Q+A with Russ Drinker: New Managing Principal in HOK’s San Francisco Office

Thirty-four-year architectural veteran Russ Drinker, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, joined the leadership team in HOK’s San Francisco office on Sept 4. as a new senior vice president and managing principal.

As a pre-teen growing up in a 150-year-old Victorian farmhouse surrounded by an apple orchard in Saratoga, California, Russ built tree houses and forts. By the time he began studying architecture at the University of California in Berkeley in 1976, he had graduated to designing and constructing 2,000-square-foot solar homes.

“I had no business doing this, but I designed and built a custom house while an undergraduate at Berkeley,” said Russ. “It taught me about designing buildings from the inside-out and about sustainability. And I really enjoyed the client relationship.”

In search of a new experience, Russ took his undergraduate degree and headed east to New York City. Over the next 10 years, he worked for two firms while earning his Master of Architecture degree from Columbia University in 1986. He also ran his own firm, designing high-end residential and commercial projects. During this decade in New York, Russ had the opportunity to study with Steven Holl and work with architects including Thom Mayne, David Rockwell and Paul Rudolph.

“Working in an urban setting, managing lots of projects, absorbing how these world class architects ran their practices and worked in the studio, and studying history and theory at Columbia enriched my orientation to the design profession,” he said. “It was all quite distinct from anything I had experienced on the West Coast. But it also gave me a comprehensive grasp of project design and delivery.”

While in New York City, Russ also married Deb Holdeman, whom he had met while at UC Berkeley and was then working on her masters at Yale. They married in 1988 and in 1990 decided to move back to the West Coast to be closer to their families. Russ also wanted to have the opportunity to work on more new buildings.

Back in the Bay Area, Russ continued to enjoy design but found himself gravitating toward operations while in leadership roles at a series of mid-sized firms. “I was fascinated by what it took to run a successful architectural practice,” he said.

In 1997, Drinker joined MBT Architecture in San Francisco. Less than a year later, he was elevated to director of operations. Within three years, he was named CEO. In 2010, the MBT board agreed to have their 75-person firm be acquired by Perkins+Will, with Russ becoming managing director of the San Francisco office and then regional director of its practice in Southeast Asia. His experience there included research and academic projects on six University of California campuses and several at Stanford University. He also led a Green Mark Platinum project for the National Research Foundation in Singapore and a new 32-million-sq.-ft. campus for Princess Noura University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Russ joins HOK in San Francisco management committee members Paul Woolford, Lynn Filar and Rob Tibbetts in leading HOK’s offices in San Francisco and Seattle. He brings to HOK a reputation for leading large-scale, challenging, sustainable projects through innovative project delivery methods and a history of acting as an agent for strategic change.

What are the challenges facing architecture firms today?

Our clients are stressed by many issues related to globalization, the economy and technology. Their needs are changing rapidly. We need to help them look over the horizon to see what they want to be in the future and then create environments that will help them get there.

The ultimate measure of our success is whether we give clients what they need to thrive. I believe we need to provide design excellence, thought leadership, technical innovation and a great delivery experience. If we can act as their trusted advisors, and not just architects, clients will come back to us.

How is project delivery changing?

The rulebook for designing and delivering projects has been thrown away. From design-build to P3, every method is being looked at and new hybrids invented for every project. This experimentation with delivery methods is a huge challenge for design professionals and our clients.

Design is a team effort. I don’t think you can achieve excellent design or technological expertise or innovation without strong management. Design firms need to position themselves to lead projects in every kind of delivery method and then be fast and decisive. We can and should be leading these projects holistically.

You were named one of the “101 Leaders in Sustainable City Making and Theory” by Professor Steffen Lehmann in The Principles of Green Urbanism. What are the next frontiers for sustainability?

Technology that enables sustainable solutions is improving. The regulatory environment is changing to favor sustainability. Client support for sustainability is increasing because it can be achieved economically. All this means that building incredibly sustainable projects at market rates is no longer a pipe dream.

There has been a rapid pivot to looking beyond LEED to designing buildings that are net zero in terms of energy, carbon emissions, waste and water use. We want to look past that to creating climate-positive projects.

The technical nature of highly sustainable projects means we need to include great engineers as part of the team from the beginning. HOK’s in-house engineers are critical to our ability to designing integrated, sustainable building systems.

I am interested in restorative projects that go beyond individual buildings to impact entire communities. I have spent time in developing cities across Asia, the Middle East, the Americas and Africa that are stressed in every possible way. We need to be leaders in working with clients and local governments on long-term sustainable planning, which would preserve natural resources and environmental quality but, just as importantly, protect the local cultures. The more we can look at all the interrelationships of the large-scale systems, the more effective we can be at the building level. There is a huge opportunity to move away from the idea of individual high performance buildings to looking at the entire social and economic community.

What do you like to do when you are not working?

Whether it is drawing, building, literature or music, I have always been pulled to creative endeavors.

I have played bass guitar since the fifth grade. As a kid, I played in some bands and thought maybe I could make a living in rock and roll until I considered that I was not an extraordinarily gifted musician! But I still enjoy playing and collecting all types of instruments. I have basses, marimbas, steel drums and collect musical instruments from all over the world.

Family is important to me. My wife and I have an 18-year-old daughter and we live in Oakland in a 100-year-old home that we restored. We live in the Rockridge neighborhood of Oakland, which is a model of mixed-use urban development and walkability. We can walk to shopping, restaurants and the BART station.

I like to travel. I enjoy the cultural traditions, history and people of Asia. I also participate in all types of sports – activities like snow or water skiing, mountain biking or kite boarding at Lake Tahoe.

One Comment
  1. September 24th, 2012 - 12:37 pm
    richard saravay said:

    Good things happen if we wait long enough.
    I welcome Russ to HOK and look forward to his success in propelling HOK to ever greater accomplishments aligned with our vision for how architects and the environments we produce can change the future.

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