title: Architect, Specifier, Senior Associate
How many years do you have in the profession?
I graduated from college in 1986, and have been working in the field of architecture ever since.
What is your work history in this field?
Straight out of college I went into the U.S. Peace Corps and worked as a Planning Advisor for two years in the Solomon Islands. Upon my return I began working as an intern architect for a small firm, eventually took the professional registration exam and passed it in 1993. I moved around a bit from firm to firm, went back overseas to work as an architect and project manager overseeing the construction of a national college campus (a position I held for four years). I moved back to the U.S. and searched for a career that combined my enthusiasm for solving difficult problems through a deeper understanding of building science, a desire to design more sustainable buildings, and my newly acquired expertise in reading and understanding specifications and contracts.
Where did you go to school?
Washington State University, in Pullman, Wash.
Did you have a specialization?
Yes. In addition to being a registered architect, I am a Certified Construction Specifier with special interest in building science, building enclosures, sustainability, and recently BIM.
Do you approach architecture from an artistic or functional starting point? Are the two concepts exclusive?
I have great respect for architects that can graphically articulate space and volume in ways that I never could. I am, as most architects are, an artist first and a technician second, but I have found that my strengths are more on the technical side of things when involved with the design of large buildings. The more I know technically, the better my design ability. Many problems that come up during design and construction could be avoided if the level of understanding of the technical (“functional”) aspects of the building design were on a par with the artistic component. My answer to the question is “no”-these are not mutually exclusive, they are inextricably linked.
If any, who are your role models?
My hero is not an architect but a building scientist named Joe Lstiburek of Building Science Corporation near Boston. It was through reading Joe’s books and technical papers and attending his lectures that I truly began to understand how buildings work. I remember just starting out as a draftsman at a small firm and asking my superiors questions like “why the vapor retarder goes here instead of there,” “is it a vapor retarder or a weather barrier or a moisture barrier or a water barrier or …” and never getting any sort of knowledgeable answer. The most common answer was “Because that’s how we always do it,”-whether it was the right way or wrong way. Lstiburek cleared it all up for me and he has single-handedly raised the level of knowledge and understanding about buildings and building science among North American practitioners in a way that has resulted in many fundamental improvements to our buildings. He is a one-man wrecking crew.
What projects, other than your own work, do you find inspiring?
I am a big fan of Samuel Mockbees’ Rural Studio for bringing high design to the disenfranchised and its innovative use of inexpensive, uncommon building materials. Line and Space Architects also do amazing work, and were practicing "sustainable design" long before the term found its way into our daily lexicon. A also greatly admire Lind and Space because the architects are also general contractors, and actually build what they draw!
How many buildings have you designed?
Trick question! I can count on one hand the number of buildings I have designed completely on my own. Most of my career has been with large architectural firms and in that capacity I have helped design dozens and dozens of buildings, ranging in size and type from a Bat House in a zoo, to a billion-dollar-plus hospital campus, and just about everything in between.
If you had to choose one to represent your work, what project would you choose? The first project I felt truly proud to have been a part of, and one of my favorite buildings, is the Reebok World Headquarters in Canton, Mass., by NBBJ.
What are your guiding principles when designing a structure?
My guiding principles as a specifier are pretty much in lockstep with the Construction Specifications Institute and include things like, “Say it once and in the right place!” and “When in doubt, leave it out!” As a building designer, my guiding principles come from Lstiburek’s writings and my knowledge of green building.
If you could have any building to redesign-anywhere in the world-which would you like to address?
Given the opportunity, I would love a crack at redesigning the national college campus project I managed for the Federated States of Micronesia during its construction. Although not the designer of the campus, there were many things I was able to improve upon during construction but so many more opportunities lost due to (unalterable) portions of design done with much regard for the site or the climate.
What types of products interest you?
My favorite products are those that offer fantastic, affordable solutions to the growing problems we face in designing resource and energy efficient buildings. I write about many of them in my monthly Walls and Ceilings column Straight Green.
What types of products in the wall and ceiling industry really interest you?
I get pretty jazzed about anything new and different in the exterior enclosure of the building. Super energy efficient steel stud wall systems, bio-degradable rainscreen wall panels, non-thermal bridging fiber reinforced plastic masonry veneer anchors. Stuff like that.