Creating opportunities: Rob Winstead

May 29, 2022

Principal at VMDO, an architectural planning and design firm that creates community-centered environments that connect people and place through design.

By Liisa Andreassen

As a nationally-recognized expert in learning space planning and design as well as sustainability, Winstead is an advocate for exceptional learning spaces that blend thoughtful design with high performance goals. As principal and K-12 studio leader at VMDO (Charlottesville, VA), he provides firm-wide leadership and studio management that align with the company’s structure as one firm with multiple studios.

“As a former director of sustainability, I’ve spent most of my career working to integrate sustainability into our work, process, and culture,” Winstead says. “We want all of our projects to be happy, healthy, and high-performing. We want the same for our firm and for our staff.”

A conversation with Rob Winstead.

The Zweig Letter: Can you give me an example of a learning space your firm has designed that blends thoughtful design with high performance goals?

Rob Winstead: We like to think all our projects possess both. While we have several that utilize solar technologies and rainwater harvesting, my favorite examples are often more subtle in nature. For example, the renovation of Thurston Hall at George Washington University is scheduled to open fall of 2022. The project represents the significant expansion of our thinking about performance. This renovation of a 200,000-square-foot historic building, the largest first-year dormitory at GWU, preserves the historic integrity of the Foggy Bottom campus while extending the life of this important asset for the next 50-100 years.

Due to complex extended use patterns, maintenance protocols, and centralized utilities, residence life projects are notoriously energy intensive buildings. Careful detailing of the envelope allowed us to honor the historic exterior while improving comfort and minimizing loads. Healthy materials, a new high performance HVAC system, and advanced lighting provide a high level of environmental quality while reducing energy use by 38 percent. Stormwater is managed on-site by using it for toilet flushing and landscape irrigation.

The most exciting space in this project is a central courtyard that’s the heart of this living-learning community. Once a dim lightwell filled with dirty puddles, pigeon feathers, and dead leaves, this space is being transformed through selective demolition and a variety of new plazas, gardens, terraces, canopies, bridges, perches, and views that connect students to the district, the campus, and one another.

This goes beyond easily quantified measures of performance, like energy and water efficiency, and gets to the social side of sustainability. In a time when we’re all struggling with division and isolation, I can’t think of anything better than drawing students out of their rooms and into opportunities to live, learn, and develop as an inclusive community.

TZL: Sustainability is a fundamental driver at VMDO. What are you doing to incorporate that concept on different levels – i.e., project work, culture, and design process?

RW: As a former director of sustainability, I’ve spent most of my career working to integrate sustainability into our work, process, and culture. We want all of our projects to be happy, healthy, and high-performing. We want the same for our firm and for our staff.

A major trigger for opening a Washington, D.C. office was the Clean Energy D.C. Act of 2018, where D.C. implemented a plan to become a net-zero energy city by 2032. We felt that we had expertise to offer and wanted to be part of leading that transformation. The office is really built around that mission and we have a number of projects underway that are creating a path to a net-zero energy future.

It’s late in the game, but the industry has shifted dramatically. The AIA 2030 Commitment and Framework for Design Excellence are two good examples. Sustainability is no longer the “other,” but an integral part of good design. But, our progress is slow and we feel a tremendous sense of urgency to leverage our skills to address the most challenging issues of our time.

TZL: Diversity and inclusion are lacking. What steps are you taking to address the issue?

RW: As with many firms, we’ve struggled with how to make meaningful change in this area. VMDO was an early adopter of the JUST label, a program of the International Living Future Institute, which was incredibly helpful in aligning our firm operations along a third-party social justice rating system.

After the murder of George Floyd, a grassroots movement among our staff helped us to start identifying ways we could take greater action, in terms of broadening the pipeline to our profession for underrepresented groups, rethinking our hiring and operations and improving our work through the lens of equity and inclusion. We began scholarships at Hampton University and the University of the District of Columbia and we participate in mentoring programs and portfolio reviews. We’ve revamped our hiring process to reduce any unintentional biases, and our staff and leadership have gone through an extensive series of trainings to help us to understand identity and to not only recognize difference, but to leverage it. We’ve also been piloting some new community engagement tools and approaches, expanding our research protocols to better unearth the lesser-known histories of the places we work, and exploring a broadened definition of universal design. Finally, we’ve expanded our standard post-occupancy evaluation and developed with UC Berkeley’s Center for the Built Environment to incorporate questions around inclusion. There’s still a lot to do.

TZL: Working as a mentor seems important to you. What are some key pieces of information that you always pass on to your mentees?

RW: There are a lot of “Robisms” out there. Some are funny and, hopefully, a few are useful. These come with some frequency:

  • Design with love. In my opinion, great design comes from a genuine care for people, purpose, place, and planet.
  • Meet clients where they are, build relationships, and help them move forward. Rarely can you move a client from a two to a 10 in one project. It takes relationship building, time, and trust to do really challenging and aspirational projects.
  • You gotta read to lead. I’m a lifelong learner and VMDO is a learning organization. To continue to lead and innovate, we need to study our craft, explore our world, and continue to learn about issues that affect and shape our clients and industry. I love to travel and have an endless pile of books on my nightstand on a wide variety of subjects – business, design, sustainability, education, brain science, etc. I’m always interested in what other people are reading too.

TZL: As a firm, you believe that an emphasis on quality and enduring design can transform a place and elevate the human experience. Can you give me an example of a recent project that has worked to achieve this and explain why?

RW: Lubber Run Community Center in Arlington, Virginia. Arlington is a rapidly urbanizing area and public green space is critical to the community. In addition, there’s a strong commitment to sustainable design and robust and authentic community engagement.

The existing facility was beloved, but outdated, while the park was a highly-valued and heavily-used community asset, with significant green space and buffer for the adjacent waterway. Community needs had long exceeded the capacity of the site. In addition to needing additional outdoor program areas, the community needed 50,000 square feet of indoor program and more than 100 parking spaces. A conventional planning approach would have obliterated the site.

Together, Arlington Parks & Recreation and VMDO conducted a series of public workshops where we learned how important equity, access, public health, and sustainable design were to this community. The team applied an empathetic approach to gathering cross-generational voices that informed the design of numerous blended spaces connected to nature, interweaving building and landscape. Taking advantage of existing topography, the team slipped a significant portion of the program and all the parking underneath the park, maintaining the stream buffer and mature vegetation, reducing the scale of the building on the park, and dramatically increasing the space available for outdoor programs.

The end result is a community center and park that is greater and greener for all residents. It’s a space that elevates the human experience.

TZL: What benefits does your firm offer that your people get most excited about?

RW: We have an exemplary retirement program, though the level of excitement probably directly correlates to an employee’s age. We help people pursue their interests and find their passion, and that means field trips, continuing education allowances, support for professional certifications and exams, an annual traveling fellowship, and for those who have been with the firm for a while, a sabbatical.

TZL: How are you balancing investment in the next generation – which is at an all-time high – with rewards for tenured staff? This has always been a challenge, but seems heightened as investments in development have increased.

RW: When our founding principals, majority shareholders at the time, retired in a relatively short timeframe, the second generation of leaders was made keenly aware of the financial burden of that buy-back. So, they came together and agreed upon a sustainable leadership plan, where the largest shareholders began voluntarily selling shares at a steady rate early, and all principals agreed to begin selling their shares back to the firm when they turn 62. Further, we created the associate principal level, and offered shares to that group at a reduced cost. This serves as an “on-ramp” into ownership that generates returns on those shares that can be reinvested into the company. So, in general, the rate of share exchange remains relatively steady over the long-term, which also leaves more flexibility for investing in the next generation.

TZL: What are some of your top goals for the firm in say the next five years?

RW: Some of my top goals include:

  • Building our practice in Washington, D.C. to support the tremendous opportunities in the region. A number of communities in the area have established themselves as leaders in health, sustainability, and net-zero energy. A D.C. office allows us to better serve clients in the region and beyond and gives us access to a larger and more diverse pool of talent.
  • Meeting the goals of the AIA 2030 Commitment. This is the decade of de-carbonization, and we must do everything we can to bring our entire portfolio to net-zero energy by 2030. We know how to do it for new buildings, but it’s a massive challenge for renovations and certain building types.
  • Supporting the next generation of leaders. We’ve done a great job over the past decade or so transitioning leadership and ownership. We’ve just started the transition to a fourth generation, with an increased focus on diversity. A big part of my job is to help identify and develop those leaders, and then support them as they lead the firm into the future.

TZL: A firm’s longevity is valuable. What are you doing to encourage your staff to stick around?

RW: Create opportunities for others to do great work. Support them as they grow. Get out of the way. 

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