When approached for career advice, Dan Shipley, FAIA, often gives future architects an unexpected suggestion. He tells them to work for a builder or subcontractor—anything that will gain them some hands-on construction experience. “The real world isn’t about paper,” says the Dallas-based architect, whose quirky, modern projects regularly bring home local and state design awards. “It’s about materials, grease, dirt, and all that kind of stuff.”
Shipley himself worked for a framing company back in 1976, during a self-enforced hiatus from architecture school at the University of Texas at Austin. “I didn’t know the slightest thing about building, but somehow had the sense that I wanted to know practical things,” he says. After a year or so framing houses, he moved on to a job as a draftsman for a small East Texas architecture firm. “That formed the whole backbone of my career,” he explains. “I learned so much about how to put buildings together, really.” He then went back to school and finished his degree, returning to the firm afterward for another year. A five-year stint with a Dallas firm, Thomas & Booziotis Architects (now Booziotis & Co. Architects), exposed him to additional projects and project types.
Eventually Shipley went out on his own, intent on doing commercial work. But the economy of the late 1980s didn’t help, and he ended up taking on a few residential design/build projects just to keep going. One, a small addition to a 1920s Prairie-style house, led to an epiphany. “It was the first project where I really figured out how to design something,” he recalls. “I had gotten a taste of this joy of designing and building things. I found out how much I loved this way of thinking.” However, business proved so slow that he moved on to a position at a large firm, HKS Architects, for a couple of years—an experience that helped him hone his design and management abilities.
Then Shipley got what he calls his “second start”: an opportunity to independently design the conversion of an old masonry firehouse into a nonprofit arts center. The project enabled him to re-establish his own firm, this time for good. He still talks fondly about the job, which he also built. “With the builder hat, we could make adjustments on the spot,” he says. “That was fantastic.”
Naturally, Shipley faced a tight budget on that first nonprofit project. But he made it stretch, a skill he’s been perfecting ever since. Other architects and design observers marvel at his gift for making the most out of limited resources. “He’s able to infuse an amazing spirit and intensity into projects,” says Dallas architect Max Levy, FAIA.
Part of this aspect of Shipley’s work comes from his personality—he’s naturally frugal, gravitates toward the humble and the unpretentious, and likes the challenge of sticking to a budget. And his construction background helps tremendously. Sometimes he builds his own projects, and sometimes he works with a general contractor. Either way, he’s out on the jobsite, deploying his intimate knowledge of the building process to invent unexpected uses for ordinary materials. For example, at a 1,490-square-foot house in the Urban Reserve development in Dallas (see page 68), he transformed industrial metal grating and off-the shelf metal railings into an elegant exterior entry ramp. Without it, he explains, the sense of arrival would feel too abrupt, given the lack of space for an interior foyer. Instead, the graceful, inexpensive entry sequence makes the house seem larger inside.
That particular job had a relatively modest budget, but Shipley’s projects can dip much lower on the budgetary food chain. They also can climb significantly higher, when his clients have the means. What doesn’t change from project to project is his commitment to not wasting money or resources. This quality has endeared him to many clients, no matter what their budget. “I’ve recommended him quite a few times and people always report back happy,” says Diane Cheatham, the developer of Urban Reserve. “I tell him, ‘You’ve got to start bragging about how much your clients like you.’” Notes two-time client Tom Perryman, “Dan is incredibly meticulous. Everything matters to him.”
Shipley believes a good architect should be able to work with the materials at hand—in the spirit of the TV character MacGyver, whom he admires along with more typical figures such as Carlo Scarpa and O’Neil Ford. “I kind of have this attitude of wanting to do as much as I can with whatever’s available,” he says, matter-of-factly. He likes to experiment with materials, and has been known to use items such as decking boards and perforated metal as exterior cladding. “Almost any material can be used and detailed in pretty sophisticated ways,” he observes. Corrugated metal is a personal favorite of Shipley’s. “It’s a thin material given strength from the stresses put into it,” he says. “What a beautiful idea. It’s one of the best materials there is.”
He also feels architecture should be democratic—that the smallest, most mundane addition or outbuilding deserves as much attention as a whole house or a major renovation. “I don’t like the idea of the architect being above it all,” Shipley explains. “Some of the projects we do are very modest and never get a whole lot of attention, but I know they were just as good as the ones that did. The point is that you solved a problem in an economic and beautiful way.” He turns down few projects, even in times of plenty.