Carl Bower

Nathan Kalaher, AIA, co-founded Sioux City, Iowa-based PLaN Architecture with his wife, Lisa Kalaher, AIA, in 2010 with a commitment to identifying design problems rather than just responding to them. The current president of AIA Iowa, Kalaher is a recipient of the 2014 Young Architects Award, presented by the AIA Young Architects Forum and the AIA College of Fellows. “What we’ve learned is, by being engaged in the community, you have a stake in the process,” he says.

If you can instigate a partnership—to find a design problem instead of waiting for a design problem to be served up to you—then you won’t be marginalized as an architect. We’ve been fortunate to be involved in a lot of the good things that have happened in Sioux City. Instead of just responding to RFPs, we actively look for design issues that need to be addressed with community leaders—public and private—and setting the table for things to get done.

In one project we were looking at a 10-mile stretch of blighted industrial highway. We spent a lot of time thinking about its issues and what it means to live and work along that road. Sioux City also runs about 10 miles, so the street did have implications for the entire community. A lot of the older homegrown companies and merchants are on that road. We mapped the road—the axis of the city—and framed a design problem: There was lots to be proud of along that stretch, but not a very coherent experience. We pitched the project to the chamber of commerce through its Community Enhancement Committee, we visited with the people who live and work along that road, and then proposed some changes. What we learned: By being engaged in the community, you have a stake in the process. People respect that, they grow to trust you, and their confidence leads to an environment where we can make a real difference as architects. Social media is hugely important to us, as well.

In 2005, I co-chaired a committee that submitted a concept for Sioux City in the Iowa Great Places program. The concept was connecting sites that had become disconnected, and part of the proposal was a design studio that could telescope in scale—the street, the community, the city, and the state. The result was that Iowa State University’s College of Design, in Ames, Iowa, bought a derelict building and set it up as a satellite studio.

We like to use the word “instigate” in our firm when it comes to prospecting and operating in a set of markets. We don’t do a lot of marketing in the traditional sense, but in our four years we’ve been engaged in about 100 projects, including two dozen that are actively billing. Our firm culture is one big open room—it’s a classic studio setup. But the focus of our firm is community engagement and so, in terms of workflow and our methodology as architects, our studio has to be a community-driven place. —As told to William Richards