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How Kirksey Is Thinking About Technology, Strategy And The Future Of Design

Architectural design is being influenced by technology more than ever before. From the moment somebody starts to sketch, that same design is being modeled in three dimensions.

At the same time, data is increasingly taking the lead in how design decisions are made, allowing clients to have more input and clarity on how a project will turn out.

"It's lost some of the mystery, but what it's gained is some of the reality of, ‘this space will work this way, and I can walk you through it virtually, and you can agree that it's going to work great,' versus the blind trust of the architect and engineer past," Kirksey Architecture Chairman and President Wes Good said.

Kirksey Architecture President and Chairman Wes Good

Good spoke to Bisnow about his career, Kirksey's expansion outside of Houston, the next big thing in design, how the coronavirus is impacting the company now, and how it might impact design going forward.

Kirksey Architecture is one of Houston’s most well-known local architecture firms. Founded in 1971 by John Kirksey, the firm has an extensive portfolio that spans every asset class.

Good joined Kirksey in 1990 as a designer, only a few months out of college. He began working under Kirksey Executive Vice President and Director of Design Bob Inaba, who is still with the firm today.

He spent the majority of his career designing higher learning projects. Good ended up leading a single education team that evolved into a collegiate team, a K-12 team and a community team. He was involved in projects across all those sectors, until in 2007 the firm changed its operating format and acquired a broader management structure.

Good served as managing principal of the firm for 10 years. In January 2018, he became Kirksey’s president, and in January of this year, also took on the role of chairman. Now, his day-to-day operations involve working on collegiate projects, and helping to manage the firm’s daily operations and long-term strategic goals.

Over time, the process of designing architecture has become much more scientific, according to Good. Design is now largely informed by data that is easily collected and used as an analysis tool.

"Software has really changed how we do our business. Over the course of time, architecture was, and I would still say, is an art. But it was being presented in more of an artistic form, you would present sketches and renderings and watercolors, and they were very much an impression of how a building might be,” Good said.

"Now we are able to deliver to clients almost virtual, realistic buildings before they spend any money and start the construction process."

A rendering of Kingwood Middle School in Houston.

With a strong business presence in Houston, Good said that the firm is thinking about how to improve its regional reach. The company has worked on projects outside of Texas, as well as overseas, but usually in connection to a client that is based in Houston.

"In the past, it's always been our companies that we work for, taking us other places. And so for us to strategically plant ourselves somewhere else without that connection would probably be a stretch,” Good said.

Kirksey opened its first permanent satellite office in Austin in May. The decision was driven by the fact that the firm works closely with the University of Texas system and the Texas Facilities Commission on projects and a local office can provide in-person support.

"That was a huge event for us. We're very conservative in our business approach, and we've always wanted to extend the power skills regionally, and that's hard to do from one location, and we've learned that," Good said.

Some of Kirksey's current projects include Kingwood Middle School, a new veterinary school for Texas Tech University in Amarillo, Hewlett Packard Enterprise's new campus in Springwoods Village, and four new buildings for Stephen F. Austin State University. The firm is also involved in mass-timber buildings for Rice University and San Jacinto College.

At this stage, there are no specific plans to open another office, but Good said the firm is open to the idea, as long as it makes sense.

"We would love to do that. I think we would need to see the synergy around some work in a location that we feel like we can bring something that's not already there to the community," he said.

Kirksey has built much of its reputation on consistency. The firm has many senior executives who have spent the majority of their careers there, and Good said clients appreciate the consistency in thought, culture and staff.

The firm is also competing against other major national and international design companies. Kirksey has a strong regional presence that allows the company to manage that, Good said.

"In this market, we just have to make sure that we are connected in the community, that we know a lot of people, we're connected to a lot of organizations, we provide really good service and really good design. That consistency over time has built a reputation that allows us to compete really with any one in our own region," Good said. "Exporting that to another region will be a challenge for us."

Wes Good with his wife, Tina, and their children.

Good believes the next big architecture trend will be generative design.

Generative design is a process that involves the input of certain parameters and design constraints. That data is then used to shape buildings. By using sophisticated software, architecture firms are able to generate many different designs that can be adjusted for the needs of a client.

"I think generative design is probably going to be the thing that drives design of the future, at least in the next 10 years," Good said.

He also points to occupant modeling, which allows architects to simulate the movement of people through spaces and augment the design of the building, based on the simulated movement.

Given the amount of computing involved, it is easy to question whether architects are starting to resemble software engineers.

Good acknowledges that similar conversations occur in the industry, and also within Kirksey. But ultimately, there are human elements, impressions and feelings that architects can bring to the table, which data simply cannot replace.

"We still believe that the architects have a role to play, where software won't take over our jobs, because there is still a human and personal interaction and understanding that is necessary that a computer simply cannot get from someone," Good said.

Kirksey Architecture President and Chairman Wes Good at the office.

In the short term, Good said the main focus of the firm is to survive the inevitable impacts of the coronavirus outbreak.

"We all hope that we can get back to business as normal, but I think most of us realize that that's not likely to be the case, that this will have some retraction and some rethinking of projects," Good said.

Right now, the firm is trying to understand how clients and partners are reacting to the situation. The coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, has already caused major economic disruption across the globe.

"We have not had any projects just straight-up go on hold," Good said. "Definitely a few that have been pushed a couple of months because our clients are not necessarily as accessible as they were before."

Good suspects that the coronavirus outbreak will cause projects to be delayed, as construction sites begin to shutter and delivery of materials becomes more difficult. In addition, clients and other industry professionals may delay further work, which will affect Kirksey’s ability to pursue future projects.

"We may have one or two or three months, here, where people are just not considering work, and that affects most firms like ours six to eight months down the road, because we are constantly pursuing work, competing for work and winning work," Good said.

"I think in a couple of weeks, we'll definitely know what the impact on our current workload is. And I suspect there will be some projects that are pulled back, some projects that are delayed."

In the aftermath of the outbreak, Good said that he believes the pandemic will ultimately influence design, especially for healthcare facilities. That could include how admittance, waiting and processing of patients is done.

More broadly, structures like office buildings could see greater focus on mechanical systems and air filtration systems, as well as the creation of new surfaces that have anti-microbial properties.

"I think those are product-related things that will be influenced by this, knowing that this won't be our last virus pandemic," Good said.

Despite the coronavirus, Good is skeptical that workplaces will change radically after the intensity of the situation eases.

"I still believe there's so much desire for human interaction that I can't imagine that we're going to see a shift because of this to something that is not recognizable by today's standards," he said.