Good, Thoughtful Hosts #213: Special Anniversary Series -- Looking at the Future with Ashleigh Powell and James Foster

Last up in our special series is a look at the future of design (and Cushing Terrell) through a chat with Ashleigh Powell and James Foster. The two will guide us through some trends that are taking off — but also describe the attitudes and skills that are crucial for setting yourself up for future success.

About Our Guests

Ashleigh Powell, LEED AP BD+C and WELL AP, serves as Cushing Terrell’s Director of Sustainability and heads up the firm’s Green Advocacy Council, which advances the firm’s sustainability commitments through action and education. Based in Austin, TX, though globally-impactful, Ashleigh works with clients and project teams to identify effective sustainable design strategies. She helped develop Cushing Terrell’s in-house Sustainable Design Initiative, a compilation of best-practice design strategies aimed at promoting environmental stewardship, human health and wellness, resilience, and equity.

Associate principal James Foster, AIA, LFA, is an architect and leader of Cushing Terrell’s Austin studio. He has a deep background in creating innovative solutions in commercial, institutional, retail, and advanced technology domains, among other market sectors. His expertise includes the fields of biomimicry and biophilic design, workplace design, and commercial real estate development, and all of his work is underscored by human-centered design thinking. With a childhood spent between Colorado and New York, James has called Austin home for several decades.

Episode #213 Transcript | Listen on SoundCloud

Sarah Steimer: Hi everyone. I’m Sarah Steimer, and this episode of Good Thoughtful, Hosts is our third and final installment in our special series that commemorates the 85th anniversary of Cushing Terrell. We’re going to focus on the future today, and yes, we’ll discuss some trends that are taking off, but we’re more interested in what sort of attitudes and skills can be nurtured to set yourself up for future success.

You’ll hear us talk about not being afraid of the unknown, and how to address challenges with a sense of curiosity. Like our prior episodes, the theme really seems to be about working from the right foundation.

Producer: Today’s special guests:

Ashleigh Powell: Hi, I am Ashleigh Powell, director of Sustainability.

James Foster: Hi, I am James Foster, architect and associate principal.

Sarah Steimer: Awesome. Well, thank you both for joining us today. You have, you guys get to tell us what you think will happen in the future.

Isn’t that exciting? You can be our soothsayers, but no, actually our, uh, our conversation’s really going to be, uh, more around how the firm is setting itself up for success in the future. No one can really. Be, you know, fortune tellers. But you can try your very best to make sure that you can at least be ready when something comes down the line.

So that’s what we’re gonna talk about. We’re gonna talk about keeping an eye on the horizon. Uh, so let’s start with something like that. Is already occurring today as far as being a very big trend, but of course, it’s not going away anytime soon. Let’s start with sustainability. let’s start with how the firm has maybe already started to take steps to consider things like greenhouse gases and being at the forefront of being as green as possible, but also how you’re preparing for what’s coming along down the line too.

Ashleigh Powell: So as it relates to, sustainability and the future? Yes. Um, the trends right now that we are really trying to address, no, no surprise here, but decarbonization is one of the hottest topics, um, and most significant challenges we face as a planet, quite frankly. And there’s so much opportunity for us as the architecture, engineering, and even construction community and beyond, of course, to address, Decarbonization, we know that buildings, you know, specifically are responsible for, 40% of the energy-related carbon dioxide emissions.

And so we have an incredible opportunity and responsibility to address that. So as a firm, we have committed to, the decarbonization strategies for our projects as well as our practice. We’ve recently, committed to, an SME, climate commitment, which is geared towards small to medium enterprises.

And we’re, we are moving forward full force to cut our greenhouse gas emissions in half before 2030 and achieve a net zero emissions for our operational practice before 2050. So as a team, we have conducted a greenhouse gas inventory of those emissions associated with our operations, and we are now in the stage of looking at, the most impactful ways in which we can start to make emissions reductions over time. So it’s a really exciting, place for us to be because the knowledge that we’re gaining through, this decarbonization analysis of our own practice and, creative, problem solving for the ways in which we make those reductions, that knowledge is directly applicable to The challenges our clients and communities are also facing. So really feels like one of these very exciting moments where we’re all in this together and we can see this momentum where we’re all moving forward. So many of us are moving forward, collectively to solve this problem that has been looming for such a long time.

But there’s real true, electric, you know, momentum right now to address it.

Sarah Steimer: So when you’re talking about, you know, sort of the, the look that you’ve taken at a company level and making sure that it’s reducing, its greenhouse gas emissions, its footprint, things like that, you know, and you’re able to then lead by example.

Have you found that it’s helpful, let’s say, when you’re talking to a client to say, We’ve already done this for ourselves like we’re already looking at this internally so we know what sort of issues might be coming down the line for you. Ha. Has that been a conversation you’ve been able to have?

Ashleigh Powell: Yes, it has.

we actually have had clients since we’ve made that commitment. We’ve had clients approach us, you know, wanting to address the same challenge for their operations. And so, we have been able to speak directly to, Where we are on our journey and the lessons that we’re learning from that process and how we can help them, begin their journey, and their target, their specific reductions as well.

So, uh, yes, it’s absolutely, you know, a conversation we’re having and we’re continuing to see momentum around. you know, it’s, it’s, and it’s similar to kind of the beginning, Chapter for the Green Building Movement. Uh, we took a similar approach many years ago when something like the Lead Green Building Rating System was really gaining a lot of momentum.

We knew that the best way for us to really deliver the best client service and become the subject matter experts, for sustainable design strategies would be to address that for our own operations, our own building. That’s really kind of the way in which we have approached a lot of the challenges, throughout our, our history is to, um, to look at our own practice and, do better here so we can share those lessons with our clients and communities as well.

Sarah Steimer: I think you know it, that’s a really interesting way to almost be a bit of a fortune teller for other people is to have already gone through it yourself. You know, it’s, it’s almost like when you have. Older students. We were just talking about back to school before we started recording, but it’s almost like when you have older students mentor younger students.

’cause it’s like, Hmm, I already went through this. I know what you’re about to go through in a lot of ways. So to be able to step up and say, Hey, we’ve already made some of our buildings green. We know what challenges are ahead. It does feel like there’s a little bit of this forward-thinking on behalf of the client.

Uh, if that sounds accurate to you.

Ashleigh Powell: Right. Well, really, for me personally, one of the most inspirational quotes that has, Been in the back of my mind and really was that first source of inspiration, around sustainability is from Buckminster Fuller. And he reminds us that the best way to predict the future is to design it.

And so we have to embrace those design challenges internally in order, uh, to deliver them externally. So, you know, if we’re gonna be focused on designing the future, we want, for our kids and our communities, to experience tomorrow, we really have to be looking at those design solutions today. And embracing them.


Sarah Steimer: So, we of course can’t talk about anything happening in the future, uh, without talking about technology. You know, it’s sort of that idea of any time, anyone, I mean, even back in, you know, the, the sixties and so forth, when people were like, oh, well, the. The future with the Jetsons and so forth.

Like that was all so technology-based, you know, having like the, the robot helping out at home and everything. Rosie the robot. Uh, so, so let’s talk about technology and how you guys are staying on the forefront and kind of predicting the future a little bit by way of technology then.

James Foster: Sure. Yeah, that’s a great topic.

Um, I know with, The discussion we had, with Greg talking about the pillars that we’re focused on with our strategic plan. Technology is one of those along with sustainability. technology is something that, we are, we’re leaning hard into, uh, understanding how to best employ, uh, new technology.

We are definitely not in that sort of group that is, standoffish or dismissing. The importance of the impact. We’re not getting spooked by the fear of AI taking everybody’s job away. Um, because the tools and technology have always, been. Developed and employed in a way that, yeah, it has an effect on the way that we work now, but it al it always has a net gain.

It dramatically increases productivity. and so we are, you know, we’re gonna embrace it and we’re going to figure out how to use it best. And the way to do that is to get engaged in it, start working with it and understand it best. So I think that one of the ways that we look at this is that, if we’re working with the tools, we can become sort of experts at how to optimize, how to use them best. And one of the things that I’m excited about with, particularly like think about AI is that it’s gonna start to create a clearer distinction between the work that we do that is just kind of the drudgery work. It’s just the tasks of, of doing kind of the.

work that’s kind of repetitive and, uh, exploratory and time-consuming and really enable us to focus our energies on what people do best, which is really embedded in creativity and, and coming up with new ideas, the things that AI won’t be able to do; we’ll be able to do that. And it changes our sort of value proposition as a business.

So in the future we will be focused more on the value of what we bring to our clients rather than the time spent doing the work to create what our clients want. And I think that’s a, a huge difference and super exciting to me because it lets us kind of work in, in our sweet spot and do do what we do best.

So that’s great. A couple other technologies that I think are really compelling that we’re working with is, um, the, the metaverse, is being deployed and developed. It started off with kind of a, a kind of a hype. Idea that’s sort of rooted in entertainment and, and kind of fun stuff. But, what we’re seeing now quickly evolve is, some really useful applications that enable us to do more, research and testing and applications as well as ongoing, management that really optimizes, kind of the effort put into.

How we design and how, buildings that we design are operated and maintained, um, in a way that’s super valuable. there’s gonna be a big evolution toward, uh, embracing the metaverse and how we plug into it. One of the, the things that, um, is used in the industry that people talk about is, um, the concept of digital twins, which is specifically related to, Developing a, an electronic digital version of the, the built facility so that you can do scenario planning and do some, testing and, do some maintenance, operation management kind of scenarios that are really valuable.

And then you can use it as a tool for tracking, um, what you do. And, and that’s, that’s really valuable. beyond that, some of the things that are also cool in technology are the, the rapid pace of. Development and new technology, it’s kind of daunting because it’s gonna hap, it’s gonna happen so fast, it’s gonna be hard to keep up with.

So that’s why we have it as one of our pillars because we really need to stay on this and work, carefully with it, be very intentional about engaging with it. for example, some things that are gonna be. Changing dramatically are, this development in, synthetic biology. that’s a really fascinating area of research.

And one of the things that I’m excited about with that, and it relates to sustainability, is the technology is gonna enable us to develop, new methods for how we produce energy. So we can move away from fossil fuels and we can start to model, natural energy. Forms like biochemical. Uh, energy and chemical energy that are things that happen in nature, but we can, we can understand now how to use that kind of energy as a source for running things that we would typically be using, you know, gas or oil or, or other, Fossil fuels to do.

And so I think that’s super exciting. And then of course, things like high performance computing and quantum computing are, just harbinger of how quickly this technology’s gonna develop. It’s gonna be lightning fast. So we have to really be on our toes and, and embrace it.

Sarah Steimer: Something that I’m kind of picking up here in everything that you’ve described, and you said it early on, was, You’re not afraid of this new technology.

There is so much fear, often of the unknown, or especially when things are moving as quickly as you’re describing. but there’s also this realization that, you know, don’t get too excited. We don’t wanna run full force and dump like all of our funding into something. You know, it sounds like really the word we’re looking for here and the way to be smart about how this technology will.

Impact the industry, individuals, et cetera, is about being curious. It does it, does it seem like that’s been the approach the firm has taken when it comes to technology moving forward, moving quickly?

James Foster: I think that’s a good, it’s a really good word to use. Yes. I think curious and intentional, or are really kinda the way we look at it.

Um, so don’t, don’t be bashful, don’t be standoff or, or dismiss it. certainly. best to. Embrace it, be curious, learn about it, and understand how to intentionally deploy it in a way that’s, that’s really beneficial. ‘ cause a lot of times technology is, you see a lot of examples of how technology will, uh, roll out some new use or application that it’s one of those things where kind of, I’m always, I’m, I’m asking myself, you did this because you could do it, but not necessarily because you should do it.

It’s like the technology’s capable of doing it, but that’s not enough of a reason to, to jump on it or, or to put it in play. You need to understand why it’s gonna be really beneficial. And so there are things by, by being engaged and then working with it, then we can, we’ll be better informed when making decisions about what to use and, and what to not use.

Sarah Steimer: I think something that’s kind of a good jumping off point from, curiosity is creativity. So I, I wanted to talk to you both about the role of creativity in.

Problem solving, especially when it comes to maybe some issues or some trends that are kind of sitting out there on the horizon that maybe aren’t here yet. But just to kind of, you know, how do you, how do you get playful when it comes to things like technology or problem solving with things like sustainability?

What role does creativity play? And, uh, Ashley, I’ll start by tossing this to you, but James, I wanna hear from you as well.

Ashleigh Powell: Sure. Well, I’d like to speak to, creativity and, the, the inspiration that we also need to seek from being curious. So to your, to your last point, really to address the significant environmental and sustainability challenges we face right now, we have to be both curious and think about them, As a way in which to ignite our creative spirit. sustainability challenges require a very holistic systems thinking approach. where we, we have to consider, Challenges and solutions, um, and their interconnectedness not in isolation, but the way in which our design strategies really can maximize the impact that we’re making, by solving problems at multiple scales.

And, the best way for us to do this is through what, what we have in place here at Cushing Terrell is the multidisciplinary design approach and, and diverse project teams. when I think about the role of curiosity, in relation to the environmental challenges we face, I feel like it’s, it’s the thing that we really have to tap into in order to not feel overwhelmed and despondent about the challenges we face.

But really, Ignite that sense of passion that we all have as designers to help solve problems. And this is what, how we’ve always served, we’ve utilized our design knowledge to, to advance and serve society. And that’s really what we’re being asked to do. But it’s such a large scale right now and in such, you know, compelling and somewhat overwhelming ways.

So I think the degree to which we can, center our. This challenge in a spirit of creativity and curiosity, and I mentioned it earlier, you know, collaborative effort where we’re all coming together, internally with, amongst our project teams, but in partnership with our clients, in partnership with our communities and, and really.

Try to center a sense of inspiration here. I think that that will serve us, that’s what brought me to sustainability many years ago when I first learned that, you know, I, I had learned about climate change, as an undergraduate and I felt like this was a problem that was so overwhelming and, but I wanted to do something and I didn’t know how to address it.

And then when I first learned that green buildings. We’re a thing, and that buildings could actually serve as solutions to some of our environmental challenges. That just light bulb went off immediately. I was always inspired by design, but hadn’t really thought about the built environment as a, as a solution to environmental challenges.

And so, That’s always just served as an inspiration for me. Uh, and I think we as designers are just so perfectly positioned. We are inspired and visionary leaders. We’ve always, worked with clients to solve a multitude of problems. And so, you know, this one is, is we’re just well positioned. Add this to the plate.

We can, we can take it. We got it. we have to collaborate, we have to be creative. we have to be inspired.

Sarah Steimer: Yeah, the best solutions probably don’t happen within a vacuum. Also, uh, James, what do you, what do you think about the role of creativity in being future thinking and a problem solver?

James Foster: Uh, I think it’s the, it’s the topic that is probably most near and dear to our hearts collectively as a team, because that’s, that’s our fundamental purpose being in a design firm is to, to bring creativity.

I think that we, I love that we focus so much on, uh, understanding how to, how we can, curate our ability to be more creative. we’re very intentional about developing and sharing ideas, to. Improve, enhance, and strengthen our, our ability to be creative. And I think that sets us up well for the future because, uh, as I said before with the technology example, technology’s role as a tool is going to be to take away the more routine mundane tasks, which really kind of puts creativity at the forefront.

That that is the primary thing that we provide. Greg talked about our, our client service model, and that’s, that’s what our business is about, is serving our clients well. But our clients, are mostly looking to get from us is our, is sort of our creative solutions. And so, Really understanding how to maximize that, is what we’re focused on.

I think that, one of the ways to that, that we look at creativity and I think the super exciting is that, there, there’s kind of a past sort of, in, in, in the past a common way to approach creative challenges is to try to, distill and simplify. the challenge into manageable pieces and what we’re doing more and more is embracing the complexity of the challenge and adding more layers of complexity in order to create a better, more holistic solution.

And to be working at that level of creativity you have to embrace. How hard the challenge is, and you have to be thinking about things differently. You don’t, you don’t divide and conquer. You go, let’s, add in more. Let’s find out more things that we can, put into the equation and solve for a more complete holistic solution.

And I think that’s really exciting. It makes the, the work challenging. It makes the work exciting, much more rewarding, but at the end of the day, most importantly, it results in a much better solution. For our clients and our communities.

Sarah Steimer: Yeah, it sounds like there’s also an element of playfulness within this, and then when you get to do it within a group, you get that community building as well.

So two other trends I wanted us to touch on briefly that are definitely in the. Not only in the current space, but I, I think there’s gonna be a lot of development, of course, happening in the near future as well. let’s, let’s talk briefly first about social responsibility and how you bear that in mind from the start of a project.

Uh, and then I also wanted to talk about psychology and design. So, so Ashley, I, I think, you maybe had a few thoughts that you had about, How to start with social responsibility when it comes to designing, especially designing mindfully, of course.

Ashleigh Powell: Right. Well, Gene reminded us, Gene Kolsted reminded us in your episode with him, um, when we’re talking, when he was talking about the past.

You know, one of our core values here, um, at Cushing Terrell is, to embrace what’s doing the right thing. So that core value is to think responsibly because what’s good for the earth is good for our clients. And so that’s something that we’ve always centered in our practice and um, when we think about delivering sustainable design solutions, we’re in effect delivering, the best client and community service we can by centering that sense of social responsibility, to, you know, the short term needs and the long term, impacts of the projects that we deliver.

The idea of purpose-driven design, um, is so important for so many, so many design professionals, especially coming out of school right now, uh, who have had maybe more exposure through their design curriculum, to the role of, The built environment and its responsibility to the environment and to community.

And so, that’s a great source of inspiration for us as well, is having the opportunity to work with, that fresh mindset coming into our practice. but it’s, it’s certainly something that, you know, infuses us with a sense of, inspiration because we, we have to think so much bigger, uh, about the problems, you know, about the opportunities that our designs can offer to solve problems.

so centering. Social responsibility is just a natural, trend right now, in light of the challenges that we’re trying to address.

Sarah Steimer: And then James, if you could maybe tell us a little bit about what we can expect in terms of psychology in design as well.

James Foster: Yeah, so great question, Sarah. I think that, the work that we’re doing in researching psychology and how that informs better design is really, it’s an extension of our focus on, on people human-centered design. we know that the, best outcomes are. Achieved. When we focus on what’s going to enable people to thrive and enable the planet to thrive, and, with regard to people and understanding psychology, this becomes, this is a really fascinating area for us and we’ve, we’ve really, um, Been sinking our teeth into this for a few years, but I, I think that in the future, this is going to become a core part of how we understand how to design.

And I think the reason for this is because the, the research we’re doing and, and the, the objective behind understanding, human psychology and how people experience, uh, the built environment is rooted in the idea that. we make design decisions all the time in how, how we’re gonna sort of get a.

Project designed and built and what it’s gonna be like. We’re always making these decisions. And oftentimes those decisions are, they’re, they’re built on experience and expertise, but they’re kind of through judgment that, we often look at as intuitive and that’s great, but sometimes, those intuitive judgments can, can be a little bit, uh, off target.

They can miss the Mark A. Little bit. And what we’re trying to do is use our research in understanding human psychology in order to make more clear empirical. Correlations between the experience we’re intending to create and what we need to do to design the attributes of the built environment to achieve that.

So it’s less kind of experimental and hopeful, fingers crossed, but much more deliberate, because we’re making informed design decisions based on a deeper understanding through the science of psychology and neuroscience.

Sarah Steimer: Oh, I always, that’s, it’s always exciting to hear about things like that ’cause it’s, you know, it’s being able to maybe better predict, I mean, here we go.

We’re still talking about the future to better predict how a space is gonna make someone feel. How it’s going to help them want to work maybe harder or more creatively, things like that. You know, that’s, that’s such an exciting thing, to, it’s one less thing you would maybe have to think about when you walk into a space because someone else already thought of it for you.

Well, uh, James and Ashleigh, this has been such a pleasure to chat with both of you. I know one of my biggest takeaways from this is that it’s not so much about knowing what. Is going to come, but how to be prepared to handle it and whether you’re thinking about it creatively, mindfully, what have you.

But, just being, being thoughtful about setting yourself up. And I think from the very start of, this special series, this three part series, it really has been about having that really firm foundation. it’s cool to kind of see how that’s, that’s, uh, transmitted itself throughout time, it sounds like.

But anything else that either of you wanted to mention as it relates to the future?

James Foster: I would emphasize, yeah, so thanks for asking that, sir. I think that, um, I, I would emphasize that the future is, Not different than the present or the past in that our focus continues and will always continue to be on people and our clients and how we serve them. That’s, that’s fundamentally what our business is.

And, we love that, right? We’re we, we are good at it and we strive to get better every day. Uh, but we love that what, um, as I talked about earlier, is embracing the, the hard complex stuff. I think that’s what we’ll continue to see in, um, in kind of what Greg talked about in, in his discussion with you about our, uh, knowledge driven firm is, that we’ll continue to level up on our, the just building on.

Just levels and levels of knowledge and, and it’ll become this kind of exponential, what I call kind of this integrated dynamic systems and systems thinking approach, by becoming more sophisticated and understanding, all the, the multitudes of, of. Facets of different technical and creative and psychological, and environmental considerations and being able to solve for all of it, together successfully.

I think that’s, that’s the path we’re on and, we’re gonna be able to achieve things that we never thought we would have been able to achieve.

Sarah Steimer: Awesome. Ashleigh any final thoughts from you?

Ashleigh Powell: A little bit off of what James just said with our knowledge management, you know, it is so important for us to be.

Facilitating that development of, centering the research, approach that we take in our practice from the, within our design process. We start and we end with research and, being so intentional internally about, learning lessons from our projects, that we can then, you know, Internalize and respond to and share with others and collaborate with others around, what we have, how our building designs, are actually being realized, and experienced in the world by our clients and by our communities.

I guess it just can’t be, overstated how important it really is, as we’re looking towards the future and, aspiring to meet these very ambitious goals and commitments to be s o focused in the short term on taking those lessons learned and applying those lessons learned and not being afraid, you know, to share.

And Gene spoke about this as well with this example of what happened in Alaska where, when we learn lessons from our projects that we pivot and, you know, correct mistakes or, Share with our, with our, industry, maybe ways, pitfalls that we found and ways in which we are aspiring to correct those situations in the future.

but yeah, centering, knowledge management and information sharing is, is really just gonna accelerate the way in which we, can achieve the future oriented goals that we’re all moving towards today.

Sarah Steimer: Awesome. And I, I feel like this couldn’t have been a better time to have this conversation than back to school season because what’s gonna set you up for the future better than just trying to focus on, you know, gaining more knowledge and collaborating with others.

So, this, this all worked out. Uh, well thank you both again, so much for taking the time to chat with me. I really appreciate it.

Ashleigh Powell: It was an honor. Sarah, thank you so much.

James Foster: Absolutely, Sarah. Yeah, thank you.

Producer: Music for Good, Thoughtful Hosts was written, produced, and performed by Sam Clapp. Our moderator is Sarah Steimer. Editing by Travis Estvold. And a special thanks to our content development team, Amanda Herzberg and Marni Moore. For more information about the podcast, visit Thanks for listening.

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