DARING TO LEAD
Shannon Kraus, FAIA, ACHA, MBA
Principal and Senior Vice-President
Washington, District of Columbia
Why and how did you become an architect?
I became an architect simply because it was a lifelong goal. A life’s goal achieved. A passion delivered. It was something I set my mind on from the time I was in fourth grade when the only class I had true interest in was art; my mother had the vision to open my mind to architecture as an occupation that would fit my interests.
It was through art and imagination that I could express myself. I did this through the pictures I would draw, the models I would build, and the forts I would enlist the neighborhood kids to help construct. From there, becoming an architect simply felt right.
However, in the end I did become an architect to make a difference. While I pursued architecture because that is where I could express myself, I have found that what I enjoy most about this amazing profession is having the ability to work with diverse groups of people to solve complex problems so that others can fulfill their dreams—thus really making a difference by turning vision to reality.
From my first day on campus at Southern Illinois University (SIU) to gaining registration as an architect in the state of Texas, my journey took approximately 12 years—four years of undergraduate work, one year as American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS) vice president, three years in graduate school for the Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) and Master of Architecture, and four years of internship at RTKL finished concurrently with the A.R.E. spread over 18 months.
Why and how did you decide on which school to attend for your architecture degree? What degree(s) do you possess?
Coming out of McArthur High School in the central Illinois town of Decatur, with the ambition to pursue architecture, I found myself at a small, but terrific undergraduate program at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. How I ended up there was primarily the result of not enough information, and economics. They had a four-year architecture program, and it was less expensive than most any other school in the area. What I did not know was that the reason it was less expensive was because their architecture program was not accredited. In the end, this turned to be a blessing—SIU was one of the best, if not luckiest, decisions I made.
Through SIU I learned the art of architecture. I learned to think, draw, paint, sketch, and resolve complex variables into rational solutions. While not known for design, the school was heavily based in the fundamentals, including learning how buildings go together—more so than most schools cover. My education at SIU provided me with the best foundation for becoming an architect I could have asked for.
For graduate school I ultimately chose the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Having just completed my term as national vice president of the American Institute of Architecture Students, a full-time job in DC following my undergraduate studies, I came to realize that the single biggest gap in the amazingly rich and diverse education that architecture provides was business. As such, I chose to apply to universities where I could also attend business school—a decision that ultimately led into my acceptance into the school of architecture and the school of business at the University of Illinois, where I graduated summa cum laude with a Master in Business Administration, and a Master in Architecture. Where the M.B.A. equipped me to think more holistically about business, and refined my communications skills, the M.Arch. filled in the remaining gaps with a curriculum more focused on design and design theory.
Reflecting back on how I chose the schools I did, I do believe that the profession does not have an adequate guidance system for assisting students interested in architecture. I say this because in many ways the school you choose will ultimately go a long way towards determining the type of professional you become.
"the school you choose will ultimately go a long way towards determining the type of professional you become."
What has been your greatest challenge as an architect?
My view on this has evolved. Early In my career it was definitely Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, Israel due to the inherent social, political and physical challenges of the location. However now it would have to be managing an office and region of our global practice. Architecture school doesn't quite prepare you for office management and all that goes with it: mentoring, performance reviews, project staffing, recruiting, strategic marketing and business planning. In many ways it is like being the general manager of a professional sports team where you look for new talent, look to mentor and coach your existing talent in order to position them to succeed and outperform your competitors. The biggest challenge, what keeps me awake at night, is making sure I am doing all I can not only to provide great project opportunities for my staff, but to bring enough project opportunities to keep everyone productive and employed--while doing so by shaping a studio culture within which any individual can thrive and is inspired to be entrepreneurial and innovative. Before my concerns centered around what I could do to improve a project, now my responsibility is to approximately 75 direct reports and their families.
Why did you pursue two graduate degrees—Master of Architecture and Master of Business Administration—during your graduate studies?
I believe in the notion that an architect is a generalist. The architectural education is extremely comprehensive and provides the foundation suitable for many careers; however, business seemed to be the one missing ingredient.
After serving as AIAS national vice president, I quickly came to realize that architecture is a business and that there was much more to learn—so I decided to go back to school and round out my education by earning an M.B.A. in addition to the Master of Architecture. After speaking with others, I also knew that if I were to ever pursue the M.B.A., the time to do it was then—as there were no guarantees that such an opportunity would be available later in life.
Ultimately I felt the M.B.A. would help me simply by providing additional tools for me to draw upon. However, in addition to the business skills, the M.B.A. had many other benefits that I did not anticipate. The program I went through proved valuable in helping me to hone my communication skills, problem-solving ability, and leadership skills. In many ways, the business degree was not as much about accounting or finance as it was about maximizing resources and leadership.
As one of the youngest vice presidents in the history of the AIA, what would you say was your most significant achievement?
During my tenure as AIA Vice President I had the fortune of being involved in several meaningful things that I feel truly help the profession. One of the most significant was working with my fellow executive committee members to help the AIA craft and adopt a policy supporting the 2030 Challenge. Other milestones include the development of a national ARE scholarship, as well as the creation of a National Research fund for evidence-based design. My goal as vice president was simply to have made a difference—to have a positive impact on the evolution of the institute, no matter how small. In doing this, it is now my hope that others are as passionate about the profession as I am will be similarly encouraged to get engaged and get involved.
As a relatively young architect in a large firm, what are your primary responsibilities and duties?
Currently I am for the managing director of a 35-person office and am the regional director for our mid-Atlantic and east coast region that encompasses around 75 staff. My responsibilities include not only developing our healthcare practice by bringing in new work and working with clients to deliver those projects, but it also now includes managing the office culture, empowering young staff to take on leadership roles, hiring and performance reviews, and mentoring. I took on this role after serving as director of design for about five years in two different offices. That role would include serving as the senior design lead on multiple projects, cultivating new work, working with clients to deliver on their expectations, and working with the team to adequately staff projects, develop talent, and nurture new leaders.
Some of my recent projects include Shore Health Medical Center, University of Connecticut John Dempsey Tower, Ahuja Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio; and Flower Mound Hospital in Flower Mound, Texas. In all of these projects, regardless of my role, my goal is to understand the clients’ needs, listen to their dreams, and work with them to identify innovative design solutions that they can implement on time and on budget.
What is the most satisfying part of your career as an architect?
Without a doubt the most satisfying part of my career has been helping others succeed. Knowing you helped recruit someone into the practice, helped influence their career, empowered them, and then witness them begin to take off on their own successful career is quite invigorating. This really is more than mentoring; it is for me the essence of leadership. Mentoring programs come and go, but empowering others to succeed and investing in their development is to me the responsibility of every firm and should happen regardless of any formal mentoring. Second to this is seeing projects you pour your heart and soul into get built. When you are pursuing something you love and look forward to, there is not a greater feeling in the world than to see not only your vision realized but that of your team and client.
What is the most important quality or skill of a healthcare designer?
Patience, communication, and knowledge are the most important skill sets of a designer in healthcare, or any area for that matter. As a programmer and designer in healthcare, we work directly with clients, physicians, nurses, equipment specialist, contractors, builders, project managers, and business leaders. In each case, the architect must be knowledgeable enough of the subject matter being programmed to effectively communicate in the language of the particular user being met with. Most issues and challenges are the result of poor communication, so having the patience to work through misconceptions and differences of opinions is key to resolving issues as you develop a program or a project design solution. The knowledge of healthcare facilities comes through trial and error, is learned more on the job than in school. You have to be “heads-up” in the office, seek out every opportunity to participate in a meeting or go on a tour.
What has been your most rewarding endeavor as a professional?
Having a hand in the creation of the HKS Design Fellowship is so far my most rewarding endeavor as a professional. In 2006, motivated by a desire to empower architects in the community while also linking young architects with political leaders to solve community challenges all at the same time I initiated the first HKS design Fellowship. The program, run and led by emerging architects, features a social or community problem that would benefit from a three-day design charrette intervention. The results then are offered to local leaders, related community organizations at no cost to them.
The program has expanded opportunities for the firm’s young professionals by giving them direct client experience, and speaking opportunities. It also works well with civic leaders to show how good design can be used to solve challenges and shape communities. For the first two years, HKS focused on projects in Dallas. Since then the program has expanded to be offered each year in DC, Detroit, Dallas and Atlanta and now includes students partnering with interns in charrette teams that from over 20 architecture schools.