While they always strive to do their best work, architects that have a personal connection to a particular project usually provides them with added incentive. Such was the case with a project that I was involved with in the small town where I grew up. In 2007, the firm that I was a Design Principal with at the time, responded to a Request for Proposal to provide an assessment of the Town Hall and High School, which we were eventually selected for. Although I participated in the interview I wasn’t initially involved with the study phase of the project, which was completed by one of my Partners. After studying numerous options for replacements, renovations and expansions the community approved a referendum to only expand and renovate the high school. At that point my role with the project increased.
When the project started in earnest, I assumed the task of completing the design of the High School and inherited a conceptual design that had been initiated as part of the study. While the budget and main parti of the project had been established there was still a voluminous amount of design work that needed to be completed. As previously stated, the project was located in the Town where I grew up and I’m guessing that a lot of architects have had the opportunity to work on projects where they lived, some likely on the schools where they attended. Although I didn’t attend the local high school, I grew up in it. My mother worked there for almost 25 years starting when I was three years old. As we grew up, my younger brother and I became fixtures at the extra-curricular activities and sporting events that my parents attended. As we approached our high school years my parents decided to send my brother and me to a parochial school in an adjacent town since my mother was an English teacher, Curriculum Coordinator, Department Head and class advisor and we would have had her for at least 3 of the 4 years of our academic careers. I imagine that maintaining family harmony was one of the main drivers of my parent’s decision.
Like any teacher who has spent their entire career in one school my Mom devoted her life to her students and fellow faculty members. Towards the end of the school year in 1988 she started to experience aches & pains and chalked it up to arthritis. Since school was almost over she delayed going to the doctor not knowing that she had an aggressive form of cancer that was rapidly spreading throughout her body. By the time a diagnosis was made in mid-July school vacation was well underway. She passed away 6 weeks later without her co-workers or students even knowing what she had endured. The shock to our family, friends and the school community was immediate and widespread and the outpouring of sympathy was tremendous. When classes began in September the school held a memorial service and named the recently renovated library in my Mothers memory. It was a fitting tribute.
This is where the story gets germane to the topic of commitment, passion and having a personal connection to your work. Although it took almost 20 years for me to return back to the school, my Mother’s legacy was still very much intact. Former students were now involved in town government and worked at the school, even a few former colleagues were still around (one got out of teaching and became a State Legislator). Although designing the school might have been daunting considering the circumstances it turned out to be fun, rewarding and internally cathartic. The design process that inherently develops over the years of architectural practice took over and my fellow colleagues and I approached the project just like any other. In the end the project went relatively well with the assistance of all the consultants, construction managers, contractors and public building committee. The students, teachers, staff and community seemed pleased with the result as was I.
It’s now been a number of years since the project was completed and I’ve never felt compelled to tell this story to those that weren’t intimately involved, but I now find myself in the position of teacher, mentor and firm leader and now contemplate what drives the next generation of design professionals to do their best work? If anything, I hope that I can instill that having a deep personal connection to improving people’s lives through the built environment is what will drive them to do their best work. It will continue to drive mine.
By Mark Hopper AIA, Principal
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