Spotlight On: James Miner, CEO, Sasaki

Spotlight On: James Miner, CEO, Sasaki

2023-05-30T09:55:15-04:00May 25th, 2023|Boston, Commercial Real Estate, Economy, Spotlight On|

3 min read May 2023 — Sasaki is an interdisciplinary architecture, planning, landscape and design firm based in the United States and Asia. CEO James Miner sat down with Invest: to explain the firm’s history and recent changes within the Boston market. He specifically addressed the role of new technologies and legislation on building patterns and needs in the city.

What are Sasaki’s recent accomplishments?

The firm was founded in 1953, so we’re celebrating 70 years of being in business here in Boston. Part of the past year has been occupied with a move to downtown Boston from our long-time home just up the Charles River in Watertown. We have designed our new space to embrace the new hybrid model that reflects the way people want to work post-pandemic. Since our firm does a lot of workplace strategy and design, we wanted our new space to demonstrate how the office market could adapt at a time when people have suggested that offices, and the cities that house them, cannot adapt to this “new normal.” 

Over the past couple of years, we have also expanded our geographic footprint in other major U.S. cities. During the height of the pandemic when business travel was limited, we opened our Denver office to better serve clients in the Western United States. We were also looking at demographic shifts as more people moved to cities like Denver, Salt Lake City and Boise as an opportunity to expand our practice in that part of the country. It was a bet that clearly paid off: our Denver office quickly grew from two people when it started in the fall of 2020 to almost 30 people today. We are also celebrating the one-year anniversary of the opening of our new office in Brooklyn, New York. This office emerged through a partnership with Brooklyn-based DLANDstudio, a landscape practice that merged with Sasaki in May 2022. We are putting the finishing touches on a new space now in Brooklyn that will house our expanded team there and we are excited to be part of the New York design community. 

How is the industry changing and how has Sasaki adapted?

One of the keys to Sasaki’s success over the past 70 years has been our ability to adapt to the times — we are a firm that evolves to stay relevant to what’s going on in the world. I think the design industry as a whole is always changing, so rather than relying on experience alone, we have taken a nimble approach to managing the practice that has allowed us to pivot, try new things, and innovate in order to keep our design work fresh and meaningful. Historically, the traditional path and market identity for many design firms has revolved around its founders, a singular design aesthetic, or niche expertise. At Sasaki, it’s always been about collaborative, integrated design, where the best ideas emerge from both dialogue and discovery. Today there’s a lot more cultural awareness and a stronger desire for engaging community leaders and stakeholders in the design process than there used to be. In recent years, our practice has evolved significantly to reflect that trend.

We went through a major leadership transition about a decade ago and with this process came a lot of introspection. The desire among the firm leaders at that time was to really lean into our collaborative spirit both internally as design partners leading a 350-person firm but also externally with our clients, collaborators, and community leaders. That led us to reimagine our mission statement in 2018, which is now “Better design, together.” The world around us really values collaboration rather than a single author or hand in the design of buildings, places, and spaces. This helps to empower people and communities who may not have access to design and to increase ownership and stewardship in the places we create together.

What opportunities does Boston provide?

Working in higher education is an important part of our firm’s legacy; we’ve been practicing in that space for the entirety of our 70-year history. Institutions of higher education have a strong presence in greater Boston, and in addition to serving them as clients, we benefit enormously from the talent pool they attract. We also have great hospitals and biotech companies, and clean tech is an emerging sector that will continue to bring new research, investment and jobs to the Boston metro. So, while a lot of attention is given to the economy as a whole, and there are lots of questions about the future of office space and the livelihood of downtowns, we are fortunate in Boston to have a lot of diverse employment opportunities that will continue to make Boston an attractive place to live and work. I think the key issue for Boston right now is how to better retain the talent that it attracts, and this starts with more diverse (and affordable) housing options and a vastly improved transit system. These are top priorities for both City Hall and the State House, and there is an opportunity for design firms like ours to play a role in shaping a more sustainable future.

What sustainability practices are you focusing on?

Sustainability is a core part of our ethos at Sasaki. I will start with our own building, where we wanted to make sure we were practicing what we preach: we converted all the systems so they are fully electric and installed a highly-efficient and sustainable VRF heating and cooling system that is like the heat pumps people are starting to install in their homes but at a commercial scale. In our project work, in every facet of our design process we care about sustainability and resilience. Care for the environment has been a component of our work throughout our history, and we have been building on that over the years to advance our work designing net zero energy buildings, creating climate action plans for cities (including Boston), and develop resilient strategies to address sea level rise. For example, we have an internal group of talented programmers, web developers and UX designers who recently created the Carbon Conscience App, which allows us to make decisions early in the design process to figure out how to achieve the most sustainable results and use the fewest resources. We’re always looking for projects that reflect our mission to design a more sustainable, resilient world. 

What challenges are you facing within the industry?

We do work all over the world, but a challenge specific to Boston is that geographically speaking, it is a small city. In other words, the footprint of the city is relatively small compared to almost every other major U.S. metro. If you overlaid Boston on New York City, it would be about the size of one of its five boroughs. Chicago’s land area is five times larger than Boston, and Los Angeles is almost six times larger. As a result, Boston depends on its larger regional context for its livelihood, including housing and transportation systems. But politics are local, even if demands are regional, which has made it challenging for the City to address affordable housing shortages and an aging transit system on its own. What’s really needed here in Boston is greater regional collaboration between adjacent cities and towns. Without that collaboration, it’s been difficult to articulate a comprehensive vision for what this city and region wants to be, or how to get there. And, without that vision in place, development in Boston has always been a process of negotiating impacts rather than figuring out how individual projects can contribute towards a larger vision. This is something that the new Mayor is working on now, and it will be interesting to see how the approvals process for large projects in Boston changes over time.

What projects have changed the city?

Seaport Square was the largest project permitted by the Boston Planning Development Authority at the time of its construction. you look back 15 years or less, it used to be all surface parking, but it was rapidly developed over that period of time. It’s been interesting to watch the process of city-building take place in such a short span, especially in a city like Boston that has so much history. I think we are seeing a similar pace of change starting to take place in other parts of the city — for example, in Allston, where Harvard is planning its new Enterprise Research Campus that is also adjacent to The I-90 Allston Multimodal Project which will transform the western gateway to the city in years to come.

What are your priorities for the near term?

In terms of the City of Boston, I feel that our new administration in City Hall has a lot on its plate with an ambitious agenda to take on important challenges to make the city more equitable and accessible, which will help to grow the city’s economy in the long run. I think many of us are waiting to see how much of that can actually be achieved in one term, and how priorities will emerge as new plans and policies are implemented. As for Sasaki, I’m bullish for our future as a firm. There’s a tremendous opportunity for us to grow here in Boston that was not available to us previously when our office was located in Watertown. A key motivation for our move downtown was to generate more opportunities for collaboration and meaningful engagement with the City and other members of the Boston design community. It was great to be able to walk down the street to celebrate the opening of the remodeled City Hall Plaza, which Sasaki designed, and I look forward to more opportunities like that in the future. I am also excited to bring over 300 people into a revived, historic building in the downtown core. We’re bucking the trend and embracing our physical presence rather than going fully remote, and I predict it will only be a matter of time before others join us.

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