IllinoisCRE Q&A: Andrew Balster talks designing for social impact Matt Baker August 7, 2020 Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Share via email Andrew Balster serves as office practice leader of CannonDesign, overseeing the firm’s 200-person Chicago office. In addition to managing teams and projects, one of his greatest passions is public interest design. Balster is able to explore those opportunities via Open Hand Studio, an-house incubator for public interest design projects. The goal of this initiative is two-fold: to connect individuals to organizations that provide design services for the public good, and to identifying and provide pro bono or reduced-fee design services to those who need them. What role can architecture play to bring about positive change within a community? Can poor design create harmful outcomes? I’m a firm believer that architecture represents the dominant ideology of our times and is a representation of the powers that be. However, I think that too often architecture is, in the 21st Century at least, representing a generic whole, not representing a really acute condition within a community. Look at places like Pilsen which has been really successful, though not perfect. They’ve done everything they can to preserve the historic character and cultural character of that neighborhood. I think we’re seeing the Generic City that was laid out by Koolhaas 20 years ago play itself out in every way, shape and form. Can architecture be a positive mechanism for change in a community? Without question. The issue is the architect is usually not in control of that. It’s built upon the developers, consumerism, investment and, ultimately, government powers. They kind of set the constraints by which architects work within. We’ve seen successful examples across the city, but when it comes to whether or not poor design can create harmful outcomes, just look at projects like the CHA in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. That was a designed entity that separated masses by race and by income level. It can very much be a divisive force. How great are the needs for pro bono design services? Are firms like CannonDesign and others coming close to filling that gap? Respectfully, I think that’s the wrong question. Ultimately, if you’re looking at a public project, maybe four to five percent max are A&E fees. The majority of construction costs are going into the hands of the contractor with the dividends in perpetuity going to the developer or owner. We’re a piece of that puzzle but we’re a really small part of it. I think we need to look at the mechanism of the whole of development where there’s greater partnership between developers and architects. And we need to set policy around that. The fact of that matter is the architectural profession has very low margins; we don’t have the same revenue structures as developers. There is certainly need for pro bono architectural services and we absolutely provide those at CannonDesign. Do we do enough? No, but we try. I just had a call yesterday for a community center renovation, for a church that is in a pretty rough area. I’m happy to offer time and resources. But I will tell you that in the COVID world right now, and with the current climate of economics and construction, we have to be careful because, as much as I want to do—and I do a lot personally, I’m on a number of boards for homeless shelters and various think tanks in the city—that’s my contribution. I’m not spending Cannon’s money. I believe in the work that we do within education and healthcare and overall societal wellness. Pro bono is something that more firms need to do, and I have spent almost half my career in the sphere of social impact design, and I know all the major players that are doing it. A lot of these systems fail because we don’t have the luxury of giving away the time or resources or dollars, and I think we’re criticized too often on that. What we need to be doing is pushing the other mechanisms of government and private development. Are public-private partnerships the best way to do that or is there more than we can do beyond those collaborations? Public-private partnerships are great. They typically incentivize the private angle of that more than the public, in my opinion. When you look at affordable housing for example, the reason that developers are not going into it en masse is that they can make a lot more money with market rate. It’s basically industrial banks that are having to buy tax credits from the Community Reinvestment Act and then they have to do it. But there still are only so many credits per state, thus only so many developers will get in line to take the risk of getting or not getting it. And if they get it, they still make a lot less money than a market value developer. I do firmly believe in more regulation around the topic though because I think LIHTC funding is saving a lot of people and putting a lot people in homes. I fundamentally believe that the home is the most important aspect of the built environment, because without that nobody thrives. I don’t think that we have the right public-private partnership model yet. I can’t say that I’ve got the perfect model, but it needs to be scrutinized more and needs to be held to a higher standard. I think that’s what Mayor Lightfoot is doing, as well as Marisa Novara, the housing commissioner. That’s the agenda they are trying to push for, which I think is the right move to do. What opportunities are out there right now in Chicago where commercial real estate can find synergy with equitable development? I deeply support the INVEST South/West initiative. It’s almost like an IDIQ where you would be a preferred vendor. When an opportunity comes along in Englewood, for example, and it fits with your expertise offerings, you can compete for an RFP when it comes out. It is basically building an arsenal of intellectual capital and organizations that are on the docket ready to work on the next Chinatown library or in Pullman. There is so much investment out there and this is where we need to see opportunity for big ideas. We’re seeing it with projects like The 78, but that’s still kind of in the central business district. The periphery of the West Side and the South Side have been neglected and disinvested for so many years. I think that our previous mayor did a lot of great things, quite honestly. I mean, he built up Fulton Market in in a way that nobody else could, but it didn’t it didn’t provide equitable distribution. I think what Mayor Lightfoot is doing right now is providing equitable distribution and involving the key players from the heart of the city to get involved in those communities. It’s going to take time, it’s not an overnight thing. But I think that the way she’s set it up is really powerful because developers will start to see the incentives.