Executive Q+A: A-P Hurd’s Urban Expression

Touchstone president leads it through a delicate transition and toward national recognition.
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 
 
Two years ago, when Urban Renaissance Group acquired Seattle’s Touchstone Corporation in a billion-dollar deal, Touchstone’s founders began transitioning out of the firm and installed A-P Hurd as president and chief development officer. “Getting through the sale of Touchstone was a huge technical and emotional challenge for everyone on the team,” says Hurd, who joined Touchstone in 2008. “It worked out in the end for everyone involved.” Founded by Douglas Howe in 1982, Touchstone was recently named national Developer of the Year by NAIOP, the Commercial Real Estate Development Association. In the past decade, Touchstone has embarked on 12 projects encompassing nearly 3 million square feet. All of its buildings are certified LEED Silver or better; most are LEED Gold.
 
EARLY YEARS: I grew up in Ottawa, Ontario, which was a safe, sleepy, government town. My dad was a civil servant, initially in the military and then a civilian. He’s an IT guy who later went into the private sector. My mom was a teacher, the kind you meet on the first day of school and you figure out in about five minutes that you’re not going to get away with any nonsense. My mom died when I was 12 and by that time, she had become politically active. I suspect if she had lived longer, she would have run for office. She was the kind of person who had very definite views about how to fix things. 
 
EDUCATION: I grew up speaking French first, and then learned English when I was 3. In Ottawa, most people speak two or three languages. Ottawa is a very multicultural place. The idea that you can be part of several identity groups at once is really normal there — and that has shaped me a lot. I went to college in Kingston, Ontario, at Queen’s University, which is only two hours away but way more English than Ottawa. That’s when I went from being Annie-Pierre to being A-P. I loved college and managed to regain the self-confidence I had lost in middle school. I did student government and radio and newspapering. Strangely enough, it was my love for journalism that led me into finance after college. The pace of the newsroom is a lot like a trading floor: lots of buzz and external events that drive the level of activity.
 
INFLUENCES: For a few years, I traded derivatives in Toronto and New York. It’s a very specialized field with not a lot of transferable skills. I was worried that if I didn’t want to do it forever, I’d better learn to do something else. So I worked for a software startup. When it went under, I went to Indonesia and wrote a novel, and then I went to grad school [at MIT]. 
 
SEATTLE: After grad school, I was out interviewing with Starbucks and Amazon and Boeing and I incidentally got hooked up with McKinstry. Dean Allen (see page 36) offered me a job as director of strategic development, working for him and starting up a couple of new business units. I wanted P&L responsibility, and I knew I could learn a lot from Dean.
 
 
REAL ESTATE: From McKinstry, it wasn’t a far hop to real estate. When you’re the mechanical contractor, there’s a certain box you’re allowed to operate in. We were trying to fix energy-inefficient buildings that had a bad solar orientation or a bad skin or some other problem — using just the mechanical system. When I had a chance to be a developer at Touchstone and have more levers to build better buildings and cities, it was an exciting opportunity. 
 
TOUCHSTONE’S MISSION: We build great buildings that make the city a better place. We are deeply committed to Seattle, not just for this set of buildings, but for the long term. If we can make delightful buildings, we can set an example of how to make a delightful city. If compact, transit-connected, energy-efficient cities are delightful places to live, then people will choose them. That is the only way we’re going to make a go of it on this planet. 
 
REPUTATION: Most people don’t like change, and development is really visible. So I can understand why people don’t like developers. Because of how the zoning works in Seattle, all of our growth is being absorbed on about 15 percent of our land area. It’s extra hard for the people who live in the neighborhoods that are allowed to absorb growth, because those neighborhoods are changing really fast. It’s also hard to love something that doesn’t exist yet. Often, five or 10 years after something gets built, people really love it. But when you’re talking about replacing the familiar with the unknown, that’s hard for people. All we can do is what Garrison Keillor admonishes on The Writer’s Almanac: “Be well, do good work and keep in touch.”
 
URBAN RENAISSANCE GROUP: Historically, Urban Renaissance has focused on property management and asset investment. It was always part of their plan to do development as well. Acquiring Touchstone was a good way to build that third leg of the development platform. Given the strength of the Touchstone brand and the skills on our team, there was no real need or desire to change how we were operating. We do, however, have a lot of informal collaboration with the Urban Renaissance team and have remarkably similar values, so it’s been a great fit. I think the deal has made both companies stronger.
 
GREATEST CHALLENGE: Finding land that we like at a price that makes sense.
 
LOCAL COMPETITION: Vulcan, Skanska, Schnitzer.
 
LESSON LEARNED: The trouble with development projects is that they last years and years. Inevitably, there are times when things look very bad indeed. Sometimes there is a temptation to cut one’s losses, even though there is a lot to lose. The biggest thing I’ve learned is that often there is no way out but through. You know, like the song you sing at camp: “Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, can’t go around it, we’ll have to go through it.” As long as the “we” is a team you trust, “through” is way more workable than it seems. You find a way. 
 

TAKE 5: Get to Know A-P Hurd

PROUDEST ACHIEVEMENT: Having a baby with an induced labor and no epidural. “Pushing a baby out is a pretty amazing experience.” 
 
FUN STUFF: Open-water swimming in Green Lake. “Being out there at dawn with the birds flying over and my face at water level is like heaven in the city.”
 
BEST VACATION: “A long one. Three months. I dream about that.” 
 
DINING SPOT: Le Pichet on First Avenue in Seattle. “I got engaged there. Did my book launch there [for The Carbon Efficient City]. When she grows up, my daughter wants to open another one on Phinney Ridge.” 
 
BOOK LIST: “I just finished Full Moon, Flood Tide about the history of the islands northeast of Vancouver Island.”
 

Coffee with Guppy: Seeking Authenticity with Tom Kundig

Coffee with Guppy: Seeking Authenticity with Tom Kundig

A chat with the celebrated Seattle architect.
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 
 
Tom Kundig is a principal and owner at Olson Kundig, the Seattle architecture firm and design practice founded on the idea that “buildings can serve as a bridge between nature, culture and people.”
 
Nancy: What does an architect do? 
Tom: An architect solves problems. We observe what’s going on culturally, both historically and currently, and try to make buildings that resolve a situation, whatever it might be. 
 
Did you always want to be an architect? 
Oh, no. My dad’s an architect, I grew up with architects around me and there was a certain culture about architecture that I didn’t particularly appreciate, but what I did appreciate were the artists in that environment. Eventually, against all sanity, I wound up in architecture and couldn’t be happier. 
 
How important is the budget when you take on a project? 
It’s critical because a budget gives context and, from my perspective, the tighter the budget (within reason), the better the building because it makes you edit. When the budget is loose, the building can become overindulged. 
 
Are you a different designer now than you were when you started out? 
Oh, yes. I understand a lot more about the human condition and I understand the technical drivers much more completely. Architecture is a profession of wisdom, and it’s rare when you see that wisdom in a young architect.
 
Do you have a favorite building in Seattle? 
It’s a toss-up between the Pike & Virginia Building, designed by Olson Walker in the late ’70s/early ’80s, and St. Ignatius Chapel on the Seattle University campus. 
 
Is there a building you wish you had designed? 
Nope. There are so many conspiring forces to make mediocre buildings that when a good building happens, no matter who did it, we should just stand back and applaud! 
 
 
Tom Kundig says his main driver is "to make as much as I can out of life."
 
Are there signature elements of a Tom Kundig design? 
My desire is for an authenticity, both in cultural function and in the way that the natural materials — whether brick, steel or wood — age and get better with time. 
 
In every project you’ve done, is there always at least one thing that you hate? 
Uh, yeah, on virtually every project, but I never admit it! (Laughs) 
 
What gets you excited about a project? 
A client who’s curious about the world because that person is going to engage and ask questions in a way that may take me out of the way I typically answer.
 
What has to be there in order for you to take on a client?  
Trust. If you hire me, then I’ve got to trust you as a client and you’ve got to trust me as your architect, that I’m going to be doing my best work working for you.
 
Have you ever had to walk away from a project? 
Yeah. It’s difficult but it’s not about me. It’s about the situation. I’m not the right architect for you, you’re not the right client for me and we are wasting our time.
 
When do you know if something you’ve made is good? 
When I’m drawing and things are happening and fitting together, it’s like listening to music inside my head. It flows.
 
Is there a Tom Kundig Life Statement? 
I put a quote in my first book: “Only common things happen when common sense prevails.” I don’t know who came up with it, but it always makes me smile and it’s kind of true. If you’re looking for adventure, or something new or something worth living for, you’re looking for the edge, whatever that might be. 
 
How do you balance your creative mind with your business mind? 
I think a creative mind is a business mind because business is creative. You’re dealing with a set of issues and you’re trying to find a pathway, trying to resolve the issues, into a success. 
 
What piece of advice would you give to your younger self, when you were just starting out?  
Be more secure about your abilities and less insecure about your existence so that you can do things with a well-placed confidence. 
 
What song would you like played at your funeral? 
(Laughs) I don’t know! I won’t be hearing it so I don’t really care. 
 
You’re stuck on a desert island and can have one book, one record, one food and one person
My wife, Jeannie. Beethoven’s Ninth. A hamburger. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
 
Who or what is your worst enemy? 
Noncritical thinking. People who don’t think about what they’re saying. 
 
Beatles or Rolling Stones?  
Beatles. I share a birthday with John Lennon and sympathy with his larger musical and political agendas.
 
What four guests would make for the perfect dinner party?
Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Feynman, Indira Gandhi, Muhammad Ali. 
 
Do you have a spiritual practice and if yes, how does that practice manifest? 
I was raised a Unitarian, so it is a very personal spiritual practice and certainly influenced by both Buddhist teachings and Jesuit friends. 
 
› For more on artists, entertainers and entrepreneurs, tune in Art Aone with Nancy Guppy on the Seattle Channel (seattlechannel.org/artzone).