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Oct 06, 2022

Katherine West Faulkner FAIA

KF holcim

Principal/Founder, West Work


BA (History); MArch; MBA

Professional interests:

Sustainable adaptive reuse/renovation, design for higher education, libraries, housing

Note: Faulkner is running for BSA Board Secretary in the 2022 BSA Election. You can also read our Profile of her opponent, Philip Chen FAIA.

When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?

The only architects I’d met before college were Howard Roark and Mike Brady. Late in my junior year, while majoring in History and Art History, I spent part of a year in Italy studying architectural history. One of my classmates was applying to graduate programs in architecture. He showed me his portfolio and explained the studio-based design education of an MArch program. I was fascinated and started telling people I wanted to become an architect, without knowing much about the profession. After college I found a job as a marketing assistant in a design firm. It took me two rounds of applying to schools before I was accepted.

Who or what deserves credit for your success?

Of course I owe my parents deep gratitude for their support, but when I think of pivotal moments, I recall my 7th grade teacher Mr. Nick keeping me after class to ask if being such a wiseass was really my best self. He asked about my future and ambitions. I will never forget that, and I have never thanked him for being interested enough to take the time. Another wake-up happened in 10th grade when I transferred to a small all-girls school. My classmates seemed so worldly—musical, artistic, and smart. I started pretending to be a serious student, and then I became one.

Lots of kids struggle with lack of confidence and self-esteem, and it is remarkable what they can do once they get it. I’ve been very fortunate to have been taught how to believe in myself.

What is your favorite Boston-area building or structure?

I cannot make up my mind enough to have a favorite anything, but I am fond of the Museum of Fine Arts, including the Foster Addition; the courtyard at the Gardner Museum; the Harry Parker Boathouse; the Boston Atheneum; and Architects’ Corner (the concrete buildings at Brattle and Church) in Cambridge.

Which one of your current projects excites you the most?

We are collaborating with OverUnder on a library plan for Haverhill. Libraries are wonderful. Termed “palaces for the people” by Eric Klinenberg, libraries are increasingly important to our social fabric as places for refuge and gathering. The Haverhill clients are progressive and ambitions, and you cannot imagine better collaborators than OverUnder when engaging with the community for transformational design.

What do you hope to contribute from your work?

I did not plan to start my own office in 2020. I left NADAAA in 2019, joining Katerra as VP of Architecture to follow ambitions of working on prefabricated mass-timber housing. I had decided that sustainable, zero-waste project delivery was the most impactful thing I could do with the rest of my career. The Katerra story is a short one, full of hubris and missteps, but the mission was laudable: taking on the entire process of project delivery, from design through construction, producing a sustainable, high-quality project with less risk, waste, and cost than currently possible.

When I found myself out of a job at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, I could only continue along that path. West Work (originally West Faulkner) aspires to contribute projects that are affordable and sustainable. We are specifically interested in housing and adaptive re-use, and continue to work in the civic realm on libraries and schools.

If you could collaborate with anyone in the profession, who would it be and why?

I’d like to collaborate with Tim McDonald and his firm, Onion Flats, who have spent decades on community-centric sustainable buildings in and around Philadelphia. Boston has extraordinary design talent and intellect, but we do not always “get it done” when it comes to progressive green projects. I have long admired Tim’s initiative and leadership in the arenas of Passive House and net-zero building

Triple Decker Challenge

What does equity mean to you?

Equity is a powerful word for equality, justice, and ownership. My husband and I share the housework equitably. I believe all people should be treated with equity, and if I purchase stock, I have a small amount of company equity. For many years I thought equity was just another word with multiple meanings, like “interest.” But now I understand that fairness and possession are inextricably linked.

I am the daughter of a proud self-made man. The miracle of the American Dream is woven into the family fabric; work hard, with integrity, and you will succeed. Success is often measured by the freedom to own things of value—a degree, a washer and dryer, a home. But here is where fairness and equality round out with ownership. We do not all start the journey with the same advantages. One’s race, religion, country of origin, gender, sexual orientation, and family are a few of the checkboxes that indicate probability of success. Our talents and achievements are in many ways an accident of birth.

What do you see as the largest barrier to equity in your profession?

Misunderstanding. Equity is sometimes portrayed as a zero-sum game, where one side must lose in order that another player benefits. Yet history proves that we all profit when the playing field is levelled—particularly in architecture, a profession meant to enhance society and culture.

I have been grateful to colleagues and friends like Natasha Espada, Judy Nitsch, and Greg Minott, as well as people I did not know personally like the late Phil Freelon, who have used their pulpits to lead conversations around the professional inequities hidden in plain sight. If we can elevate the dialogue around equity, we can identify actionable goals to enable more people the freedom and opportunity to enter the field of architecture.

What policy from another city sets an example you think Boston could successfully follow?

Boston should be congratulated for its many efforts to decarbonize and improve the urban environment, but there are other cities that have moved more aggressively to address climate change. Toronto’s Green Standard launched in 2010, with tiers of building performance, the first of which mandated requiring green roofs and aggressive storm water control. Higher tiers offer financial incentives for verified improved performance.

On a smaller scale, the City of Ithaca, New York has pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030, voting to electrify all buildings in the city. This means no more oil, natural gas, or propane for new or renovated buildings. With its population of just over 30,000 people, Ithaca’s crazy idea seems achievable when compared to the thought of implementing a similar plan in Boston, which is 20 times its size. In 2019, Brookline voted to be the first east coast city to ban fossil fuel hook-ups in new buildings, only to have the ban struck down by the state’s AG. So, it’s not easy. But if the municipalities do not take the lead, we will not succeed.

What do you see as the largest barrier to a zero-waste building, city, and world?

Project delivery is the largest barrier to zero-waste building, although it is generally easier and cheaper to build a new zero-waste building than to renovate toward net-zero. More than 75% of the buildings of 2050 are already standing, and most of those are using gas and oil for heating, lack insulation, and lose conditioned air through walls and windows. Deep energy retrofits (defined as improving energy performance by at least 50%) are expensive and complicated.

West Work has a grant-funded R+D company called Highland Park Tech (HPT) that focuses on deep energy retrofits and sustainable renovation for improved energy performance in existing buildings. We’ve been prototyping a wood fiber cladding that snaps in place over existing sheathing. Recently we drew an ecosystem map to describe how a new exterior siding product could be introduced to the market. What emerged was a confusing web of influencers and decision makers, with inefficient channels of delivery and cost—all reasons why the construction industry seems immune from disruption.

The good news is that individuals and associations are working hard to sponsor zero-waste construction. HPT has received a lot of support from MassCEC, and we’ve met innovators through the Rocky Mountain Institute, NYSERDA, the Passive House Accelerator, and the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA). This is a dynamic time for new materials and methods with opportunity for architects to make a positive impact.

2022 HP Panel Faulkner

What is the greatest potential for architecture to shape a neighborhood community?

Libraries have great potential to improve a community, and Boston has invested in its branch system. With NADAAA I led the design for the Adams Street Branch and experienced firsthand Boston’s commitment to serving the broadest possible population with welcoming buildings that sponsored civic engagement. If you have ever arrived to the BPL Central within an hour of its opening, you know that people queue up waiting for the doors to open: kids anticipating story time, homeless people getting out of the heat or cold, students, new Americans, the old, the young. The offerings are books, technology, instruction. I’ve no particular data on this, but I suspect a community’s investment in its library pays dividends.

Where do you find inspiration?

I find inspiration in craft, like the work of Eva Zeisel, Anni Albers, Carlo Scarpa. I recently saw an exhibit of Faith Ringgold’s quilts that was particularly good. The act of making and skill with material manipulation motivates me to be more attentive to detail.

What are you reading right now?

I love to read, and always have a couple of books going at once, mostly mysteries and science fiction. About every fourth book, however, I choose something historical. Right now, I am reading Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond. Written almost 20 years ago, the book has an interesting theory that a society’s response to environmental problems has direct correlation to its failure of success. So, as we approach our deadlines for achieving a sustainable world, it is interesting to ponder how societies have historically confronted climate disaster.

What was your least favorite college class?

Calculus. When I was younger, I was good at math, but somewhere around middle school I started to get anxious and felt physically ill during math tests. I never took calculus in high school, so I decided to take Calculus AB and BC in college. I did not dislike the classes, but they were hard, and I was proud to survive them.

Whom would you like the BSA to interview next?

James Jemison, Chief of Planning and Director of the BPDA.

Adams St John HORNER