Pass it On. Simple as That.

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Sorry I’ve been so hard to get a hold of. I spent Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Haiti and now I’m in Florida, but if nothing else, I’ll be on the plane this afternoon so maybe we can catch up then.

Douglas Lowe, FAIA, Voicemail from Nov. 19, 2014

full_size_LoweDoug_69_webIf one is trying to contact California-based architect, Douglas Lowe, FAIA, fear not, you will have a conversation. But the timing is tricky as he is often traveling from one benevolent task to another. Sometimes his charge is local: donating time, services, education and food to schools in the Watts, Los Angeles area. Other times the errand involves development/economic/sustainable solutions in Haiti (as illustrated by above message). And often, despite being an architect, the relief and solutions provided have very little to do with building structures. If water is needed in Nigeria, then one must teach the villagers how to dig more efficient water wells. (Water trumps shelter in the basic human needs.) If clothing is needed after a devastating earthquake in Armenia, then a possible solution may be to persuade Guess Jeans to donate attire and provide employment. Such is the life of Lowe, and the reason he was the first recipient of the newly instituted Norma Sklarek Award—an award given in recognition of one’s commitment to social responsibility. So, if a person is attempting to get a hold of him and receives a message to the effect of I-haven’t-forgotten-you-but-I-was-out-for-three-days-visiting-a-third-world-country-in-order-to-tackle-economic-development, the advice is to wait patiently upon return.

Founding Principle and Vice President of Cuningham Group, Lowe has been contributing to humanity on scales both large and small for as long as anyone who knows him can remember. Finding solutions, solving problems, and making lives better are not burdensome obligations—they are passionate and exciting opportunities. What’s great about this passion that stirs and inspires others. In 2009, Lowe was elevated to AIA Fellowship for Service to Society. Also, he has a reputation as an advocate for the budding architect who is eager to learn the ins and outs of not only the design business, but the actual building as well. (Lowe is a licensed architect and general contractor.) But perhaps what makes him a wise and natural mentor is his delicate and decisive way he amalgamates social and professional responsibility to architecture—Servant Leadership.

Scott Godfrey, AIA, NCARB, associate architect at Cuningham, best explained this merge. “Basically its puts the needs of others first so that people develop and perform as highly as possible. For architects it means you need to look after those you lead and make sure they are empowered for success and safety in professional environment with real risk. [Lowe] demonstrates the best of Servant Leadership every day in practice. Many architects are in his debt for making them better professionals.”

Servant Leadership is obviously timeless. There will always be a need to serve. So when asked about how generations relate to one another and best learn to fulfill the human obligations, Lowe doesn’t regard it as a hindrance. “I hear rumblings about the generational issues, or gaps, when it comes to the mentoring process, but I’m really not seeing it,” Lowe said. According to him, there will always be some concerns because, well, humans are human and the road map of relationships, communication and interpersonal skills can sometimes be difficult to navigate. There is no magical solution to accommodating one another when the world changes rapidly. “I believe if you are in a position that has benefited you then you should pass it on. Simple as that,” he said.

It’s also difficult for him to blame anything on a current generational issue as the Millennials are on fire to help the globe at large. “This generation actually has more interest in helping people on a global scale, and that’s exciting to me,” said Lowe.

(This is where the conversation pauses, for just a moment or two and global value of the Millennial turns into how they are formally educated. The best way to help someone who needs water isn’t to design a plan for a house. It’s to teach them how to dig the wells. And to do that, the architect must have experience digging. One can’t be taught hands-on with a text book or an eDocument.)

Lowe himself graduated as a young man and needed a place to live. He took up residence in a tiny dilapidated house on a farm, which the owner allowed him to fix up. He liked the building, the working with his hands so much that Lowe and a friend borrowed $3,900 to design and build, as Lowe termed, a “hip duplex.” They cosntructed it. With their hands. “The only thing we didn’t do was the carpet and drywall,” Lowe said, “and this experience shaped my career. Imagine what would happen if we embedded hands-on with the theoretical. Ok, now you designed it but now you have to go out and build it.”

Lowe takes this approach with all those he mentors. “He allows you to pursue your designs but makes sure you understand the componentry that will bring it to life. You can have your wild roof design but must comprehend how to drain it so that it is reliable for the client,” said Godfrey.

As for what he’s looking for in up and coming professionals, well, it’s not an easy formula. Talent is great, but attitude and personality have a lot to do with a successful architect. “Human beings have a lot of variables, and I understand this,” he said. Lowe considers every eager budding architect who comes his way as an open canvass, and they all fit somewhere in the continuum.

And if you happen to be one on this continuum and are looking to become an architect, here are Lowe’s two pieces of advice: 1. Be on the lookout for whatever, or whoever, can provide you the best guidance, and 2. GET LICENSED. “You can quit after you get your license if you want, but you won’t,” he said confidently.

And whether an architect is part of the Millennial Generation or otherwise, furthering individual and collaborative contributions to humanity isn’t very difficult if one simply takes a look around and does a very small bit of research. As it is quoted from Lowe on the Norma Sklarek Award itself, “There is no shortage of opportunities to make a difference in this world.”


Shannon Calder

Shannon Calder, a Sacramento-based writer, joined the AIACC in 2013. She is the author of, “Jack and Abigail Make a Compass,” a novel about people, birds, and orchids. She spends her days both on and off hours, looking for connection, which is a good hobby to have when linking the value of design to public perception.

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