Q&A: The Man Who Loves Convention Centers

Principal architect and national director of convention center architecture for Boston-based HNTB Architecture Donald Grinberg, FAIA, LEED,AP, has more than two decades' experience in the planning and design of convention centers, sports facilities and large transportation facilities. Grinberg is a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects; a member of the Boston Society of Architects, the Urban Land Institute, the Society of Architectural Historians (New England Chapter), the International Association of Assembly Managers (IAAM) and the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA). MeetingNews recently spent some time with Grinberg looking at convention centers through his eyes.

Q: When did you first get interested in convention centers?

I've been with HNTB for 30 years, but I didn't enter the convention center industry until the early '80s. I joined HNTB to work on a subway transportation project. We then had the opportunity to do preliminary work for the Boston Hynes Convention Center in 1983, and I have specialized in this building type ever since.

I love convention centers. They're often the most important civic project going on in the city. They're buildings that are going to be around a long time. They're not built to be taken down tomorrow— if you do it right.

I'm an urban designer as well as an architect, and the thing with large buildings is that they always involve figuring out how a city works. They pose urban design opportunities, have a lasting civic value and they symbolize a city. They also involve a "multi-headed" client. Negotiating the design through that challenge has always been interesting to me. They're really great fun.

Q: What is the greatest challenge facing convention centers today?

With every design project, we face different decisions. Right now, it's reconciling the owners' wish list—the quantity and quality of what they'd like to put in the project—with the amount of available funding. Plus, the pressure coming from the building industry, which is still seeing inflation and rising energy costs, is driving overall costs higher and higher. I also think that public sources of funding are going to feel the effect of current challenges later, but pressure on the private sector is immediate.

Q: What about the centers you've worked on?

We did the ballroom expansion at the Kansas City Convention Center at a really good time, and I think the city received good value for its money. The project's been enormously successful; bookings are up, and there are great reactions from the users and operators.

The challenge for the Las Vegas Convention Center, which is currently under way, is how to do the project without disrupting existing tenancy. It's like fixing a watch that's still running!

Q: How does sustainability fit in with convention center design?

Sustainability is not a problem, it's an opportunity. We are thrilled owners are starting to pay attention to something we've been advocating for a long time. It permeates one's thinking about design.

The new ballroom in Kansas City is LEED Silver certified, and we have in the pipeline several interesting projects. Spaces don't necessarily have to small to be energy responsible. HNTB designed the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center (BCEC) with Rafael Vinoly, which is an excellent example of a very large daylit space. Attendees and exhibitors love how it works and feels, and the daylighting saves electricity.

Speaking for HNTB, we believe in the interdisciplinary approach to design. Right from the get-go, the audio visual specialist, the electrical engineer, and the food service designer are at the table with the architect. You get better designs when issues are addressed early and simultaneously.

We also have pioneered the involvement of user focus groups.We start our projects with focus groups, and will end them with focus groups. We actually love it when we can get feedback after a building opens from the same people that we interviewed during building programming. The users know better, is our belief.

Originally published July 7, 2008