Creating Community with Ardis Clinton, AIA

It was another hot Texas July — many in the Perkins+Will Houston office were at their desks seeking shelter from the scorching day. As they studiously focused on their work, the office was almost silent. Suddenly their thoughts were interrupted by the clanging bell of … wait, was that the sound of an ice cream truck?

Down the studio floor came an ice cream cooler on a dolly. It was filled with traditional frozen treats like Drumsticks and Eskimo Pies, and an old-fashioned ice cream jingle played over a phone. Ardis Clinton, AIA, had decided that things were too stale in the office and took it upon herself to lighten things up.

“I like doing things that help boost the sense of community around me,” says Ardis. Now approaching her tenth anniversary at Perkins+Will, Ardis started there as an intern shortly after earning her B.Arch. from the University of Houston. She worked her way up to project manager and associate by impressing her superiors with her diligence, dedication, and almost uncanny ability to deliver even in the face of considerable challenges. Dave Mueller, managing director of the office, has been among her most encouraging mentors at the firm. “Whatever I ask Ardis to do, she does it in a big way,” he says.

When tasked by the networking group WISER (Women In Sales Executive Roles) last year to find a dynamic speaker to address work/life balance issues, Ardis delivered Houston Mayor Annise Parker. Having cut her teeth at work on projects that were complex both technically and in terms of customer/shareholder diplomacy, like the Galveston National Laboratory biodefense facility and a new private aviation terminal at Houston Hobby Airport, Ardis is adept at both solving tectonic and formal problems and addressing the human management component that often accompanies them.

Ardis’ focus on social intelligence is not limited to client interactions and networking. Taking a lead in coordinating Learning and Development activities for Perkins+Will, she has also found herself drawn to supporting the growth of new architecture professionals. “Both inside and out of the office,” says Ardis, “I work with architectural interns in assisting with acquiring their licensure.” From her involvement with the AIA Young Architects Forum and Intern Association Network to mentoring student design competitions and organizing intra-office charity contributions, Ardis is recognized for having contributed significantly to the life of the firm. According to Dave, she creates meaningful educational opportunities for interns and veteran colleagues who struggle to accumulate and maintain mandated education units,” and she “constantly explores vendors and specialists who can give insight into new products and techniques to enhance sustainability.”

“She is largely responsible for creating a great office environment where work deadlines are well balanced with community efforts and team social gatherings,” says associate principal Filo Castore, AIA. “Ardis is one of the most versatile young architects out there. She is capable of multi-tasking very well and has a great general sense of both ultimate goals and immediate details.”

It is this combination of general and detail-oriented focus that led Ardis to start transitioning her work over the past few years from technical projects to higher education. “My passion lies in the belief that the buildings I work on are for the greater good,” says Ardis. “I chose higher education because a building can foster greater potential in students. It becomes a vessel inspiring collaboration and creativity.” 

And she’s off to an impressive start. The new Student Center for Lone Star College she designed earned her a 2012 Apex Award. Also, when she was tasked less than two years ago with increasing higher education work for Perkins+Will in South Texas, one of her cold calls resulted in a new $25 million science center project for a private university. Last September Ardis worked alongside industry leaders to lead a team of architecture students at the University of Houston in a two-day charrette hosted by Archifarm; the resulting conceptual design is to be used by the Houston Blues Museum as a tool to raise funds for future growth.

Like many of those in the generation to enter practice since 2000, Ardis combines a strong drive to achieve greater relevance in her work with a willingness to buckle down and take on the hard work necessary to get there. But for many young women in architecture, as in other professions, the hard work gets even more complicated when a punishing professional schedule comes head to head with raising a family. 

In response to the challenges of juggling office expectations in the larger firms with feeding schedules and daycare, many female colleagues have left the firm environment for an independent practice, gaining autonomy but, for some, limiting the type of projects they are likely to secure.

As the gender gap closes, though, this generation seems to be doing a particularly good job of balancing responsibilities between partners. In this respect, Ardis and her husband, Alex Clinton, stand as an excellent example of what is possible in a truly integrated personal/professional relationship. The two met at Perkins+Will not long after Ardis started there in 2003, and after a year and a half of semi-clandestine dating, they were married. While this pattern is not uncommon, especially given the all-or-nothing nature of architectural practice, the fact that they have managed to stay together in the same firm is unusual.

According to Alex, “We’ve seen two similar in-house romances lead to marriage; the individuals eventually moved on to other firms and different firms from one another. We’re still hanging in there in the same office. The principals make an effort to keep us from working on the same project together, and we are kept at relatively opposite ends of the office to help maintain our individuality a bit.”

Staying apart during the workday may be even more important to the Clintons now that they are raising twin sons. Since Aron and Aden’s arrival four years ago, the hours in the HOV lane commuting to and from the office are essential coordination time for this ambitious and busy pair. “Communication is critical,” says Alex. “We each know what the other is working on and can appreciate all of the demands. If one of us needs to work over the weekend to get a project out the door or meet a milestone, the other one steps up and takes care of business on the home front. It’s definitely a team effort and not without its challenges.”

Whether the Clintons’ open willingness to work as a team on domestic matters represents a cultural shift in the architectural profession remains to be seen. Certainly, Ardis finds her focus more on social and community relevance than on overcoming gender challenges at work; and this, one hopes, may make her an outstanding example of the contributions her generation will be making to the field at large.

Constance Adams, AIA, practices architecture for civil and commercial space exploration and was Ardis Clinton’s studio professor at the University of Houston.

Published in Texas Architect March/April 2013.