My path to following my heart and building a better community
Adrienne, Ray, and I joined a small group of AIA-S students from the University of Virginia School of Architecture yesterday for lunch. Each of us spent a few minutes talking about what we do and how we got to our current place in the profession. For me, it has not been a straight path, perhaps it is a path that will help you figure out your own path.
I figured out I wanted to be an architect in seventh grade during Mr. Price’s communication class. Over that semester we learned photography, book binding, screen printing, and drafting. Something about the drafting class appealed to me and for the first time I felt like I “got it.” From there I went on to take all the architectural related courses offered at Northside – learning a lot from Sandy Small (our awesome teacher). I was an average student in most other classes, but did very well in design and art classes. However, not being a great student led to not being ready to go to a four or five-year college. So I went Virginia Western Community College – a time for growing up and further exploring design and art classes while taking all the core classes required for an architectural degree. I graduated with a two-year associates degree – not bad for an average student with “learning differences” – my fifth grade teacher explained it to me as I needed to be in special classes. I was told many times over the years that I should find a “good job” since I would not go to college. You see I am dyslexic and at the time and still sometimes today, teachers in public schools do not have the training or resources to help someone who has a high IQ (laugh all you want) but processes information different from most of the other students. Graduating from college was a major achievement for me.
I was then accepted to the University of Virginia School of Architecture – I was on my way. Well I had to take 15 credits over the summer to officially get accepted. It was a LOT for one summer with 3 – (4) hour studio classes a week and two history classes each week. The work was piled on and I was working a 40 hour a week job to pay the bills. I ended up getting a D in one of the history classes and therefore I was not allowed to continue at UVA. I took the next semester off and worked two full-time jobs. The following semester I enrolled at UVA through the adult education department. I passed the history class I had previously failed and another design class. Having met those goals I applied to the School of Architecture again and got wait listed. Fortunately Cabell Vest changed his major at the last-minute and I was accepted into the third year architectural program. I only took classes in the A-School, but had to take extra courses each semester to catch up on the specialty classes I needed to graduate. Those two years were packed with physics, design, history, mechanics, urban planning, sustainability…. courses and I continued to work an average of 40 hours a week – mostly as a cook at the Virginian and then moving over to Mincer’s. I graduated from UVA School of Architecture in 1997. Finally I finished. I was ready to design green buildings.
I interviewed with firms in Richmond, Charlottesville, and Charlotte. I realized that I really did not like architects through this process of interviews. There was a lot of ego and not much empathy. I continued working at Mincer’s for another couple of years feeling something was missing for me, but making good money. When I met Ray Gaines, he was different from other architects. He did not have the ego and the firm did not do design for the sake of design. They designed buildings that worked, they cared about the budgets and the land, and they cared about each other. I accepted a job at “Raymond E. Gaines Architect” in January of 1999. We were a small four guy firm. For the next few years, life flew by as I learned all the stuff they don’t teach you in school – codes, budget, deadlines that move, clients care, contractor relations. Life was good. However, the architecture we were doing did not give me the fulfillment I was looking for in life. Something was missing. I wanted to make a difference, all the “green” stuff I wanted to do was too new, too expensive, or to different for an industry that changes at a VERY slow pace. I needed something else and right at that moment I met Samual Mockbee and he changed my life. As an architect I can help people he told us. I was not just drawing buildings and houses, I was solving their design problems. I needed to push the industry forward. I needed to learn so much more. I needed to figure out this “green” stuff and get educated. I also needed a Masters in Architectural degree to get licensed, a goal I had set for myself early on in life. I applied to graduate school and was accepted at the University of Tennessee. There I studied under Mark DeKay to learn everything he was willing to share and teach. My focus was to become an expert in green design and building science. I was introduced to LEED. I worked for Mark at the Chattanooga Design Center and saw change through design in action. It was amazing and it is what I want to do with my career. I graduated in 2003.
I returned to Ray’s firm with the idea of finishing up my internship requirements so I could get licensed and become a partner at the firm. I told him that I wanted to grow our firm into a leading “green” architectural firm, something they had always done in some aspects, but could do a LOT more of with a few changes. It took a few years to get through those processes to get licensed. During that time I found a contractor that was ready to take the “green” step forward, I volunteered to work on a committee that was bringing EarthCraft to Virginia, and I joined with other designers to start the Charlottesville chapter of the James River Green Building Council. The time was right to do the work I wanted to do to make the impacts on the community I knew were needed. We designed the first EarthCraft Certified house outside of Georgia, the first LEED for Homes project in the Southeastern United States, and a zero-energy home. Our projects were featured in Cville Weekly, NBC 29, the Hook, and national magazines Angie’s List and Environmental Design and Construction. Our firm in 2008 was named the “best green designers” by the Virginia Sustainable Building Network, I recieved the AIA-CV Community Service Award, and I was named the CATEC Contributor of the year. We were also given the Governor’s Environmental Excellence Gold Medal in 2008 by GOvernor Kaine and the Silver Medal in 2009. Then I took my Architectural Registration Exams and became a licensed Architect. Things were rolling in the right direction.
I was soon named a partner at the firm The Gaines Group, PLC Architecture and Design (new name to allow for partners to join). It was also a time of transition for our family. We decided to move home to the Valley (Harrisonburg) so our girls could attend Eastern Mennonite School. It was the right move for our family. However, for business we had no reputation, clients, or jobs in the valley and the economy was crashing. The first 3 years in the valley were a huge struggle. There was very little income and things got tight even in our established office in Charlottesville. The economy stayed weak, but we started growing in years 4-6 and started gaining a reputation in the market. Charlottesville also started picking up a little. Now after 8 years in the valley our team has grown to three and we are looking for a fourth and maybe fifth in Harrisonburg along with James in the Cville office who works on our valley jobs. Our job list is long in both offices and we have a strong reputation in the valley. We were named the “best small architects” in 2014 by the United States Green Building Council Best of Building Awards. Things seem to be falling back into place. My career is where I want it to be for right now. I am designing interesting projects that are focused on sustainable design. I am often invited to share my knowledge with various groups from non-profits to the Department of Energy. I am able to mentor future generations of designers. I am making a difference in my community. As a firm, we are still recovering from a deep recession and there is a lot of recovering to do. My career has not gone as smooth as I expected, but with each challenge / failure / success I have learned lessons. I am better now than I was yesterday and hope to be better again tomorrow.
For anyone interested in a career in architecture, the road is long. There are lots of things that could happen that will help or hurt your efforts. I challenge you to find your passion, be true to yourself, and follow your dream. Listen for those inspirations like Sam Mockbee or Ray Gaines that might change your path. However, most of all listen to your heart.