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Profile: James Miner

Name: James Miner
Job title and company: Managing principal, Sasaki Associates
Degree(s): Bachelor of science in art and design, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; master’s in urban planning, Harvard Graduate School of Design
Professional interests: Innovation and the application of new technologies in planning and urban design

What are you working on now?

I tend to work on at least four or five different projects at a time—each one quite different from the other. One of my biggest projects at the moment is a regional plan for sustainable development in central Iowa that is funded by HUD’s Sustainable Communities Planning Grant Program. The project area is 542 square miles and includes 17 different communities. I also am working on an annexation plan for a small community on Vancouver Island [in British Columbia]; a high density, transit-oriented development in Calgary [Alberta]; a masterplan for Salem State University [in Salem]; a masterplan for the Dana Hall School in Wellesley; and branding and identity, and website development for a client in New Jersey. The variety of project types certainly keeps me on my toes!

(Left) Inglewood Junction, Calgary, Alberta (Right) Central Iowa Sustainable Communities Planning

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

When I talk about planning and urban design, most people don’t really know what that means. They seem to like it better when I just tell them I am an architect and leave it at that. Sometimes, though, I like to refer back to a great episode from Seinfeld. Everyone remembers that George Costanza always liked to pretend he was an architect because it sounds so cool. But then there was this one episode where he was challenged by a guy who aspired to be a city planner: “Why limit myself to one building when I can design a whole city? Isn’t an architect just an art-school dropout with a tilting desk and a big ruler?” I like this quote because too many planners I meet seem to have major inferiority complexes with their architecture colleagues.

What inspired you today?

I was in a particularly heated discussion at the office with a bunch of people around a table working out the preliminary design concept for a public plaza in one of my projects. The process of design is so personal it can be hard for people to share ideas at the risk of being criticized by others. But in this meeting today, there was a lot of what I would call productive friction (aka arguing), and we ended up with something beautiful [that] none of us could have achieved in isolation.

What architectural buzzword would you kill?

Placemaking. It’s a terrible word because architects and designers do not create the essence of a place, nor do buildings or landscape. People, and the interactions between them, make a place. If we focus on making environments for people, then a sense of place will emerge from that and be shaped by the people who use it.

When you’re working, do you discuss or exchange ideas with your colleagues?

Sharing ideas is essential to everything I do. I think it’s important that everyone have a voice because sometimes the best ideas come from unlikely places. [American chemist and two-time Nobel Prize winner] Linus Pauling once said, “The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas and throw the bad ones away.”

What are you reading?

Aside from the nightly pre-bedtime reading ritual with my three young kids at home, I don’t get a whole lot of time to read. That said, people seem to be giving me a lot of books to read these days; as I’ve taken on a new leadership role in the firm, a lot of books about how to best manage organizational change are landing on my desk. Good to Great [by Jim Collins], Built to Last [also by Jim Collins], True North [by Bill George, Peter Sims and David Gergen], Tribes [by Seth Godin]… I’ve read them all. My most recent gift-book in this vein is Delivering Happiness [by Tony Hsieh], which is the story of Zappo’s CEO, Tony Hsieh.

Do you sketch by hand or digitally?

I don’t get much time to sketch anymore, but when I do, it’s on my iPad.

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

Absolutely. I feel like my career is continually evolving. Although I have always aspired to be a leader, I did not imagine that I would be a managing principal at Sasaki at age 37. I’ve still got almost 30 years to go in my career, so I like to think I am really just getting started.

Where is the field of architecture headed?

Not to a good place. I believe that technology and the billable hour are on a collision course that continues to devalue the work we do. Think of it this way: We can easily do five times more in an hour than we could 10 years ago, thanks to technology. Yet our billing rates remain flat, and our fees continue to get smaller, not bigger. We have to find a better way to define the value of our work and charge accordingly; otherwise, the profession will not attract talent and will continue to lose value and respect.

Can design save the world?

Not sure good design can cure all our world’s problems, but it can certainly make us all happier.

What do you hope to contribute from your work?

More than anything else, I want to inspire and enable others to succeed—whether that means giving my clients the tools they need to achieve their goals, enabling a community to come together and reach consensus on challenging issues or helping my colleagues find professional satisfaction from their careers.

Who or what deserves credit for your success?

When I was 14 years old, I spent a summer away from home at [the California Institute of Technology] taking physics and calculus classes. Yes, I was good at math and science, but, as it turns out, I wasn’t that good. I failed both classes—miserably. But I learned a lot from that experience, and since then I have never been afraid to fail. That, for me, has been the key to gathering up the courage to take the various steps in my career that have led me to where I am today.

Your least favorite college class?

Probably my first semester of physics at MIT. I remember getting a 38/100 on the first exam and thinking “Oh, crap, not again!” The next day I found out that the class average was 45/100, so I was well within the passing range. (MIT works on a pass/fail system in the first year.) Talk about a humbling experience. There were a couple of kids [who] got perfect scores on that test.

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

Get more sleep—you’ll appreciate it later.

Your favorite Boston-area structure?

Is it bad that I don’t have one? Don’t get me wrong, I love Boston and think it is a wonderful place to live and work, but I think we need more room for experimentation in both architectural and landscape design here in Boston. We’ve had a few recent attempts at doing something different—Gehry’s Stata Center and Stephen Holl’s dorm at MIT, Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s ICA in the South Boston Seaport District—and I think there are good lessons to be learned from each of these. Part of Boston’s great charm is in its variety of neighborhoods and sense of cohesiveness as a compact, historic city. Yet our public waterfront remains incomplete, and our primary civic spaces (like City Hall plaza or the Rose Kennedy Greenway) are a constant source of debate in the design community.

Who would you like the BSA to interview next?

Did you know that Ice Cube (yes, the rap star) studied architecture? He got a lot of media attention last year for a short video that featured him talking about Ray and Charles Eames. We could use a little more excitement and buzz around architecture here in Boston, so if we need to get someone like Ice Cube to come to the BSA to get people talking, I’m all for it!

If you were on a late-night TV show, what would your 30-second plug be?

If I were ever to make it onto a late-night talk show, I hope it would be because I have played a part in revolutionizing the planning and design industry. We are consumers of technology, rather than leaders. Many of the things going on in the film and gaming industries today have great relevance to what we do as architects and planners, whether it be new visualization tools and techniques, ways of distilling and interacting with big data (think of the movie Minority Report) or ways of communicating with and educating members of the community through online games and social media. The Smart Cities movement is moving in this direction, and we have the chance to change the architecture and construction business as we know it.

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

Live in the moment, and enjoy the ride!