Rohit Saxena and Laura Vargas: “You don’t have to stay in your lane”

In nature, nothing is wasted. However, in our built world, it seems like everything is wasted. If we can emulate a bit of what we see in nature, we can design a system that can connect people who have the resources with those who need them. Our traditional mindset of building with new materials from […]

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In nature, nothing is wasted. However, in our built world, it seems like everything is wasted. If we can emulate a bit of what we see in nature, we can design a system that can connect people who have the resources with those who need them. Our traditional mindset of building with new materials from the ground up has to change. Meaning the entire procurement method of design services and construction materials needs rethinking. Perhaps a national database is created and run by not-for-profit organizations able to connect design professionals and contractors with end-users. Our supply chain could look very different under this model.

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Rohit Saxena, Senior Project Director, Science & Technology — Principal, EYP and Laura Vargas.

Rohit brings more than 37 years of rich experience to the EYP team, working on various projects throughout the United States and India. His career focuses on technically complex building types, primarily in Science and Technology, Higher Education, and Healthcare. He ensures that EYP meets the growing demand for energy efficiency in highly technical built environments.

Laura has been planning, programming, designing, and managing projects for science, technology, and higher education clients for more than a decade. She is focused on applying her specialized laboratory planning expertise to EYP’s Total Impact Design mission, having already supported research and development facility projects for high-profile clients as diverse as Shell, Dow, DuPont, the University of Houston, Texas A&M University, Johns Hopkins University and Texas Tech University. With over 2 million square feet of laboratory and support space completed, her experience has focused on research & development in both the academic and private industry setting, spanning a diverse range of scientific fields such as analytical chemistry, physical sciences & engineering, consumer product development, pharmaceutical compounding, aerospace engineering, manufacturing & production, and veterinary medicine. A seasoned leader, she is dedicated to client satisfaction, uniting project teams with the goals of their clients and constituents — resulting in successful and creative contributions to projects throughout the country, with a particular dedication to her home state of Texas.

Can you please share with us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Rohit Saxena: Long story short: When people put their heads together, the most challenging situations can be resolved. In 2001, I was involved in the construction of the largest laboratory project for a university in the southeast. Like many urban campuses, new buildings were often placed tightly around existing facilities connected to each other. Despite our best efforts, the design and construction team missed the fact that our new, eight-story research building would collide with a cantilevered mechanical room of the existing structure when it reached its highest level. We discovered this when the building was almost four stories tall. I remember the cold sweat I broke into when the superintendent called me and said, “hey bud, when your building comes up, it’s going to collide with the existing building. Do you realize this? What do you want us to do?” After my initial freak out, I thought to myself, “what are we going to do? We can’t move the building and the foundation. Is this a career-limiting moment?” I told the contractor to keep building. When we were close to the seventh level of the building, the structural engineer, superintendent, and I climbed on top of the parapet and studied the site’s conflicts. Together we designed a special connection that not many people recall today, allowing the existing building to slip into the new building. It’s a beautiful joint that works well twenty years later and is still visible on Google Earth images. The crisis was avoided, and we lived to see another day.

My colleague Laura Vargas, a Project Director and Associate Principal at EYP, is currently working on an exciting project, and I’d love to bring her in to share some of her insight in this conversation as well.

Laura Vargas: My interesting story has to do with speed to market.I am working on a project for a life sciences company that is a big player in the COVID-19 testing realm, and due to the nature of their business, time is, literally, of the essence. When you think about the length of a typical construction project, building a lab can take anywhere from a year to 18 months to two years or more; it just depends. And that does not include time for design.

Because of the pandemic and the urgent nature of creating spaces that will bring us to the end of this situation, everyone on this project has this sense of urgency and the willingness to make things happen very quickly. Believe it or not, the entire design and construction duration for this sophisticated laboratory has taken only four months to complete. It’s been incredibly fascinating to watch the client, contractor, and our design team go through this process together. We’re making swift decisions and acting on them in a lightning speed sort of way. It’s precisely what Rohit was saying — when people put their minds together, and there’s a will to do something, they can work miracles, and I’m witnessing it right now.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

Rohit: I find that relationships are far more important than contracts. We all sign contracts but hopefully never have to open them. Most clients appreciate architects that focus on solving the problems when they occur. Building long-term relationships of trust and integrity with my clients and consultants has served me well. Naturally, our projects will have difficulties because design and construction is not a perfect world, but facing challenges as they occur has much better pay off than avoiding them.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now move to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

Rohit: Both Laura and I have been involved in numerous renovation projects throughout our careers and have witnessed perfectly good building components being taken to landfills or scrapped entirely. While not a groundbreaking idea, we have talked about finding a way to connect construction waste with needs. For instance, can laboratory equipment, casework, and other components be recertified and reused in schools and other institutions that don’t have capital budgets to support their science programs? It’s not solely about recycling or moving demolished equipment from one place to the other. It’s about creating a network of professionals, from contractors, subcontractors, architects, and engineers, willing to give up a bit of their time to help create a database and a process that allows us to breathe life into resources destined for the trash. I have been toying with this idea for some time, and now it needs some structure and thought to get it going. We need professionals to come together and say, “you know what, we can do it. Sign us up!”

How do you think this will change the world?

Rohit: In nature, nothing is wasted. However, in our built world, it seems like everything is wasted. If we can emulate a bit of what we see in nature, we can design a system that can connect people who have the resources with those who need them. Our traditional mindset of building with new materials from the ground up has to change. Meaning the entire procurement method of design services and construction materials needs rethinking. Perhaps a national database is created and run by not-for-profit organizations able to connect design professionals and contractors with end-users. Our supply chain could look very different under this model.

Laura: I think that waste happens because there isn’t a significant penalty to have waste, nor is there a real incentive to try to do something other than throw something away. Think about all the plastic bottles that we use to drink water and the insane amount of waste accumulating in nature. It’s cheaper for industries to make something new and have consumers throw it away than it is for them to recycle. Recycling costs money too. And there isn’t a strong mechanism out there that is forcing or mandating a change to that process. People or companies who try to reduce waste generally do it out of their concern and commitment to the environment. I would like to see an incentive to change people’s habits who don’t have that commitment. I don’t know if it’s through increased tax breaks or increased fees for specific amounts of waste, but whatever it is, there’s got to be some incentive driven by the government strong enough to convince people. It would be great to have situations where a company helps out an elementary school that needs a new HVAC system and things like that. Still, we need something that drives this movement and gives individuals motivation not to throw something away for this concept to take hold more broadly.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

Rohit: I think the only drawback is the potential threat to individuals, companies, or corporations that stand to profit from the status quo. The issues of liability and indemnity, which are so important when you are reusing materials, needs to be reconsidered.

Laura: The other thing to consider is that it could open a can of worms with an existing building. Let’s take the fume hood example; if a company has an extra fume hood and gives it to a high school in need, it’s not something you can install in the room and walk away. There are things you have to do upstream and downstream to make sure that it’s operating safely. Who will come in, tear up the ceiling, and install ductwork and exhaust fans associated with that? And then, who will test it later to make sure it’s operating correctly, regularly for the life of the fume hood? And, what if that simple renovation exposes other things in the building that need repair to make that fume hood addition feasible, and it ripples from there? Who is responsible for that? So, there’s the physical transfer of materials that somebody else can use, but thinking broadly, how will we implement this and make sure we do it the right way, safely, and comprehensively?

Rohit: Laura is alluding to the need for an incentive to do the right thing and protection from undue liability for doing so. Almost like a “Good Samaritan Law” for the built environment.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

Rohit: I don’t know if this is a tipping point, but both Laura and I have spent so much time on construction sites, and you walk around, and you see dumpsters and dumpsters full of discarded materials. We all notice the amount of perfectly good furniture and household goods piled up on our curbs each trash collection day. If we don’t step in and continue to avoid it, we are merely exasperating the limits of our ability to manage the environment. In the construction industry, the scale of waste is so much larger than what we see on our city streets and requires a serious rethink.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

Rohit: This is a tough one to address. Doing the right thing does not pay off in the short term or in a capitalistic society. Without a financial incentive, these ideas do not gain widespread adoption. Federal and local governments may need to look at ways to incentivize the building industry through tax breaks or credits to expand such ideas.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

Rohit: “You don’t have to stay in your lane.” And by that, I mean we have our hands in all aspects of design and building systems. Traditionally, architects, engineers, and contractors have studied and trained in their respective fields even though our built work brings them all together. Architects must train hard to understand the nuances of mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems to create more integrated buildings. As we know, Leonardo da Vinci was not only an architect but also an inventor, sculptor, scientist, and doctor. He saw the connection between human anatomy and his paintings of the human form. He dissected cadavers to understand the skeletal and other anatomical aspects of the human body to be a better artist. In the process, he learned enough about the human body to inform surgery and healing. Had he stayed in his lane, things would have been quite different. Unfortunately, our architecture and engineering schools do little to cross-train us, so we must make that effort independently.

Laura: Modernization matters. When I was in college, the idea of modernizing a building instead of tearing it down and starting fresh was not something we even discussed. During school, every design challenge was from the ground up — a new construction project, design, and blank slate. When you think about the challenge of modernizing a building, you have a different train of thought than with a new build. An existing building brings physical boundaries that you are starting with versus starting from a blank sheet of paper. Those two ideas could not be more different. In college, we didn’t even touch on the concept of renovating existing buildings and all the possibilities — and challenges — that existing buildings bring.

Rohit: New buildings are discarded without understanding the life cycle of their components. We see bad interiors and finishes or a leaky window and think the building is not suitable for rehabilitation. We have to remind ourselves that the building structure may have another 100 years of life left in it. Similarly, the mechanical systems may be nearing the end of their useful life but could be replaced as part of a deferred maintenance program. In other words, there is always a way to breathe new life into existing buildings without tearing them down.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

Rohit: When you’re young, you tend to evaluate many things, like your career, field, and specialization. Choices and options are not as important in the long run. Consistency of work and relationships pays off over time. After I graduated, I sent out 300 applications and got one interview. That interview led me to the only job offer I received, and that’s where my career started. Years later, my connections with my clients and colleagues continued to grow, as did my experiences, and as I look back, it all worked out very well. So my advice is: don’t spend a huge amount of time weighing your options. Go with the flow and all will be well.

How can our readers follow you on social media?


  • Instagram: @eypae
  • Twitter: @eypae
  • LinkedIn

Rohit Saxena:

Laura Vargas:

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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