In Conversation with ASPECT’s new Director of Innovation.

Last fall, Amir Shahrokhi (B.Arch., M.Arch.) joined ASPECT, pioneering a new role – and a new perspective – for our global structural engineering team.

With more than 15 years of experience delivering projects and teaching around the world, Amir has joined ASPECT’s Toronto office as both Associate Principal and Director of Innovation. This Director role is a new position for ASPECT, and one uniquely suited to Amir’s perspective, fulsome architectural experience, and passion for mass timber design.

Amir’s experience prior to joining ASPECT is extensive, including his role as Director of Building Systems at Digifabshop, where he led the firm’s off-site construction efforts, and Project Director for SHoP Architects, where he delivered more than a million square feet of projects and became focused on mass timber design strategies. Amir is known for his innate understanding that inventive, meaningful, and well-executed work requires the input and aspirations of multiple stakeholders, and he is adept at aligning these aspirations amongst project team members to create memorable spaces and experiences that can positively impact public and private life. His experience includes everything from multi-block urban developments and multi-unit housing, to art installations and gallery spaces. In addition to his years of architectural practice, Amir has also taught and lectured at universities across North America, including Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania, The New School, the University of Arkansas, and Auburn University.

As ASPECT’s new Director of Innovation, Amir provides oversight and direction on project delivery and engineering operations, ultimately driving, planning, and implementing innovation across ASPECT.

We sat down with Amir to learn more about why he joined ASPECT, where his passion for mass timber comes from, and where he sees the greatest opportunities for innovation not only within ASPECT, but also across our industry as a whole.

 

Three renderings of 475 west 18 project. Exterior view looking up to the left, followed by hero shot of building, and last interior view of one of the suites.

ABOVE: Exterior and Interior views of 475 West 18th development in New York. Renderings Courtesy of SHoP Architects.

Obvious question first: why would an architect want to join a structural engineering firm?

Amir Shahrokhi: The architectural focus is centered around what the appearance of a building – the final built form – is, and how that form is experienced. While I’m passionate about architecture, for me, how the building actually comes together – the process of designing for construction, as well as actually constructing – is equally fascinating and equally important. This fascination with “how things get built” is something I’ve had from an early age – and only exacerbated by my junior high shop class. The “how” is critical, in my opinion.

Even from my undergraduate days, my experience in architecture has led me to work with talented designers and architects who had true design-build practices. Whatever we designed, we were also making ourselves. Anticipating the actions of how a design can actually come to life has become engrained in me, and this is an area where structural engineers have the potential to make an even greater impact. Structural engineers are responsible for the bones of a building – the aspects by which everything else is supported.

Particularly in today’s economic climate, how constructable a design is, and how efficient it is, truly impacts the overall viability. With more industry collaboration, I believe it’s possible to design and realize some truly beautiful…and equally constructable…buildings.

 

You’ve designed for a lot of different building materials in your career. Do you have a particular affinity for mass timber?

AS: Affinity is a good word for it – or enthusiasm. In the past, when I was working as part of architectural teams designing for projects that involved steel and concrete, I would ultimately spend very little time truly thinking about the structure. At the time, we really didn’t have to think much about the performance of the building or how viable it was, particularly when working with these materials. We knew that the design was going to work – a conclusion that would often be taken for granted.

Delving deep into mass timber really renewed my passion for constructability, and for the compatibility, viability, and efficiency of a structure. My experience with the material started about a decade ago, and was leading the design of a project called 475 West 18th – a project that actually started as a USDA/SLB competition before evolving into a project. This project gave me the opportunity to really engross myself with mass timber, as well as to travel to Europe and see how the products were made, and how those products were implemented in that market. The whole experience broadened my perspective – and also resulted in the project receiving a US Tall Wood Building Award.

On the whole, designing for mass timber forced me to think much more systematically about the structure as an integrative and expressive part of the architecture. For me, working that closely with the structural team was empowering. I could see that, at a structural firm, you could still influence constructability from the front-end of the process. Working on mass timber projects forces you to work more closely with all building disciplines, and to embrace more proactive architectural design practices…a beneficial approach, regardless of the materiality.

 

Of all the structural engineering firms in the world to join, why choose ASPECT?

AS: While working on this seminal 475 West 18th project, I was introduced to ASPECT Founding Principal Bernhard Gafner at Holzbau conference, then in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. A few years later, I reached out to ASPECT after SHoP Architects was awarded the Ribbon Building in the Distillery District in Toronto. Through Bernhard and Adam Gerber, ASPECT’s breadth of knowledge was immediately clear – both the firm’s experience as structural engineers and mass timber design specialists, and Bernhard and Adam’s personal experience as former carpenters.

It was also immediately clear that I had found a kindred connection for my passion for construction and building things. There was just an ease – a shorthand – that represented how clearly ASPECT thought about how things came together. Even in my architectural role, I didn’t have to explain what I saw – they saw it too. There was a true camaraderie of working with team members who have the experience and the shared knowledge that just makes everything easier.

 

Rendering of Ribbon Building in Toronto

ABOVE:  Exterior view of Ribbon Building in Toronto, Ontario. Rendering Courtesy of SHoP Architects.

From your “outside perspective”, what are the (potentially unrealized) opportunities for innovation within engineering operations?

AS: The biggest opportunity for innovation might seem retroactive, but I feel strongly it’s the most important focus right now: being able to anticipate what it means to construct something. Particularly as we’ve moved into more digital design practices, there is this gulf between what an engineer or a designer sees on screen, and what it means to truly build that thing in the field. There are, increasingly, opportunities for automation that expedite the tedious detail of the work, and would allow engineers and designers to take a step back and really consider…together…the design intent.

Efficiency-forward practices allow that space to take a step back. This space is just so critical, and particularly so for engineers, given the realities of the business. An architecture firm, frankly, has fewer projects to service at once, allowing for more attention for each project. The reality of engineering is often that you just have more on the go – more to balance and more to juggle.

Personally, I feel that pairing architects more closely with structural engineers – to provide more of a “bridging” role – is something we will see more and more of. Architects have the experience of coordinating the entirely of a project…of seeing all aspects. Sharing this insight more readily can help connect the “why” for structural engineers, and open up their own in a way that expands rather than limits. Context is key.

Of course, I also find the way that ASPECT has structured our practice particularly innovative, in that we do both “front end” work (through the design phase), and “back end” work (through the production and construction phases), and we use those experiences to inform the other scopes we’re involved with. Doing work for suppliers and research for product development – all of that knowledge is embedded when we’re completing our “up front” design work as well. Innovation through influence is the goal – leveraging our experience and repeat performance to show that there are ways to do things differently.

 

You’ve worked on projects around the world, and you’re based in Toronto now. What are some of the notable differences in the way developments move forward in Toronto?

AS: I moved back to Toronto in 2017, and it’s interesting to see how much has remained unchanged here. The zoning and the construction methodologies have formed a reinforcing cycle where the point tower typology that dominates here requires flat plate concrete construction. That’s where the skills developed, which then (in turn) reinforces more of that work.

I think it’s important that markets have alternative methods of product delivery, and that there is competition in that regard. If a market becomes highly-reliant on a single method of delivery, cost certainty can become an issue. There are ways of providing density that are not reliant on a single building typology or method of delivery. You can really see the market opening up to this perspective in recent years.

 

Widening back out to a global lens, what are some innovative ideas that you are most excited about that you see taking hold in the industry in the near future?

AS: Unsurprisingly (given my background), I get excited about all the work that’s being done in the industry connected to product thinking and platform-based approaches. I certainly don’t mean applying such approaches to every single building, but there is a balance that I think these approaches can help with.

Such balance is inherent in the way we already think about the built environment. A great example is the concept of “background buildings” and “foreground buildings”. While a building should always be contextually responsive and culturally appropriate, there is an important distinction between buildings that were designed to form more of the background (“background buildings”) and buildings that were meant to shine (“foreground buildings”). There is a very real need for both in an urban context. As a society, we wouldn’t want “all” foreground buildings, because then our environment would just be yelling at us all the time! Background buildings are equally important, and there is a lot to be said for delivering these buildings through a product-based approach. Streamlining “the background” can provide cost assurances around systems that have been pre-engineered and developed. This can also really help accentuate the “foreground” structures – structures that would (inherently) have a more significant immediate and long-term impact.

I love pointing to this example, because it really underscores the point that automation does not need to be everything – but it can be better utilized to focus our attention on bigger and more challenging ideas.

In my opinion, the greatest potential for innovation in our industry comes from being very selective about what to focus on – something a “designer-builder” mentality greatly underscores. That’s what excites me the most: an anticipatory mindset that finds new ways to create balance and focus.

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To speak with Amir about his experience, expertise, and new role at ASPECT, please reach out to him directly through his LinkedIn Page.