28 OCT 15 | another inspired architect (AIA)

You may think aspiring architects watch shows like Seinfeld with George Constanza as Art Vandelay, and the Brady Bunch with Mike the architect.


But, what aspiring architects really like to do is go and see architects in real life presenting their work to a huge crowd of adoring fans. A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate to attend my first AIA (American Institute of Architects) Colorado conference with the WORKSHOP8 staff.

With three days of lectures, this yearly event surely lived up to the hype. Architects are cool, right?  Take a look at the highlights and thoughts from my friends and colleagues:

Brandy shares how art and architecture cross over.

Because I am an artist and have a BFA in conceptual sculpture, I was excited by the presentation by John Sparano on his firm’s heuristic devices. I wasn’t familiar with the word “heuristic”, and I most likely would have referred to the objects that John’s firm creates as, “little sculptures” or “inspirational items”.



The heuristic device for the Kimball Art Center is a wabi-sabi vase with paint brushes. When John flashed these images on the screen, I immediately got the connection.



Here is the amazing St. Joseph the Worker Church by Sparano + Mooney and the heuristic devise they created during the research phase for that project. (Images courtesy of John Sparano).

One thing clients have a hard time grasping is that designers need time to do research. We need time to sit with a problem, mull it over, and test ideas (some good, some bad). We need input from many different sources in order to fully flesh out an idea. That is why I literally HATE when clients ask for design concepts during the proposal phase of a project. I mean ideas are what designers are paid to create. The idea leads to a final product, but it is the idea itself that adds value.

My takeaway from John’s talk is that as designers, we need to do a better job explaining the design process to our clients. David Kelley, founder of the design firm IDEO, does a good job explaining this in an excerpt from this article on Fast Company.

But some problems need to be restated before a big, new idea can be hatched. It often helps to take the problem and break it apart, before putting it back together in a whole new way — the synthesis or abstraction step. That’s where the creative leap often occurs and what IDEO’s process is designed to unearth.

It took Kelley a while to appreciate the power of stepping back before forging ahead. In the mid-1980s, he says, he used to write proposals with the various phases of the process — understanding, observation, brainstorming, prototyping — priced separately. Clients invariably would say, “Don’t do that early fooling around. Start with phase three.” Kelley realized that the early phases were where the big ideas came from — and what separated his firm from a bunch of management consultants. “That moment was really big for me,” he says. “After that, I’d say, ‘No way, I won’t take the job if you scrap those phases. That’s where the value is.’ “

Chelsea digs the culture of this firm.

Before drooling over de leon & primmer architecture workshop’s beautiful projects, we heard about their awesome office culture. It was exciting to hear that their office practices are very similar to ours at WORKSHOP8.

Lets start with their seating arrangement. All of the employees, including principals and interns, sit facing each other in one long row of desks. This enables everyone to hear every phone conversation and discussion regarding a project, so everyone is up to speed and can answer project specific questions. We do the same here at W8: on top of hearing project related discussions, we are also able to easily ask for advice and brainstorm right from our desks.


The employees at de leon & primmer architecture workshop take a shot of whiskey everyday at 4pm to “get the creative juices flowing”. W8 hasn’t reached that level of dedication yet, but we do enjoy the occasional afternoon drink, FAC (Friday Afternoon Cocktail), or an all-out party to get our creative juices flowing too. They also take all of their employees on surprise tropical vacations twice a year—so awesome! I know what I’m adding to our 2016 goal list 😉

On a more serious note, we share similar ideals with de leon & primmer architecture workshop. In an interview with The Architectural League of New York, Roberto de Leon is quoted as saying “Specifically in terms of how we work, there is the sense of helping the underdog. In rethinking program or material possibilities, or just investigating how to build something economically— regardless of the client—we always try to maximize the value of their investment in terms of how they are building within a community.”

W8 also loves to help the underdog, and we strive to make each and every one of our projects both viable and well designed.

Ivan shares highlights from hanging with Luis Ibarra.

This was my first AIA conference and I have to say, it was really fun. It is not every day that a junior designer like myself gets to converse with talented and creative individuals from all around the country. I learned a lot and it was very interesting listening to top professionals in the field present their best work and ideas from conception to completion.


Here we are closing down the bar with Luis Ibarra. You can tell by the quality if the photo that some alcohol had been consumed by this time. 

My favorite speaker was Luis Ibarra from Ibarra Rosano Design Architects. It made me proud to see a fellow Latino represented in the Architecture field. His presentation really spoke to me; I was impressed by the way his designs take the natural landscape into account. I particularly liked that he goes as far as to name the saguaro before any design commences, so that the contractors would feel an attachment to the saguaros and become more mindful of the surrounding environment. I am draw to Luis’s “simple shelters” because they are shaped by the environment they are constructed upon and the problems they are trying to solve.

Emily (and Kate, Chelsea, Amanda, and Brandy) is disappointed that no women were represented at the conference.

Women make up about 17% of AIA membership and about 43% of architecture students, so why did we not absorb the knowledge of ANY women architects or designers at this year’s AIA Conference? It’s 2015 people!!


If there is an Architect Barbie representing the field of Architecture, there should also be real-life role models! Want to learn more about the history of women in architecture? Check out this cool info graphic by Megan Jett.

Joseph has something to say about architects and TV.

I get tired of hearing presentation after presentation from white male Architects showing us second homes for the 1%ers. Like many of us, Steven Chung had a really tough time making a living during the the Great Recession, and I was really interested in his story of what he did to survive. He decided to try to create a TV show about Architecture and depict what it actually takes to design and build a structure–not the dramatized versions they show on HGTV to DYI, where a group of “professionals” show up to remodel a house for $1,000 in a two day period.


After many trials and tribulations and 6 years of effort, Steven finally aired the first episode of Cool Spaces on PBS last year. He really tried to tell the story of a building from the point of view of the Architect, Owner and end user. I have only watched one episode, but I hope Steven is able to get funding for at least one more season!

Marcel is impressed with an org chart.

Michael Alley of Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture made some really compelling arguments for the way the hierarchy is flattened in his firm. Unlike most firms, who follow a standard, hierarchical structure, APM has adopted a “flat structure” that looks more like three dimensional organization chart that is in constant flux and rotation.


The typical hierarchical structure of an architecture firm as illustrated by Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture.


This flat structure at first glance appears to be disorganized and crazy, but shows more of the reality of a collaborative organization. 

Depending on the project, different individuals change roles from Leader to Follower. Michael even claimed that these management strategy shifts foster creativity. WORKSHOP8 embraces this same organizational strategy with great success!

Amanda is inspired by Digifab concepts.

Blaine Brownell of Transstudio is an architect, scholar, and professor. He tickled our understanding of materials through the advancement of technology. His lecture embodied the innovation, application, and ways technology can approach existing materiality.


PET wall installation that goes beyond the associations of a common material, such as the plastic water bottle.

Brownell spoke of his education and the disconnect between learning to design and learning about the materials we, as students, are given to design with. In my recent experience, this is true.

Though most building technology courses provided at my university teach a lesson or two on load or span of timber, steel, or curtain walls (and provide an 800 page textbook for further reference), the lessons leave something out. That is something that can only be gained through experience–tangible perception. Luckily, the students at Dalhousie University get a taste during the summer semester through free labs and structural exploration.


UMN Student work “Thicket”. 

In the Masters of Architecture program at the University of Minnesota, Brownell engages his students in researching and exploring materialities through practice and production. I can only imagine that this physical pursuit leads to better understanding of academic architecture.

Kate is inspired by the use of materials and simple forms.

Many of the speakers talked about the newest, most cutting edge technology and how it can transform design. After hearing Roberto DeLeon speak at the conference this year, I started to think about how ordinary building materials can create beautiful spaces without using the latest gadgets. de leon & primer architectural workshop creates interest and complexity in their designs by the manipulation and repetition of everyday materials.

DeLeon-Primer Barn Goshen, KY

Using bamboo stalks in a grid pattern to form the wall of a barn at the Mason Lane Farm Operations Facility allows light and air to pass through while creating boundaries for the structure.

DeLeon-Primer Knoxville, TN

Metal mesh sheets are used to treat the exterior of the Knoxville Botanical Garden & Arboretum Visitor Pavillon that was previously a storage shed. The creative manipulation of an economical product allowed for a budget friendly and dynamic design that changes with the light.  


Chevron-patterned wood planks elevate a traditional barn silhouette for the Wild Turkey Distillery Complex. This reflects the tradition of Wild Turkey and the modernization of advertising and new products.

Melissa had to miss the conference for a wedding, but that didn’t stop her from thinking about architecture.

During the weekend that all of my W8 cohorts were at the AIA Colorado conference, I was in my hometown of Wheeling, WV celebrating my baby cousin’s wedding. Of course, I kept my WORKSHOP8 architecture goggles on and checked out some of the cool old buildings that I grew up around. Wheeling’s heyday was way back in the early 1900s, so there’s so much cool Victorian architecture hidden around town.


One of my favorite spots in downtown is the preserved row houses on Chapline Street. 

Unfortunately, much of Wheeling hasn’t received this kind of care and restoration. When I was 13, I played on WWVA Jamboree—my first live radio show—in the Capitol Music Hall. It was closed for a few years and rumors of meeting with the wrecking ball were swinging around town. Fortunately, a community-wide effort was started to save the Capitol, and there are, once again, shows and concerts filling the grand space.

Wheeling capitol music hall

Like many cities of that era, when times began changing, the architecture became a mash-up of past and contemporary styles. The old Kaufman’s department store (now closed) down Main Street from the Capitol is a great example of a much older building that received a mid-mod facade makeover…it looks pretty rad from the front, but from the side you can still see the mish-mash of history.


I’ve got one more sweet mid-mod example from when Wheeling was still quite the destination: The Downtowner Motor Inn. Unfortunately, someone destroyed this sweet mid-century mod building into a drab brown box with a few mansard roofs glued on as it became a Knights Inn. But…in 1967 my hometown was HOPPIN’ with style!!!


After all that, I’ll share with you what I thought.

I found Michael LeBlanc from the firm Utile Design to be inspiring. He spoke about our sustainable future and gave us a look at multifamily living that connects residents and visitors with their surroundings. His multifamily projects are designed with circulation patterns and creative gathering spaces that allow for more personal interaction. He pointed out that the connection of spaces is an integral part of design.


Utile’s 600 Harrison Avenue project in Boston.

But the conference wasn’t all about lectures. It was also about bonding with teammates, whether that was riding up Loveland Pass (the Continental Divide), drinking way too much tequila, or playing Cards Against Humanity.


W8 tequila shots


I hope you enjoyed some insight on where the industry is going and what architects find interesting. I know we are going to keep designing to inspire, enrich, and transform lives through great design!





Shawn is the proud papa of three cute little rascals and is currently studying for his architectural exams.