Featured Member - Nico Larco, AIA

Autonomous vehicles, e-commerce, and the sharing economy; Nico Larco believes it's time for architects and designers to determine how these emerging technologies will impact the built environment.

As an associate professor in the University of Oregon’s Department of Architecture, Nico Larco, AIA, is able to anticipate trends as well as anyone in the architecture world. Thanks to the university’s focus on what’s next, Larco gets to work with cross-disciplinary teams on determining how the built environment will be impacted by the latest in technological advances. His advice? Forget about a world where buildings merely overlook society. Everything is about to require a redesign, and architects need to embrace being ahead of the curve.

Though I knew I wanted to go into teaching, I felt it was best to formalize and finalize the credentials I’d earned through licensure. I had taken a few projects from planning to final construction while practicing and, more than anything, wanted to get licensed so I still had the opportunity to take on other projects down the line. That said, once I got licensed, I almost immediately moved into teaching.

The University of Oregon was an obvious choice for me, because of their deep focus on sustainability. When I started here, I worked on multifamily housing, suburban development and walkability, all with an emphasis on sustainability. We developed a sustainable framework that organized how to approach sustainable urban design. Then, because the university is very entrepreneurial and always looking to impact the world outside its walls, we started the Sustainable Cities Initiative.

That led to the Sustainable City Year Program, where we work with a different city every year and develop 25 to 30 courses dedicated to real world projects in that city. That exploded; we now have over 40 programs around the country using this model, and we were recently contracted by the United Nations to train a dozen or so universities in South Africa on how to run it.

"Autonomous vehicles are not just a transportation issue. E-commerce is not just a retail issue. They’re already starting to shape our entire lives, not to mention changing the landscape of how development works and what projects look like."

Two years ago, I started thinking about being more proactive in our research. Not just reacting to what’s coming, but determining the major trends that we should be considering. We settled on three emerging technologies that’ll have a major impact on our cities: autonomous vehicles, e-commerce, and the sharing economy. To at first our great excitement, and then our great horror, we quickly realized that not a lot of research has been done in these areas. Of course, we’re not as interested in the technologies so much as what we call the secondary impacts: land use, land evaluation, equity, street design, neighborhood design, and overall sustainability.

A thing we say all the time about these emerging technologies: Autonomous vehicles are not just a transportation issue. E-commerce is not just a retail issue. They’re already starting to shape our entire lives, not to mention changing the landscape of how development works and what projects look like. As an example: parking is going to be substantially reduced in any of the likely scenarios. Studies have said that we’re only going to need 10 to 15 percent of the parking spaces already in our cities. As architects and designers know, form seems to often follow parking more than anything else, so that shift is going to be massive.

We also need to be valuable sources of information for our clients. One of the lead consultants on parking in the United States said their recommendation to all clients is, “Don’t build any parking you don’t absolutely need; we can’t guarantee in 30 years you’ll continue to have revenue from that parking.” If you have a client with a vested interest in parking, he or she needs to hear this.

When transport becomes easier—factoring in how easy it already is to shop online—that creates a huge question of, “If we can be anywhere, where will we be?” Suddenly there’s a much bigger argument to be made about the quality of spaces. Places that have been designed cheap and fast and unimpressively may not command people’s attention anymore. Architecture and design might be the containers of commerce; soon, they could be the generators of commerce.

A lot of what’s important is pulling back the curtain. More than anything, it’s helping people realize the implications of these new technologies. They are all likely to change the landscape of development and the built environment. If we get people to understand how everything is connected, and talk across disciplines on these topics, it can really make a difference. —As told to Steve Cimino

Image credits

Nico Larco - Featured member

Nico Larco, AIA

Nico Larco - featured member (phone)

Zach Meaney

Nico Larco - featured member (tour)

Nico Larco