Terry Willis – Leaders Interview and Parking Stackers

Hanna & Associates

December 15, 2020

Al: We’re sitting with Terry Willis, Principal at KTGY in Denver. Terry, thank you again for taking the time to speak with us and give us a chance to learn more about your background and experiences. Let’s start with you giving us an overview of what you’re doing today. What’s your role and job description and your area of expertise?

Terry: Sure. Happy to Al. So, I’m, as you mentioned, Principal at the Denver office at KTGY. KTGY is a national firm with six offices across the country and 300 to 400 architects. In Denver, we have about 50 plus architects and are broken into a couple of different studios. We have a For-Sale Studio, which is basically designing houses for builders and townhouses, duplexes and stacked flats, condos for sale. And then there’s our High-Density Studio that I’m the Principal and co-leader with Nathan Sciarra in our office. And the two of us are responsible for directing all aspects of that work. We obviously have lots of people that support that goal but basically operating as Principal and making all management and design decisions relative to the work that comes through our High Density Studio and in securing new work for the studio. Insuring that we are out there as KTGY and first in developer’s minds, when they’re thinking about who to hire as an architect to do residential work. Our focus is really in residential.

Al: Is this for high rise condominium and apartments?

Terry: You know, it is all types of residential, but my personal background has been more on the commercial side and in mixed-use. We will tackle anything that has a bed in it except maybe a hospital. So that goes from a single family home to a duplex to a townhouse to small condo buildings, to major condo buildings, to big multi family residential buildings, podiums, and what we refer to as ‘wraps’ where it might be a parking garage with residential built around it. And specialty components such as student housing or senior housing, 55 plus, and affordable housing. We are actually designing a lot of affordable housing at the moment because there’s such a strong demand especially here in Denver, but actually across the country.

Al: I’ve looked at your LinkedIn profile, and you started with SOM for work that included international projects. Tell us a little bit about that, and how things have taken you from there to where you are today.

Terry: Sure. And that’s the point I want to make. I encourage young architects to plan their career, to pick the right school, pick the right graduate school, to pick the right firm to start their career in. I didn’t have a mentor, per se, when I was going through school and early in my career. I would say, find a mentor. Because I’ve had a pretty interesting career. But the career kind of happened to me as opposed to me directing and planning that career. I was recruited out of Ohio State to go to SOM. I spent the first 15 years at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. The first eight of those were as a project designer. And then one thing that happened to me that I didn’t realize going into it is, the economic cycles that impact our industry. So, you have to be ready for the downturn as well as enjoying it when the economy is booming. So, I happened to be in Denver at the time, in the early 80s and mid 80s and late 80s, when Denver was going through one of those down cycles. So it opened up an opportunity for me to go to the Philippines, still with Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, on a major project, first as a field architect, and later as a team leader for a SOM office in the Philippines in Manila, for the Asian Development Bank headquarters, a major building in Southeast Asia. I spent a year there as field architect, then they asked me to lead that office. I spent another year and a half there and realized there was going to be no end to that project and started thinking about my next position with SOM. I was in fact negotiating to go to the London office, because I was familiar with two Principals there. I was already planning my housing reconnaissance trip when the Partners said, ‘What do you think about Barcelona?’ And I said, Well, I really didn’t know anything about Barcelona, but asking around, everyone said, ‘Oh yeah. Go to Barcelona over London.’ It was a fabulous opportunity working as a Team Leader or field Project Manager for a major project that was just getting ready to start construction called Vila Olimpica. It’s called Hotel Arts currently. But it’s a major high-rise project, with 40-stories of condos over hotel, a retail mall and an office building, and a beachfront club development all on parts of two or three city blocks. Including a Frank Gehry fish shade structure. It was great to be able to walk around the Frank Gehry designed components of that project…with Frank Gehry!

Al: That is fantastic. Well, you talked earlier about how without mapping out your career path, things just sort of happened or what came to you. Part of that was team leadership. What did the SOM management team see in you that they felt you were ready to take on more responsibility?

Terry: Well, I think it’s largely due to my skills in architecture. I was a pretty accomplished designer. And, I see as paramount making sure that the buildings that I work on are good buildings. They may not be great buildings, depending on what the budget could afford, but to be very, very good buildings. I don’t want to do bad work. And I want to support the highest quality design possible. So, I think that was part of it. Another part of it is just my general personality. I think I’m an easy-going good guy. And I think that was appreciated that I could be dropped into various situations and succeed in them. I didn’t personally at the time, have that same confidence in myself that I do now, of being dropped into a situation and thrive. But I succeeded in both of those situations, in the Philippines and in Barcelona. I was effectively officed with the client, in both of these situations where the client, the contractor and the architect, the engineers, they were all kind of huddled together, in either temporary buildings or permanent buildings as part of that team. You really had to be to be able to navigate, all that pressure that is coming from various directions. And I don’t know how necessarily they saw that in me, but I was able to succeed and thrive in those environments.

Al: Which is interesting, because they obviously saw it in you and wanted you to assume those additional areas of responsibility. You’re in the Philippines or you’re in Barcelona completely out from your comfort zone of growing up in the US and now you’re planted elsewhere in the world and you’re being asked to assume greater duties and responsibilities. And there’s really no parachute there. You need to make this happen.

Terry: Yeah, but that was definitely the case in the Philippines. In the Philippines, I was supported by a team of other expats that were there as well. There were several architects that were working under me, and engineers. SOM is an AE firm. So we had engineers as well, under our umbrella. And then we had a whole local staff of Filipinos that supported us. But there was no backstopping from the home office. Quite frankly, the project was a little bit orphaned, in that the people that had designed it and the people that were Principals initially on the project had either moved on with SOM or were no longer involved in the project. So it really did hang on me for the ultimate decisions on that project which was a lot of responsibility for a major international project. Now, Barcelona was a little bit different in that SOM had a team back in Chicago that was my lifeline. So if I had something that I couldn’t answer, there was technical support, and design support, frankly, back in Chicago, so I felt a little bit more protected there.

Al: Let’s pretend that you and I are talking to a group of 25- and 30-year old. What are you going to offer to them that might make that transition or progression in their career path more empowering for them, as you said, without mapping it out for you.

Terry: Well, I think mentorship now is a pretty common thing. I started a mentorship program, when I managed Urban Design Group and at 4240 Architecture, and at KTGY by encouraging mentorship. We have kind of an informal suggestion to everybody to seek a mentor within the firm to help them with the professional career decisions. So, I did not have a mentor per se, but what I tried to do is learn from everybody I was working with. What are their habits? How do they conduct a meeting? And I really took a lot of knowledge away from those situations. I did a lot of learning by doing, and learning under fire, but also was able to observe people in the next level higher than me on how they really operated, and how they functioned. I had my eyes and ears open.

Al: So you’re sitting in and listening to how someone is conducting a fluid meeting, getting insights, getting participation from all people. And you’re just absorbing that. It made you a better architect then and helped you to grow and develop and be a Principal at some point in your future?

Terry: Well, I think this is a profession that you’re never finished learning. And I learn every day. Even today, I learn something each day. The profession is constantly evolving. The construction industry is constantly evolving. You can’t know everything. How you build buildings is much more sophisticated. Now how you design and draw buildings is much more sophisticated, and much more technically involved than it used to be. I started my career and all the drawings were done by hand, with pencil or ink on Mylar paper. SOM had the first plotter that I’d ever seen. I mean, this was very early in the career, but a flatbed plotter with the pens. So we could use that as a base, but everything else: all the details, all the elevations, were all hand drawn. Few of the new architects coming out of school now even know how to draw by hand. It’s all on the computer and its so much more powerful. And so where I would draw, using layer after layer after layer of trace paper to evolve a design. Now, it’s just on the screen where it happens. It’s a faster thing. I think it’s probably a much different way that the brain works to accomplish it.

Al: In dealing with our current circumstances, with a global pandemic and trying to manage through this as best we can, hoping for a vaccine hoping for a return to normal at some point. How have you and your company dealt with this? What adjustments have you made in a COVID-19 world?

Terry: Well, definitely working from home. I mean, I’m in Denver. Our California offices were hit first with restrictions that forced them to work from home. But the firm took the initiative to say, ‘Okay, everybody across the firm, we’re all going to work from home.’ And in less than two days, we were all working from home. Fortunately, we have a pretty sophisticated IT department that was able to accomplish that. We’re doing that where people are working on their home laptops or their home computers, logging into their work computer and doing all the work on our server in the office. So it’s pretty interesting. When you walk around our office right now, it’s vacant, right? There’s nobody there. But all the machines are active, and all the monitors are showing people zooming in and zooming out and drawing lines and that’s pretty fascinating. It’s like we have ghosts drawing. So back in March, April, and May we furlough a number of people across the firm including about 10 in our Denver office. But since then, we have hired all 10 of those back. And we’ve expanded our office by about a dozen since then. Now we’ve actually grown. There are two things that are contributing to that. One is our geographic location, where we’re in Denver, which is a place with a strong economy, it’s a place that is a desirable place to live. And the other aspect is, we’re a firm that is focused on residential. People are moving to Denver, which means we must build places for them to live. And so that has kept us busy, both in the in the for-sale, and in the multifamily apartment world. Other aspects of our work may drift into retail, and hotel and even commercial office. We just happen to be in a fortunate market sector. We feel very fortunate about that as our offices that are on the coast, are a little bit less robust in terms of the current economy, but here in Denver we’re in good shape.

Al: I don’t know if you can answer this, but those other market sectors, commercial retail, corporate workforce, and that blending in with how we’re all working at home, and realizing that there’s a kind of an awakening there as you said, we’ve been able to adapt. Remote working has allowed people to get to their computers and continue working. What do you see the impact of all of that being two years from now, where we are post COVID-19 and back to normal. What might be the impact on the developers who have all this office space and firms like yours are structuring a new environment for their employees?

Terry: Yeah, I think it’s going to have a profound and dramatic effect actually. I just think the demand is going to be diminished for quite a while. We were already looking at our own firm and studying workplace flexibility, allowing people to do some amount of their work from home. And now that people are doing it 100% from home, we’re still able to maintain our same productivity. No doubt this is going to change people’s perception about what’s possible in the future. I think the commercial real estate industry, especially relative to office space, is going to change dramatically. If there is a vaccine, if we’re getting beyond this COVID thing, I think retail will come back. But I also think people are accustomed now to getting things from Amazon.

Retail was already converting to experiential retail more than anything else. I’ve worked on a lot of mixed-use projects that try to create great places, right? So usually these places start out with a lot of food service, a lot of restaurants as kind of key place-makers in a space. And I think that will rebound. In terms of retail shopping, I would think that the shopping is going to have to be a great experience. In some concentrated doses.

Al: A great experience means to draw them in as opposed ease of going to online shopping.

Terry: Yeah, right. Make it more and more interesting. You know, a lot of the online retailers now instead of having all their merchandise at the store, it might just be a showroom. To feel and appreciate the product, feel the texture, whatever it is. See how it feels on, but then go home and buy it online.

Al: Yeah, I just did that with a coffee maker purchase. Terry, this has been terrific. You’ve given us great insights to your background in what you’re doing today and how you got to where you are. And the last question was really about 2021. But I think you’ve been hitting on it as far as what you’re seeing in your marketplace, you’re in a good area here in Denver with the mixed-use residential fields. Anything else that you want to offer from what you’re hearing about 2021 that maybe isn’t Denver specific?

Terry: My focus has really been on the Denver market and multifamily. I can’t say that I’m in tune to other aspects. All I know, is in this this market, and in this product type, we’re looking to have our biggest year ever. I’ve been with KTGY now for about six and a half years, and each year has shown a little bit more growth. Last month, we had our biggest month ever and the early months next year, projected be even bigger. So, I don’t know if it’s KTGY, I don’t know if it’s me. I don’t know if it’s multifamily, or if it’s Denver. But we are in a very good spot here professionally and personally.

Al: Terrific. Well, thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to meet you and hear your story.