Leading the Way in Technology and Ecological Design with Phil Lisotta

November 18, 2021

Green Is Good Symbol

From the Green Is Good Archives

Originally aired on October 19, 2015

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Prior to working directly for Qualcomm in 2007, Phil worked for one of the main architecture firms that designed Qualcomm’s San Diego facilities. He worked on the design of Qualcomm’s first LEED Gold building and one of the largest in California at the time. Since working at Qualcomm, he has been directing the planning, design, engineering and construction activities for their facilities. Their focus is on employee needs, including health, sustainability and providing cost effective space to foster the design and development of Qualcomm technologies. Phil graduated from Carnegie-Mellon University’s School of Architecture.

John Shegerian: Welcome to another edition of Green Is Good, and we are so honored to have with us today Phil Lisotta. He is the Senior Director of Architecture of Qualcomm. Welcome to Green Is Good, Phil.

Phil Lisotta: Thank you very much. Nice to be here, John.

John: Great to have you today, and you represent one of the great brands in the entire planet – Qualcomm – but before we get talking about all the great work you’re doing at Qualcomm, I want you to share with our listeners first, Phil, your journey, your story leading up to joining Qualcomm and then how has it been since you’ve been there.

Phil: I think it – my journey if you will – started back when I was in college at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Everything starting there is focused on the environment and sustainability, building correctly. After college, having worked at multiple different architecture firms, I ended up here in San Diego and worked for an architecture firm that had Qualcomm as a client and I designed one of their first LEED Gold buildings. Then I came on board and started working here about – what was it – eight years ago now.

John: Eight years ago. Before that was green architecture something – when you were in college was green architecture already being discussed and that was something on your mind, or has that been a recent phenomenon evolution in the last 10, 15 years?

Phil: No. I think – it might not have been called “green architecture” at the time, right?

John: Right.

Phil: I mean, that was back in the 1990s.

John: Right.

Phil: But it was always a focus, right? I mean energy, sustainability, building your building in a way that is responsive to the Earth – I think – has always been a tenant of Carnegie-Mellon’s design program. Then, it has just been continuing throughout my career. I think it’s finally getting to the point where pretty much every single architect in the world is paying attention to this now.

John: So you joined Qualcomm about eight years ago. You are the Senior Director or Architecture for Qualcomm. What does that mean? What does “Senior Director of Architecture for Qualcomm” mean? And share a day in the life and a year in the life of what you’re doing right now.

Phil: You know, I ask myself often, what does that mean because my role is really very wide here at Qualcomm. In-house, we have a significant team that supports our design process. It starts with space planning, strategic planning, looking at what we call the “butts in seats.” How do we organize those people? Then it leads to the design side of things of how do we design the space? How do we pick the seats that those butts go into? Then looking at the mechanical systems, electrical systems, working with the facility’s maintenance team to make sure that we’re picking the right equipment. Then it goes into the construction management aspect as well. I have a fairly robust team that really focused on are we building this the way we really want to build it? So it’s a very wide organization, and most companies really don’t have that type of breadth, and I’m grateful to have a team that has that technology.

John: How big is a team like yours?

Phil: Over 30 people. Closer to 40.

John: Wow.

Phil: Yeah, it’s actually, really, a small multi-discipline architecture firm.

John: Right.

Phil: And it’s global too. We’re focusing on projects all around the world. It’s not just here in San Diego, where our headquarters is, but all of our locations around the world.

John: Right. And sustainability. We’re so appreciative you’ve come on the show today. As you evolved as an architect, when did all the facets that you’re talking about whether it’s the chairs that people are sitting in or the water that they’re drinking, the quality of the air that they’re breathing in the buildings that you build – when did the whole 360 start filling in for you? Was it during your time in college, or was it some sort of epiphany, or people you met along the way that further sparked your interest in this, Phil?

Phil: Well, I think one of the jobs that I had after college – I worked for an architecture firm and then I left that firm and I went to look for a landscape architecture firm. I worked there for about three years, and they really wanted me for my project management aspect, but I remember going in there the first day going, “What am I doing? I know nothing about shrubs and trees?” and I was a little concerned. But having worked there I really realized that the environment is connected to the buildings that we design and that outside-inside sort of dichotomy is super important. I think that’s really where it started for me. But once the USGBC really started pushing the LEED program – I think – is when I realized that it was a much more multifaceted design solution. I had the great opportunity to do Qualcomm’s first LEED Gold building here when I was working for an architecture firm here in San Diego and that’s – I think – sort of where Qualcomm – it started before I got here that they were focused on this as an important part of the facility’s business.

John: Talk a little bit about the Pacific Center. I know I’m interrupting you.

Phil: Don’t worry.

John: The Pacific Center. Was that the first building you worked on or when?

Phil: No.

John: When was the Pacific – OK.

Phil: No, actually, the Pacific Center is our latest building that we’ve done. We have multiple LEED facilities and we have a lot of other facilities that we just didn’t do the LEED certification on, but we feel that they meet or exceed most of the LEED certifications. But the latest project at the Pacific Center – we call it “Pacific Center” because it is actually on Pacific Center Boulevard here in San Diego – that project is over 380,000 square feet of our newest location, which we really started about three years ago. We started it with our employees, saying, “What do you want in your new building?” We sent out a survey and connection to nature, natural ventilation and light were the three biggest things that our employees really wanted.

John: So you really started it from the ground up. You were listening to your constituents – so to speak – which are your coworkers and employees, and wanting to know what they wanted for their workspace. But workspace is really a misnomer nowadays because it’s really a living space. They’re living there so much of their lives you wanted to hear from them how to create the best environment for them to be working, living during the day.

Phil: Absolutely.

John: That’s so cool.

Phil: And we realized being here in San Diego that being in a building is also being outside of the building. We have such wonderful weather that capturing that was a big tenet of one of the things that we were trying to do.

John: That is so interesting. For our listeners who just joined us, we’re so excited and honored to have Phil Lisotta. He is the Senior Director of Architecture of Qualcomm. To learn more about Qualcomm and all the great things they’re doing in sustainability, go to www.Qualcomm.com. Phil, talk a little bit about you got the feedback from your colleagues of what they wanted. Talk a little bit about, then, the process of planning and then building this – this is a Gold or is this a Platinum LEED certified building?

Phil: It’s Gold, actually. It’s Gold.

John: Got it. So talk a little bit about building then, planning and building this building.

Phil: Sure. So we worked with multiple design team members, right.

John: Sure.

Phil: Where we hired architects and engineers. We have a lot of that staff on in-house as well so we really worked together to guide us to a solution that we feel really excels. The natural light and additionally water use, especially here in California. 

John: Yeah.

Phil: Was extremely important to us. So we had a bunch of bullet points on the wall, and we kept going back to that during the design process to make sure that we were meeting or exceeding those goals, and we were very successful in doing that. I think this was really the first project that we took a holistic approach and really looked at how that connection to nature and the sustainability was going to hold out. It was really important for us. I think if we hadn’t gone back and forth during the design process to make sure we were meeting that I think we would have missed some things. But we were able to do it, we were able to do it on budget and on schedule, and the employees that have moved in there this past January are pleased as punch so.

John: Phil, what does the process take? For a layman like me. You did the survey. Now you have the facts and the figures. You have the big data in front of you, and now you’re sitting with your fellow architects and it’s time to plan and build. From the time you got that data to this January, when your colleagues were moving in, how long was that whole cycle?

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Phil: It was about three years in the making and it really started with multiple master plans. We tried lots of different options like “what is the best way to use this site?” The existing site had three buildings on it to begin with and a parking garage and lots of parking lots and we said, “We really want to change this to a more pedestrian space.” So that sort of pre-prototyping – if you will –

John: Yeah.

Phil: Of different master plans took us quite a few months just to do that. That was even before we actually designed a building. It was like “how does the site really react to that?”

John: Wow.

Phil: Then it gets developed further and further and further, and you would keep narrowing down our solutions to where we feel that we came up with a great architectural design of the buildings as well.

John: And for our listeners out there to learn more about what Qualcomm does in sustainability it’s – when you’re on your website, which I am right now – sustainability is part of your culture and DNA. It’s very obvious at Qualcomm. Can you share with our listeners what does that translate to in terms of the practices that are implemented across the offices that you build for them?

Phil: Well, I mean, I think we look at the environment – at least on the facilities side – is it super multifaceted? There are ways to look at what kind of retrofits and improvements that we can do to minimize our energy usage, our water usage, what kinds of designs can we do in our data centers to reduce that energy use, and it goes all the way to providing electric vehicle charging stations for our employees. We’ve actually won – for almost 10 years in a row – awards from the City of San Diego and the county for recycling programs that we’ve provided here at the company. So it’s really from everywhere. We look at it on all ends to the point where we got rid of water bottles in our refrigerators and we provided everybody a reusable water bottle. So every little bit helps and I think utilizing all of our employees’ ideas and ways to save and ways to minimize our impact is huge. And I think our design lately has been looking at more natural daylight for everyone, better ergonomics at their work station, better ways to minimize their energy usage in the labs where a lot of our work is being developed and providing options for people in different ways that they work. I mean, the whole millennial discussion – we could spend an hour on that alone, right?

John: Exactly. When you said they’re “pleased as punch,” that really struck me, and I’m sure our listeners, because you really listened to them so they should be – in theory – pleased as punch if you built what they were asking for and it all turned out to be that integrative. Their comments and their wishes turned out to be a building that really exemplified what they were looking for and that is fascinating to me. That’s fascinating.

Phil: It’s interesting, though. Even though I say “pleased as punch,” you can’t please all of the people all of the time, right? So- John: Of course. Phil: And there are always views about the guys that do have a little bit of a problem with the design. They’re the loudest, right?

John: They’re the loudest.

Phil: Yeah. But I think, honestly, way more than 80 percent of the people have – based on occupancy surveys that we’ve done – have said that they really prefer their new workspace over their old workspaces, and I really think that natural light and natural ventilation are the two biggest impacts to that survey. John: The silent majority is pleased as punch, and that is good enough for all of us. I love it.

Phil: Yeah.

John: So let’s talk about three things. Air quality. So you say there is indoor-out – explain the ventilation thing, and how do you get the best air quality, which everyone is thinking about nowadays? How do you get to ensure the best air quality for your colleagues inside the office space?

Phil: Sure. So, like I mentioned, San Diego is a wonderful place to be. Our weather is just perfect. And, even more strangely, this building’s location makes it even more ideal. So it is just far enough away from the coast to not be too moist, but it’s inland just enough to get some warmer air.

John: Right.

Phil: So we have a weather station on the building – actually, we have multiple – and it’s constantly looking at the current conditions both air quality, if there are particulates in the air, humidity, temperature, wind and direction. And if those sensors all align and the weather conditions are good, the air conditioning will enable the employee to go over and push a button which opens up the windows, turns off the air conditioning, turns onto strictly evacuation mode and allows that to bring that fresh air into the building.

John: Whoa.

Phil: If the climate conditions change, the windows will automatically close and go back to the air conditioning mode.

John: Wow. I love it. That is really cool. Another important topic that of course we are the nation that the world is talking about now but you’re living in a hotbed of it down in – we’re all living in a hotbed in California but even on a micro discussion you’re getting a lot of publicity in San Diego with the big desalinization plant that is going in. Water. How do you ensure water conservation in the buildings, in the structures that you manage and also build and retrofit?

Phil: Sure. And in all of our newer buildings we’re definitely using better than the standard low-flow fixtures.

John: Right.

Phil: I mean, a no-brainer. But a lot of the stuff that we’ve done on the Pacific Center site is looking at water in a different way. The City of San Diego really requires us to minimize our water being put down in the drain – if you will.

John: Right.

Phil: So we have a lot of bio swells, a lot of biophilia stuff going on on the site to minimize our water being treated or needing to be treated. Capturing a lot of the water on the site – if you will – to feed the plantings and by specifying the correct plants in the first place so that you don’t have to overwater. But even in all of our other buildings we’re making retrofits to all of our toilets and our sinks and showers and that’s a significant impact. But even more so utilizing the city’s reclaimed water system has been a huge benefit to us. So instead of using potable water in our air conditioning systems and our chiller plants, we’re utilizing the reclaimed water that the city provides and minimizing that potable water use in those areas.

John: So you’re speaking of like the recycled grey water and things of that such?

Phil: Yes. Exactly.

John: Got it.

Phil: I think that’s the majority of our water usage in our buildings is through our air conditioning and our chiller, and by minimizing that – the potable use – to instead use the reclaimed, it’s a big savings.

John: You know, Phil, you mentioned a very hot topic a couple minutes ago, and you said we could spend an hour on it and I’m sure we could. We’re down to the last two minutes. Talk a little bit – though, in a truncated fashion – of the millennial opportunity. With you building these beautiful buildings and listening both to the natural environment in San Diego but then to the constituents and colleagues that you have at Qualcomm, does that make recruiting better and easier for your HR department of the millennial generation because you’re building such great and wonderful and sustainable properties? And does that also then further drive home – in a physical sense for a technology company – that you’re so progressive and forward-thinking in terms of sustainability and is a place that those Millennials should be working at?

Phil: I don’t have any hard data on that, but I can tell you the year before – well, actually, the year that we started designing the building-

John: Yeah.

Phil: Some of the vice presidents of the organization that was going to go in to the new building said, “We lost interns that left a few weeks early because they really didn’t feel connected to their co-workers.”

John: Yeah.

Phil: And I took that hard and I said, “We need to change the way we’re designing our space so that they can remain engaged with their co-workers and their bosses and their employees,” right?

John: Right.

Phil: And since then, the design – I think – has evolved and we’ve paid attention to how the millennial generation works differently than all the other generations. I think that we’re doing a better job of it but honestly I don’t really have any data specifically saying that “hey we’ve recruited the best guy because he said he saw the building.”

John: Right.

Phil: But I think it’s very positive, and I’d go out to the buildings a lot and I talk to employees and I try to understand what is working and what is not working for them and I see the younger they are – I hate to do this because it says that I’m old but – the younger they are the more likely they are working in weird places. I mean, they work anywhere, right? They’re connected through their wireless device, which, thankfully, Qualcomm helps enable. But I would never think to go work on the couch that’s a lounge chair that’s off on a balcony, right? But they have no concerns taking their laptop and going there and working there for the day.

John: Well, Phil, thank you so much for spending time with us today. Phil Lisotta, the Senior Director of Architecture from Qualcomm. To learn more about what Qualcomm is doing in sustainability go to www.Qualcomm.com. Phil, I wish I could work out of one of the buildings you designed and built. And thank you for being living proof that Green Is Good.