Out of Office: Carrie Byles

An architect muses on science, technology, and how designers can lead the fight against climate change.

Carrie Byles, Partner in SOM’s San Francisco office. Photo © SOM

Carrie Byles is a passionate advocate for technology. A partner based in our San Francisco office, she works not only to integrate new solutions into every aspect of SOM’s work, but also to design the spaces where groundbreaking scientific and technological advances are made — from research laboratories at Harvard and Rice Universities to a leading neuroscience center at the University of California. For the first installment of Out of Office, a series on the people behind SOM’s global practice, we asked Carrie to tell us about what motivates and inspires her.

What made you want to become an architect?
When I was little, my favorite toys were Legos and Hot Wheels. When my dad was tucking me into bed one night, he told me I should be an architect when I grew up. I was five years old, and I have been focused on being an architect ever since. Otherwise, perhaps I could have been Danica Patrick!

What aspect do you enjoy the most about your job?
Solving problems. Design thinking trains you to never give up. When you hit a brick wall, you step back and say, “there must be another way.”

If you hadn’t become an architect, what would you be doing?
I did not pursue race car driving, given my dad’s early intervention. However, I do take my car to the track for high performance driving classes. In high school, I was briefly interested in becoming a fighter jet pilot, until I found out you have to be a minimum of 5’4” tall — I missed it by an inch. There is nothing more thrilling than watching the Blue Angels. Speed, skill, athleticism, design, and engineering is an awe-inspiring combination.

What piece of advice do you have for students?
When pursuing a competitive profession, it is useful to differentiate yourself by integrating multiple passions. At college, I focused on architecture, math and computer science. This provided a highly valued set of skills that opened many great opportunities in my career.

I fundamentally believe that design and engineering can turn around the destruction of our environment.

What are three books you think anyone should read in their lifetime?
The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force by Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley. I am continually inspired by the scientists we work for, and I have become particularly interested in neuroscience. This was the first book I read on the subject, and I was fascinated by how the brain can change and adapt — quite dramatically when we are young, but also later in life. It also shows how we can use our mind to rewire our brains, to change our behavior and perspective on life. I send this book to all my friends when they have their first child, because it explains how much impact experiences in the early years of life can have.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Along with its merits as a great example of futuristic fiction as social protest, this book is on my list because of the broad range of technological and medical advancements that the author predicted long before their time. It shows that if you can imagine it, it can happen.

Neuromancer, by William Gibson, is another great example of an author envisioning a future that has now presented itself to a prescient level.

What’s your favorite app?
Houzz is my guilty pleasure while waiting for planes and taxis. It’s particularly useful as I’m currently renovating my house. The app is well designed and has a great interface for finding and collecting new ideas.

What experiences are on your bucket list?
• Learn to fly an airplane
• Go on Safari
• Get a dog

When you think about the future, what excites you?
I fundamentally believe that design and engineering can turn around the destruction of our environment. As designers, it makes our lives more meaningful to be part of that process. The hardest part is influencing the political and social commitment necessary to achieve this goal. This is an area where architects need to be more vocal and active.

Who is someone you admire?
Elon Musk. He not only completely reinvented the car and proved that green design can be beautiful, fast and powerful, but he also “gave away” his related patents to open up opportunities for electric vehicles to make a much broader impact in the fight against global warming.

What the most awe-inspiring space you’ve been in?
Walking onto the plaza at the Salk Institute always stops me in dead in my tracks.

What is the most important quality for an architect to have?
Empathy. When mastered, this quality allows you to mentally envision the lives of the people who will experience your buildings so you can imagine and create a better future.

Define good leadership…
When you leave your emotions and ego out of the equation and focus on eliciting the best ideas and performance from the entire team. A good leader always does what is fair, honorable and serves the greater good.

Define good design…
Transformative, authentic, and net positive.

Photo © SOM