The Man Who Loved Convention Centers

Principal architect and national director of convention center architecture for Boston-based HNTB Architecture Inc., Donald I. Grinberg, FAIA, LEED AP, has more than two decades of experience in the design and construction management of convention centers, sports facilities, and large transportation facilities. Grinberg is a Fellow of the Institute for Urban Design; a member of the Boston Society of Architects, the Urban Land Institute (Public/ Private Partnership Council), the Society of Architectural Historians (New England Chapter), the International Association of Assembly Managers (IAAM), and the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA). Successful Meetings recently spent some time with Grinberg looking at convention center design though his eyes.

Successful Meetings: When did you first become interested in convention centers?

Donald Grinberg:
I've been with HNTB for more than 30 years, but I didn't enter the convention center industry until the '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. That was partly having to do with the legacy of my firm having the building program, but I haven't looked back since I started working on them.

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—at least, not if you do it right.

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

SM: 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—what they'd like to put in the project—with the quality and quantity of available funding. Plus, the pressure coming from the building industry, which is still seeing inflation, and energy, are driving costs higher and higher. I also think that public sources of funding are going to feel more pressure later; pressure on the private sector's immediate.

SM: 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 got a really good value for its money. Our project's been enormously successful; bookings are up, and there are great reactions from 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!

SM: 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 ballroom in Kansas City is LEED Silver certified, and we have in the pipeline several interesting projects.

But anyway, spaces don't necessarily have to small to be energy responsible. HNTB designed with Raphael Vinoly at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center (BCEC), which is probably an extreme example of a high roof. The exhibition hall is very, very tall. We had a lot of discussions about what it was going to cost to heat and cool, but we developed a mechanical system that gets the air in the right place to the right people, so you deal with it.

Speaking for HNTB, we believe in the interdisciplinary approach to design. Right from the get-go, an audiovisual specialist, an electrical engineer, and a food service designer are at the table with the architect. I think you get better designs when issues are caught almost simultaneously.

We also have pioneered the use of 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 from the same people that we interviewed during building programming. The users know better, is our belief.

Originally published Aug. 1, 2008

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