Design Manifestos: Joel Anderson of CTA Architects Engineers

Joel Anderson (Photograph courtesy of CTA Architects Engineers)

Joel Anderson, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, is an architect with CTA Architects Engineers and is the design director for their Billings, MT, office. Joel believes that good design pioneers beyond market and programmatic barriers. Drawing inspiration from an environment, Joel’s projects often exemplify a contextual approach, highlighting contemporary construction details and forms within a regional palette of materials. He has been recognized for his contributions to the industry with several awards and honors, including state and local AIA design awards. In parallel to his architectural work, he’s climbed significant alpine first ascents in Wyoming and Montana, started a youth climbing non-profit, and published a book on rock climbing on the rims overlooking Billings. He is an alumnus of the Illinois Institute of Technology where he graduated with high honors. Recently, Modelo had the opportunity to learn more about Joel’s unique approach and design philosophy.

On becoming an architect
I love the creation of places. Growing up, we had an unfinished basement at home, and my brothers and I could turn that space into whatever we wanted one week and the next week it could be something entirely different. Looking back, I appreciate the fact our parents gave us the freedom to do that and I think it translated into my pursuit of architecture. I attended the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago from 1998 through 2003. We had some great design professors at that time who were just starting to come into their own. Rem Koolhaas and OMA had just won the commission for the new campus center, so a lot of OMA staff were in and out of Crown Hall along with notable design talents that are still in Chicago like John Ronan, Martin Felsen, Dirk Denison, Jeanne Gang, and Mark Schendel. It was such an optimistic environment. IIT had this “just do it” attitude; it felt like everything was going on and everything was possible, it was this wonderful fun mess of design ideas. No different from my parents basement. That solidified architecture as my career.

‘Concert Hall Design Study Model’ (Photograph courtesy of CTA Architects Engineers)

On his influences
I’ve found that influences outside of the profession help one find balance and create unique intersections of opportunity. Climbing has been a huge part of my life. Climbing mountains via technical routes necessitates one being self-sufficient with a confident-yet-open attitude. The things you learn about yourself in those scenarios can’t be taught in a classroom. I was alpine climbing at the same time I was living in downtown Chicago, which of course, is a very different, very urban environment. Getting to mix those two together and see the juxtaposition and similarities between the ways the two mindsets exist has really influenced who and where I am today.

On his role at CTA Architects
After graduation I worked in Chicago for a year designing restaurants, then decided I wanted to make climbing a more significant part of my life. I said hey, “I’m going to move to Montana,” though I wasn’t sure where or with whom. With CTA, I found Mike Tuss, who has been pushing an urban attitude of design in Billings for 30 years now (a true testament of perseverance) and Jim Beal, who really put the power of belief into my work. At the time, CTA was mostly focused in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. It was a firm just starting to engage with clients outside of the Rocky Mountain region. Over the past ten years, we’ve grown and solidified our market share to include Seattle, Denver, Austin, and now Minneapolis. Our clients have grown in scope and scale alongside that. I currently fill the role as the Billings office Design Director. I facilitate architectural design work done here in Billings and assist on other projects that are happening outside of Billings. I’ve worked on projects all over the western United States as well as South America and India. It’s been an interesting role that’s given me access to a variety of project types in a diverse set of locations.

‘Pool House in Whitefish’ (Photography by Audry Hall courtesy of CTA Architects Engineers)

On his design process and toolkit
We start with research, which I love. Facts plus positive emotions can create amazing things. We’ve found that the more research we do, the easier is the design. When we’ve done our research appropriately, idea generation and design solutions seem to fall into place. This allows us to make faster decisions and evolve more quickly with the client. We visually communicate our ideas with sketches, loose digital models, or really fast and cheap foam models. I value the speed and simplicity of the hand sketch and I love the foam cutter — so fast and so simple. Just paper, foam, plex, and tape give us quick models to etch out volumes and all we need to convey to the client. We rarely think about finished models, but look for something that clearly communicates the research and ideas to the client, then we evolve from there. That’s our conceptual phase and the starting point for client dialogue. We then focus on the details while continually leaning on the research ideas from the previous design cycles.

As far as digital tools go, we mostly use Sketch-Up, Revit, Maxwell, V-Ray, InDesign, and Photoshop. We’re always looking to learn more about other options. This past year, we looked at Sefaira to provide us early energy modeling data to assist with decision making. Most of the time, we’re working with Revit to produce our construction documents.

CTA is a full-service architectural and engineering firm, and many of the tools listed above benefit not only our clients but also our integrated engineering teams. Communicating design ideas with our teams is just as important as communicating them to our clients. The past couple years, we’ve significantly invested in online collaboration tools to free us from geographical borders that tend to define us; we’re now sharing projects across offices daily.

‘Old Faithful Visitor Education Center’ (Photograph by Phil Bell courtesy of CTA Architects Engineers)

On CTAs principles
CTA focuses on providing high performing design experiences for our clients, both in our projects and our process. We are pushing an idea of elegance and simplicity into our work, distilling our work down to its simplest and most timeless form and materials. We do a lot of client education around these ideas — things like focusing on long-term solutions and life cycle costs analyses. All decisions are design decisions. It’s the idea that a building should have value for fifty, one hundred, two hundred years. We’re constantly pushing this idea as an overall firm philosophy.

At the same time for myself, I’m always looking for opportunities to reflect an organic, modern feel. Working in Montana, many of our clients enjoy the rustic nature of raw materials. How do we pair that with contemporary construction systems we currently see value in as architects?

‘Edward A. Whitney Academic Center’ (Photography by James Ray Spahn courtesy of CTA Architects Engineers)

On projects that represent this approach
The Edward A. Whitney Academic Center in Sheridan, Wyoming, exemplifies this approach. Here was a college that needed to re-engineer the experience with their community and they started with the front door. The building provided a brand new admissions experience along with additional classroom support for their growing programs. With that project, we focused on permanence of the facelift, timelessness of the materials, and how it interacts with the rest of the community. The college is only fifty years old, but they plan to be a key part of that community for the rest of that community’s lifespan. We wanted a building conveying that level of permanence. At the same time, we wanted to convey the idea that the college was of this time. It’s a unique blend of some contemporary ideas with daylighting and space planning, then melding it with some of the more traditional aspects of architecture they were looking for.

I would also say Dell’s Silicon Valley campus in Santa Clara, California, was a standout project for CTA. Dell had been acquiring software companies and wanted to consolidate them under one roof. They brought us into the project early, allowing time for research and for us to learn about Dell and their design problem. It was fascinating to meet with all of the departments and discover how we could design a work environment that unified them in a single space. One aspect we studied was how to showcase the server farm technology that frequently sits in many IT tech spaces. We designed elegant solutions to questions like, “How does one remove visual barriers and enable engineers to access noisy technology while at the same time allow them to be able to work at their desks and collaborate as a team functionally?”

‘Dell Silicon Valley Campus’ (Photography by Chad Zeimendorf courtesy of CTA Architects Engineers)

On CTA’s aspirations for the next 5–10 years
It’s interesting: I’m seeing more of our design teams intrigued with this play between urban and rural. For me especially it’s been fun growing up in the city, appreciating that lifestyle, then living here in Montana and appreciating this lifestyle. We have vast experiences with both sides of the fence and the way the two can influence each other instead of sitting on opposing sides yelling at each other. I see CTA as a hand that can reach across some of the borders between these two and enable the environments to influence each other. I see our design work evolving in that way.

On the future of architecture in the next 5–10 years
I really hope we see a continued push toward a simple and focused way of life. Sustainable buildings, energy efficiency, and reduction in carbon usage effects all of us. I think architecture needs to play a serious role in starting to solve more of these world problems, and design is a part of that. I believe it is not an engineering-based solution but a full collaborative solution between entire communities. That’s one of the benefits of working at CTA — our engineers own this philosophy as well. We’re tackling that bigger picture all the time with our projects and clients.

On advice he would give his younger self
Just don’t be afraid. It’s going to work out. It’s going to feel scary and different. Embrace that and keep embracing that. It’s good. It means you’re learning. That would be the piece of advice I’d give myself 15 years ago.

This post was previously published on on 2/22/16.

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