The Journey is the Destination
Kevin Sneed, FAIA, IIDA, NOMA, LEED AP BD + C
Partner / Senior Director of Architecture, OTJ Architects, LLC
Washington, District of Columbia
Why did you become an architect?
I had a specific interest in design and drawing at a young age. Early on my career counselor – my grandmother – introduced me to architecture and how it contributes to the community and its surroundings. She also explained to me how architects had an obligation to participate in the community using the talents they developed at school and in their work. The very notion that architecture provided such a breadth of opportunity for giving back was a major component of what drew me to being an architect.
Why did you decide to choose the school you did – University of Texas at Arlington? What degree(s) do you possess?
I attended Skyline High School Career Development Center, which is a four-year architecture magnet school program. In part, I followed some of my friends from Skyline when I chose to attend the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) School of Architecture. I also chose UTA based upon its location (specifically, its proximity to my family), and its reputation relative to the other schools of architecture in the southwest region. I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Architecture, and a minor in art history.
As the Partner/Senior Director of Architecture at OTJ Architects, what are your primary responsibilities and duties? Please describe a typical day.
As Senior Director of Architecture, I am responsible for the quality assurance/quality control plan of my office. This entails instituting policies and procedures to guide projects through all phases of design, into the production of contract documents, and on through construction administration. I organize and execute “lesson learned” presentations that help educate our staff on issues of construction administration practice, current building codes, and permits.
In addition, I also am a team leader on several projects, assisting in overall in project delivery. I participate in my studio’s interviews and presentations to clients and brokers, providing technical expertise to assist in winning complex projects. To strengthen existing firm relationships, as a senior-level representative of OTJ Architects I act as a resource to brokers, developers, and other real estate professionals on issues associated with my particular areas of expertise.
A typical day in my office starts with answering a variety of questions regarding the building codes and/or zoning ordinances before arriving to work. Once in the office, I am bombarded with issues regarding questions from permit expeditors and local permit plan reviewers on projects that are in the permitting review process. I attend construction progress meetings on site, and also prepare for other meetings with clients regarding the programming and design development phases. Explaining to commercial real brokers and facility managers the difference between a single tenant core factor versus a multi-tenant core factor is a common theme. On a good day, I make it back home before my son goes to sleep, and I start the same ritual the following day.
As a co-author of Significant Interiors, can you define “interior architecture” and to what extent architects should know it?
For the book “Significant Interiors” the Interior Architecture Knowledge Community—which is part of the AIA—wanted to have a book that highlighted award winning designs from the Interiors categories of the AIA National Design Awards within a five year period. We created the book to be used as a text book for schools of both interior design and architecture. The process of participating in the creation of this book made me both realize the extent of the overlap between the architecture and the interiors realm, and to understand the difference between the two disciplines.
The proper use of the term “interior architect” has been debated heavily for the past several years in the architectural industry. It has been used as part of the professional titles, incorporated in the name of school programs, and to the names of professional offices. I believe the decision is heading into a direction that will require a separation in the practice with respect to both one’s training, and their experience, in order to maintain a high standard of care and service to our clients.
Simply put, my definition of an interior architect is an architect who creates commercial interior spaces. An interior architect has experience in the technical mechanics and systems of the interior built environment as well as knowledge of the health, safety and welfare concerns specific to the interior environment. Understanding the complexities of an interiors project’s interface with the existing building shell’s structure and mechanical/electrical/plumbing systems are vital to the completion of a successful project. A subspecialty within the architectural profession, interior architects also have an in-depth understanding of, and experience with, the fine-grained scale and concerns of a project as it interfaces directly with a space’s occupants.
"Simply put, my definition of an interior architect is an architect who creates commercial interior spaces."
During your career, you have been overly involved with both the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA); why are you involved and how has your career benefited?
Due to a past economic recession, I left Texas for the Washington, DC metropolitan area. I made this change in part knowing that this would present unique opportunities to learn more about the politics driving the architectural profession. Once I arrived in DC I wanted to be part of an organization that had colleagues with like minds and similar interests, and would provide me the chance to support my goals of making a difference in my community.
I joined the AIA Northern Virginia Chapter and started as a committee member of the AIA Associate/Young Architects Committee. My participation in that committee consisted of community involvement, encouragement of participation in the architecture registration exam (ARE), tours of construction sites, and recognition of the importance of young architects in design by helping to create the Young Architects awards.
One of my favorite community programs was my chapter’s ARCHES (Architects in Elementary Schools) program that helps to educate elementary school kids about architecture. During my time with the Associate/Young Architects committee it was recognized as a model for other Young Architect Committees within the AIA. I also wanted to be involved in increasing minority involvement in the AIA. I accomplished this by first becoming the chair of the AIA National Minority Resource Committee, and this led to my participation with the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA).
The Associate/Young Architects committee was a stepping stone to other opportunities in my chapter—from heading the design awards event, to participation as a board member, to eventual election as president of my chapter. My collective participation with the AIA local, state and national chapters led to mY becoming the first of two recipients of the AIA National Young Architects Award for my chapter. This recognition of my leadership outside of the workplace also led to opportunities in my professional life, and my rise from project manager to a partnership position in my firm.
As a recipient of the DC- NOMA Lankford Giles Vaughn Minority Architect Award, why is diversity in the profession important? What can the profession do to increase the number of minorities to pursue the profession?
Through my participation with the AIA & NOMA on a local, state and national level I became the first recipient of the DC NOMA Lankford-Giles-Vaughn Minority Architect Award. This award was created to honor current practitioners, while also acknowledging the architectural legacy of Washington, DC’s pioneering African American architects.
In looking back upon this legacy, I see a continuing need to devote focused attention toward increasing the diversity of our profession—the job is far from complete. While I have personally committed to add this diversity by increasing awareness of the profession in the minority community, I feel that the profile and presence of the profession in that community is still lagging. The participation and licensure of both women (11%) and African Americans (2%) in the profession still trails behind what we should reasonably expect to see given the diversity of our society. I believe that in any profession or industry whose membership does not reflect the demographics of its society, there must be a serious problem. The lack of diversity in the architectural profession impedes progress not only in the field, but also in society as a whole. As long as this participation in the profession lags, the profession and our society suffer from an ignorance of the unique perspectives, criticisms, and improvements to our built environment minority architects are uniquely poised to provide.
"The lack of diversity in the architectural profession impedes progress not only in the field, but also in society as a whole."
I feel one of the best ways to improve or increase in diversity in architecture is to start at the elementary and high school level. Particularly because the process of becoming an architect starts so early, so quickly after secondary school, is important to ensure that minorities within the profession provide children and younger members of society with concrete examples of, and opportunities to interact with, architects who have completed that journey. By providing the younger generation the opportunity to connect directly with a member of the profession, to ask questions about our practice and spark interest in the creation of the built environment, we can make the idea that they, too, can become an architect seem far more of a possible and attainable goal.
What has been your greatest challenge as an architect?
My greatest challenge is balancing my professional life with my family/personal life, and to provide each with the time and effort required to keep both aspects of my life thriving and strong.
What is the most/least satisfying part of being an architect?
The most satisfying aspect of being part of the design process is seeing the completion of a project—the excitement of the client moving into the space, as well as my own excitement at seeing plans and sketches become a reality.
Also, as so much of my professional work is involved in mentoring and guiding processes in the office, seeing a young colleague reaching that “I get this” moment from drawing details or hardware schedule from a time that I taught them in the past is very rewarding. I am honored and flattered when I can extend my expertise to someone who needs it.
The least rewarding is seeing a client who just not willing to open their minds to the architectural process—those who refuse to see the possibilities in a project, to contribute their expertise to it, and sometimes even refuse to allow others to contribute toward leading the project to a successful conclusion.
Who or what experience has been a major influence on your career?
My participation in the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and the International Interior Design Association (IIDA) is a major influence in my career. In addition to providing critical mentoring opportunities, they have helped elevate me to be a leader in the profession.