Manoj Dalaya, FAIA, founding principal and co-President of KGD Architecture, with offices in Washington, D.C., Arlington, Bangkok, and Boston, talks a lot about the concept of balance as the basis of good design and forging a design-based architectural practice. Dalaya, the 2021 President of AIA Northern Virginia, received AIA Virginia’s Award for Distinguished Achievement in 2018 in part because of his leadership in balancing the requirements of clients seeking security in their office buildings as well as healthy, open, and light-infused spaces for their employees. “It’s an interesting question — balance,” he says, “and if you go back to look at the role of the architect, it’s always to keep things in balance from the first conversation to the last punch list item.”

Your practice grew out of established practices in the region and you faced the challenge early on of differentiating yourself from that history, not to mention your competitors. Where did you start and where did you end up?

We—all three of KGD’s leaders—used to work for a fairly large engineering firm called Dewberry, which is a big firm in Northern Virginia with many offices. We were working on fairly large-scale projects in the millions of square feet. We found out it was hard to get out from behind the shadow of what I’ll call engineering thinking. We wanted to engage design more, so we put together the idea for our small firm over the course of a few years—and our first clients had incredibly high standards for energy savings, so we became well versed in building orientation, the ways we could be energy efficient with natural light, the effects of natural light on people, and so on. We always thought — even before today’s concept of sustainable design — that we were just doing the smart thing and the right thing. That’s where we started and, I think, that’s the path that marks our evolution as a firm.

If you want to talk about how we differentiate ourselves, I think I’d say there are ideas that are still valid that transcend trends. In the industrial era of England, you have the north light — it’s glare-free — that kept the factory spaces illuminated. It’s an idea that still works today, and guess what? When we incorporate it into projects, people respond positively.

You speak about your projects as a quest for balance. For the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) in Alexandria, for instance, you speak about facilitating the openness of a campus and the surrounding community with the security required by this type of project. What does balance mean to your firm?

At the beginning of our projects — and in order to do the balancing act, so to speak — you have to engage the environment. For IDA, we had to figure out why they wanted to move to a new facility, and it was because their employees wanted to be closer to mass transit and the Pentagon. When we started to dig into that and ask them questions, we had to consider how we could increase integration with the surrounding community and increase security. Both seem at odds. It’s a mixed-use and vibrant area, so to turn our backs to it would seem inappropriate.

When you start designing, you hear from the client at first and can quickly become overpowered by their concerns. That’s why it’s important to actually talk to people in those communities to engage them because they are a kind of client, as well.

In working with that client group, what does “community engagement,” as a term that’s often overused, really mean?

It means trying — really trying — to get in front of the people who live and work around your site to understand their range of perspectives. Community engagement can feel like it’s getting out of control, but it’s not our job to control things, but to be inspired by things and synthesize the inputs.

Look, I’m an architect, but I come from a planning background, too, and from that perspective you always start with engaging people and looking at all sorts of data to understand a situation. Maybe that means a public forum. Maybe that means workshops. You have to genuinely want to engage the community early for it to be meaningful. If you stay flexible and not formulaic in your thinking, you’d be surprised what you find. I remember once presenting a conservative “option a” and a progressive “option b” on a project, and really thought they’d go for the more restrained option. I was wrong — and the more progressive and daring scheme was far, far more agreeable to them.

Is balance a goal of the architect’s education? Or, a quality of professional practice?

It’s an interesting question — balance,” he says, “and if you go back to look at the role of the architect, it’s always to keep things in balance from the first conversation to the last punch list item. You’re trying to create something, sure, if you’re an architect, but in my opinion, if something is out of balance, it cannot come to fruition. What I mean is if you’re hired to do a project, as we recently were for Howard University, there are a lot of people who define “the client.” Everyone wants more space, so where do you spend the money? Can you organize the requirements of the different departments? Questions like that aren’t just pertinent to educational projects. They are pertinent to all projects.

What is the relationship between practice and education?

Practice is an extension of the educational experience and there must be continuing education in practice. In the first year out of school, you’re transformed. You finally understand how much you don’t know—and what you need to know. Today, that’s still true. But, I feel there is a disruption happening with this hybrid working and learning environment that we’ve all forged after COVID, which says you can learn anything anywhere or do any job from anywhere. We’re finding — in our experience as a practice — that this hybrid model is flawed.

You can do production work from anywhere. But, the creative work that architects must do is enriched by being together. That’s a message I want to convey to students because they might, one day, drop out of the profession because the hybrid model isn’t very enriching at all.

How do you thread the needle to connect being a sustainable business and a sustainable practice?

I’ll go back to the conventional way of defining sustainability, which is largely defined by certification and awards. We figured systems of thinking will come and go — and you have to always go back to the basics, which are about creating excellence in design. I don’t just mean aesthetics. I mean creating something that may last longer than its intended usage, something that may be energy conscious, something that fulfills the program and improves the way people experience an environment.

If you look at IDA, for instance, we designed the building before the WELL system came out — and our idea is about the people who work there. We respond to light and air as people, so it doesn’t take a WELL or LEED spreadsheet to tell you you need access to both. Working on a secure program like we did at IDA, you are often given the problem of creating a secure space — enclosed where nobody can look in — without making people feel enclosed. That means designing for light to filter in from the outside, even indirectly. It is so important.

As told to William Richards

Team Three is an editorial and creative consultancy based in Washington, D.C.