Interview with Gail Borthwick

May 07, 2020
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We speak to Gail Borthwick, Zeidler’s new Principal. Gail brings 22 years of experience and a passion for sustainability that transcends green tech to community design.

You previously worked at Zeidler’s office in London, UK. How has it been coming back to the firm?

Back in 1999 I was a student doing my co-op term for the University of Waterloo in London. I was working on repositioning the Shell Centre on the South Bank. My career seems to have gone around full circle, and repositioning work is still what I love the most – the scale and challenge of revisioning these projects and the tie-in of architecture and urbanism.

Coming back to Zeidler has been a very easy and welcoming transition. I recently went for a walk to Ontario Place and thought about how it is still one of my favourite architectural projects. It’s almost serendipity that I’ve come back to Zeidler.

As a Principal at Zeidler, your experience and passion for sustainability have been brought to the forefront of your role.
Do you recall when your interest in sustainability began?

I became interested in sustainability at the University of Waterloo. When I graduated and moved to Chicago there were very few firms that focused on sustainability, so I sought out the one little firm that did.

All of the projects at this firm had a sustainability focus and I became very involved in LEED. I eventually realized that LEED didn’t focus enough on the aesthetic and improving the human experience, and from this I became more engaged in the public realm. I knew building and designing sustainable spaces couldn’t just be about the hard metrics – they also had to be beautiful and engage people.

You bring a lot of experience designing mixed-use, intergenerational, sustainable communities, and repositioning malls and older buildings to make the most of the space they hold.
Can you talk about any projects you’re currently working on that reflect these principles?  

 I’ve noticed a surge in clients looking at urbanization, or regeneration, that want to create intergenerational communities, no matter the age of the end-users. These projects focus on repositioning these spaces as new communities, which perfectly reflect sustainability principles. Whether a Baby Boomer or Millennial, we are all looking for ways to live our lives more inclusively, simply, with more connection, and with more lifestyle options.

You’re also currently working on the Welcome Area and Front Entrance Revitalization with the Toronto Zoo, which looks at both ecological and economic sustainability, by better integrating the Zoo with the surrounding community.
When looking at projects in and around Toronto, do you feel architecture and urban design are heading in the right direction for sustainability?

I love working on the Toronto Zoo project. The connection of conservation education, fun, and community-building are key elements in our strategy.  

Toronto is now the third largest city in North America. The housing shortage and expensive nature of living in the GTA mean that thoughtful strategies for transportation, reusing existing building stock, and smart density make perfect sense, both from an economic and qualityoflife perspective.

Toronto is upping its game with the Toronto Green Standard minimum requirements, but the City is still shy to challenge architects, planners and developers to push the envelope (pun intended) in terms of carbon reduction and energy conservation the way some other large cities do. 

How can Architecture and Urban Design help Canada become more sustainable?

I think the current pandemic has brought up a lot of important questions that need more urgent consideration. It is clear, from a global perspective, that a lot of populations will become poorer from this pandemic. This economic challenge will affect climate change, as it will affect countries’ actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adaptation strategies to meet the physical impacts of climate change.

At the city-building scale, it has become clear that here in Toronto there is a need for more open space to align with the density of urban communities. Closing parks affects both mental and physical health. We need to have open access to nature. This also means we need to look at the role of the automobile and the amount of real estate that roads and streets require in dense locations. Alternative means of transportation can open up more public space for urban communities.

You’re an active member of the Urban Land Institute and you’re a Board Committee Member of the Women’s Leadership Initiative. Women only make up 10% of the industry and make 16% less than men. Canada’s sustainable future sees gender and pay equality as a key goal for 2030.
When you mentor both men and women does gender ever come into practice? What can men in the industry do to ensure gender equality is met?

My first mentee in Toronto was through the ULI program. He was a young man in the city-building profession. At the time I thought I really wanted to mentor a young woman in our industry. I thought young men have lots of options for mentors, but there are fewer mentors for young women. Having that first mentee made me realize that you really need to have men on board to resolve this issue. Men need to be educated about the professional advantages women bring to project teams and the industry in general. It must be a team effortwe need male advocates in the industry. 

Which parts of Architecture and Urban Design, and in being an Architect/Urban Designer do you like best?
Do you think of yourself as more an Architect or Urban Designer?

I think of myself as an Architect first, but design isn’t just about the building, it has to go beyond – no man is an island 

Before becoming an architect, I was an AI programmer. When I went back to architecture school, I never thought of the two careers having anything in common, until about eight years ago. The use of data and computational tools became a smart vehicle to help get projects built. Large-scale urban projects need a lot of data to prove both their value to the developer and to get the programming right. Projects must be proven to be financially successful and beautiful in order to get built.  

I have always been a bigger picture thinker – I can never separate the building from the context. I appreciate beautifully designed and detailed buildings, but they cannot be successful if not designed with their surroundings and users in mind.

Do you have any advice for aspiring architects and urban designers? 

Take on every project you can get involved in – all scales, typologies and budgets. 

Find some great mentors in all areas throughout your entire career. Learn how buildings are put together, why the public realm is so important, how to be a good storyteller, and how to listen to clients. 

Travel, read, keep learning, eat good food and drink good wine – sometimes all at the same time.

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