Architects Talking to Architects: James Haliburton, AIA

James Haliburton, AIA, is a partner at SZH Architecture in Bryan and is a lecturer at Texas A&M University. He enjoys writing in the third person, riding motorcycles, playing contact sports, engaging in witty banter, and being a dad.

James Haliburton, AIA – courtesy James Haliburton

Do you listen to music when designing? What kind?

I listen to music constantly. Sometimes the music is coming from speakers, and sometimes it is just in my head. When I’m entrenched in creative activities, I usually waffle between music with a fast beat with lyrics that are full of angst and classical music. When I’m performing meaningless tasks that I haven’t yet figured out how to program my computer to accomplish, I prefer to listen to podcasts, news broadcasts, or audiobooks.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Amarillo. While not known for architecture, Amarillo has one really tall building. The city is now home to an award-winning building that mimics the Palo Duro Canyon. I pass this building each time I enter and leave Amarillo, and each time, I wonder if the people of Canyon, Texas, located 15 miles south of Amarillo, feel slighted that this fantastic building was not built in their town since the town was named for the geological feature from which the building drew inspiration.

The Texas Panhandle is flat — very, very flat. The canyon provides an interesting contradiction. I believe the landscape and my years growing up in it influenced my world view. It can be an unforgiving place, but it contains extremely beautiful features.

Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle – courtesy James Haliburton

If you were not an architect, what other profession would you have pursued?

When I decided to go to architecture school, I did not realize there were so many other professions from which to choose. I grew up in Amarillo after all — cowboy was a legitimate career choice, and I had experience.

It could be said architecture was forced on me, but I have no regrets. If I had to do it all over again and could choose a different profession, I would have been a scientist, lawyer, or superhero. I know one of those is not a real job, but don’t tell lawyers: they would get very offended.

Science and technology is reshaping our world daily. As architects, we are in the unique position to leverage innovations in those fields and positively impact the built environment. So, in all honesty, I’m not sure I would have pursued a different profession. I might have arrived at architecture by a different, more diverse route.

Pen, pencil, or computer?

I believe each one of these has its place. When I do carpentry work or need a small projectile that will stick in ACT: pencil.

I love pens. I use my favorite pen to do many, many sketches and solve more abstract problems, as well as to write checks. If you wrote checks in pencil, then someone could change the numbers: bad idea. I don’t really use checks that much anymore; I think they’re going away in favor of more technological means of money transfer.

For everything else, I use a computer. I use the machine that solves analytical, spatial, and extremely complex problems. The machine that I can have perform menial repeatable tasks. Unlike a pen, which still won’t write thank you notes for me. I do not think that architecture can make a distinction between the importance of using a computer over pen or vice versa. The design process requires one as much as the other. The creation of the dichotomy is simply a mechanism for discourse. Somewhat like the television channel TNT knows drama — compelling shows, but ultimately created for the tension.

The profession of architecture finds itself in a unique moment in the continuum in which it realizes the long-term effect of the tiny little steps. I don’t think the pen will ever replace the computer, but it will become harmonious with it in the near future. Look at medicine: Doctors still use prescription pads, and we still can’t read their handwriting. But some just enter that information in the computer, and it automatically goes to the pharmacy where your medicine is waiting for you. Doctors don’t lament the loss of the pen in the delivery of their professional services. They don’t extol the virtues of being able to quickly and loosely sketch out the instrument of their service. They embrace that which best serves their clients. Although, many doctors I know still collect very fine pens — I like those doctors.

Using pen to create sketches to solve complex problems – courtesy James Haliburton

What type of advice would you offer to young professionals?

I would offer hours and hours of advice to young professionals for free, and it would be worth what they paid for it (mostly). One of my favorite quotes pursuant to this question is from the British author Douglass Adams. “Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.”

It is a human instinct to conquer the world on our own. So, my advice to young professionals is to resist this instinct and pay attention to every detail of what goes on around you. Ask questions about everything you don’t understand — it all matters. In the end, do this with a goal in mind and doggedly pursue that goal. When you accomplish it, move on to another. If you don’t accomplish it, be honest about why, learn from that, and move on. Life is far too short to wallow in fleeting moments.

Architect’s aren’t known for their hobbies … do you have one?

Yes — learning things. I am fascinated by all things mechanical and have delusions I can fix motorcycles. I have training as a carpenter. Occasionally, by a sheer necessity born of disgust with most furniture design, I am forced to craft useable items in my life. I am perplexed by computer programming, which only drives me to try to know more about it. I read as much as time allows. I am also addicted to the endorphin releases brought about by exercise and playing rugby.

Although, the biggest hobby I have (if you define hobby as something done outside time spent at work) is being a dad. It is the most challenging and rewarding thing in my life, and being a dad teaches me new things daily. I have a beautiful daughter, whom I love very much and of whom I am very, very proud. 

My daughter and I – courtesy James Haliburton

"Architects Talking to Architects" is a column on the Texas Society of Architects blog that spotlights members from across the state at different points of development in their career. All participants are given the same set of questions with instructions to answer any six, giving them the opportunity to highlight the items they feel are most interesting. Is there someone you'd like to see featured in "Architects Talking to Architects?" Email communications@texasarchitects.org to let us know.