Expanding perceptions

Oct 31, 2017

How Jason, and his LafargeHolcim Award-winning thesis project, transformed at SALA

Recent alumnus Jason Heinrich is the winner of the "Next Generation" 2nd prize at the LafargeHolcim Foundation Awards North America. We recently spoke with Jason about his winning project, which was his thesis at SALA, and how he and it underwent significant transformations during his studies.

Before Jason came to SALA, he was a mechanical engineer. After working with architects while designing renewable energy systems for communities, he decided on a career change.

“I was more interested in the holistic visioning for communities than the specific nuts and bolts of the district energy system itself,” he said.

Architecture offered Jason the opportunity to explore how a sustainable city could be created through understanding how a city works by its design. For Jason, engineering wasn’t diverse enough to address these issues, and he recognized that he would need to incorporate multiple perspectives to achieve this goal.

“Where engineering taught me how to solve problems, SALA taught me how to think laterally and expand my mind rather than narrow it on specific problems,” he said.  

A block in Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood holistically adapts to support a growing population without sacrificing green space.

Knowing that he wanted to practice locally, Jason’s natural choice was to learn locally. After touring the facilities at SALA and speaking with students, he knew that it was the school for him. The diverse backgrounds of the faculty and students created the perfect culture to get the multiple perspectives that he needed.  

“Going to SALA was the best decision. It was the richest learning experience that I’ve ever had. My worldview radically shifted as I got exposed to philosophy and art, but also building science and physics. Trying to wrestle all those different things together was incredible and changed how I perceive the world for the better,” he said.

Early on, Jason imagined that his thesis project would primarily consider the relationship between buildings in respect to their use of thermal energy: “If buildings work together, and are connected to a larger network, then they can be even more sustainable.”

But as he progressed at SALA, his research focus began to widen.

Relationships between buildings in residential neighbourhoods are predicated by relationships amongst people.

“It became not just about determining where things should go, but more about what are the mechanisms that allow people or the city to plan and determine where things should go,” he said.

Jason was asking questions that were much broader than his initial research proposal. As his education at SALA exposed him to a greater spectrum of issues and thought, his focus also began to expand.

He began considering relationships beyond the built environment. Jason had become interested in how people interacted with buildings, with each other, and the impact these relationships have on how communities develop.

“My project is essentially a zoning system that’s fluid and always changing as development occurs,” he said. “It’s based on a wholly on decisions by local inhabitants.”

While his final project recognizes that there must be some overarching framework from the city that controls zoning and development, it allows people to have a certain amount of choice in how their communities evolve over time.

How a residential street might change in 34-years according Jason’s winning project.

“It gives more agency to the people who live in a city to shape their own city,” he said.

Where conservative zoning restrictions are partly to blame for Vancouver’s current housing affordability crisis, Jason’s project acknowledges that drastic zoning changes are not the solution.

“I’m hoping to find something that isn’t a quick fix,” he said. His project considers a city over a 30-year period and provides the framework to explore how neighbourhoods can adapt to growth.

“It’s dynamic, but it’s slow enough that the buildings, which are the fabric of neighbourhoods, will change with the people living in those neighbourhoods,” he said. According to Jason’s projections, had the system been implemented in Vancouver 30-years ago, we wouldn’t have the housing crisis we do today because the city could have holistically adapted and grown.  

In the end, Jason’s winning thesis project provides solutions by looking towards the future while carefully considering the mistakes of the past. And he credits his time at SALA and the input of his thesis committee, which included Ray Cole, Mari Fujita, and Martin Nielson, for pushing his project in this direction.

“Because you get exposure to all these different things at SALA, you’re able to reflect on your unique place within the school. And so you get to define what you want your career to be. At SALA, it was my opportunity to find out what is my niche, what is it that I’m interested in, and how can I carve my own role within this broad profession of architecture,” he said.

Jason is now working at Dialog in Vancouver with Martin Nielson, another alumnus of SALA, and the external committee member of his winning project.


Gérard Kuperfarb, Member of the Executive Committee of LafargeHolcim & Member of the Board of the LafargeHolcim Foundation with member of the Awards jury Sarah Graham, Founding Partner agps-architecture, Los Angeles/Zurich congratulate Jason at the LafargeHolcim Foundation Awards North America in Chicago. Image provided by LafargeHolcim Foundation.  

For Jason, winning the award was “one of the most exciting things in my life. It was such an honour to be on a stage and feel like an equal next to other architects whose work I’ve studied. It validates the work I’ve done and it’s motivating and inspiring to do even better work,” he said.

Next year, Jason be presenting his project at the LafargeHolcim Foundation’s global competition for an opportunity to win funding to continue his research project.  

Jason wasn't the only member of the SALA community to win at the LafargeHolcim Foundation Awards. SALA alum Cynthia Wilson and former faculty member Oliver Lang won the Silver Prize for their project, "Stacked in Canada." All the winning projects can be viewed here