Profile Response – SMRT of Portland, ME

HWWLT Logo on yellowI enjoyed working with architects, engineers, and landscape designers from SMRT several years ago when designing the MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta, ME. They invited me to visit their offices for a freeform discussion of ‘How will we live tomorrow’. The group included Ellen Belknap, Graham Vickers, Mark Johnson, Paul Lewandowski, Andrew Bradley, and Justin Grove. Specific attributions are only indicated on comments that swerved from the main thrust of the conversation.

imgres-1We started talking about healthy food, despite the fact that Ellen tempted the gathering with a box of Portland’s famous potato donuts from The Holy Donut. Local farming is finding resurgence in the area. Small farms are reviving in Scarborough (a Portland suburb). The Portland Food Coop opened four months ago and has four times as many members as they anticipated. Community gardens are being developed in Portland. There’s an urban trend for local agriculture, but it will have to work its way out to less urban areas to have an impact. St. Mary’s Hospital in Lewiston has a farmer’s market in their parking lot, which is both a symbol to the community that healthy food is good health, and allows their staff easy access to better quality food. MaineGeneral Medical Center has am ambitious local food program, but they’re finding the 18 to 24 year old demographic is the most resistant to new foods – if you consider heirloom vegetables ‘new’. At Henry Ford Hospital (Bloomington, MI) they had to create special training and appreciation programs to introduce food service staff to traditional foods and how to prepare them. The food spectrum has changed so much in the last ten years.

“This is all true, and the green movement is great for the affluent. But it’s not reaching to the poor. Not everyone can live on the Peninsula.” Ellen Belknap (The Peninsula refers to the City of Portland’s core, which is both affluent and funky).

images-1The green movement has to mature, and then it can expand. Andrew described how he installed a solar array on his house, but when he needed a replacement tube, the part was not readily available. Standardized parts, so prevalent in the automotive industry, are not yet part of the solar industry.

The practice of architecture will change. Collaboration was not inherent to architecture in the past. There are still some folks who work alone and present a design to be built. But younger people are much more collaborative, and it permeates everything. Working in open spaces is now the norm, which promotes open communication. As a joint architecture / engineering practice, this collaboration is SMRT’s strength.

With regards to the process of work, each of the participants talked about their children. Some have children in grade schools with combined curriculums, for example; physics, geography and cartography are taught together. Middle schoolers experience a lot of team projects, and the results are mixed. Sometimes the group dynamic is great, other times team members can skim through a collaborative process. Others have college-age children who are pursing cross-discipline degrees. Dual emphases coexist: people need to have necessary specific skills, and they need to have the general skills to collaborate with others. Accreditation requirements lag; they are focused only on specific skillsets. Look at the maker movement. You don’t need a deep understanding of everything you make, and because you’re not “expert” you bring a new perspective to the problem. We’re trying to create Renaissance people everywhere. Perhaps a new major is required, “Team Building” that combines psychology and business.

“Your personal experience becomes the lens for everything.” (Andrew Bradley).

images-2“Yes, but collaboration cannot usurp the need for focused knowledge. The best collaboration is people with deep knowledge, each approaching the problem from their perspective.” (Ellen Belknap).

The discussion of collaboration honed in on the college experience. Getting into college has become every young person’s first marketing endeavor. It’s difficult enough for kids with families and support; it’s too difficult for those who don’t have that. Not everyone needs the training that college delivers, but the experience of personal and social growth that college delivers would be useful to everyone. How do we deliver the college experience to all, regardless of the actual work they will do in live? Especially in an era when so many people have reduced expectations. The growth of community colleges is one step.

images-6Our school system prompts every kid to go to college, even though the process of actually going to college is so difficult. Perhaps the evolution of the ‘maker space’ can change the face of Vo/Tech so that is an acceptable track for more high school students.

Graham had several friends in high school that went on the mechanics track, worked in auto repair, and later became mechanical engineers. They brought a completely different perspective to the work.

images-5We are torn between an educational system that provides growth experiences and one that produces the work force we need. All labor is becoming more knowledge-based. Even Asia will lose its manufacturing edge once robots become cheaper than off-shore labor. We have to create a system that allows us to design / build / use in one environment. Look at fashion. It takes a year for couture to conceive and produce a custom garment. Yet fashion trends change every six weeks. The Gap was innovative in getting the process down to three mouths. Then Zahara sliced that down to 14 days – concept to store. It’s a creative model, but still dependent on cheap labor. Automation can address that downside. We want to make the connection between the user and the maker to be as short as possible. That’s what the local movement is all about. It is still fledgling, but it’s a good direction.

images-3The demand for everything is faster. Things sped up when we went from mail to fax, now with email the expectations of response are even faster. “We have all become commodities.” (Justin Grove), “Our profession is heading into tough straits. People think what we do is a technical task that can be reduced to production.” (Ellen Belknap). As technology evolves, we will have to move away form tracking our hours to tracking our deliverables. That is beginning to happen already, and it will change the way we do business.

imgres-2Look at Kaplan & Thompson. They are a full service design firm, but what’s really taking off is their Bright Built Barn. It’s net zero and modular. At $225 per square foot it puts net zero construction a more affordable range. It can be assembled in days rather than months, but it changes the role of the architect.


In many ways, it is a more appropriate role for architects. We are trained to design the landmarks but actually have very little influence in most construction. There are architectural parallels to fashion. We have starchitects who are the couturiers, then custom designs, which are like high designers, then the knockoffs, which wind up being most of construction. At imagesthis time, the most innovative design is happening in the most dynamic places on earth, the Middle East and Asia. Design in the United States is staid by comparison, which reflects our more mature society. We are no longer cutting edge.

What is the appropriate way to accommodate and embrace change? “The computer was supposed to save us time and lead to the 20 or 30 hour work week. Instead, we amped up productivity. At what point will we reap that change? Will we get to the point that we produce less? Can we make what we need rather than what we can? At some point there will be a crash, where production capacity eclipses demand.” (Andrew Bradley)



About paulefallon

Greetings reader. I am a writer, architect, cyclist and father from Cambridge, MA. My primary blog, is an archive of all my published writing. The title refers to a sequence of three yoga positions that increase focus and build strength by shifting the body’s center of gravity. The objective is balance without stability. My writing addresses opposing tension in our world, and my attempt to find balance through understanding that opposition. During 2015-2106 I am cycling through all 48 mainland United States and asking the question "How will we live tomorrow?" That journey is chronicled in a dedicated blog,, that includes personal writing related to my adventure as well as others' responses to my question. Thank you for visiting.
This entry was posted in Responses and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s