An Interview with Diana Fernandez Bibeau and Seth Riseman of the Boston Planning & Development Agency (BPDA)
Anastasia Barnes recently interviewed Diana Fernandez Bibeau, PLA, ASLA, deputy chief of urban design, and Seth Riseman, deputy director of design review at the Boston Planning & Development Agency about the city’s mission to encourage unique and innovative design in Boston, its priority on promoting sustainable development, and how the agency’s initiatives will help shape individual building projects through design review required through Article 80 and Zoning Board of Appeal processes.
Anastasia Barnes: How does Boston’s urban design balance historical character with modern commercial construction needs?
Diana Fernandez Bibeau: The way I think about our city and the mission that we’re driving forward is that what makes Boston so unique is that it is a layering of histories that have come together over time. There isn’t one narrative that defines what Boston is today and that’s certainly not the way in which we see it in the future, so there is space for the glass in buildings in the Seaport and there’s space for the historic row houses in Beacon Hill, and there’s also room to imagine what’s coming next. I think what’s so exciting about this particular moment for us is that it is a way in which we together as a city can start to shape that next design aesthetic that starts to reflect the city’s ideals and values at this moment in time. We get to craft those conversations and ask those questions of our architecture, engineering, and construction industry to see – what is the market yielding, how are innovations in the building code shaping the way in which we think about what that typology could be, and how architecture and design can serve our communities and our environment in a better way. For us, it’s about thinking about what that next layer of history is that we’re adding to our city that helps to make it as unique and diverse as it is.
AB: What are the latest trends in commercial construction design that align with the city’s aesthetic and functionality?
Seth Riseman: We are not a homogenous city, we are a diverse city and there is room for diversity of expression throughout the city in the built environment. With this new focus on design-centric and design-focused building, we are open to and supportive of many new ideas of how to engage in the urban environment aesthetically, and I think it’s more also about how buildings meet the urban environment, meet the street, and how they respond to pedestrians rather than any particular style.
AB: How is sustainability being integrated into both the preservation of existing buildings and in new construction to accomplish Boston’s climate goals?
DB: There’s some really interesting programs that we’re leading here at the city and that are also supported by the state that are looking at retrofits with electric that allow for the ease of retrofitting existing buildings. There are also some new innovations within our building code to allow for new construction methods and systems that make it a lot easier to think about the sensitivities related to costs of some of those retrofits. The goal is to approach it on a site by site basis and develop a toolkit to provide for the flexibility needed with historic character as unique as ours.
SR: I think resiliency and sustainability are some of the most significant design challenges we have in this generation and for this city at this time and so all departments within the city are contributing to this toolkit that we are creating in order to respond to this challenge. Some of that will involve retrofit and renovation of existing buildings with new and innovative technologies and approaches, and some involve new construction and working with passive house and other cutting edge ways to significantly reduce our carbon footprint and reduce buildings’ impact on the environment.
How does your team promote innovative yet compliant solutions in commercial construction design?
DB: We’re trying to bring issues to the forefront early; we’re trying to flag these issues early to bring a level of rigor and technical capacity to this work that allows us to work in tandem with the architecture, engineering, and construction industries to innovate in that space, and we’re bringing to bear that capacity in a way where we’re seeing some great results. We are working on the Boston Design Vision which is intended to define that next design vocabulary that we want to see in our city, and that’s a very robust community process that is helping to guide a lot of the work that we’re doing both on the design review front and within our planning initiatives.