Michael Johnson | Courtesy Carrier Johnson + CULTURE

The Evolution of Design: A Chat With Michael Johnson

Carrie Rossenfeld Professional Services

Michael Johnson, a founder and design principal of Carrier Johnson + CULTURE, was selected this year for appointments to two high-profile organizations: the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Documents Committee and the University of California San Diego’s inaugural Real Estate and Development Advisory Board for its new degree program in that field. SoCal Real Estate spoke with Johnson about the new volunteer positions, how he’s seen CRE design — particularly in San Diego — evolve over the last decade, and how he sees it changing over the next decade.

SoCal Real Estate: What are you most looking forward to accomplishing in your new volunteer positions?
First, I was asked to be on the national AIA Documents Committee . It’s a 10-year appointment, since they amend the AIA contracts every 10 years. The AIA writes contracts for practically all building projects, and one of the reasons I accepted this appointment is because, at this stage in my career, it allowed me once again to give back to my profession. I’m still a practicing design architect, which is attractive to them because you’re still in play, and you’re seeing the trends and changes.

The building and procurement environment in particular is changing quickly. It used to be that an owner hires an architect, the architect draws the design, bids are taken, and then the project is built. But this hasn’t always worked well on every project for various reasons, mostly because of unrealistic budgets for a project or program. A contractor might have a low-bid mentality — there is a variety of things. For many years, it would set up conflict. So many procurements like design/build, which is trying to create a collaborative team where everyone is working together. Things like that are changing the environment of delivery, particularly in the public sector. This is not always attractive from an architect’s point of view because you have to invest dollars up front, and they set you up as a beauty contest.

But I’m hoping to give my experience to help effect change with the contract so it’s better for all entities: contractors, architects, etc. I’m on the committee with people from all over the country, architects, lawyers, insurance people. You get a point of view on how things are done all over the country and can bring best practices back to your community.

On the UC San Diego side, our firm has been working at UC San Diego for 35 years, and we’ve completed large and small projects on the campus. I was asked to be a chair on the advisory board with multiple industry leaders. One of the things I’m very interested in is an interdisciplinary approach to building. Cal Poly San Luis Obispo has a program for planning, construction management, and architectural engineering that is about cross-pollinating the different sectors. If you can start training the students when they’re in academia, they will be better team players when they get out into the world. It’s less about “I” and more about “we” and a team. UC San Diego is coming from social studies, humanities, and they do have architectural and urban-design programs, and they’re trying to integrate that into one. Not many schools in SoCal that have the real estate component. Even though I’m not a realtor, I’m involved in the real estate side. I’ve lived here 30 years, and I’m committed to making UC San Diego one of the better universities in the country.

As an architect, how have you seen the design of San Diego’s commercial real estate evolve over the last decade?
Even though in my practice I work in all different venues, from commercial office to hospitality to residential to university and public work, there’s much more to be done, particularly in public-private ventures. If you’re trying to get anything of a public nature done, e.g., if the County of San Diego or the State of California wants to do a public project, doing public-private partnerships where funding comes from the private sector and you create leasebacks makes sense.

What’s happening with Downtown San Diego is that we are at a stage in our evolution where almost all the housing that has been built in the county in the last decade is in Downtown San Diego. The big change is going to be when we land a major office user Downtown like Amazon or Facebook — then we will see a major renaissance. But I think we’re already seeing it. For example, CBRE spoke to Downtown San Diego Partnership recently — they had a group come in from Silicon Valley who met Downtown and they asked them what they were looking for, and they said they were looking for a high-tech campus. They immediately drove them up to Sorrento Valley, but they didn’t even get out of the car before saying they didn’t want to be up there: they wanted to be Downtown. People are looking at the live/work environment.

One of the big changes is that as transit starts to get better, including the trolley line connecting to UC San Diego, there will be more synergies and densities occurring in Downtown San Diego. Most of the available land now is in the South Bay, and the Convention Center expansion and Chula Vista Bayfront are finally getting funded, so will see values go up. We’re excited about what’s going on. We’re also seeing lower parking requirements now; Californians love their cars, but more people are using Uber or walking to work, especially in an urban environment. Mixed-use projects is another sector where I’m seeing big change, with highly amenitized projects where you have a lot of retail and amenities for the people living there. It’s pretty exciting and self-contained.

How do you see design here changing over the next decade?
ULI called me recently and asked me about automated vehicles. I’m not sure what that’s going to do over the next 10 years. We have streets, and they are what they are. Ideally, we would be widening sidewalks. I’m hoping we will see more pedestrian-friendly developments happen where the pedestrian is truly the priority, not the car. If you look anywhere in San Diego, but especially in a downtown environment or office park, it’s surrounded by a big sea of parking. With the cost of land, we will see less of that. That doesn’t mean you won’t see more structured parking, but I think you’re going to see a combination of transit with high-speed lanes like in D.C. or L.A. — less hard rail and more shuttles Downtown. Transportation will be an issue.

We will also continue to see major projects happening in San Diego. The Midway site over by the Sports Arena will be developed, and we will see some major plays like with the Westfield Horton Plaza and over by the ball park. We will see many developments revolving around new sports for San Diego, whether it’s soccer, basketball, hockey, or football, over the next 10 to 15 years.

As for SDCCU Stadium, any great city has to have great educational institutions, and they create research, which creates jobs. SDSU is bringing everything the opposition is bringing when it comes to housing, retail and sports, but the added enhancement is the growth of San Diego State. They’re treating it with an environmentally sensitive hand, bringing the river back into the plan, and we need to reclaim that.