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Behind the Wall: Bob Simmons

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Principal Bob Simmons, AIA, says higher education is akin to urban planning, which makes it a nice work space to inhabit. “The client is the steward of the whole village, and is sensitive to how each building affects not only its village, but the world.”

This interest in a holistic approach to uncover the essence of design is something Bob gravitated toward early on, and continues to bring to the forefront in his work today. Having recently joined Shepley Bulfinch, he is focused on expanding projects within his niche – student life and dining – to produce a more comprehensive portfolio in the higher education sector.

To further welcome and introduce Bob, here is a selection of his design experiences.

Bob_Simmons_WorkingHow did your architectural journey start?

I began studying architecture at Carnegie Mellon under Delbert Highlands. His class was a cross between Mad Men and Good Will Hunting, and he focused on the ‘ness’ of everything – usefulness, playfulness, what does a wall want to be. It was great training for a future of long hours and architectural deadlines.

Have you always worked in the higher education sector? If not, what made you switch?

My first true architectural job was in Dallas, where I gained experience in construction, aviation, multi-family and education. I decided to zero in on higher ed. because I found a thoughtfulness in clients, consultants and contractors that was missing in my other work.

What would you say are your top skills?

I consider myself equally left and right-brained, my ‘calm in the storm’ demeanor, and my tenacity and patience. These attributes help me successfully tackle technical and aesthetic design challenges, build consensus and stay engaged and on track through long-term projects.

What makes a client relationship strong?

All relationships are based on trust. Establishing goals and distilling down to a set of common values goes a long way. Once a client gets to know me, they understand that I ‘m working for them, as well as for my firm.

What are current trends in student life?

Student life work is truly beginning to shift towards a focus on the whole student. This means student success both during and long after the college experience, in personal and professional life, in health, nutrition and wellness. As I concentrate on designing the social hubs of campuses, it means looking at places for gathering, conversations, building community in a world where technology has created a more connected, but more sterile world. We ‘ve lost connections with nature, with our food, and with world culture that we need to restore.

How do you see architects in the context of this evolution?

As designers, we are charged with interpreting the needs of the campus and the students, to create places and programs that exert a positive influence on student success, through memories, both spatial and cultural, through making healthy environments via the selection of our building materials and the design of our building systems, and by supporting healthy food in student dining. Some of these experience and lessons will stay with the student for a lifetime.

What are your values in your own practice?

Commodity, firmness, and delight. Ok, I ‘m stealing Vitruvian values from 15 BC, but astonishingly 2,000 years later, they still apply to my practice. Another translation of this is utility, strength and beauty.

Where/how do you learn?

I believe people really learn the most when they do things together. The act of doing solidifies memories and knowledge. Reading is second – where the words are thoughtfully conceived and committed to the page.

How would you like to be described by others?

Engaging, healthy, happy and thoughtful. I would hope people say they ‘d enjoy sharing a journey with me. I think we all want that.


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