Laying Groundwork with Meaningful Connection

Carl Knutson, with support from Nancy Gribeluk, Sindhu Mahadevan, Joshua Rubin, Ben Shealy*, and Andy TsayJacobs

2019 Innovation on Demand

The secret to strong architectural projects? Just ask Carl Knutson, the design director of our Washington, D.C. studio.

 A bold vision, attention to client needs, and technical expertise are no doubt indispensable—but so too are solid relationships and good communication. Carl’s work on D.C.’s new Southwest Library benefitted from bringing additional voices to the table to improve design outcomes. “The beauty of our firm is the ability to make connections—and understand that we’re part of a broader network,” says Carl.

“The beauty of our firm is the ability to make connections—and understand that we’re part of a broader network.”


Knutson at SW site (7)


The design-build project, a replacement of an existing branch library, was designed to tie closely to the surrounding community, highlight a new adjacent park, provide a sense of arrival, and maximize a link to the outdoors. It is also highly sustainable, integrating energy and water conservation strategies and environmentally responsive materials, sourced regionally.


At the onset of their engagement with the client, Carl pitched the idea of making it a mass timber project. The client loved the vision, but the challenge of allocating the right expertise to execute it remained. They enlisted StructureCraft, a structural engineer specializing in mass timber, based in Abbotsford, B.C. StructureCraft’s role was vital—manufacturing the structural timber components and shipping them to Washington, D.C. for the project construction.

Early project sketches nod to the community context and sustainability goals.

Facilitating conversations to close the knowledge gap

As the project got underway, Carl lamented the lack of face-to-face interaction with the engineer, largely the result of time and money constraints. A fortuitous conversation with Jon Penndorf, a colleague in the D.C. studio and one of the Innovation Incubator Committee members, opened a door. “He mentioned that the Committee was interested in some client-facing research grants—and wondered if this could be an Innovation on Demand pilot,” says Carl. 

Innovation On Demand is an off-shoot of the Innovation Incubator program that focuses on research applied directly to our clients’ projects. Through these unique grants, time and funding allow individuals or teams to improve projects in a tangible way, going above and beyond the typical design process.

Carl applied for a grant that would facilitate a closer connection to StructureCraft, to better allow the design team to understand the mass timber fabrication and manufacturing process as it related to the library project. “I was interested from a nuts and bolts perspective how they were thinking about our design,” says Carl. “I thought it would be great to get our project architect (Ben) out there to see how the sausage is made—so that when it came to construction and detailing the project, he would understand how it all came together.”

SW team picture

From left: Ben, Joshua, Lucas Epp (StructureCraft), Carl, and Sindhu

Innovation on Demand enabled a trip to our Vancouver studio to learn from several mass timber experts and get a primer from their past experience. Then, they met with and interviewed StructureCraft team members. Carl talks about how that team evolved his thinking on a folded plate concept. “They took our ideas and brought then to an even better place with some thoughtful solutions,” says Carl.

A road map to stronger relationships

While the official deliverable from the Innovation on Demand grant was a video of the interview, the less tangible outcomes were numerous: project clarity, new knowledge, a framework for storytelling, and ultimately, new relationships that will enhance future projects. As Carl explains, the face-to-face meeting facilitated the kind of natural dialogue you need to truly understand something. “You can ask someone a question one way, and then ask it in a different way and get a different answer,” says Carl of the discovery process.

Animated rendering of the Southwest Library in Washington, D.C.

“Any opportunity to carve out that time and make stronger connections is worthwhile.”


Carl has previously completed an Innovation Incubator project, an analysis of the “middle” space, or blending, of K-12 and higher education architecture, and he was recently granted another to create a portable pharma-care prototype. He has experienced first-hand how these deep dives help close the knowledge gap. He has leveraged past Innovation Incubator projects to sit on panels—and even win work.


But this Innovation on Demand grant introduced new dimensions that Carl now enthusiastically champions: team building and mentorship. In bringing his more junior teammates on the trip—and connecting them with the manufacturers—he helped cultivate his colleagues’ knowledge, experience, and network. And in the process, the team got to gel, too. “When you’re in the office, you spend time together on a project, but you don’t necessarily get quality time,” says Carl. “Any opportunity to carve out that time and make stronger connections is worthwhile.”

*former Perkins&Will employee 

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