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Legacy Circle: John Swift

John Swift
Principal, BuroHappold Engineering

Professional and philanthropic interests:

I like challenging projects with lofty aspirations. Whether it’s an ultra-low energy lab building, a net zero energy highrise project, or a thoughtful renovation of a historic structure, it is energizing to work with talented designers, users, owners, and builders to find optimal solutions. Helping to find win-win solutions in the design and construction process is very satisfying.

I have volunteered with the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), the United States Green Building Council (USGBC), and the Boston Society of Architects/AIA (BSA) to elevate the role of the engineer in the building design and operation process. I have been the senior editor and author for the ASHRAE GreenGuide and chaired the committee that is developing a proposed water efficiency standard for buildings. I am a member of the Industry Advisory Group for the US State Department’s Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations.

I was on the Board of Directors for Roxbury Youthworks, Inc. (RYI) for more than a decade. The work RYI does to help the most disenfranchised kids in Boston is inspiring, and I was proud to contribute in some small way. I also spent four years on the Designer Selection Board for the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development. More recently, in addition to becoming engaged with the BSA Foundation, we have been supporting Artists For Humanity (AFH) and their expansion plans.

What are you working on now?

We are wrapping up construction on two large projects: 888 Boylston in Boston and Partners HealthCare at Assembly Row in Somerville, Massachusetts. We are also working on the Brown University School of Engineering project with a great integrated project delivery (IPD) team: Shawmut Design and Construction, KieranTimberlake, and many other collaborators. We are doing the structural engineering on the Harvard University Science and Engineering Center project in Allston, Massachusetts, and working with Elkus Manfredi Architects on the transformation of the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory campus in Technology Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We are working on projects with designLAB, including the Hitchcock Center for the Environment in Amherst, Massachusetts, which is pursuing Living Building Challenge project certification, and a United States General Services Administration (GSA) Design Excellence Program project in Detroit. We are also working on the net positive energy project for the Artists For Humanity Epicenter. AFH is a fantastic organization. The net positive energy that comes out of that organization is truly created by the people that occupy that space on A Street in Boston. It is infectious!

How do you/did you/would you explain to your mom what you do for a living?

I tell her that I work with engineers and architects to design green buildings.

Image: Hitchcock Environmental Center © designLAB Architects

What inspired you today?

The enthusiasm and positive energy of young people. I see it in our profession, and I see it in how the teenagers I know are engaged in their schools and communities. Our kids are in the Arlington, Massachusetts public school system, and I see that community doing something positive and inclusive on a daily basis. And, recently, we had five of our younger professionals participate in the BSA Foundation’s KidsBuild! program. It gives me real hope for the future.

What are you reading?

I recently got to meet Arthur Gensler FAIA at a conference and picked up his book, Art’s Principles: 50 years of hard-learned lessons in building a world-class professional services firm. I admire his practical approach. I just started Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl. I am trying to see if there are clues there to help motivate young women to become engaged with science and engineering. And one of my favorite books is Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World. It was a real treat to hear him speak at the recent AIA New England Committee on the Environment (COTE) Summit in Boston. That said, most of my reading is online—blogs and articles from FiveThirtyEight to Thomas Friedman (The New York Times Foreign Affairs columnist) to PGC Basketball.

Has your career taken you anywhere you didn’t expect?

Quite a few places: teaching seminars to PhD students in Kuwait about green healthcare buildings; lecturing on sustainability in Helsinki; designing health science buildings in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Seoul, South Korea; spending a few days in Richard Branson’s villa on Moskito Island.

What inspired you to support the BSA Foundation as a member of the Legacy Circle?

Quite a few of my former colleagues suggested that I get involved. The design community in Boston has so many hard-working, bright stars, and the Foundation seems to be tapping into that talent and enthusiasm in a really cool way.

Thinking about the power of collaboration and design to change lives in Greater Boston, how can the Foundation harness that power to help build a better Boston?

Go to AFH or to KidsBuild! and feel the energy. The future is bright. Young people are so much more engaged in the modern world. Social media exposure more often than not can help people feel connected with other people who have common beliefs and values—even if those people seem very different on the surface. Hopefully the Foundation can tap into the energy of programs like these, along with lifting up programs that deliver services to the people in our community that need the most help.

Image: Artists for Humanity Epicenter expansion © Behnisch Architekten

Can you remember the first time you understood the relationship between design and quality of life?

I grew up on construction sites in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts working for my family’s mechanical contracting company as a teenager. I remember working on projects at Williams College that were designed by Charles Moore FAIA and ARC/Architectural Resources Cambridge. Their creative solutions transformed tired old buildings into bright new spaces for teaching and learning. As a teenager from North Adams, Massachusetts, that resonated with me.

Who or what deserves credit for your success?

I don’t think success is the right word, but a lot of people have given me the opportunity to work on some great projects with smart, creative teams. My dad emphasized hard work, reliability, and loyalty. My mom taught Catholic school for many years and taught us to be understanding and charitable, and to respect the dignity of all people. If I can demonstrate that I try to live up to those core beliefs, then I will feel successful.

If you could give the you-of-10-years-ago (or longer) advice, what would it be?

Listen more, judge less. I still need to be given that advice on a daily basis.

What do you love about Boston and why?

The scale of the city feels just right to me, along with the access to mountains, seashores, and the Berkshires. Fenway Park; Beacon Hill; the North End; access to all kinds of music and art; the sports teams and fanatics; the density of smart, enthusiastic, creative people working for some of the greatest institutions and companies in the world.

If you could sum up your outlook on life in a bumper sticker, what would it say?

Plan for the future, live in the moment.


photo credit: BuroHappold