Talking Shop with Four Under 40

Career building, like any other kind of building, can be a tricky business, but these four under 40 are making their way by starting new firms and building leadership in small communities.

Four Under 40: Nicole Mlakar and Julie Pizzo Wood
Brantley Hightower, AIA, Elizabeth Price, AIA, Karen Lantz, AIA, and Sarah Gamble are pictured at St. Edward’s University.
Brantley Hightower, AIA, is shown in his HiWorks office. He likes that the flexibility of running his own firm allows him to seek out creative and strategic partnerships.
Sarah Gamble is pictured in Doyle Hall at St. Edward’s University, a project she completed while working at Specht Harpman Architects in 2009.
Karen Lantz, AIA, is shown in her Houston home, which she designed and built with the goal of using only products and materials made in the U.S. The project caught the attention of The New York Times.
Elizabeth Price, AIA, is pictured in the Brenham office of Upchurch Architects. Working in a small town allows her to be engaged closely with clients and the community, and these interactions fuel her work.

Today, the never-ending advent of technological innovations makes entrepreneurship and leadership more accessible. Cloud computing, total connectivity, and unknowable amounts of information are available at the swipe of a little glass screen, anytime, anywhere. Even as we do more with finite time and resources, the scope and potential of the work continues to broaden. These four young professionals demonstrate that starting your own firm is not always a singular path and that community leadership can go hand in hand with one’s practice. 

Brantley Hightower, AIA, spent much of his early career asking the question, How is architecture relevant? The founder of HiWorks in San Antonio, Hightower knew in the second grade that he wanted to be an architect, and his career followed a charted course: After earning his undergraduate degree, he worked at established firms like Perkins+Will in Chicago and Lake|Flato Architects before heading to Princeton University to earn his master’s degree. But the day came when that early question demanded his full attention, and he took the plunge, opening his own firm in late 2012. 

“Making architecture more accessible became part of the business plan,” he said. “How can we serve larger portions of the population and be understood to be more than just the designers of expensive, pretty things?” Part of that effort is not only to take on a diversity of projects for a wide range of clients but also to continually explore how the public relates to the built environment. As an adjunct professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, Hightower has developed a course to help non-architecture students learn about the design of the places in which they live, work, and play. He also explores the impact of architecture through writing; Hightower’s byline can be seen in Texas Architect as well as online at the Rivard Report, an independent journal in San Antonio. His first book, “The Courthouses of Central Texas” (University of Texas Press), will arrive in 2015. 

Hightower noted that planning for his professional future is like trying to predict what his children will be like when they grow up. He can guide and prepare, but essentially it’s unknowable where the work will take him. “Every day a business grows, it becomes less flexible, so I am enjoying this phase and trying to take advantage of as many opportunities as possible,” he said. 

For Sarah Gamble, partner at Austin’s GO collaborative, being in control of her time and focus is definitely liberating. But starting her own business was more than just the appealing idea of a flexible schedule. “I wanted to learn how to start a business,” she said. “I’ve found that entrepreneurship is challenging and that it has a huge learning curve.” 

Gamble’s passion is rooted in a commitment to service and volunteerism. After an internship in Guatemala, she earned her masters’ degree at The University of Texas at Austin along with a certificate from the LBJ School of Public Affairs in nonprofit and philanthropic studies. Her interest in community service fits perfectly in the city’s notorious grassroots dynamic, and with the work of Samuel Mockbee, FAIA (1944–2001), as inspiration, Gamble began to investigate how architecture could be used for service. She went to work in Katrina-stricken New Orleans, gaining experience in grassroots organizing, design/build, nonprofit management, and client relations. Once she returned to Austin, Gamble practiced at Specht Harpman Architects and the Austin Community Design and Development Center, a nonprofit focused on providing architectural services for affordable housing. 

When the entrepreneurial bug finally got Gamble, she partnered with an urban planner trained in landscape architecture and research methods to launch GO collaborative with a view to expanding the reach of practice by operating on the fringes of related fields. They are currently working on a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) project creating an electronic storybook that includes case studies from NEA’s Our Town grant programs. This work includes conducting research using social science methods and making visits to project sites to gather feedback from stakeholders. It’s the kind of work that’s right up Gamble’s alley. “We seek out projects that are fun and interesting and make good design a priority,” she said. “I want to use my skills 

in different realms and non-traditional fields that require problem solving and creativity in unique ways.” 

Karen Lantz, AIA, uses her firm Full Circle|Enter Architecture to explore the continuum of architecture, from inception to completion. And she likes to rock the boat. “Houston is really the wild west,” said Lantz. “There’s a lot of opportunity to change people’s mindsets.” Growing up in the industrial suburbs of Houston, she drew her parents’ house in plan in sixth grade and studied the many copies of Architectural Digest on her grandmother’s coffee table. As her career got started, Lantz found herself interested in development and construction. And thanks to a strong group of mentors, from Burdette W. Keeland Jr. (1926–2000) at the University of Houston, to architectural historian Stephen Fox and Bill Stern, FAIA (1947–2013), her horizons began to expand. 

Lantz’s first development was an old ranch house that she rehabbed and then sold. “Above all else, I wanted to do my own projects,” she said. But it was more than just development and design/build that captured her imagination. Lantz practices with certain principles in mind. “When something really interests me, I want to bring attention to it — take it to an extreme level,” she said. To this end, Lantz specified only products made in the U.S. for the construction of her own house, and she is in the process of mainstreaming the idea of deconstruction. The latter is a project that began three years ago, when Lantz explored the feasibility of recycling all of the materials of an existing house that was to be razed and replaced by a new home. The process educated both Lantz and her clients about the substantial tax benefits of donating construction materials for re-use — knowledge she now incorporates into her work as a matter of course. Lantz is working with Donna Kacmar, FAIA, at University of Houston, to create the city’s first-ever deconstruction resource guide to help others adopt the process. For Lantz, sustainability and re-imagining the way architects practice is not a gimmick. “It’s not just being cool, or being a certain kind of architect,” she said. “It is an opportunity to lead in the general community.” 

Elizabeth Price, AIA, understands what it means to practice architecture in a small Texas town. “It’s a good setting for a career fueled by the power of relationships,” said Price. At Upchurch Architects in Brenham, she values the diversity of projects that cross her desk and the intimate client relationships that she has built over the years. Price also appreciates the professional network that she has established not only in Brenham and the larger Brazos County area, but also throughout the state. 

As teaching assistant to the legendary John Only Greer, FAIA, at Texas A&M University, Price learned firsthand about the value of getting engaged in the broader profession, taking on bigger issues, and building a strong network. That lesson demonstrated its worth immediately when she ran the student-sponsored career fair at Texas A&M, making connections with virtually every major firm in the state. After graduating, Price landed a job at HDR in Dallas, where she was exposed to different types of projects and developed strong relationships with mentor figures. Price also learned the ins and outs of interacting with clients and managing projects, skills that she brought with her to Brenham, where her wide-ranging, generalist portfolio is built on the kinds of one-on-one relationships that practicing in a small community requires. 

She serves on the Main Street Design Committee, where she reviews grant applications for downtown facade upgrades and signage. But it’s been Price’s involvement with the AIA that has forged her leadership strengths. As a statewide coordinator of the Intern Development Program (IDP), she crisscrossed Texas for six years helping interns approach the registration process. She counts more than a dozen leadership positions and committee roles at various levels to her name. In 2012, the Texas Society of Architects awarded Price the Caudill Award for Young Professional Achievement. For Price, the AIA provides social and professional interaction that ultimately benefits her work and her community. “My work is about seeing ways to make things better, and making connections with people,” she said. 

Canan Yetmen is an Austin-based writer. 

Published in Texas Architect November/December 2013.

by: Canan Yetmen

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