A Democratic Approach to Design

There’s something missing in the office of cre8 Architects: closed doors. All 12 of the architects and designers are bent over their work in the same wide-open space, and when the phone rings, it’s a simple question of whose hands are free because there’s no secretary. The video game Rock Band is loaded in a gaming console plugged into one wall, its set of toy instruments beginning to show signs of wear. This place—with its funky boutique vibe and utter lack of formal administrative structure—is exactly what Mike Huang, George Watanabe, Jerry Bevel, and Susan Adkins had in mind when they started the firm eight years ago. The quartet’s firm has done a number of designs in the educational sector, and here Bevel and Adkins talk about that work and the philosophy behind their firm’s fun atmosphere.

Jerry Bevel and Susan Adkins
Jerry Bevel and Susan Adkins

At a Glance

Houston, TX



Educational facilities

Annual Sales
$1.4–1.8 million

You do a lot of work with educational spaces such as the Deer Park High School South Campus and the Progressive School. You’ve introduced a number of sustainable elements into those spaces, but schools aren’t exactly the first thing you think of when you think green design, are they?
Jerry Bevel: A lot of people don’t think about it, but in a way sustainable design makes more sense for schools than other clients because they’re building a building they’re going to have for a typical minimum of 50 years, probably more. So the features that you can build into the building that reduce its long-term operating costs and maintenance costs are a big plus for a district over the life of a building. The business developers, they’re looking more short-term for their buildings, or they might not own the building for more than five years. So it makes a lot more sense for schools.

Are there sustainable architectural elements that are specific to schools?
Susan Adkins: There’s one project we’re working on right now—San Jacinto Elementary School, a LEED Gold building. The students will be able to monitor the energy use in the building.

JB: There will be touch-screen panels throughout the building with information to gather about electricity or gas usage. They can apply math problems or scientific impact to that. We’re basically designing the entire building as a teaching tool.

A rendering of the San Jacinto Elementary School’s courtyard, designed by cre8, gives an idea of how the playful space will be turned into a big outdoor science and math lab.

I heard there is also going to be a green roof at San Jacinto.
JB: Yes, it will be visible from the media center, so the students can actually go out onto the roof area of the building, see the plant materials, be out there, and be involved. It also has a courtyard space between two wings of the building, and we’re trying to do several things out there—fun things, interesting things—but again, tying it back to learning. One of the things we have is a human sundial.

What’s that?
JB: In the courtyard space there will be a sundial laid out on concrete, and there will be a point for students to stand [at], raise their arms over their head, and become the sundial’s shadow. Each grade level will also have a garden area where they can grow vegetables, flowers, and other things out of the area.

At the Progressive High School in Austin, TX, generously proportioned corridors are filled with natural daylight. The designers at cre8 like to incorporate teachable examples of sustainability into their schools.

Before starting cre8 together with Mike Huang and George Watanabe, you were all in the industry for a long time working with corporate firms. What kinds of things did you want to change when you went out on your own?
SA: We wanted to have fun. We didn’t think that it was mutually exclusive to have fun and do good design. We talked about this business model forever and knew what it needed to be; it was just arriving at that point. I think the key is not having any administrative layers—at cre8 it truly, truly is a flat hierarchy. No one here is just an administrator, a paper pusher, a bean counter. Everyone here works on the core business of design.

JB: Our office is a totally open environment. We have no private, closed offices; we find that it does encourage communication between all of our team members.

It’s not often you see “having fun” on a company profile as a mandatory part of working there. It’s on your website.
JB: Susan’s our primary fun director.

SA: [Laughs] I am. It’s important. It just makes for a better office environment—it’s better for morale; it makes for happier clients and happier coworkers. We do this in a couple of different ways. It can be something silly, like everyone stopping work for an hour or so to laugh and tell stories of something that’s happened to us in our personal or professional life this week. We have an area of the office where we own the game Rock Band—and we know how to play it.

I’m sure some firms out there would say that fun like that would inhibit productivity.
SA: I’d say we’re more productive.

JB: Everyone’s really motivated, and [they are] self-starters. If they have work to get done, they get it done. We don’t feel like we’ve lost anything. If anything, like Susan said, it’s made us more productive and more upbeat. ABQ