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Zachary Verhulst, managing director, PURE Architects Zachary Verhulst, managing director, PURE Architects COURTESY PHOTO

Startup architecture firm founder sees new design trends, need for inclusion in wake of pandemic

BY Sunday, December 20, 2020 07:05pm

Zachary Verhulst started Grand Rapids-based PURE Architects in August, about five months into the COVID-19 pandemic. Verhulst — who was named the 2019 Young Architect of the Year by the American Institute of Architects’ Grand Rapids chapter — believes the pandemic will cause a major shift in architecture and design, while social movements over the past year have underscored the need for more diversity in the industry.

How do you see the pandemic affecting architectural design trends?

I think it will be massive. We’ll see resilient architecture — emergency or crisis facilities — that people will start to study more. There will be more attention to indoor air quality, especially in health care and schools, and material research will be huge, specifically materials that prevent against or kill diseases. We already have antimicrobial and antibacterial material, but I think we’ll start to see that research and requirements for those materials change. 

Density in general is going to get looked at — on a micro scale from room to room and all the way to macro scale in cities. The consolidation of humans in space makes sense economically, but I think we’ll start to see some policy or zoning changes that might be less dense or individual spaces might increase. 

What are some ways architecture firms might operate differently in 2021?

I hope there will be a shift and that the traditional design team headed by a project manager and principal will get dismantled. Budgets coming out of the pandemic won’t warrant those huge teams. 

We’ve seen the need for a different set of skills or maybe a different set of eyes on a project. There are specialists like (diversity, equity and inclusion) consultants, health care professionals and guidance counselors who can consult on projects.

We’re starting to bring in diversity and inclusion experts as specialty consultants to our team. For K-12 work, the fact that firms typically don’t have social workers or guidance counselors involved in projects is a missed opportunity. Replacing carpet and paint is great, but if architects doing K-12 work are not benchmarking test scores and students’ grades, we’re doing students a disservice. 

What types of projects do you plan to focus on at PURE Architects?

We specialize in places where people live, learn and heal, including higher education, K-12, early childhood, health care work and any kind of multi-use or multi-family project. We’re a new but passionate practice and focus on spaces that uplift our community and impact our planet.

How will environmental considerations play a role in architecture and design going forward? 

It’s so critical, and it’s interesting in Grand Rapids. A lot of the city is so built out, so a lot of the work we do is in renovation. We just went through the 2030 District process where we had to make a sustainability action plan, which sets some very specific goals for our firm. 

We attach energy issues on every project, then goals for materials and water usage, which is the most challenging. The mission of the 2030 District is to work toward a carbon neutral Earth. We prioritize energy performance and publicly report how we’re doing. A lot of firms are kind of terrified of doing it — and it’s hard work — but it’s important work.

Why is it important to push for diversity and inclusion in architecture?

To me it’s an opportunity to apply a different lens than most other firms, and that’s why we do design work. Only 2 percent of the people licensed in the industry are people of color. For us, being Black-owned provides a path for other people who look like me. Representation matters — personally, I didn’t even know what an architect was until I was 19 years old. 

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