On the Road with Alexis McKinney, AIA, LEED AP

by Noelle Heinze

July/Aug 2012 Texas Architect

Although McKinney can’t reveal many details, she manages to give a compelling tour while graciously deflecting questions that compromise the owner’s request for privacy. It’s a perfect example of her ability to balance competing interests and successfully accomplish the task at hand.

A graduate of Texas A&M University and a recently licensed architect, McKinney practices with the award-winning Houston firm Bailey Architects, where she specializes in historic projects. She credits travel (as a young child her parents took her to Taliesin West) and art history for her interest in architecture. “I didn’t think about being an architect until I took an art history course in high school,” she says. “I have a visual memory, so I found it really interesting. I like stories, and in art history there is a story behind each piece. By the end of the course, I knew I wanted to pursue architecture.”

McKinney, who completed both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at A&M, became interested in historic buildings through the university’s Center for Heritage Conservation, which was established by esteemed preservation architect and now emeritus director David Woodcock, FAIA. She was involved in several of the center’s research projects, including documentation of the Pointe du Hoc site in France with a 3-D laser scanner and with hand drawings that meet the Library of Congress Historic American Buildings Survey standard. “I did that over a couple of years and was able to be employed on the project during graduate school,” she says. “It was a unique and wonderful experience.”

McKinney also travelled to China on a fellowship the summer before the 2008 Olympics and was able to see the construction and redevelopment of the districts. “Because of AIAS connections, I knew of this fellowship and asked professors what I needed to do, what I needed to develop, and how I could present my application in a way that it would be awarded the travel grant,” she says. “I think I’ve tried to make the most out of the opportunities I’ve heard about.”

After graduation, McKinney and her husband, a meteorologist, moved to Galveston in 2008 but were forced to relocate to Houston after losing half their belongings as Hurricane Ike hit the island in September. She was drawn to Bailey Architects both because of the historic projects they work on and also because it’s not the main focus of the firm. “It’s a small portion of the work,” she says, “and there are opportunities for variation. So it’s not always preservation, or libraries, or liturgical projects; it’s a mix.” She adds that, to be a well-rounded architect, she feels it’s important to know what new construction looks like for different project types.

In addition to the downtown Houston houses, McKinney is working on the update of an existing Caddo heritage museum in Alto, Texas, and restoration of a 1918 administration building at Camp Mabry in Austin. The museum project in Alto, a state historic site overseen by the Texas Historical Commission, includes adding new exhibit space and accessible restrooms, along with interesting design elements — such as transparent display window imagery — that puts the focus less on artifacts and more on the Caddo people themselves. “Nothing’s been done since the museum was built in the 70s, so there’s a lot that we need to do to update it,” says McKinney.

Days later the scene shifts to Austin’s Camp Mabry, where McKinney is working again with Moorhead, an associate principal at Bailey who leads the firm’s preservation/restoration work. “Alexis is so smart and talented, and she learns quickly,” Moorhead says. “She has a very good focus and a perfect education to match it. She has a great career ahead of her.”

Her focus on this day at Camp Mabry is a project that involves restoring and updating Building 1, which is similar to two other buildings the firm has already completed on the site. The Administration building has a masonry exterior and a wood structure for the interior. “A lot of the original structure was removed in the 70s, so we need to investigate to see how much is still there,” McKinney says. “Many of the columns were taken out and replaced with bearing walls, so we’ll be removing those bearing walls and putting columns back in.” She is motivated by the satisfaction that will come with restoring the building’s original light quality and transparency, which has been compromised over the years from several interior renovations.

On the road back to Houston there is time to focus on a busy schedule that goes beyond work to include active involvement in her community and with other architecture professionals, especially the Historic Resources committees at the chapter and state level. “These committees focus on raising awareness of historic properties and their value,” she says. “We even try to educate other AIA members about the value of existing buildings as candidates for sustainable re-use and rehabilitation. Or as assets with cultural value or that contribute to a sense of place.”

McKinney is pleased that her firm supports her professional involvement at the state and local levels because she has always been an enthusiastic participant in extracurricular activities. “At school I was the AIAS president, and I’m used to being involved,” she says. “I see how it helped enrich my school experience and helped me to form relationships — and that was crucial to finding a job in preservation, because those positions are few.” Now that she is “fresh out of school and in a new city,” Alexis sees her participation in AIA and Texas Architects activities as “a great way to meet other people and other professionals.”

Three years since her graduation, McKinney is aware of only a few friends she went to school with who have also become licensed as architects. “I think pursuing registration is one of the first things you do that’s not part of a scheduled program,” she says. “In school, they have tests scheduled or project deadlines, but this is something that is completely up to you, and the office isn’t going to tell you when you have to have it done. I think a lot of people have trouble staying focused.” For McKinney, that’s clearly not a problem.

Noelle Heinze is assistant editor of Texas Architect.