NBBJ's Steve McConnell Has Helped Define Seattle's Skyline

McConnell has been involved in creating some of Seattle's iconic buildings
Steve McConnell of Seattle architecture, planning and design firm NBBJ has helped define Seattle’s skyline.

This article appears in the May 2019 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

Steve McConnell literally helped build Seattle. McConnell joined Seattle-based architecture, planning and design firm NBBJ in 1990 and has served as managing partner of the entire organization since 2006.

McConnell has directed the design of several of Seattle’s most significant projects, including the world’s largest LEED Platinum-certified building campus, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Seattle’s federal courthouse; and Swedish Medical Center. The company’s recent work includes the $60 million headquarters for the Seattle Opera and the Amazon Spheres.

NBBJ, which was founded in 1943, moved its headquarters from the SODO neighborhood to South Lake Union more than a decade ago. It employs about 700, has 10 offices around the world and has done work in upward of 30 countries. McConnell, who lives on Mercer Island, says he unwinds by hiking “on very steep trails.”

I like to say NBBJ is the ultimate team sport. We are not a constellation of satellites or disparate offices. It’s about a team of leaders enabling a culture to thrive.

We’re making sure there’s the right kind of North Star, but also not overcontrolling. I like the expression, “Let go to lead.”

In terms of dealing with conflict? Empathy, empathy, empathy. Conflict can be a source of new ideas. We call it leading change.

Commercial architecture is in many ways the building blocks of a city. How do we manifest a bottom line that’s far more than just financial?

Any clients we want to work for want to be better at what they’re doing. If they don’t, we don’t want to work with them. It’s a mismatch.

The environments that we occupy, both indoors and outdoors, can affect creativity, communication and the health of patients. We begin with the premise of enlightened climates.

About the Spheres, from the leadership of Amazon came the idea that, wow, if we’re in a conservatory, we feel really good. We think better. So that in a way is something the client needs to come to the table with. It’s a discovery.

We took a big step into Pioneer Square when there was really nothing there.

It was clear the city, for it to grow, was going to move north and we could be a catalyst. More than that, we had an opportunity with our partner, Vulcan, to design South Lake Union and be a tenant, be a part of that energy. Nobody has a crystal ball, but there were a lot of smart people thinking of the properties available.

The thing that emotionally pulled us over here was the adventure. There’s this Northwest ethos, a sense of entrepreneurialism, adventure, taking risks, that outdoor spirit. There’s a sense of the frontier. That’s part of the ethos of our firm.

A large, complex project is usually going to take a few years. But if we go into an existing property and build a corporate workplace for a hot new tech firm that has a hundred people, that can happen in months.

I like to say that design firms like ours are interesting leading indicators. The folks that are commissioning us are looking down the road two, three, even five-plus years for a hospital project.

On the public side, there’s a different set of relationships. The twist is the architect is an advocate of the public, more than just a service provider. It’s equally the responsibility of the architect to take the concern of the public.

Flip to the private side. If you’re the developer and I’m your architect, ultimately, it’s real clear where the decision-making is coming from.

At 700 employees, we have critical mass. There’s a lot of traveling going on, a lot of virtual meetings.

We have an enterprise platform we call the “people place.” I can pull it up on my computer right now and say, “We need an interior designer with corporate design expertise with 15 years of experience.” And I can find out exactly who’s available worldwide.

It’s an ancient profession. Architects in the city are all friends. Competition isn’t the architecture firms in the city. It’s the competition for relevant ideas.

Seattle nice is definitely a factor. We’re definitely born out of the Northwest.

If I just personalize it, I’m one of the most competitive people out there. It’s how you channel it.

Seattle is just one piece of the market we address. We’re always thinking about what’s ahead. Whether it’s an up market or a down market, there’s always opportunity.

If Seattle comes down, we could see potentially increased activity in Asia or other geographies. If the commercial market is down, often the governmental or public markets will rise a bit. Health care is less extreme in modulations than the commercial market.

Ultimately, we don’t control the market. We ride with it. But if we’re really skillful, we can really ease the pressure points.

So last year I was invited to write a letter to a young architect. What advice would you give to your younger self, or yourself at roughly 25? How do you want to impact the world? Be courageous about it. To not take risks is to not achieve what you’re capable of.

Develop a voice. Whether it’s quiet or loud or provocative, everyone has to have a voice. Hang onto those things. They burn bright when you’re young. Never, never let go. If you do that, lots of good things happen.

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