Face Time: Duncan Griffin At HDR
The managing principal at HDR in Seattle discusses his drive to create meaningful change through architecture, address climate change with regenerative design, and share his love for nature with his children.
What drew you to a career in healthcare design?
The dedication and focus that healthcare clients—the nurses, doctors, and administrators—bring to the care spaces for their patients is inspiring. When your client cares so deeply for the outcome of your work, it brings extra meaning to the practice of architecture. Also, when I learned about the impact hospitals have on the stability of the climate and their contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, I made it my mission and focus of my work to support regenerative design and help address this issue.
What was your first healthcare project and what lesson from it do you still carry with you?
The surgery pavilion at University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. I learned the importance of daylight and connection to nature in healthcare buildings. The east side of this project is buried in a slope and required special mechanisms to draw light into the main corridors so the staff wouldn’t be bereft of sunlight. On the west side, we maximized the view of a nearby glade for the family waiting rooms.
What do you like best about working in healthcare design?
The challenge of solving difficult problems with dedicated partners. And ultimately to make meaningful change in people’s lives. I like working with healthcare clients because they genuinely care.
What challenges about your work keep you up at night?
The pace of climate change and our ability to respond. The reports from northern California about hospital staff fighting wildfires while working to care for victims of the fire just makes me vibrate with the need to address this emergency. Design professionals must support our healthcare partners in helping them save our communities.
Three recent healthcare projects and your role
1 The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center New Inpatient Hospital, Columbus, Ohio, sustainable healthcare design leader.
2 Medical center master plan study with a behavioral health research and treatment facility institute, Seattle, managing principal, sustainable healthcare design leader.
3 VA Medical Center-Fort Harrison, seismic renovation and addition, Harrison, Mont., healthcare sustainability subject matter expert.
An unexpected item on your desk
Low-temperature Stirling engine. It’s powered by the heat source from my mug.
Outside the office, we’ll likely find you …
Working on home projects, volunteering in nature with family, or drawing buildings while on vacation. My wife and I raised our family in a small 1906 Seattle bungalow, so there’s always something to work on. When my kids were younger, we started volunteering with different nature and habitat restoration organizations and always do something for Earth Day. I also love drawing buildings on vacation because it’s a time I can really focus and capture on paper the image a building has painted onto my retinae.
What’s a new habit or hobby you’ve picked up during the pandemic?
Intentional outreach to my teams. The pandemic has driven the need for us to provide meaningful mentorship and connection to support our teams’ goals.
Dog or cat?
Cat. Shadow is our 17-year-old Abyssinian old man, a little crotchety.
Morning person or night owl?
I’ve always been a night owl. This is the time when I come up with new ideas.
Coffee or tea?
Coffee! (Night-owl architect living in Seattle.)
Fashion trend you think should make a comeback
Robes. I wear them at home. Sometimes you need clothes that flow (TMI?).
How did you make your first dollar
I was co-chairman of the Committee to Save the Earth in high school and managed the recycling center in my hometown on Mercer Island in Lake Washington. It was a win-win in the ’70s because the recycling center provided real financial resources for educational activism and for other students.
Your go-to karaoke song
“Take On Me” by A-ha (not sure if I can still hit the high notes, though).
First album you ever bought
Heart (also my first concert). They’re from Bellevue, Wash., which is across the lake from where I grew up. A lot of their work is an homage to Led Zeppelin.
Cocktail of choice
Highland Park Scotch Whiskey with a single ice cube.
Your hidden talent
Windsurfing. My dad and I started a windsurfing school on Mercer Island in the 1970s. The east channel of Lake Washington has unique wind conditions and its narrow geometry create a point-source like condition, which was magical.
If you weren’t an architect, you would be…
A windsurfing instructor.
Quote “A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong.” – Robert K. Greenleaf, founder of the modern servant leadership movement.
Movie character When I was younger, it was Luke Skywalker. People thought I looked like him when “Star Wars: A New Hope” came out. Now I appreciate Simon Pegg’s character in “Hot Fuzz,” and just about everything he’s in.
Show to binge watch “Stranger Things.” It’s just so good. The scene at the end of the recent installment was also a cautionary tale, as it looked a lot like our climate emergency to me.
Weekend activity Open water swimming (summer only).
Band/musical artist David Bowie. He endlessly reinvented himself and set trends though his perpetual creativity.
Guilty pleasure Non-dairy chocolate frozen confections.
Snack when you travel Kind Bars.
Book “Drive,” by Daniel Pink. He really gets what knowledge workers need to thrive. Purpose, autonomy, and mastery give people the opportunities to develop in a professional environment.
City to visit Venice. It’s a completely different vision of how a city can work. I interned there in 1985 for Gaetano Pesce and have been going back every 10 years or so. It continues to enthrall me. In the atelier, I’d work 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day and when I got off work, I’d have a pizza and then pick a direction to walk in until I was lost, then find my way back to learn the city.