is the editor of the Shelter
Island Reporter and
a novelist, nonfiction
author, and journalist. His
work has appeared in GQ,
The Washington Post, and
Los Angeles Times.
Ken Wilson has been recognized as a pioneer in
bringing the green movement to building and
design, and a leader in the idea of “wellness”
as an active ingredient in any commercial design.
His forward-looking uses of natural light and
materials to ensure the physical wellbeing of
employees have been widely acknowledged, and
granted the sincerest form of flattery by being
just as widely imitated. The founder of Envision,
a multidisciplinary design firm that concentrated
on environmental responsibility, Wilson is now
a principal of Perkins+Will, where he’s the interior
design director of the Washington, D.C. office.
His work has been recognized around the world,
receiving more than 120 national and local design
awards. One of his most significant achievements
is the design of the American Society of Interior
Designers’ (ASID) 8,500-square-foot headquarters
in Washington, D.C., the first LEED Platinum-and WELL v1 Platinum-certified space in
the world. Wilson also headed the design team
for the office of the U.S. Green Building Council.
A graduate of Virginia Tech’s College of
Architecture and Urban Studies, Wilson is one
of eight architects in the country to be a member
of the College of Fellows of The American
Institute of Architects (AIA) and the International
Interior Design Association (IIDA). He lives
with his wife, Sally, in the Hollin Hills
neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia.
i+D: You’ve been on the road.
Wilson: I was just at the Greenbuild conference
in Boston. It’s a great place for me to connect.
I always run into people I need to talk with—
architects, designers, developers, and companies.
i+D: You grew up in the southwest?
Wilson: My father worked for the National
Park Service as an archaeologist, and a lot of my
boyhood was spent in Arizona and New Mexico.
When I was in high school, he became the chief
archeologist for the Park Service and we moved
to Washington. I’ve been here ever since.
i+D: The neighborhood you live in was recently
put on the National Register of Historic Places.
Wilson: It’s a community of about 450 mid-century
modern houses with flat roofs and lots of glass. It’s
kind of a thing that nobody pulls the shades down.
Really freaky when Sally and I moved in. But,
we’ve gotten used to it.
i+D: Your kids are grown and gone?
Wilson: They’re both out of college and working.
It’s nice to see them launched. We miss them.
We don’t miss the mess.
i+D: I’m intrigued that, in your design for the
ASID headquarters, some corridors don’t go
in a straight line, but veer right and then left,
taking to a new level the biophilic concept of
incorporating nature into design—something
you’ve described as a “meandering path.”
Wilson: Part of it’s about creating the unexpected
in a project.
i+D: To wake people up?
Wilson: Years ago, we did the headquarters for
the Society for Neuroscience. One thing I learned
from them is that we carry mental maps around
of our experiences that we use all the time.
That’s what allows you to find the restroom in
any restaurant because you’ve been in a thousand
restaurants. Same thing with office spaces. You
get off the elevator, you go into a reception area.
The receptionist is behind a desk with a wall behind
the desk. There are chairs here, a corridor with
offices there, and a conference room over there.
When we did the ASID headquarters, we thought
that, right off the bat, this has to be something
unexpected. It’s separating good design from
average design. It’s important in this profession
to move beyond competency and into creativity.
i+D: What’s the first thing you designed
Wilson: Tree forts from scrap lumber. But, my first
commissioned project was when I was in the third
or fourth grade. My parents paid for materials so
I could build a doghouse for my rescue dog, Sam.
He was literally a rescue, because I found him
on the school playground and brought him home.
Sam cried until my parents let me keep him if
I built him a house. It had a sheltered entry from
the wind and Sam had to enter and then go up
into the house.
i+D: Who was your strongest inspiration?
Wilson: It was around the same time when my
mother took me to a high school science fair.
I remember coming across models of houses and
drawings and asked my mother about it, and she
said, “That’s what architects do to design houses.”
I was fascinated. Then, she took me to Frank
Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West in the desert
outside Scottsdale, Arizona. It was one of the
most inspiring moments I’ve ever had.
i+D: Was there a light-bulb-over-your-head
moment when you knew there was a need
for architecture and design to have an
Wilson: It came gradually. Living in Washington,
there are three main groups: government, law, and
nonprofits. I did a lot of work with nonprofits,
and was energized by it, because these clients are
mission-driven. They’re about something. They
have a cause. One of the first projects I did was
for the Greenpeace USA headquarters in 1999.
Working with them, I thought, “These guys really
walk the walk.”
i+D: Can you give an example of the client
Wilson: A technology company experiencing rapid
growth asked us to talk with them. I explained, as
I always do, sustainability and health and wellness
as things they should consider for their project.
They stopped me and said, literally: “We don’t give
a [expletive] about sustainability. All we care about
is making as many millionaires as possible.”
i+D: At least they knew what they wanted.
Wilson: We said, “No, we’re not interested.”
Clients from hell are simply those who don’t
value your services.
i+D: When you look up from your desk,
what do you see?
Wilson: I have a window, an alley view, so
I can see the building across the alley, and
when I look up I can see the sky.
i+D: What’s the most difficult part
of managing people?
Wilson: You have to set expectations.
Be encouraging. Remember that talent is
God-given, but experience has to be earned.
And, you have to help people bridge the gap
between those two ideas.