Transforming Austin with Ecological Innovation
Daniel Woodroffe on What Urban Landscape Architecture Means for Our Future
Written by Jessica T. Brown
Interviewed and photographed by Weston Carls
Daniel Woodroffe grew up in a tucked-away small town outside of Cambridge, England, before moving to London with his "bona fide hippie-at-heart" mother. It was in London that Woodroffe found, "the balance between ecology, horticulture, environmental science, architecture, urban design, and a tactical sense of urban life." This diversity of interests and influences helped mold Woodroffe into the urban landscape architect he would become, though it wasn’t his original aspiration in life.
"I originally grew up wanting to be a marine biologist. Then, I wanted to be an architect, but I felt like I didn't have the mathematical skill set to go through architecture school. Instead, I fell into graphics, fine art, design, and then urban ecology. That was when I really discovered landscape architecture as a profession."
Twenty years ago, Woodroffe moved to the United States and landed in Austin, Texas. "My initial goal was to only stay for two years, but I was incredibly blessed to have really amazing mentors at my previous firm, where I was for nearly 13 years."
As Austin evolved creatively and technologically, Woodroffe saw an opportunity to create his own firm that seamlessly fit with his ideals. "I saw an opportunity to focus specializations in that kind of urban design, urban architectural landscape arena. I refigured my passion for design and really focused on what I saw was a very unique opportunity. Some people thought that I was a bloody idiot, setting out to start a new firm in 2010, when everyone else was just knuckling down and hoping they didn't get laid off. I left by myself and said, 'Now may be the time to start at a moment where people are looking for nimble, scrappy innovation, cost-effective things that set us all apart.' There was a great moment in time where clients appreciated looking at the game a little bit differently. I was selfishly trying to disassociate myself from the herd but also [giving] clients the ability to cost-effectively keep themselves competitive in the market."
"It was the most terrifying and liberating experience I've ever had professionally. Now, we have a firm of between 20 and 25 individuals. We've just brought on an entire crop of interns, which we feel very blessed to do. You go from a dining room table in 2010 to an office of 20 individuals that are incredibly talented and way smarter than I am. It’s a family environment of designers who are crazy but so much fun."
As Austin developed and grew, so did dwg. With this growth, Woodroffe has consistently valued the sanctity and quality of dwg.’s office environment. "The culture of a design environment is critical, and growth and change is never easy. We're not a tech industry that has gone from three employees to 700 in eight years. We're a design practice, and it's much more personal, much more emotional in terms of the analog sense of drawing, the analog sense of communication and the clients that we serve. I dedicate as much of my time as possible to having a big fat pen in my hand, guiding and mentoring the younger designers in the firm to exemplify our design standards, creativity and innovation. A mentoring culture is critical to sustaining a positive energy, forward thinking workplace."
Relationships and community engagement are important to Woodroffe and have played a critical role in the growth and success of the firm. "By far, the most important thing has been the relationships with our clients who have become our friends and our best marketeers. We have done little to no traditional marketing ever in the history of the firm. We very rarely go to conferences [to] be the title sponsor, we have never sent out postcard mailers. However, we are very engaged in the community, and our clients have consistently brought us more and more business. They have been our best reference and have allowed us to move from just doing individual Austin corners, to Austin blocks, to entire city planning, to working every corner of Texas, to every corner of the U.S., to working now internationally. Every single one of those projects has resulted from a relationship here in Austin."
In the last 20 years of their Austin residency, dwg. has worked with Fareground, NLand Surf Park, Fairmont Austin, the Yeti flagship store, Hotel Van Zandt, and Waller Creek Conservancy. For Woodroffe, the common thread in all of these projects is the very definition of urban architectural landscapes. "The core value of the firm is really about this sense of social, environmental, and economic justice or liberation or design excellence. Each of those projects, [has] a sense of the ecological change and design exemplification.
That kind of profound moment of change that you can infer and influence in cities is really, really exciting. There's this kind of full spectrum of urban change, and each one of those challenges the role of people in cities, the role of environment and nature in cities, and then this sense of what makes places authentic."
As a firm, dwg. is interested in going into a green field and building another master plan community, another 10,000 homes. "We'd much rather say, 'You've got one city block and we want to do urban plaza and rooftop terrace and gardens and pools in the sky. We want to take that 75-acre development and put it on one city block and change the entire resource structure of materials and roads and infrastructure and then work with Royal Blue and have retail.' The American city is turning around. It's developing this kind of renaissance of rideshare and urbanization and kind of the inward migration back into cities and making them cool again, and that really exemplifies what our role and passion is."
Woodroffe is aware of "some wicked urban challenges" in the world of landscape in urban environments. "Now landscapers have to look at a very serious meaningful infrastructure. The utility infrastructure, water quality and water resource management, rain gardens, the quality and value of trees and shade and human comfort, resilient cities for climate change, etc. We are really looking at: How do we get people, even in the middle of summer in central Texas on a 110 degree day, to eat outside and enjoy it? If you'd asked me that question 20 years ago coming from London then I'd go you are stark raving bonkers mad, not going to happen. With the right careful considerations of space and shade and air movement, you can have human comfort. Though we're building places for people to enjoy and often we don't get a lot of recognition for it, there's this really nice sense of satisfaction when you can overhear people at Fareground going, 'Holy crap this place is awesome!' My six-year-old son will run around going, 'My dad did this!' It's not something that—I don't like to run around and make a big deal about it, but it's a really proud moment to know you're really informing and changing the perception of Austin as a place to live and as a city."
Along with founding an environmentally conscious and responsible firm, Woodroffe also found passion for working with the community as past president of the Austin Parks Foundation (APF) board and currently serves on the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Austin Board of Directors. "Going from being a board member of APF, to being the chair of that board, through the search for a new executive director to bring on board Collin Wallace and the transformational work he has been doing with the organization. It taught me that the nonprofit board role is really important. AIA has been equally important, but in different ways, in terms of acting as a bridge between landscape architecture and architecture."
From day one Woodroffe has known the importance of being passionate about his work and of always giving every project his best. "What really makes a difference in this industry is your commitment to put money where your mouth is. It's one thing to be a designer who pontificates designs all day long. But, if you're not a respected and vetted member of your community, actually influencing that community, then why even do it? Philosophically, everyone in the firm is encouraged to find their passion, whether that's just being involved in the Ace Mentor program for high school kids that might want to be designers or sitting on the TreeFolks board or just helping students at UT. Austin is a result of a city in a park. It's this kind of rare jewel. Giving back to the place we call home is so hugely important."
Woodroofe’s love for Austin is evidenced in his work and in his words. Follow Woodroffe and dwg’s journey at studiodwg.com.