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Architecture Alumnus Focuses on International Urban Towers

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Travis Soberg (on left)

Penn State Architecture alumnus Travis Soberg (’94 B.Arch) is reaching new career heights through his work on some of the tallest buildings in the world, including structures in Nanning and Tianjin, China, that tower more than 400 meters high.

A principal of Chicago-based firm Goettsch Partners, Soberg has focused his career on developing creative solutions to complex problems, which, he says, was an invaluable part of his Penn State education. “That was one of the greatest things we were taught,” he explained. “In some architecture programs, students are taught one way to solve a problem. But at Penn State, we were taught to think creatively and come up with different options.”

Soberg has spent the bulk of his career with Goettsch Partners, where he is director of sustainable design. The firm focuses on urban high-rise towers around the world, with Soberg overseeing many projects in China. “When you specialize in high-rise buildings, you go where the work is. And about 10–15 years ago, China was focusing on ‘building up.’”

According to Soberg, China’s focus in architecture has changed from creating an image of prosperity, despite the costs, to constructing buildings where both economics and aesthetics are decision-drivers. “Today they focus on the economics, needs and requirements, similar to the United States,” he explained.

One key difference between China and the United States, however, is China’s requirement for natural ventilation in all buildings. “It’s not only desired, but required. There is also a focus on developing social spaces within buildings.”

Soberg noted that China serves as a testing ground of sorts, due to the high volume of work there. “That allows ideas to evolve quickly, and then we can share them through other projects around the world.”

Other countries’ emphasis on natural ventilation and social spaces has influenced architecture in the United States, said Soberg. Sustainable design is now the norm, although when he began his career, it was not as much of a consideration in the design process. “For the longest time we overpowered nature, simply because we could. We tried to seal the building from the environment and control things internally,” he explained. “However, it turned out people did not always like the spaces they were in.”

Soberg noted that today’s architectural designs take into consideration how people feel being in the buildings. “It’s not only for the environmental aspect,” he said, adding this shift has happened in the past 10–15 years.

He cited the example of a hotel where the administrators wanted the laundry and kitchen spaces, often found in the basement, to have natural light. “They wanted them to be enjoyable places to work because the kitchen staff and housekeepers promote the brand when they interact with guests.”

Soberg advises today’s students and recent graduates to continue “searching and seeking” because their education does not end with graduation. “In architecture, you never feel like you know everything. For me, Penn State was the beginning of a lifelong educational process.”

Image: In December 2015, Travis Soberg (left) was a juror in a high-rise studio taught by Dan Willis, professor of architecture. Photo by Alex Bush.