Buffalo-based Canadian architect Roxanne Button, on her past contributions to a green renovation TV series, how she explains sustainability to clients and life as a sole practitioner.
1. Why did you get involved with scriptwriting for “The Resourceful Renovator” TV series and how did that fit into your desire to change the conversation about “green” design?
I was asked by the creator and star of the series, Jennifer Corson, who was a classmate from TUNS in Halifax. I was living in Vancouver and she asked if I would come back to Halifax and work with her. I joined the show in the 3rd season. I really enjoyed the entire process of researching projects and interviewing. This was in the late 1990’s before LEED was developed, when “green” was still on the sidelines. That experience taught me a lot about what defines “green” and sustainable design. We met people who built their own homes by hand using local and salvaged materials. They were doing very creative and green things that defined “think local” long before it was a trend. That still resonates with me, almost twenty years later. I have a broader definition of sustainability because of that experience.
2. Many architects feel that reality TV shows about residential design and construction give the public false expectations about budget and time. As someone who has worked in the entertainment industry and is now practicing architecture, would you agree with that assessment?
The process of designing and constructing a single-family home is lengthy and very involved, and that can never be accurately conveyed in a one-hour show. Some shows do educate homeowners, but they definitely create unrealistic expectations. People responded to the honesty behind “The Resourceful Renovator” because we let our guests simply tell their stories. I used to reply to the fan mail. It was really lovely to hear how much the viewers enjoyed what we did because it was real and doable.
3. In your opinion, what’s the biggest misconception that clients have about sustainability?
How much it costs is still the biggest misconception. I’ve been advocating sustainable design for over 20 years and costs have come down a lot. The entire building materials industry is changing, not only what they make but how they make it. Our understanding of what makes a healthy building has evolved. But the perceived cost of “green” is still holding us back. It’s the “first cost” that people get stuck on. We need to factor in what it costs to operate and maintain these buildings. It’s that longer-term view that defines sustainability and that is still hard to communicate to clients.
4. As a Canadian architect based in Buffalo, what do you love about practicing there?
If you look at any mall parking lot on a weekend, you’ll see a lot of Ontario plates! When I first moved here 13 years ago, I was going to stay for a few years and move to Toronto. Then I met someone and got married, which was not in the original plan! Buffalo is a great city with incredible architectural history. I’ve really enjoyed watching this city rediscover itself over the past decade. The great things that are happening on the waterfront are indicative of that: Buffalo is a waterfront city that never really had a waterfront. That is changing, and it’s going to be fantastic when it’s all finished. People are rediscovering their downtown, which has really suffered over the past couple of decades from suburban sprawl and loss of businesses. We have wonderful restoration and adaptive reuse projects, like the incredible Hotel Lafayette, the Richardson Complex, and the Larkin District. The Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus is having a huge impact. It’s bringing new people into downtown neighbourhoods. Here’s a problem that we did not have 10 years ago: it’s getting harder to find an old building to redevelop. That’s a good problem to have. I really hope that the Canadians who come here take some time away from the suburban malls and explore what’s happening in the city.
5. Where would you like to see your firm in 5 years?
Right now, it’s a firm of one. I’m in the middle of updating my business plan right now. I would like to grow to 3-5 employees and continue to do a variety of interesting and challenging projects. I’d also like to grow geographically. I would love to open a Canadian office within the next 5 years. I’m still a member of the RAIC – I presented at the 2012 conference in St. John’s about Buffalo’s renaissance. I keep in touch with colleagues across Canada. That’s really important to me.