For dreaming up new models of sustainability for the built world
Cat Huang arrived at Harvard fully intending to become a doctor, diligently studying molecular biology and conducting research on fruit flies—until she saw Scandinavian architect Bjarke Ingels speak in 2007. His vision of solving environmental and societal concerns through design deeply resonated with Huang. Before Ingels had returned to Denmark, Huang had convinced him to give her an internship at his firm, BIG — Bjarke Ingels Group. Within months, she moved to Copenhagen and, 10 years later, ascended to full partner at the firm.
In that time, Huang has built a reputation for applying sustainable, scientific methods to the built environment. “For me, architecture is problem-solving, and the solutions are forms that respond to urban- and human-scale needs,” she says.
She relies on iterative problem-solving to push conventional design strategies in new directions. Every project starts with a research phase, in which designers explore the historical, geographical and cultural background of the site, then use those insights to brainstorm the best solution. “It’s all about a hypothesis and the research and evidence that supports it,” she says.
For Dortheavej Residence in Copenhagen, Huang helped to transform a low-budget housing project into a modular checkerboard-pattern complex of light, airy homes with soaring windows and 11.5-foot (3.5-meter) ceilings.
“By being smart in the design process, we managed to create a system that yielded high ceilings in the living spaces for little additional cost—and suddenly made social housing feel quite luxurious,” she says. “For me, influential means showing that something improbable can be done—and more than that, can be taken as a precedent so that the improbable can someday become commonplace.”
Cat Huang Uses Architecture to Solve Societal Problems
When she arrived at Harvard fully intending to become a doctor—until she saw Scandinavian architect Bjarke Ingels speak in 2007. His vision of solving environmental and societal concerns through design deeply resonated with her. She convinced Ingels to give her an internship at his firm, BIG — Bjarke Ingels Group. Within months, she moved to Copenhagen and, 10 years later, ascended to full partner at the firm.
When Huang helped design a new headquarters for China’s Shenzhen Energy Co., she delivered a skyscraper with an undulating, pleated facade. The ultra-energy-efficient design not only offers great views, it also helps slash the building’s energy consumption by 30 percent. Such projects also prove that project leaders “can aspire to dream big for the world around us,” she says. “We can find new paradigms and set new standards.”
But she also must ensure stakeholders stay committed to delivering real environmental change. That means prioritizing sustainable design from the beginning of every project—focusing on how and where it’s built, and how it will be used over the long term.
“Aside from technological inventions, we must start with the right first principles: good material choices, future planning and orientation,” she says.
Her advice for the next generation of project leaders? “We must dream big,” she says. “And know where to be just a little stubborn.”
Advice to My (Even) Younger Self
We asked the Future 50: What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to your younger self?
Most architects are detail-oriented people, and sometimes a single misaligned tile can make you want to rip out a whole bathroom. My advice is to be smarter about where to deploy perfectionism. So much of architecture is iterative—starting with broad ideas that progress and develop more detail. Find out where you can be fast and lose. Be perfect where it counts. —Cat Huang
Q&A: Cat Huang on quiet centering, pandemic work habits and why she wants to meet two mathematicians
What projects most influenced you personally?
I’m from Texas, so my early influences are from home—and they probably set me down the road for architecture. The first is the Kimbell Art Museum by Louis Kahn in Fort Worth. That’s when I realized buildings could be architecture. The second was a visit to The Chinati Foundation, a contemporary art museum in Marfa, Texas based on the ideas of its founder, Donald Judd. It’s incredible. You feel small and also a part of something bigger. The sense of scale is just completely different.
How will managing projects change over the next decade?
Technology and computational power keep growing at an exponential rate. This will translate directly into building information modeling technologies. Already we’re seeing early applications in augmented reality, laser imaging data and drone coordination. These applications will only become more defined and better coordinated as we go forward.
What historic person would you want on your project team?
I’m not sure what they would do on the team, but I would love to meet either Ada Lovelace or Henri Poincaré. The former was a fantastic mathematician, credited as the first computer programmer and an extraordinary woman in a time where the female sphere was much more restricted. The latter was also a mathematician but one who laid the foundations for the field of topology. I would love to see how their intelligences might add to the current state of discourse.
How did the pandemic change the way you manage projects?
The pandemic catalyzed change in our collective behavior. We all had to learn how to work together, apart. The greatest challenge was finding a way to replicate the efficiency of leaning over to your colleague to quickly clarify a drawing or detail. Chat threads, phone calls and check-ins all found a way into our work, and we’re still trying to figure out the best tool for the job.
What’s the first thing you check every morning?
I’m constantly surprised by how the phone has become an extension of self. It’s amazing and a little creepy how much it has taken over my life. My email is an IV drip—constantly in the background and rather uncomfortable when shut off. I guess that’s why I actually try not to check anything before I’ve had my first coffee. If I can manage it, I find that hour or two of quiet quite centering.