As a designer at Ross Barney Architects, Ryan Gann, Assoc. AIA, has worked on some of the studio’s most ambitious civic projects. These architectural and urban design investigations have allowed him to collaborate with communities across Chicago and the world, expressing the role public space plays in everyday life. Most recently, his involvement with the design of Chicago’s new flagship building for McDonalds and their net-zero building in Orlando has proven that even the smallest of moves can have an outsized impact.
This is also true for his life outside the studio. In his career, Ryan has blazed a trail founded on service, leadership, and design. From his time as an engaged student leader to his expanding contributions to the built environment, Ryan has managed to stay ambitious while having fun along the way.
In his capacity as newly-elected At-Large Director for the AIA, Ryan seeks to continue to take small, but measurable steps to affect change in the profession in areas that desperately need attention – climate change, racial justice, and healthy buildings.
With his track record, I think we’ll get there. One step at a time…
Welcome to the Architects Possibility Podcast with David Bradley of Blueprint For Living Coaching. Each week we connect with design professionals, just like you, who are using their creativity, leadership, and passion to make the world a better place in ways both big and small, every day. Now, here’s the host of the Architect’s Possibility Podcast, architect and executive coach, David Bradley.
Hey everyone! I’m spending time today with Ryan Gann, Associate AIA, a designer at Ross Barney Architects in Chicago. Ryan’s career has been one founded on service, leadership and design as witnessed by his portfolio and his activities outside the office. From his time as an engaged student leader to his expanding contributions to the built environment, Ryan has managed to stay ambitious while having fun along the way. And that’s what we’re going to be talking about today. Ryan is the recipient of the 2018 AIA Associates Award, a Schiff foundation fellowship from the Art Institute of Chicago, and he was the inaugural architect in residence at the Hyde Park Art Center. He’s also previously served on the national boards of the American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS), the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB), and the American Institute of Architects (AIA). As a designer at Ross Barney Architects, Ryan has worked on some of the studio’s most ambitious, civil projects, including…well, this one isn’t civil… most recently, the new McDonald’s flagship building on the site of the iconic rock-and-roll McDonald’s drive through that stood there for many years. Ryan, welcome to the podcast.
Thank you so much. I’m very impressed. You could get through all those acronyms.
It’s definitely alphabet soup. I mentioned you’ve done a lot of civil projects with Ross, Barney architects, and I’d love to hear it. Some of those that you might be able to share with us, but I’m specifically curious about your corporate work with McDonald’s and their new flagship building. So why don’t we begin with sharing with our listeners, the kinds of projects that you’re used to working on and how the McDonald’s project is different?
Yeah. Well, thanks so much for having me again. I think that we’ve had a really interesting evolution in our portfolio at Ross Barney Architects within the last couple of years specifically. We’ve been known for civic and public space for a long time, working with city governments across the country, designing federal buildings, the Chicago River Walk, lots of parks are sort of in the pipeline right now…and sort of through that process, when we begin to talk about some of our newer work and particularly collaborations with McDonald’s, people sort of see this weird, like, dichotomy between the two. Oh, well, that’s a hard shift. And I think for us, it isn’t quite as stark of a shift. I think what we’ve learned working in the public arena is that buildings and spaces of any size and scale need to be contributors to their neighborhoods, to their community. And we see it as a huge opportunity to take a platform like McDonald’s, something that people can argue about from a health and impact perspective, but I think it’s probably one of the more equitable experiences that anyone across the nation, and if not the world, can have access to. And so from that side, we’re talking about access to an institution, access to a space, and then I think it’s through design excellence that we can really elevate that experience, that it isn’t just the typical McDonald’s that you see on the roadside. It’s not some other fast food or quick service restaurant…that what we’re trying to do is shift a global corporation through culture, through design, through the human experience to be something that’s far more ambitious and forward looking and something that actually is using their scale for good.
I see some interesting parallels that you mentioned. One of them that occurs to me is civic projects. You’re involved with government entities, which have a tendency to be hugely bureaucratic and very slow to move and to make decisions. I’m curious if you’ve had the same experience with an entity that’s, in many cases, even bigger and very, very established in certain ways of doing things. And what was the challenge working with the corporate culture as compared with government entities, which have a culture of their own?
Yeah, I think one of the things that we’ve sort of learned, and I’m an infant when it comes to being an architect, but one of the things that I’ve personally learned with working with government agencies is as a member of the public and through the democratic process,we can be a little bit more vocal in representing disenfranchised voices or various opinions, to sort of state the claim that this is a space that we use too. So the pitch there is a little bit easier because it is in the public realm. What we realized though in talking with corporate clients and McDonald’s in particular is that there is a really entrenched ecosystem and ethos of understanding design, particularly just to sort of narrow in the language there. But what is more interesting though is that this has sort of been a symbiotic relationship pushing them and then pushing us.
One of the things that I’ll never forget is when we were working in Chicago, looking at the footprint of the existing building, trying to be stewards of sort of keeping as much of the space that was there already. The, most sustainable building is the one that already exists. And we tried so many different ways, but I think we went through about 50 different iterations of just the site plan and talking about circulation on the site. And what I hadn’t realized is that circulation was tied to the cook line and your experience as a customer at the front of the counter in tandem with the experience of someone going through the drive through. So something so sort of fundamental to them being that experience of making food fast and making sure that the customer experience was elevated through time was a huge determining factor that we as architects of non restaurant projects had never even really considered. And so there are other things that are similar to that, but that’s sort of the most potent example that I learned in a way that we did sort of have to take a step back to really look at their processing culture, to understand how we could then insert ourselves, to have conversations that were more provocative or would change sort of their associations and their assumptions of their well-oiled machine. I mean, well, sort of fine-tuned process of making food.
How receptive were they to someone coming in from the outside? Who’s not in food service design, who sort of has a different aesthetic or different agenda? How receptive were they to opening up and broadening their horizons?
I think it was a risk, and I think it was a risk that they were willing to take. I think that our…what we pride ourselves on as an office and what I have learned through time – and I’m really intrigued by – is process of how you go from an idea to a building. And that was what we talked to them about when we were first interviewing with them was what we’re here to do is not to tell you that we’ve done this a million times. We haven’t, and it’s not to tell you that we’re experts on this. We aren’t. What we are experts on is taking your idea, taking your ambition, and extracting that into something that’s physical and a built space. Furthermore, with that conversation, it was really taking an opportunity to say, here’s a company. What you’ve told us, you’re a company that is looking for transformation through design.
And so what we then said was, well, have you actually ever thought about design as a tool for brand transformation, not branded space, but like to change people’s ideology of what they think about. And I think that that was sort of where the relationship began. So it’s a risk, but it was also fairly receptive ears. And there’s just what we’ve learned with civic projects too, is that you have to say things a couple of different times and in a couple of different ways for them to understand the point. And I think that that was sort of true in this case too, that we were very strategic about some of the conversations we would have and with who and the food chain let’s say or in the hierarchy. And then just reiterating those things over and over again until there was finally an understanding of why we were pushing X or why we were pushing Y and really making sure that those, those types of conversations were being heard by the right decision makers.
How do you think that they became open to a change in perspective? I think with civic spaces, oftentimes that push to innovate or that push to try something new comes directly from the top. A new leader is elected. Somebody comes into office, they have fresh ideas and that sort of trickles down. Was it your impression that in the corporate culture, that was the same impetus – did it start from the top?
I think to some extent it did. I think what we’ve seen, I’ve sort of become a McDonald’s nerd in the last couple of years, learning how a corporation is looking towards the UN sustainability guidelines and completely transforming who they are, in plain sight, but also behind closed doors that they’re changing things that a lot of people just don’t think about or wouldn’t even consider.
Does McDonald’s have some kind of a commitment to sustainability at a corporate level? Have they come forward….
…Yeah. So, what they have is called Scale For Good, and it’s essentially a series of commitments that mirror the UN sustainability priorities that looks specifically at food sourcing, look at packaging, look at sort of scholarship development and workforce development. So it’s going beyond just defining sustainability and direct impact on energy. It’s looking to a much larger influence of ecosystem that they have. And I think one of the most interesting stories that I’ve heard in having conversations with them is when they make a decision, let’s say, to only use organic potatoes for French fries, the industry doesn’t yet exist or is in the process of existing to be able to fulfill that request. And so, because they’re so large it’s hard to move their ambitions and priorities without first going to the very beginning of where they could get their sourcing from as well. That’s just like one very particular example, but I found it absolutely fascinating to learn about their corporate commitments that they take very seriously and in a measured and very transparent way, I think. And try to sort of distill that down into the actual customer, that how am I as a customer walking into a store or going through a drive through experiencing that as well through primarily a built space.
What were your biggest challenges with this particular project?
Oh, hm. Timeline. I think we’re all familiar when you’re driving around and you see a McDonald’s on the expressway or off the expressway and they’re going under renovation or something. It’s like one and done, like, super quick. And that mentality of speed exists at a flagship scale, too. So from start to finish from the day that we were hired until the day that we opened the Chicago flagship was about 15 months. We just completed a net zero McDonald’s in Florida, which was about 18 months from the date that we got hired to opening, even amidst a pandemic. So, I mean, speed is definitely the arch-nemesis of working with them.
And is that just construction schedule or that’s actually from concept to realization?
Concept to realization.
That’s a really fast timeline.
Wow. Well, and I can imagine that it goes that way for certain organizations like McDonald’s or like any of the corporate work that I’ve done for large chains, they have a formula and there’s a formula that no matter what the space is, the formula has to work. They’ve got a certain set of criteria to design around and that’s just, that’s the law. That’s just how it has to be for them. So I can imagine it also is a challenge to come in and start proposing new and innovative ideas that were going to disrupt that particular delivery model.
Yeah. It’s sort of working off of the bones. Like, we basically have a rib cage of a building.
There’s a lot already defined for us with the ability to move things around there’s flexibility. And then it’s about creating the shell and the larger story. So for us at both Chicago and in Disney being sort of focused primarily on environmental stewardship and telling that story to customers, for us it was always sort of zeroing in on edits that were easy to make, edits that were in the control of the envelope. And then you start to sort of dissect a little bit more experiential things, or a little bit more surgical that’s different or slightly different, or maybe dramatically different from what you’re used to seeing and what they’re used to seeing and deploying, and then really sort of working those out and spending our time on those potent agenda items instead of sort of these things that we could all just figure out.
So you’re not necessarily reinventing the wheel, but you’re taking an existing framework and looking at where you might have the greatest impact through design.
Yup, exactly. Right.
Gotcha. How do you push the boundaries with organizations like this that…they do oftentimes look for new ideas, but don’t necessarily always thrive on innovation?
Yeah, I think, you know, when our partnership with McDonald’s began when they moved from the suburbs of Chicago to Chicago’s West Loop, I think that that transition was one that was well timed with out-of-the-box thinking on our end. And so we worked primarily with the global design team at McDonald’s. And so they’re used to working on sort of one-off projects. They’re used to sort of pushing the boundaries from a prototype. But I think that that cultural shift for them was in tandem with the conversations that we were having. And even though our group of people that we were interacting with on a regular basis was, you know, five or 10 people, not really that many out of thousands. I think that that could not have been timed better. And I think that for us, I find most success in innovation or in communicating or getting buy-in for new ideas when it’s co-created.
So it’s not just the architect’s idea or consultant’s idea or the client’s idea that it happens in a conversation and that it also is reiterating some other corporate agenda item that has been communicated from the outside or pulling some other ethos in. So that way it doesn’t feel completely foreign or completely out of sync with where that organization is marching towards. And I think between that co-creation and the search for other relevance that may not be directly architectural helps sort of instill a comfort level with decision that may seem risky or may seem new or may seem like they could be deployed and then fail. I mean, that’s ultimately decisions are based on whether you’re afraid to fail or not. And I think that it… through that process of building up enough of those sort of ideologies…that we can sort of tame the fear in the short term to get the decision made so that we can explore something.
Do you think McDonald’s is actually so large that it can afford to take risks?
That’s part of it too. I mean, without a doubt that there’s a financial piece to this makes innovation a little bit easier. And it makes me a little wary to talk about that in a way, because I think when we talk about sustainability that we’re going to talk about environmental stewardship broadly, the fear is always, Oh, well, we can buy our way out of it. And I think in both of these instances what we tried to do was to look at ways that this could be a learning lab to be applied to other projects. So it’s no different than a national research laboratory or a government research or a higher ed institution that’s researching that has billions of dollars being plugged into scientific research to then make something more accessible to the broader public. I think that’s the same for a building to some extent that you have to be able to tinker and to be able to explore, fail and succeed, hopefully in more cases to be able to take those lessons learned and apply them to a much broader set of buildings in this instance.
You actually guessed what one of my next questions was going to be, which is what, in your opinion were some of the biggest successes in the project. And will we be seeing any of your innovations or ideas start to crop up across the fast food chain?
I don’t know if I can say any of our ideas will be present anytime soon, but we hope so. I think the Disney store is a little bit easier to talk to from that perspective. When you look at the energy profile of a fast food restaurant, the biggest contributor is the kitchen, and that’s just the way it is. You know, you have grills, you have so much equipment in there that has live plug loads that just is generating consistent energy, 24 hours of the day, most of the time. And so for us, it sort of went beyond talking just about architecture and experience, and it went to how do we get this equipment to be the most efficient that it can be? So that’s sort of beholden on industries that they’re sourcing from collaborators that they have on that realm of things that, like, is totally outside of my wheelhouse.
So that’s where a lot of the innovation comes in, I think, which is sort of behind things and not visible. We did sort of get them to talk a little bit more about standby modes for certain equipment, that it wouldn’t be drawing as much energy consistently, and sort of like little edits like that that seemed really insignificant, but once you start to add them up and if you add them up at scale it’s huge.
I think, you know, there are some other things too, at Disney that we did that I’m really excited about, like off the grid, parking lot lights during the day, they’re absorbing enough energy to power, the right amount of foot candles that makes a parking lot safe. It doesn’t need to be a football field or…and you don’t need to do surgery under them at night.
And so I think it’s just those types of small changes that add up. Um, and you know, one of my goals and my hopes in the future as we’ve done these really beautiful buildings that are one of a kind, they won’t ever be replicated again. But what I’d really like to do is design a prototype that’s net zero. Taking the baseline, taking the bones again, making them as efficient as possible, and then finding economical ways to offset that energy. In Florida we did it primarily with solar because wind wasn’t that great in the Orlando climate, but in other places, wind may be the perfect thing and other places geothermal may be the perfect thing. So if you can get the baseline to get small enough through thoughtful edits that don’t sacrifice operation too much. I think that’s also sort of a give and take, how much do you sacrifice operation even if the energy improvement is there. And then you sort of move on to offset.
It’s really fascinating process. I’m going to pivot a little bit to all of the volunteer experience that you have done ever since I have known you, as I believe I’ve known you since you were an architecture student. And I mentioned in the intro, all of the activities that you’ve taken on with various organizations, specifically the AIAS, the AIA, the NAAB you’ve been involved with the boards, you’ve been a national representative and national delegate in all of these, I’m curious what impact that has had, if any, on your work with Ross, Barney Architects, or how you approach being an architect in general.
Yeah, I think, you know, I always like to tell the story of how I got involved in leadership, which was by accident. As a student, you know, a freshman you’re always searching for ways to break out of your boundaries and sort of feel uncomfortable. I went with a friend to a student meeting and ended up volunteering to be the treasurer at that time. Somehow I don’t know how it happened, but it happened. And in a way I never looked back because I had always seen that design and the qualities and experience with leadership and service were symbiotic, that in order to be a good architect and a good designer and a good facilitator, I had to get this experience somewhere else. And so I seen them as sort of these two things that go hand in hand, and I think more directly in the past couple of years, I’ve been able to personally grow, um, and lead in our practice and lead in our studio in ways that I would not have been able to do if I had not been in those rooms, been in those boardrooms, been in those conversations, talking about the future of the profession, talking about architectural education and having conversations and being passively and actively mentored by those individuals that I was serving with. And I think… I don’t know, it’s just, it’s become part of me that’s sort of the duality that is my experience. And I see that they support each other.
What is your current position? I believe you just were elected to serve a position with the AIA national board?
Yes. So I was just elected as the 2021- 2023 at-large director.
That’s great. What’s your agenda? What do you see for the AIA, especially from that particular position?
Yeah, so I think, um, I consider myself an emerging professional. I’ll hopefully be licensed by the end of the year, call myself capital “A” architect. And I…what I…my platform for running – And I think that it’s sort of true to a lot of things that I realize particularly in the last eight months, but it’s been a longterm passion of mine – is the idea that when there are more voices in the room we’re stronger together. And that’s true when you talk about younger voices in architecture, I may not know everything, but I also have an opinion and a passion and I’m willing to partner to learn more, but towards some sort of shared vision. And by that, I mean, the decisions that we make today are going to affect me and my generation most directly because we’re the ones that have to deal with it for longer, let’s say.
And what I’ve seen in the past couple of years is that there are sort of these three cycling topics, there’s climate, which the AIA has decades and architects have centuries of experience on, right, but only recently have we developed a shared language about the importance and impact of the built environment. So that’s sort of one conversation that’s critically important. The other conversation which has become extraordinarily clear in the last six months has been racial justice. And I think you can look at that in two ways. You can look internally at the profession and look at demographics and ethnicity and say, our profession does not represent the communities we serve. How do we get there? How do we look more like an act more like, and bring the lived experience of the individuals that we’re creating space for? That’s an internal question.
The external question is how do we better engage with communities to create space that isn’t filtering into the systemic issues that we’ve all come to be clear-eyed with recently. And I think that that’s a process and that their chicken and the egg situation with that conversation. And then I think there’s the last one, which again 2020 has taught us more than ever, that health and wellness of the built environment is critically important. When we spend 87% of our times of our life inside, the spaces that we create are, I mean, they impact everyone every day whether you’re asleep, whether you’re not. And I think that there’s an intersection between those three topics, which I think talks a little bit more about design excellence and design process. And I…that’s my hope for the AIA, that we can lead on these three topics.
And someone says, Oh my God, each of those are like mind bending and are huge challenges. But I think that there’s a relationship between the three that if we lead on one in a singular way, we won’t be taken seriously in the other two critical topics. So if we can move these conversations forward in sync with one another I think that we can begin to articulate better the role of the architect and articulate better why architects can think about more than just buildings. I mean, back to McDonald’s really quickly – It wasn’t all just talking about built space. A lot of it was talking about bigger, larger goals.
While you were sharing, one thing that crossed my mind is that all three of those are inextricably linked. And although people may say these are just too huge to handle, any action contributing to the advancement of one of those issues is going to inevitably impact the advancement of the others as well. So I really commend you for bringing those to the forefront. I appreciate what you’re going to be representing on the board with. Sorry, go ahead.
I’m excited. And I think, you know, the past couple of… so I found out about a week and a half ago that I got elected…and what I’ve been hearing from colleagues and congratulations, the biggest thing for me is when I hear someone say, I’m so excited that an EP (Emerging Professional) is there. I’m so excited that I feel seen, I feel represented. I feel like my voice is at the table. And even if I fail miserably at doing these things, (inaudible) – I hope I don’t – I still think that even being present is part of the goal of some of my leadership track. Two is to open the door in the pathway for those behind me to follow with excitement, vigor, and passion.
What’s next for you?
Okay. What’s next? Oh gosh. Well, I mean, I just got elected, so, you know, I’ve got to fulfill on that first. Well, when you mentioned getting licensed, coming up, more exams left, and I was doing another keynote session for an AIA Illinois student conference this past weekend. And one of the things I talked about a lot was de-stigmatizing failure. So, my career is great. My bio sounds really great, but there’s been a lot of failure along the way. And I think what I’ve noticed is that I need to be a little bit more vocal about that and accepting of that to let people know that it does happen and that there isn’t this shiny thing, or I haven’t had the perfect journey. So, particularly related to exams, I think I failed more than I’ve passed at this point. And every failure teaches me something, and I’m not upset that I actually failed because at least I got to, you know, sit in that room again for the take-over, the stamina of actually trying to focus for that long. But I think it’s like the money thing that just gets me really upset sometimes. But I think always just this fear of not succeeding that sort of stops any forward momentum and progress. And I mean, for those that are listening, failure is okay. It should be celebrated, actually. And I think that we’re in a process as a culture and as society to unlearn some things that we’ve been taught that are negative. And I think that failure is probably one of them,
What do you want your legacy to be?
Hmmm…Someone once said that my legacy was sort of selflessly going through sort of some of these leadership positions with the intent of having others follow in my footsteps, of sort of back-filling that success. And I think that’s the legacy that I want to have. I mean, I am so heartened to see the individuals that I’ve mentored, that I’ve sort of befriended along the way and see them succeeding in their own right, to see them taking on sticky issues, to see them in leadership, succeeding, and also in design and practice succeeding. And my hope is that through that sort of friendship, through that peer mentoring, that we can just create a generation of really fearless, excited, and passionate individuals to help transform our profession, which we love dearly, but also transform the impact that we see at the end of the day of a built space, whether that’s a park, a community center, a process of community engagement. I think that there’s so much that we have to offer as a profession. And I think that a lot of these things are sort of left up to politicians. And I think we can step up to the plate and start leading through action.
For those of you who are listening, I will be posting Brian’s contact information and also a link to the Ross Barney websites in the show notes on the Blueprint For Living blog. Ryan, I really want to acknowledge you for your engagement and your passion and your commitment to architecture and the spaces we live in. Thank you so much for representing the best of who we are and who we can be.
Thank you so much, David.
I appreciate you being here, my friend.
Thanks for joining us this week on the Architects Possibility Podcast with architect and executive coach, David Bradley, produced by Blueprint For Living Coaching. Make sure to visit our website where you can subscribe to the show in iTunes, Stitcher, or via RSS so you’ll never miss a show. And be sure to tune in next week for our next episode of the Architects Possibility Podcast. Until then, keep celebrating the possibility in your life and make it a wonder-filled day!