Photo by Bill Sitzmann for Omaha Magazine
In Part 1 of the interview with Brian and Andrea Kelly we discussed the concept behind AToM, the methodology of pursuing work, and the structure of their individual practices. In the second part of this interview we discuss the 'origin story' of AToM, the nature of informal models, and culture. Brian and Andrea's aggregate of work can be accessed at atomdesignstudio.com.
ARC: Within acronym of AToM (Architecture, Teaching, Objects, Media) is there a certain category that has a larger catalog of work as opposed to others?
BK: Just by the fact that we're both architects, architecture has the most work.
AK: But with teaching being the full time gig...
BK: Right now on the website architecture has more, just because I have not had the time to get more teaching work on there. I've been thinking of that recently, I need to expand that because there is a lot of work that needs to get on there. So it's probably between the A and the T. My focus is on the T.
AK: Mine is typically on the A. It's just by the nature of what we do. I got out of practice in an office when Jackson was born and since then have been doing my own thing but somewhat low-key because I'm a full-time mom and, by choice, staying home. Most of my effort was going to motherhood but also to architecture, and now, this being my first class, I don't really have anything to contribute to the teaching aspect quite yet. Brian has had quite a bit of focus on the teaching aspect.
BK: We've recently retooled the website to where I can put papers on there so I want to start getting that on there. Things I've written for journals, different conferences and things like that.
ARC: could you give a bit of background about when AToM was established and explain the origin story behind it?
BK: There wasn't really a time. Because of the ephemeral nature of it, it just sort of emerged when we left Randy Brown Architects.
AK: I'd say the idea of it happened back around the 2009
BK: But I hesitate to say a specific day, it just sort of built over time to where now it has more work from both of us putting things on there. It has a larger representation to it.
ARC: So what were some of the biggest challenges in taking AToM from this concept to reality?
AK: Time. [Laughs]
BK: I don't feel like there were any real challenges because we don't... maybe to our fault I don't really have a vision of what it's going to be, we just let it grow. If I felt like I wanted to have it become an actual corporation, or LLC, or business or something in a certain time frame and want to have a certain amount of income, I'd probably set business goals which is what you would do if it was a mechanism for making money. Because it's been free from that, it's more of a collection and just has an identity to it. If I were to set a financial or performative agenda it'd be for me as an architect. As far as AToM goes, we just let it keep doing what it's doing, let it flow as it needs to. If it just disappears sometime maybe it's because we lost interest in it, or we didn't feel like it was a good vehicle to express what it is we're trying to do. Right now it seems to be a good place for us to put work together and to have some sort of presence as far as a collective.
AK: I totally agree with that. Because if it were a money making vehicle, a business, it would have to be something different.
BK: You would have a marketing plan, you would have a strategy for amount of income. There's no books to keep for AToM.
AK: It's that loose nature of it that allows it to be what it is.
BK: It's a benefit of the thing we have with teaching. It doesn't have to be a traditional business model, which we don't even see it as a business. Because of that we haven't really put pressure on ourselves to set these major milestones.
ARC: This kind of ties back to not being a traditional business. Do either of you have any business education, minor, MBA, that has helped you in your practice?
AK: Neither of us have formal training. However, I feel that my experience in early years working after graduation has given me some know-how that I wouldn't have had I gone through a more traditional internship. The first firm that I worked for I moved within the first six months out of a traditional production intern role to more of the business side of the firm. The experience I've had, looking back on that, so suited my personality that I just didn't know back then. I came out of school thinking, "I'm an architect, this is what I have to do" in the traditional path. But now I see, looking back, that was the best thing that could've happened for me. Because of that, I feel that I have some background in business that I wouldn't have had otherwise.
ARC: Aside from work place experience, were there any references you had to use to self teach in order to operate independently?
AK: I'd say it's primarily based on past experience.
BK: Architects are horrible at business. For me, writing a contract if I'm going to work on something, I think how much time am I going to spend on this and how many billable hours am I going to have. You try to work backwards to set up a fixed fee, etcetera. But no I've had no formal training in a business setting, except for working in an office. As we've said before that's pretty limited relative to your exposure. If you only work in three offices, you only experience those three offices and how they work.
AK: Going back to our personality types, I'm more linear, black and white. Like he said, you're always battling with the money making aspect of it. What am I getting out of this monetarily? What we're taught as architects and designers is the love of the project, the love of architecture, so you're kind of always battling that ground of being profitable but also being happy with the end product.
ARC: In addition to your independent work, you both also teach at UNL. What drew you to this alternate career path?
AK: Because of my experiences "Professional Practice" is a very suitable place for me to start and I honestly have no idea if or when it will go past this in teaching for me, because it's still very new. When I was asked to teach I said no because I had no teaching experience so it was a little bit daunting to me. Once I had gotten into it I found that I really enjoy it and it's just another aspect in contributing to what I'm doing outside of school.
BK: I was like, I think, a lot of UNL students. I was super interested in design, wanted to be in a high design office, always in studio. Just always planned on being an architect. In grad school I was a TA. I taught the computers class so I had the chance to run the lab. I was responsible for orchestrating each class, making sure to give feedback, doing some grading, and a lot of the things that I do now. It didn't get me to the point where I felt like I wanted to teach, but right after I graduated in August I was asked to come back and teach in a part time capacity in the evenings. That, for me, is when it switched. You give a project out, you have to figure out how to give feedback and make it productive. I just saw lights turning on and perspectives shifting. It was just addictive and I loved it. So at a certain point when I finished all my IDP stuff and got a decent amount of experience- you kind of get this perspective that we don't always have this end goal in mind. Any time I have an end goal in mind, I never reach it so I finally said screw it and just decided to embrace the process and see where it will go. So, I thought I'll go full time teaching and see if I like it- see how it goes. I was at Drury in Missouri for three years. All three years I won the faculty of the year award, which was given to one faculty member in the college. There was indication that I had some skills at teaching as evidenced by the vote from students. It was addictive, I just really loved it. I started going more and more full time. When we practiced together at Randy Brown while I was in California, I realized I really missed practicing. I missed seeing things get built. I was told don't get out of teaching, it's academic suicide, once you get out of teaching it's hard to get back into it. I didn't listen to that because I felt I wanted to practice more. That was the first time I left school either as a student or as a teacher since kindergarten. That was the first time and only two years of my life I had been away from the academic environment. I got back into it because I realized that's where I wanted to be and that's why once I got back into teaching AToM started to be an idea about how we might be able to create an identity.
ARC: On your website you have your son, Jackson, listed as somebody who has contributed to AToM. That's pretty awesome.
BK: I love that you noticed that. [Laughs]
AK: He (Jackson) would love that too. [Laughs]
ARC: I hesitate to say firm culture, but could you explain a little bit of the culture and how the family dynamic has played a role in development?
AK: Because AToM became this idea around the same time Jackson was born, at the time I was the A and Brian was the T- It's not clear cut anymore, it's very mixed- Jackson has always been a part of it. I have taken him to job sites since he was very little, since he could walk pretty much. He's gone to job sites with me when I'm working with a contractor and they know that about me- that this is what I do; I'm a full time mom and he wasn't in school at the time so he had to go everywhere with me. He goes to a lot of client meetings and people just know that about who we are and how we work. It's kind of this whole family thing and it's very much accepted. In fact, with a client for a project that's on the website- we've been friends and the project's been done for about three years- we're having brunch as a family here in a couple weeks with the contractor and his wife. The story about Jackson being on the website just happened this last year. We've been trying to teach him about the value of hard work, the value of money. We had a really good lesson to give him that if you don't have an agreement prior to doing the work you can't expect to get paid for it. There has to be an expectation on both sides. We had to go to a job site to do some as-built drawings and I needed some help with holding the tape measure. In fact, Brian was part of this so we were all three there together. I said, "I would like to offer you a chance to earn some money. You're going to have to work for it, but if you can hold the tape measure for me while I'm reading and daddy's doing a quick sketch with the dimensions, we can get done a lot faster and you can get paid for your job." He did everything we asked him to do, it went very smoothly and quickly. We left and he's like, "Okay, how much did I earn?" [Laughs] He was paid for his work; he drives a pretty hard bargain because then he says, "So do I get to be on the website now?" So he became our first minor collaborator.
BK: There was also a project I was working on that he had some ideas about. From a young age- like he was behind me at one point looking at the computer saying, "Daddy is that a toilet? Is that a door?" He just right away started to understand floor plans, I think just because he's around it all the time-
AK: - He draws in section perspective.
BK: When I was sketching on just some trace, he wanted to do his own scheme so he drew it. When I went to the client meeting I actually let him present his scheme as well. We went through and I presented the ones I drew and then I said, "Jackson's got a scheme as well." The client was really great, they listened to it and of course it had this tunnel and zip lines and all different kinds of things. [Laughs] He's been around for all of it and we call ourselves K3 because we're a pretty tight family. At some point I'd like to put some of his drawings on there (the website).
AK: Well it's hard to grow up as a child with two parents who are architects and not be influenced by it. His vocabulary is very different... than other children in his class [Laughs] his teachers tell us. He's traveled the world before he was seven years old and neither of us traveled internationally until we were in our thirties. Here he is at seven and has been to eleven countries. His vocabulary just reflects on him and his abilities. He doesn't sketch stick people, he sketches section drawings.
ARC: Before we finish, do you have any final thoughts that you'd like to share with any emerging professionals or practicing architects who are curious about what it takes to either start their own firm or organization?
AK: I'd say don't be afraid. Vision for the long term goal is helpful. Brian is more of a just "go for it kind" of person with random thinking. But me I want to have the plan from A to B to C. He's loosened me up a little bit in those regards, just go for it. You don't have to have it all figured out. The chances of it panning out just how you thought are... slim.
BK: That would be my advice as well. This goes contrary to about any advice if you go to the business college or anywhere else. Speaking from what my life experience is, just don't plan it too much. Embrace the process and don't try to look at what the exact end is going to be. Obviously there's an end that we both hope we are able to work that is solid and good and that we can develop relationships with the people we work for. But at the end of the day how that really looks we don't exactly know. Like I said, AToM may disappear at some point. It may actually coalesce into something more... with edges. But at this point it kind of just is what it is.
AK: And it works for where we're at in our lives.