Starchitects aside, we hear little about the individuals whose cumulative decisions shape the built environment. In our Profiles in Design series, we chat with engineers, architects, policymakers, and designers about their lives, careers, and daily aspirations.
Arup’s Rebecca Hatchadorian, an Associate Principal and the leader of our sustainability team in Boston, discusses the intersections where art meets the technical, sustainability meets wellbeing, and specialization meets broad-minded thinking.
When did you realize you wanted to become an architect?
I come from a family of lawyers, but I was told that my grandfather, an accountant who died when I was quite young, had always been interested in architecture. So that might have been in the back of my mind growing up. I never contemplated being a lawyer!
In high school, when I started to think about college, I was taking a lot of art classes, as well as a lot of advanced physics, chemistry, and calculus. My brain always liked those two things — the technical and the artistic.
Then, once I was in college, I continued to be drawn to a wide array of topics, so I majored in history instead of architecture. I took a lot of art history classes and continued with the more technical math and physics courses.
When you continued your studies in a master’s program for architecture, were you still able to satisfy your broad interests?
I went to graduate school right when the pedagogy and curriculum for architecture was moving from the old school of drafting, using ink on Mylar, to computer modeling. Technology was taking a leading role in the design process. We were trying to figure out what our roles were when you could run a program and a computer could generate a design based on parameters we input. Today, we know that digital design and analysis have allowed us to better understand and drive building performance. But back then it was a very pivotal moment in how we think about design and ideation.
Also, it was the beginning of this very consistent pace of change in the industry in terms of the tools we were using and our understanding of design, building performance, and sustainability, which became my specialization. From the early 2000s until now, 20 years later, there’s been a consistent raising of the bar on what a sustainable building is and the definition of sustainability. It keeps you on your toes and requires you to continually rethink assumptions and expand your knowledge. I like that challenge.
What was the turning point for you where sustainability became a focus?
I was looking to explore what options there were in this industry focused on sustainability when I moved to Singapore. Sustainability interested me for both environmental and human outcomes. That's where the design side comes in. A really successful building isn't just one that’s carbon neutral, it has to be a place where people want to be. We spend so much time indoors, and buildings play a very big role in our health and wellbeing.
Early in my career I moved to Singapore, which was when I formally joined the environmental sustainability team within Arup. It was supposed to be for a year but wound up being over three years abroad. Designing buildings in Singapore is a completely different challenge than designing in Boston, or Philadelphia, or the US northeast, where I began my practice. So, again, it was a matter of relearning what I thought I had already understood. How do they build things here? What works, what doesn't?
For example, due to the hot and humid climate, they ventilate their buildings and residences naturally. I worked on the Singapore pavilion for the Shanghai World's Expo in 2010 — Arup had teamed with an architect for a design competition. Shanghai is much hotter than Singapore in the summer. The worst temperatures! But our team wanted to design a naturally ventilated pavilion that didn't need mechanical systems. In this case, performance was driving the entire pavilion design. Wind blows through ventilation slots in the façade releasing warm air at the top. Our analyses determined the shape of the building’s arc and the location, size, and shape of all of the ventilation openings.
Did you find that your experiences in Singapore — or anywhere else you’ve travelled — provided different perspectives on sustainable design or culture in general that have impacted you?
It was really interesting living in Singapore. First off, not only was it a very different culture for me, but it was also the first time the shoe was on the other foot, meaning, I was now in the minority and the outsider in a culture. It was an eye-opening experience. And Singapore is an amazing place. You can go there just for the food. It's incredible, and you're exposed to such a variety. Chicken rice is a big Singaporean specialty. Pepper crab and laksa. They take these large Sri Lankan crabs and they wok fry them with a pepper sauce. Phenomenal. Laksa is a separate dish, it's a spicy coconut noodle soup. There are these great food halls, they're called hawker centers, where there's a multitude of choices. Singapore is delicious — and beautiful and hot!
Then there were two things I loved about Singapore’s architecture. Whether it was a residential or a commercial building, they were always integrating greenery and landscaping into the buildings. The buildings often have these large ground floors, many times open air, with plants all around. It’s an amazing indoor-outdoor experience. Then, as you wander around the city, you constantly come across courtyards or public nooks with greenery and there’s always some sort of café or place to sit down in and enjoy.
You consider yourself a “generalist,” yet you are clearly a sustainability specialist. In the context of your work, what does being a generalist mean?
You need to be a generalist to see how the pieces fit together, what connections to make. But I've always preached that having a balance between being a specialist and a generalist is critical, because they inform one another. Out of Arup’s Boston office, we've done a lot of work that entails jumping from micro to macro scales, such as our work for Carbon Free Boston and the Massachusetts 2050 Decarbonization Roadmap, studies for the City and State to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 in the buildings sector. Because we conducted a lot of analyses on the individual building scale, we were able to aggregate the results of all these small interventions to determine what changes can make the biggest impact.
This work was very technical, very specialized, but it generated high-level answers to questions. Our analyses gave the regulators insight into better understanding the problem and where to start, which was to concentrate on existing buildings and retrofits. It was foundational to how the City and State moved forward with legislation. Our work on the Decarbonization Roadmap was released at the end of 2020 and three months later there was a new climate bill advancing the State’s commitment to decarbonization. It was incredible to see that. With the amount of change and the pace of change that needs to happen, I want to have as big of an impact as I can.