Critical Self-Reflection at the Close of a Career
You’d think that someone who knew he wanted to be an architect since the seventh grade would wax poetic about the beauty, function, form and integrity of design—especially as his career winds down. You’d think he’d walk by the buildings he’s designed and glisten with pride, shouting from the rooftops, “Hey, I designed that!” to anyone who would listen.
But that’s not how Dick Thomas rolls.
“Those who really know me know I’ve never been satisfied with the traditional response to how to tackle a professional design problem,” he says with a laugh. “Sometimes the best answer is NOT a building, but a unique approach, an operating model, an idea, a conversation.”
This road-less-traveled mentality is very much “on brand” for Dick, who’s 26-year run with SHP comes to a close on December 31. His is not a false modesty; he’s proud of his accomplishments, certainly, but he’s also circumspect. In fact, to say that Dick is questioning his entire career isn’t entirely accurate… but it isn’t entirely inaccurate, either.
“Architects and designers often pursue our craft by fulfilling the dream or vision of others who are further upstream in the system. We default to the belief that we are just a small part of a very large and complex chain of events. As it stands today, I’ve done good work over the years, but it was also influenced by my choices to stay within the limits of how the profession defines its role in the process,” he says.
He continues, “I find myself wondering how different my career might have been if my last 10 years of experiences, connections and growth happened 20 years ago! I’d like to think I could have done much better at many things if some of what I experienced in the last decade happened sooner in life.”
Never One to do Things the “Typical” Way
In a career that has spanned nearly 50 years, Dick has never shied away from ways to push the envelope of the design process, be it better or faster service, stronger visualization, improved collaboration, more unique solutions, or something new to accomplish leverage.
“I’ve never been one to simply do a project the ‘typical’ way,” he explains.
His atypical approach contributed much to SHP over the years. For example, Dick was integral to the creation and management of a second business inside SHP, 2enCompass, that—alongside Messer Construction in a 50-50 partnership—delivered private education projects in a fully integrated project design (IPD) environment almost 10 years before IPD was de rigueur for the industry. As 2enCompass grew, it became the testbed for the application of building integrated modeling (BIM) technology firm-wide, which spurred SHP’s transition from 2D to 3D design in less than a year.
This led to opportunities for Dick to lead an effort to write and publish one of the earliest BIM standards in the U.S. for Indiana University; to help with the formation of yet another SHP-branded business, SHAPE Environments, as well as to work on projects like Summit Country Day and the Southern Baptist Welcome Pavilion. (Technology notwithstanding, check out Dick’s beautiful rendering for Southern Baptist Towery Plaza—hand-drawn as preferred by the client—and the final product in the photos below.)
More than any other moment in Dick’s career, however, it was a future-focused conference devoted to the role of design in education that set the tone for how he views the world today. The sessions, roughly 19 of them, presented uniquely different scenarios on industrialized versus individualized education and the role of design in facilitating personalized learning. The experience caused Dick to ponder why he had, without question and for years, assumed the problem he was given to solve was indeed the problem that needed solving.
“I had to really think twice about the work I was delivering. I found myself asking if I was solving the wrong problems—and I became fearful that limiting my response to what I had been taught was my job as an architect was not enough; that better design and better documents alone were not enough, and worse, were a potential pathway to less and less relevance to the true needs of the institutions we serve,” Dick says.
He pauses thoughtfully, his next words layered with emotion. “It caused me to rethink my whole role as an architect. I came back from this event questioning whether or not I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. Had I been defaulting to the pursuit of lesser goals? That question shook me to the core, and it has never left me.”
This critical self-reflection wasn’t just a watershed moment for the architect; it also coincided with a turning point in SHP’s history. In 2015, the firm engaged in a Futurecasting exercise to help us invent the future it wanted to have. The workshop eventually led to the development of 9 Billion Schools, a movement to encourage life-long, life-wide and life-deep (L3)™ learning for every person on the planet. 9 Billion Schools is now positioned to become a think-tank on the future of L3 learning, providing consulting services, community master planning, educational visioning and Futurecasting, evidence-based design review, and a professional development and strategy resource for educators.
As Dick’s commitment to better understanding the problems architecture can solve—and more enthusiastically advocating for how architects can enhance the value of their work both upstream and downstream from where they sit today—has evolved, his contributions to SHP have also taken on new meaning. While he’s still doing hands-on design work Dick’s role as a dreamer and wonderer has helped challenge the firm’s focus on how and with whom we design, the tools we use to document and build, and the value we add to the communities we serve.
“As we look to the future, our future, I believe we can have a greater role in facilitating the next generation of design and design thinking around the topic of lifelong learning: where, when and how it occurs, and what roles the built, natural and digital environments play in creating success,” he portends. “It’s not just about planning, design, construction, or helping fund a project; it’s about creating real productive change in our society.”
With his time at SHP winding down, Dick can’t help but wonder about the future of the role architects play in a rapidly changing world. Architects, he believes, need to elevate and redefine their value proposition to become more than the traditional perception of what an architect does.
“We need to get further upstream in the conversation, to where policy and process are formed, and where the solutions are less—if at all—about architecture, and more about redefining the objectives an architectural or process solution needs to solve,” muses Dick. “I recognize that what I’m suggesting is very hard to do. I am encouraged, though, by those following me who are smarter, have a greater sense of awareness of the needs, and have a stronger sense of mission and duty to create the larger role of architecture in the community.”
Many of those “smarter” people, Dick contends, are part of the next generation of leadership at SHP—and are already rising to the challenge, too. He notes recent projects completed at Winton Woods, and Dover High School, along with new work underway at an expeditionary learning school, Clara J. Peck Elementary in Greensboro, North Carolina, bode well for the future.
“I am confident those that follow will accept the reality of the obligation, as Jonathan Salk puts it, to react creatively to our changing conditions,” he notes. “We are at the very beginning of the journey, but I believe with conviction that our future lies in our ability to leverage our voice and our skills in the larger conversation that shapes our culture and our society. This is a daunting task, but it is one we are up for.”
The confidence to take stock of the hard stuff; to double down on the bright spots; and to come up with a different approach to solving the larger problem for the client and community: all of these contributions helped advance the capabilities, culture and stature of SHP. And that’s not a bad legacy for anyone to leave. We hope his influence will survive and inspire every time one of the team suggests an outrageous project strategy, pursues the possibilities of a better way to do work, or explores a new process or opportunity that colors outside the proverbial lines.
That’s exactly how Dick would want it.
Writer Robert Brault notes that, “We are not kept from our goals by obstacles, but by a clear path to lesser goals!” Architect Dick Thomas notes, “Our goal should be to never shy away from taking on the responsibility and assuming the accountability for defining what is better.” Read more parting thoughts from Dick in his post, Looking Forward: Five Beliefs on the Future of Architecture.