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Interview with Kate Rufe – Civic Design Architect
Photo: Kate Rufe, LMN

Kate moved to Seattle 5 years ago and is an architect designing in the public realm. She embraces the complexity of large, civic projects and is interested in how social context, technology, city values, and regional ecologies all contribute to Seattle’s urban design and architecture. She counter-balances urban weeks with mountain weekends, convention center design with jewelry design, and east-coast roots with a west-coast life.

Q: POWER in design is…

A: …To bring people to the table. Collaboration. As designers, we have to push beyond our own understanding of the issues if we hope to achieve a greater impact. As a team, we all approach problems from different angles and experiences, analyzing the same data with different questions. With the right diversity of minds at the table, we can better understand the competing needs of a challenge; to think in different directions and then bring it back to the center. When we are truly collaborative, and when individuals have agency within a group, we are empowered to realize solutions that simultaneously resolve multiple problems.

Q: What are three implications of design power that you have encountered?

-Reach: The ability of our work to have positive effects beyond the project property line.
-Innovation: Finding a new way to solve an old problem. It might be a new process, or a new result, achieved through creative problem solving.
-Elegance: In bringing different thinkers to the table, we sometimes fear the result of competing voices, lacking clear direction. Successful design collaboration produces just the opposite—it flies below the radar, achieving multiple goals seamlessly—it reads as one solution, that can speak in many directions.

Q: When have you had powerful impact through design?

A: In the most recent years, I’ve been working on long-term, large-scale projects. So I see the impacts of my work, and those of my team, helping shape ever-evolving building designs towards our goals for the project and the city environment. With projects whose scale spans the realm of architecture and infrastructure, we engage with the public and the city for feedback and responses, but we’re also somewhat waiting for the end result—the realized project—to really test our work and see its direct impacts. One great satisfaction is the ability to communicate ideas through design. A greater hope, though, is to see the human engagement that good design can affect. To see that people who live, work, or play within our architecture and our city have increased well-being, or that it can spark some curiosity and moment of surprise for them, or that they feel more welcomed in new spaces.

Q: Tell us about a project that you completed that you are most proud of.

A: It’s still a work in progress, but I’m really proud and excited about what we are achieving with the Washington State Convention Center Addition. We are changing the future of the convention center typology as we face very complex, urban challenges to solve with this project. In our office alone, we have about 45 people working on our team, and more than 20 consultants designing with us.

It’s an unusual form and location for a convention center: we’ve stacked three long-span assembly spaces on a constrained, urban footprint, with active and engaging edges on all sides. What you traditionally see in convention centers are sprawling, introverted building forms, windowless assembly spaces, and isolation from local culture. We’ve completely turned this on its head with a high-rise building; daylight and views into and out of every large assembly space; with high levels of transparency and circulation on the building exterior—to invite interaction between the building and city, the visitors and locals. We are targeting LEED Gold, with our energy model achieving 32% energy reduction, along with greywater recycling, PV arrays, stormwater retention and low-irrigation planting, and ‘dark sky’ compliant lighting among the sustainability highlights.

We’ve closely studied the city context surrounding us, for what is lacking and we might provide, and what great characteristics we can reinforce to make a vibrant, memorable place for both visitors and locals. We aim for the building to be an asset for the public, reinforcing our evolving city fabric. We hope it will be a proud and welcoming local destination, strengthening neighborhood connections, and that it will be authentically ‘Seattle.’

Q: What questions do you ask before you begin any design project?

A: The first questions are fairly straight-forward: understanding the client’s needs, the building requirements, the site, and cultural context. The second round of questions aim to uncover the invisible possibilities—the ways to make a project reach beyond its expectations—possibilities that are unknown until you take the time to dig a bit and discover them.

Q: Describe your creative process.

-Suspend disbelief and constraints, and ask far-reaching “What if it could… what if we could…” questions.
-Simplify… add a layer… break it… fix it… (repeat).