Q+A: Burning Calories with HOK Washington, DC, Sustainable Design Specialist Sean Quinn

“I have a lot of energy and I like to move fast,” says Sean Quinn, who just celebrated his first anniversary as a sustainable design specialist in HOK’s Washington, D.C., design studio. These days, Sean is channeling his energy into sustainable design with a focus on – you guessed it – energy. “It’s an obsession,” he admits.

Sean was the project manager and lead architect for the HOK / Vanderweil winning net zero building retrofit design for Metropolis magazine’s 2011 “Get the Feds to Zero” Next Generation® Design Competition. Metropolis and the GSA challenged designers to develop net zero energy solutions for a 1965 federal office building in downtown Los Angeles. The team reduced the building’s energy use by nearly 85 percent and got the rest of the way to zero through on-site renewables.

After gaining the permission of HOK D.C. office leaders to work on the Metropolis competition – mostly after hours and on their own time — Sean and HOK D.C. Sustainable Design Leader Anica Landreneau assembled a team that included 11 HOK designers and four Vanderweil engineers, each with less than a decade of experience.

Photo courtesy of Metropolis

You can see the team’s winning submission at their Process Zero website and plenty of Process Zero images inthe Flickr set.

Sean is a busy guy. In addition to doing interviews about the innovative Process Zero design with media outlets like Federal News Radio, he is providing sustainable design expertise, design analysis and energy modeling on HOK projects in the District of Columbia, Saudi Arabia, Germany and Russia. He sat still long enough to answer a few questions.

What is your favorite part of the winning design?

SQ: The algae bioreactor is an extremely exciting concept and unique opportunity. One of my goals is to create buildings that don’t just create less waste but that have a positive environmental footprint – to make buildings that are like trees. Our solution creates a building that can process dirty carbon dioxide on the site and turn it into clean oxygen and energy. Over the next five to 10 years, the technology for doing this could be transformational for the architectural profession.

Where did the team get the idea of using algae?

SQ: We began the project talking about how we would integrate biomimicry into our solution. HOK’s Scott Walzak had the great idea of making the building act like a cell – the simplest form of life. We started looking at overall principles of nature and Scott discovered these beautiful images of algae cells. That captured the spirit of the process moving forward.

The next question was how to use that in this building? We researched all the different ways algae is harvested and which methods could be integrated into the design in a way that made the building look good while harnessing carbon dioxide to generate energy and functioning as a living, breathing entity.


What did you learn from this design process about getting to net zero?

SQ: Research was a huge component of this project. We broke up our three-month design process into three parts. The first month was purely for research. We knew that we couldn’t just use existing, off-the-shelf products, so we needed to find the best emerging technologies that would work together on this building. We wanted to create a visionary statement for the future.

We learned that integrated design is essential. You must have architects and engineers working on the design together at the same time. Many of our design ideas looked good but didn’t have the overall performance benefits. We needed Vanderweil not just to push back on our ideas but to collaborate with us as we were developing the ideas. Our Vanderweil team members gave us a fascinating design presentation explaining the systems that would work in the building and illustrating how they would look. That set the tone. We all knew that any solution incorporated into this project would have to look good and perform well.

The second part of the process was general integration, which meant taking the best ideas from our research and integrating them into this building. Over the final month, we were busy formalizing those ideas and pushed to turn all the sketches and rough models into beautiful visualizations.

What was the path that led you to HOK?

SQ: I’m originally from Baltimore. My father is the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Global Health, where he does HIV/AIDS research. During high school, while working in a lab at Johns Hopkins, I found myself enjoying the medical illustrations, slides and presentations more than the medical work. So I realized that medicine was not my passion and gravitated toward architecture and its great balance of mathematics, science and art.

I studied architecture at the University of Notre Dame, which is a very classical school of architecture. What drew me there was the opportunity to learn about the development of architecture from ancient Greek and Roman times. I appreciate that classic sense of building and the idea that buildings should be in harmony with the urban and natural environments they occupy. When I got out of Notre Dame with a Bachelor of Architecture in 2003, I was interested in modern building technologies. I worked for a firm in Fairfax that designed the first LEED building in Virginia. Then I joined a larger design firm and worked on some great projects but I just didn’t feel like I was doing enough with green design.

After deciding to focus my career on sustainability, I enrolled at the Catholic University of America, which was one of just six schools in the country offering a Master of Science in Sustainable Design. The program had an emphasis on energy analysis through modeling and integrated architecture and engineering. Through that program, I was invited to do my thesis research for four months at Oxford University. In the spring of 2010, I got an internship with the U.S. Department of Energy. With the DOE, I was able to immerse myself in the field of energy efficiency and renewable energy. Interestingly enough, I worked with a group focused on the retrofit of existing commercial buildings.

After I graduated from Catholic University in May 2010, HOK offered me a position. It was a perfect transition from the policy realm to being able to influence the design of energy efficient buildings. That’s what brought me here.

At Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge in Northern Ireland

What gets you out of bed in the morning to come to work?

SQ: I enjoy pushing the envelope and addressing environmental issues through architecture. HOK has a strong commitment to sustainability and performance as our design aesthetic. All our solutions need to address issues of beauty as they address the urban context and also need to have a positive impact on the environment. There is a great team dynamic in D.C. and throughout the firm that allows those goals to be realized. I love that about coming to work here.

I am involved with HOK Impact, which is working to give the firm’s community and pro bono work a clearer focus.

As we work on high-end, high-tech facilities buildings, our challenge is to take technology from projects like KAUST and bring it to low-tech projects that benefit the community at large. I like trying to generate a balance.

What do you do when you’re not working?

SQ: My biggest hobby is racing sailboats. I love the wind. I have been sailing since I was nine years old and helped start the racing team in high school. For the past few years I have been crewing for a veteran racer named Keith Donald. Most of our training and racing is out on the Chesapeake Bay or along the East Coast. We competed in the 2008 World Championships in Miami and almost qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials.

Sean crews for veteran sailboat racer Keith Donald at the 2008 World Championships in Miami

A few years ago I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. My father was doing research in Uganda, so for his 60th birthday our family went on safari. After that trip, I went on to Tanzania and spent a week climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. What I didn’t realize is that you start the climb in a rainforest at the base and then go through a series of different geological zones as you work your way up to the 19,340-foot peak, where it was 20-30°F below zero with the wind chill. The sad part is that snow no longer falls in the 16,000-18,000 foot range. Where there once was snow is now broken shale and a distinct flower that spots the mountain everywhere before snow. My guide and I reached the summit at sunrise and I spent about two hours taking photos.

Sunrise from the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro (photo by Sean Quinn)

I have competed in triathlons and lately have been doing some adventure races with my girlfriend. I like going fast!

Next year some friends are getting married in the northeast corner of Australia during a solar eclipse. So we will go scuba diving by the Great Barrier Reef and then travel around Thailand and other locations. My girlfriend lived in Thailand for a year after college and wants to drag me around Southeast Asia. I want to let her!

At Gullfoss Waterfalls outside Reykjavik, Iceland

What are your goals for the future?

SQ: I would like to see conceptual projects like what we have created for the Metropolis Next Generation competition come to fruition. The integrated design process has become embedded within the HOK practice, and we’re now formalizing the use of many of the design analysis tools used in this competition. I would love to see us do more research and development with both industry and academia. We need to push the envelope of how to generate energy on-site through building integrated solutions. There are fantastic opportunities around renewable energy, and we as designers can influence their development within the built environment.

Coal and wind power coexist in Amsterdam (photo by Sean Quinn)

  1. June 2nd, 2011 - 1:51 pm
    Mary Ann Lazarus said:

    OK, I knew Sean was amazing…less than a year at HOK and already leading a major competition entry winner, but this article proves there’s more, MUCH MORE, to Sean than I had realized. Sean – it’s great to have your many talents on our team!

  2. June 3rd, 2011 - 7:28 am
    Anica Landreneau said:

    Woohoo! Sean rocks!

  3. June 3rd, 2011 - 11:37 am
    Sean Williams said:

    Great stuff Q!

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