Q+A: HOK President Bill Hellmuth

Bill Hellmuth, AIA, who joined HOK in 1991 and ascended to president in 2004, leads design projects worldwide. But he is especially proud of the local architectural contributions of HOK’s Washington practice, which is located in Georgetown’s historic Canal House. Under Bill’s leadership over the past two decades, the DC studio has designed more than 25 buildings across the city.

Why is contributing to Washington’s built environment so important to you?

BH: I am committed to cities. They are my focus. Washington is a high-energy city with great institutions and museums and terrifically interesting things to do. It’s a wonderful place to live.

I love being able to move through my home city and see the collection of buildings HOK has added to the landscape. Whether we are working on a master plan with the Architect of the Capitol or designing a Buddhist Culture Center, labs, office buildings, or a master plan for a train shed, the opportunity to shape places at all those scales is exciting.

Why is the master plan for Burnham Place at Washington Union Station, which just won an AIA Honor Award, so important for the city?

Over the past two decades, Washington has gone through tremendous change and developed into a full-fledged capital city. Union Station finds itself at the heart of the city’s renewal near the Capitol Building.

As the Northeast Corridor develops and high-speed rail eventually links Boston, New York and Washington, the train shed at Union Station will anchor that. Our project is part of an overall master plan that uses the air rights over the railroad yards of Union Station. It’s not unlike when New York’s Grand Central Terminal was built.

The train shed will be a landmark that demonstrates the sustainable nature of train travel. Instead of skylights, we are using a series of clerestories between two arced roofs that are at different diameters. By introducing clerestory light, we can better modulate the light coming into the train shed and improve ventilation. The undulating form allows pedestrians to see the green roofs.

Union Station
Washington, DC

The DC Consolidated Forensic Laboratory opened last fall and has already been called a “national model” for forensics science. Why?

This is an east-west oriented building, with long, glass facades facing south and north. The rest of the building is a frame of limestone.

The building houses the city morgue, a crime lab and a public health lab. Because it was bringing together various city organizations, it was important to provide space where people can collaborate.

At the eastern end of the long, southern facade, we created a 20-foot-wide edge atrium housing the conference rooms and interconnecting stairway. People passing through this active space have spontaneous opportunities to talk to each other.

As the building’s dominant street face, the rest of the south facade is made up of a series of glass louvers that track with the sun. The pitch of the louvers changes based on the sun’s location. If the temperature drops below 32 degrees, a barometric pressure gauge sets the louvers vertically so snow can’t accumulate on them. As the sun moves across the sky and the pitch of the louvers changes, the hue of the glass takes on a different character. The building is ever-changing and quite delightful.

This building educates people about its sustainable strategies. You can clearly see how the building relates to its orientation and deals with solar radiation.

Consolidated Forensic Laboratory
Washington, DC

What are your favorite parts of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s new Center for Weather and Climate Prediction, which recently opened in College Park, Maryland?

First, I like that this had to be a very cost-effective project for us to win the design competition — and that it is LEED Gold.

We started with a simple strategy for bringing sunlight into the space. Sunshades and light shelves become the architecture of the long, curving south facade. The long north facade looks into the woods. We created a super-efficient, 80,000-square-foot floor plate arranged around a triangular atrium. By optimizing the building form and floor plate, we were able to do some fun, sculptural things within the budget.

Buildings that say something about their occupants always intrigue me. We wanted this building to communicate the motion of waves, which is studied by NOAA’s scientists.

All the roofs are vegetated except for the sloping roof. When it rains, water moves down that sloping roof, onto 18 stainless steel wires and into a French drain. During rainstorms, the building becomes active as the rainwater feeds a beautiful waterfall that charges the bioretention swales and that is visible from the atrium. This feature relates to NOAA’s mission, is efficient and sustainable, and is visually interesting.

NOAA Center for Weather and Climate Prediction
College Park, Maryland

What is the next frontier for sustainable design?

Our approach to sustainability has become less poetic and more scientific. We’re focusing on how sustainability interacts with building sciences. Based on our commitment to buildingSMART and BIM, we have the ability to establish and achieve measurable sustainability goals. With this approach, we’re making a bigger impact.

Tell me about the sustainable goals for your Msheireb Heart of Doha project in Qatar.

Our client has a wonderful goal of creating a sustainable, Washington-scaled city where the 14 buildings we’re designing are between six and 15 stories high. We need to design an urban fabric that is indigenous to the area. Most of the building materials are solid and only 20 to 35 percent of the building openings are glass. It is a human-scaled, welcoming development that will be connected to Doha’s new subway system.

Msheireb Heart of Doha
Doha, Qatar

What do you enjoy most about working in the Middle East?

Our clients in the Middle East have a wonderful, infectious energy and a commitment to building their cities.

We designed a 74-story building under construction in Abu Dhabi as the headquarters for the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company – ADNOC. Though it is very tall and will be a new UAE landmark, the building has a simple form. It creates a sense of dignity by being quiet, strong, and improbably thin and elegant. There is a lesson in that.

ADNOC Headquarters
Abu Dhabi, UAE

What is the lesson?

That nothing is timeless but great buildings can remain relevant over a long period of time. A great building has a certain integrity in its architectural moves and devices. Its design is rooted in meaning, not fashion. Great architecture is inspiring and uplifting. It contributes to the culture, society and fabric of its place.

Who is an architect you admire?

Eero Saarinen has inspired me. Saarinen’s buildings are based on strong ideas and never fashionable. The Dulles Terminal was about the freedom of flight. That idea is expressed in the freedom of the span creating the terminal’s great hall. There is a lot to learn about beauty, simplicity, strength and attention to proportions in this building. It stands the test of time.

What advice would you give young architects?

There are lots of talented architects. Young designers should understand that the formula for success includes a combination of design talent, communication skills, the ability to apply building sciences, a willingness to follow your passion and a lot of really hard work.

What unites HOK’s people around the world?

When you are in a room of HOKers, everyone genuinely wants you to succeed. Is this part of our DNA, maybe passed down from the Midwestern values of our founders? I don’t know but it is powerful.

Do you have other creative outlets?

I do a fair amount of painting. Each time I start a new painting, I think of an exhibit in which I saw 30 paintings from the last 30 days of Van Gogh’s life. I am plodding along thinking, “That guy did a painting a day — each one of which was a masterpiece — what the heck am I doing?” But painting is a great outlet.

“Yellow Sky”
By Bill Hellmuth

3 Comments
  1. February 28th, 2013 - 1:20 pm
    Dennis Paoletti FAIA FASA FSMPS said:

    As a young acoustical consultant in San Francisco in 1967 one of my first consulting assignments was working on the hok/ccc Richardson Bartlett High School in Anchorage AK. Bill Valentine, Bob Sauder and Patrick McLeamy were all active in the local office. It was a great and memorable experience and introduced my to the relationships and workings of the hok organization.
    In my 46 year career I’ve had many really wonderful experiences working with the highly professional, talented and dedicated staff at a number of the hok offices. Most recently I had been working on the Doha airport a number of years before returning to my own practice as an independent consultant.
    Best of Luck in the future
    Keep up the good work
    Dennis dpaoletti88@gmail.com; 415-990-5229

  2. March 3rd, 2013 - 1:51 pm
    Mide. O. Akinsade said:

    This article reflects the numerous great opportunities and projects that HOK is pursuing across the globe under the design leadership of Bill Hellmuth. As “Place makers”, they present opportunities for HOK to help shape and define the built environment for cultures and institutions into the new century. Great article!

  3. March 7th, 2013 - 3:01 pm

    Congratulations to Bill Hellmuth for crafting such a wonderful design legacy. We hold a great respect for your work and were pleasantly surprised to learn that you are a painter!

    Caitlin Walsh, GPI Design

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