Reflecting on a 40+ Year Career

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It goes by quickly..

The adage “time flies” is accurate as I reflect on the last 40 plus years of my career. But careers can also create so many wonderful memories when you’re passionate about your work, your clients, and the projects you helped create. I have witnessed many changes to the architectural profession over the years. For instance, when I was in school hand drafting was all that was offered, we were graded on our penmanship, and computers were the size of shipping containers!  The following is a quick look back at the early 80’s:

Major early 1980’s events

  • The United States Ice hockey team defeats the U.S.S.R. and wins the gold medal in 1980 (miracle on ice).
  • Interest rates reached their highest point in modern history in 1981 when the annual average was 63%.
  • The World Health Organization confirms the eradication of smallpox (hope for our pandemic).
  • The arcade game ‘Pac-Man’ is released.
  • The Osborne 1, the first successful portable computer, is unveiled at the West Coast Computer Faire in San Francisco.
  • Honda becomes the first Asian automobile company to produce cars in the United States
  • Muhammad Ali was still boxing.
  • Steve & Paula Hoekzema settle back in Grand Rapids with a whopping annual income of $15,000 and they welcome their second daughter Chloe into the world!

Education Passion

I have been fortunate to spend a major portion of my 40+ year career involved in educational projects. I am passionate about helping children succeed. Plus, designing a school is like designing a small city.  It involves spaces for learning, offices, athletics, performing arts, vocational education, and dining services to name a few. I can honestly say that the experiences change every day!

Most of my projects were based here in West Michigan where I worked with 72 different school districts, many of them on multiple projects. Included in that list are 15 of the 20 Kent County school districts.

History of Education Design

There have been many significant changes in school design and most of them have been an improvement since I attended school. In the 1960’s, the U.S. school system was adding approximately a million new students every year! Many buildings were simply constructed as a reaction to the huge influx of students and were built quickly and cheaply without regard to future flexibility, energy use, or accessibility.

Modern Design Thinking

Today we recognize that more “intelligence” and sustainability need to be designed into our buildings, with the hope that they will be in use for many decades to come.

The following are a few examples:

  • Beauty – Ruth Jones-Hairston was a masterful principal in Grand Rapids Public Schools who spoke often about the importance of beauty. She always said she wanted to encourage students to come to school by creating environments that were nicer than the ones that they had just left. She spoke about planting flowers, incorporating natural daylight, and providing a warm and welcoming environment. I’ve never forgotten her words.
  • Adaptability – Designing for change is so important. We can only guess what the classroom will look like in the future, but it will need to respond and adapt to the cultural and economic climate at that time. Building in flexibility into a space is so key.
  • Learning Styles – 1960’s schools are often referred to as “cells and bells.” School buildings from this era often resemble an assembly line with classrooms all lined up in a row. We now know that every child has unique needs and learning abilities. Because of this, learning environments cannot all be the same. Today’s emphasis is on hands-on learning, group projects and maker spaces. The need for collaboration is fostering the need for individual, small group, and large group spaces. The explosion of STEAM programs, along with extra-curricular robotics competitions, prove that students are passionate about learning when given the right tools and environment. I believe that these concepts are here to stay.
  • Healthy Environments – The pandemic heightened our awareness and dedication to creating better spaces. Designers are re-discovering the need for natural daylight, air quality, safety, and a sense of belonging. Until a child’s basic needs (i.e., hunger, security, comfort, etc.) are met, they will struggle to learn.
  • Complex Problem Solving – The skills required to navigate successfully in this modern world have changed significantly since I first became an architect. Many industries rely on teams of people to accomplish tasks and solve problems (think medicine, construction and automotive). Designing and engineering the modern building involves architects, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, structural engineers, landscape architects, interior designers, technology experts and security designers. Depending on the project type, many other disciplines can be involved like civil engineering, acoustical, theatre design, wetlands experts and aquatics design. Communication is crucial.
  • Caring for Clients – This never changes. Every client wants to work with a professional who will listen to them, understand their issues, and provide the best solution to meet those needs. I call it “what keeps my client up at night.” Putting yourself into the client’s shoes is always the best approach.

I feel privileged to have worked in this profession and I am grateful for the many professionals that I have learned from over the last four decades. It really was an enjoyable journey!

For additional reading on these topics:

  1. The Third Teacher – OWP/P Architects, VS Furniture & Bruce Mau Design
  2. The Language of School Design – Prakash Nair and Randall Fielding


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