Rich L. von Luhrte of RNL Design

Richard L. von Luhrte, FAIA of RNL Design was awarded Fellowship by the American Institute of Architects in 1993 for his accomplishments in urban design. He has dedicated his 45 year career to the creation of people oriented places, mixed use architecture, and projects of community importance. His work spans over 4 decades, including the original conceptual design of the 16th Street Mall when he was Chief Architect for the Regional Transportation District, to recent work in over a dozen TOD projects around the nation. Rich is active in ULI, having served on the Denver Council Executive Committee and currently on the national TOD Council.  He has lectured extensively on “Return to Town Square”, on the importance of place making in planning and urban design.  His philosophy is reflected in the master plans that he has inspired as well as the architectural projects that his firm has built.

Rich was elected Denver Architect of the Year by the AIA in 2001, and Colorado Architect of the Year in 2008. He has served as a director in Denver Civic Ventures, in Colorado ULI, the AIA, and in the Civic Center Conservancy. He served on the Board of Governors at the College of Architecture and Planning at the University of Michigan, and on the Dean’s Advisory Board of the College of Architecture and Planning at the University of Colorado. Recently, Modelo had the opportunity to learn more about Rich’s unique approach and design philosophy.

On becoming an architect

Ever since I was in junior high, I liked to build things. I had this building set, American Skyline, and I built cities all over the living room. I had a model railroad as a kid and all I did was build the scenery – I never ran the trains. I thought I might like to be an engineer, but I really liked cities and buildings more than bridges and roads. So when it came time for college, my career counselor suggested that architecture might be a better fit for me than engineering. I applied to several schools and selected the University of Michigan because of the quality of the program and because the school’s reputation was exceptional.

On discovering his voice as a designer
My mentor in college was Carl Johnson of JJR, who also taught a studio on site planning for architects. I was totally enamored by his class, and I became his teaching assistant. His class opened my eyes to the fact that design is not just about the buildings, but also the spaces between buildings. I became focused, because of Carl, on urban design, and my graduate thesis was an urban design project that included a public plaza with multiple buildings.

Here at RNL, I took that passion and fostered an urban design/landscape architecture studio that focused on placemaking and urban places. My design over the years has been fundamentally in the world of master planning, and my direct design influence in the firm revolves in that area of practice. I have worked on college campuses, including the master plan for the Auraria campus, the National Renewable Energy Lab campus (a net zero building recognized as the most energy efficient building in the world), and urban design projects such as the 150-mile master plan for rail in Denver (while I was chief architect and urban designer at RTD) as well as the concept design for the 16th Street Mall (also with RTD).

On joining RNL
I worked in Chicago after I graduated, which was great experience. Then I moved to Denver, and before joining RNL, I worked for a couple of firms and in the public sector. I was the chief architect for RTD back when there really wasn’t a major public transit infrastructure in place. We were planning the future system that now exists. It was fascinating large-scale planning work.

Before joining RNL, I was actually the client, having hired the firm to design a new public transit building for RTD. As we progressed through the project, Vic Langhart, the founding partner, suggested that I consider coming back in the private sector and join RNL. I told him, “Not for a job, only for a career.”  He came back to me about a month later, with the firm having won the new master plan for the Solar Energy Research Institute, (NREL) and asked me to run the project. I said yes, and 38 years later, I am still here.

On the evolution of the firm since joining
What has evolved is the need for so much deeper expertise in every project. The complexity of our built environment, involving community entitlement issues, neighborhood consensus, financing, market, and use all have evolved to the point where even the simplest projects are complex. Also, technology has changed the ability to dig deeper and be more thorough. The reason we have become so collaborative and interdisciplinary is because every project today is about all of the variables – building, site, landscape, circulation, and sustainability – all demanding a much more collaborative interdisciplinary approach. RNL today is much more involved in problem solving at the deepest level of project performance, cost effectiveness, and long-term economic viability.

On specific principles he strives to adhere to
We put out a book a few years ago called Design for One Earth. Essentially, it’s about these 12 principles that are meant to guide architects, engineers, agencies, and advocates in the design of the built environment. These 12 environmental, social and economic priorities include: carbon, energy, water, waste, materials, land use, prosperity, vision, resilience, beauty, health and happiness. Our philosophy really centers on the question, “Can we live abundantly within the limits of One Earth?” We believe the answer is yes. But it requires bigger thinking and more responsible approach to the built environment. By looking at these 12 principles holistically, we’ve found that opportunities for innovation in our work reveal themselves.

On his role as a designer as RNL
Much of my current efforts are focused on transit-oriented development, which brings together urban design and architecture in a new way, and on urban and suburban infill projects. I’m still actively involved in the architecture side, but more on the client and project management side now. I have been principal in charge of such projects as the Denver Aquarium, the National Renewable Energy Research Institute, Research Support Building, and a number of urban infill mixed-use buildings.

On recent projects that represent the firm’s unique approach
What differentiates RNL is our holistic approach, which comes from having expertise in a broad variety of disciplines. We aren’t just good at architecture. We have tremendous talent in everything from interior design to large-scale urban planning and city design. Essentially, we found that when we brought all elements of the built environment to the table, we were able to offer more informed counsel. We like the idea of being able to control the built environment at all scales. From the building itself, to the interiors where people work, to the spaces between the buildings – places like 16th Street Mall, to the forecourt of the new Union Station Project here in Denver.

On his design toolkit
RNL is a very team-oriented practice. We work best when we assemble several creative minds to bring vision to a given project. For years, we have done a process we call the on-site charrette, where we go to the client and work through alternatives with them in their offices. These usually last several days, and while we have gotten away from doing design at the table, we often do these to review and develop alternatives with the client.  The result is that we gain tremendous consensus from the client because they are involved early and often, so they get their input realized in actual product, which evolves quickly and responsibly.

We have always designed in 3-D, using study models and sketches. The computer has facilitated our ability to do more, faster and to look at more alternatives.  We use Sketch Up in early phases, and now we do most of our 3-D work in-house with architects who have learned rendering programs.  So rather than having to go out of house, we can do in-house presentation drawings with our design team.

On the state of design software today
I am old school; I still sketch with marker and bum wad trace. For me, creativity flows through the hand. That said, I believe software capabilities today are amazing, and used correctly, they transform our ability to see more, work faster, and look at a project from different angles. I fervently believe that technology should not be a substitute for talent. Design software can be an unbelievable tool, but it is just that – a tool. The wielder of the tool still has to know how to use it to bring their own creativity and vision to life. I worry that sometimes architects use technology as a crutch, that sometimes a building gets built because the computer can express it, not necessarily because it represents good architecture. And I believe architecture is an art form. When you can use technology to enhance your ability to create your art, I think it can be a beautiful thing.

On the future of architecture in the next 5-10 years
I have taught professional practice at the University of Colorado for 11 years. I tell my students that I am deeply concerned that design today is becoming commoditized, with buildings cranked out as product for ever-lower fees and increased production. Major decisions are being made about the design of buildings long before an architect is on board.

Our profession is at risk of being absorbed by the developer, the contractor and the banker. So if we as architects wish to have a seat at the table, we have to be willing to venture outside our comfort zone, and take a more active leadership role in projects at an earlier stage.

I believe we must become outspoken advocates for the built environment if we are to avoid just providing ‘decoration’ on a building that others have essentially defined before we are ever at the table. It’s not enough to sit at a desk drawing buildings.  We have to be a visible, active member of the community and a key player in the orchestration of a project.

On the future of RNL in the next 5-10 years
RNL has always been progressive in embracing change and growth.

We have already expanded our geographical reach. The world is increasingly connected and we realized that our influence can be just as meaningful in Abu Dhabi as it is in Denver.  We have also expanded our capabilities to include landscape and planning, urban design, lighting design, sustainable design, and interior design.

From a sheer size perspective, we understand that big projects today require a higher capital investment – with new technology, 3-D printers, and other investments that only larger firms can afford to undertake. When I came here, we were 65 people, now we’re 140 people in five cities, working in 14 countries. Our reach is huge, and we’re recognized around the world for large-scale planning. We expect to continue to grow both organically and through acquisition.

Ultimately, all of this comes back to being able to offer the most robust, holistic view of a project. We want to bring added value to the table from an expertise perspective, but to my earlier point, we also want to take a bigger leadership role in more areas of a project.

On advice he would give his younger self
My advice to myself would have been to take more risks sooner. I think we could have expanded to other cities sooner and expanded our services faster. I love Denver, and I never regret being here. But I was cautious. I would tell myself to be more aggressive. We were successful faster when we allowed ourselves to move beyond our roots and grow into new things, new markets and new locations.

My other advice to myself would be to teach more. I love being around young people, and I love the university setting of exploration and vision. I loved my 11 years at the University, and continue to be involved in the University leadership on the Chancellor’s Committee at UCD, the Advisory Board chair for the College of Architecture and Planning at UCD, and for the Colorado Steering committee for the University of Michigan, the Board of Governor’s at the College of Architecture and Planning at U of M and on the board of the Arapahoe Community College. Education stimulates me and I hope to remain involved well into the future.