Architect creates inner human spaces

Zorana Bosnic builds the structure of people's experience more than just gorgeous buildings

Most architects take pride in shimmering, soaring structures that celebrate their imaginative design, their mastery of aesthetic lines in stone, steel and concrete. Zorana Bosnic summons her talents to a warmer, more ephemeral architecture—design of the human experience inside a building, as well as the rich collaborative experience of her team of architects.

Zorana Bosnic

As vice president and Sustainable Design Director for HOK's San Francisco office, Bosnic has plenty of opportunity to better people's consciousness through the buildings they inhabit and create. HOK, a world leader in architecture, has 25 offices around the globe and nearly 2,000 employees. A native of former Yugoslavia, Bosnic has forged a 19-year architecture career, with 13 years at HOK. She spent a decade in the company's London office then transferred to Hong Kong and San Francisco. Through video conferences, architects collaborate on projects in workspaces they call "toolboxes" no matter which office they call home.

Bosnic's specialty: energy efficiency and sustainable design. "HOK was a leader in the nation, pioneering sustainability" in the early 1990s, Bosnic says.

The field of architecture has only about 10 percent women; HOK has closer to 20 percent, she says. The career is still wide open to women. "That is a big consideration when choosing a profession as an architect, more in this country than in Europe," Bosnic says. "There are a lot more women in engineering and architecture in Asia and Europe. Here it is a male-dominated profession. You have to be really passionate about being an architect. Architects work crazy hours. It's a creative process."

"Every building is about people. . . . In sustainable design, we create spaces for people. Hot, cold, is it bright? Does it make people happy to go to work? It's very emotional."

"It's a very hard-working profession. I'm looking at Julia," she says, laughing. Bosnic has two daughters, aged 7 and 10. She's not so sure she'll encourage them to study architecture. Her youngest "changes her mind every half hour" about what she wants to do when she grows up, Bosnic says. "I'm very sensitive to empowering girls."

Her oldest daughter once pronounced that boys are better in math. "Stereotypes like that are pretty amazing," Bosnic says. "If that truly bothers you and you don't know how to overcome it, it will bother you in this profession. Stereotypes still exist in some professions. This is one of them."

Architects have the privilege and responsibility of working on projects that can endure for decades or even centuries. "I am most proud of people relationships that got created, satisfaction about what was created, and teamwork. On a big complex building, no one can say 'I have done it.' It's not quite true. The value of this profession is the ability to work together and draw from each other—having worked with owners, clients who are really happy."

"Every building is about people. There is a beauty to it. It's a creative process. In sustainable design, we create spaces for people. Hot, cold, is it bright? Does it make people happy to go to work? It's very emotional."

The materials and structure of a building, even its engineering, are secondary, according to Bosnic. What matters is how people experience the space. "The nucleus of that creation is people. Are we enriching people's lives? How do we impact them?"

One Bush St., San Francisco

Buildings become like children for the architects who usher them into the world, Bosnic says. "It feels like your creation from beginning to end. It's gratifying and challenging. You remember all the steps."

A building is highly visible as a work product. "Everybody responds to it," Bosnic says, which is engaging and satisfying for its co-creators.

"It has other beautiful things about it," Bosnic says of architecture, including the chance to learn about different cultures. Unlike a profession such as medicine, architecture follows the cycle of the economy and can suffer sharp declines.

"It is male-dominated and demanding. It requires a lot of you. It is not for the faint of heart." On one project in Jordan, Bosnic was the only woman in a room full of men.

For women who see the profession's predominantly male culture as a struggle, it can feel like a fight, she observes. "Gender bias does exist." In her office of HOK (Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum), two managing principals are women. The company is privately owned, with estimated annual revenue of more than $500 million.

"It is male-dominated and demanding . . . not for the faint of heart."

Bosnic dreads work plans, spreadsheets and other management paperwork necessary to deliver building projects. She has to track hours and project sequencing. "I'm not very good at that," she says. "Even the creative process can be mundane. There is certain reiterative paperwork." Sustainable solutions have to be tested, with benchmarks to measure their effect. "Some of these tools are not the most creative."

"I grew up in a family of mainly artists," Bosnic says. "I was surrounded with creativity as part of what I did from early childhood. In high school I wanted to do costume design or interior design. I think I made a right choice."

Deciding to focus on sustainability helped whet her interest: building shading, non-toxic materials and regenerative environments. "This helped me to dive in . . . changing the world one step at a time." She keeps tabs on research in green design. "There are fascinating and talented research teams in national labs," she says, who may design buildings to mimic nature. "Breakthrough ideas or solutions energize you—new technology and innovation." A colleague of hers in Toronto shared her work on engaging stakeholders and occupants in design projects. "It was breakthrough thinking that I thought was fantastic."

One Bush St., San Francisco

The key is to balance innovative theory with practical application and acceptance by clients. "It's such an interesting field," she says. Not all green design is valid; some is mere hype or '"greenwashing," she says. While acceptance by business owners can be slow, the U.S. has ample ingenuity in sustainable design.

She alludes to a building material under research that is so secret she can't divulge its details. "As a technology brought into the space, it could become regenerative," Bosnic says. "If you think of the room we sit in, the spatial context creates a sensation of color. It absorbs or amplifies sound. But in responsiveness, it's very passive. How do we have these elements function beyond what they currently do, which is passive? This has the potential to become a breakthrough where the material would become an energy battery."

Futuristic windows are already moving in this direction: electrochromic panes tint when current runs through them; liquid crystal windows turn white with current; thermochromic glass glazes in response to temperature change; and photochromic windows darken in response to light changes.

"Wow!" she says. "That could be really great! Creativity inspires me."

—James and Julia Dunn
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