Another individual who has pursued a related career to architecture!

Adapt, Grow, Prosper

Joseph Nickol, AICP, LEED AP BD + C

Urbanist, Urban Design Associates

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Why did you initially pursue architecture?

Oddly enough, I chose architecture to build stadia and airports. They always seemed to me (in my child-mind) as quite simply the coolest (therefore the most important) building types.

Why did you decide to choose the school you did – University of Notre Dame?  What degree(s) do you possess? 

Notre Dame is one of the few schools that use classical architecture as a vehicle for building a rock-solid basis for building design. Even as a young person, this resonated with me at a basic, intuitive level. I distinctly remember thinking that I could go there to get a practical education based in reality. Looking back, it is strange to see how avant-garde it was to think that tradition was the key to learning how we might build new.

As the project manager of Urban Design Associates, what are your primary responsibilities and duties?  Please describe a typical day.

Although raised a detail guy, I now am hyper-specialized in being a generalist. I lead a diverse team of creative-types that include architects, planners, landscape architects, artists, engineers, economists, developers, and graphic designers. My chief role, beyond management of people, is to focus the efforts of the team on reaching our objectives in the most ethical, responsible, practical, and economical fashion while never losing site of both our own and our patron/client/customer’s aspirations, hopes, and goals.

Calgary East Village, Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Architect: Urban Design Associates.

In 2010, you co-founded www.Street-Sense.org; what is its focus and why did it start it?

A colleague of mine left Pittsburgh about a year beforehand. We always maintained a strong friendship and correspondence (mostly through email and phone calls) about what we were seeing around us. These conversations slowly evolved into an online platform for sharing our conversation with a much broader audience. Street-Sense is now a multi-disciplinary look at the challenges and opportunities that our cities, towns, and countrysides are facing.

It is based on the principle that the design of our environments cannot be left simply to architects and engineers. On the contrary, what is around us is a product of every discipline working, or not working, together to create the most practical response to the needs of a society. Our open panel of contributors includes architects, urbanists, economists, developers, financiers, lawyers, and engineers. The goal is to make connections where there often is none. By making uncommon links we arrive at common sense solutions to adapt, grow, and prosper in an ever-evolving world. Our approach relies on the principles of thrift “that which cause a ramifying series of solutions.” — Wendell Berry

Since launching, we have begun our most important initiative to-date in uncovering what have come to be called Investment Ready Places. These are the towns and cities dotting our country that are large enough to matter and small enough to attract meaningful change. Their return to a strong and robust form will be among our generation’s greatest opportunities.

How and why did you pursue what might be considered a career path beyond architecture?

The reason is probably equal parts interests and need. I had always thought of building in terms of assemblage. What are the relationships between seemingly unrelated subjects? How does the way we organize ourselves in the landscape and in cities affect our ability to adapt to an unpredictable world or come together to celebrate traditions and living? How do buildings come together in a way that is understandable to someone who does not easily read plans, elevations, or sections? And so it is that I came to love urbanism as the melding together of such a diverse array of overlapping influences.

But there was also a market need that fueled a basic entrepreneurial spirit within. Even in school I could see how the myopia in which many in the field looked at their responsibilities was causing wide spread unintended consequences that could not be adequately addressed in single building programs. This is not to say that building architects, draftsmen, and civil engineers do not have a role. They are critical and indisposable. The trick—and the need—is in finding creative and supportive means to pull it all together to create vibrant, magical places that endure.

What has been your greatest challenge during your professional career?

Dealing with the loss of trust in those that used to rule the building site: the foreman, craftsman, artisans, and empiricists. For example the Golden-Gate Bridge was built off a drawing set of less than a hundred sheets because everyone from the chief engineers to the welder had a skill that could reasonably be expected to perform. My parents’ house built in 2007 (one built in a traditional vernacular with little complexity), on the other hand, took at least as many sheets as the far more complex bridge. This is unsustainable. Finding the balance of what should be set on the drafting table (or computer) and what should or could be determined by those in the field is our challenge and a fantastic opportunity to collaborate.

What is the most / least satisfying part of your position / career?

The most satisfying part is solving problems in a practical and beautiful way with the clients and customers at our side and the builders in the room. The least satisfying is how easily this can get short-cutted out of the design process.

Who or what experience has been a major influence on your career?

Katrina, the 2008 Recession, and living in the neighborhoods of Pittsburgh all taught me lessons too important to be ignored. Jane Jacobs, William Whyte, Wendell Berry, Nassim Teleb, Ray Gindroz, Andres Duany, and Richard Florida have all been key to understanding the power of observation to drive design responses. I am very fortunate to have a talented team at Urban Design Associates, a creative group of friends interested in everything from fly fishing to macro-economics, and an amazing wife and family that helps make sense of it all.

Do you still consider yourself as an architect?

Now more than ever.

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