One of the greatest things about being an architect is its multi-disciplinary nature that requires one to be have a broad and varied education in many subject matters.
That’s even more evident when one brings to their career a wide variety of experiences and outlets for their creativity and skills.
Steve Kismohr, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, is one of those professionals whose life and career have taken him in many different directions, yet whose passions have provided a unifying theme to his work.
An Architect and Sustainability Leader in the Midwest, Steve has a diverse background in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Throughout his 20-year career, Steve has led design teams to infuse healthy and energy efficient building techniques onto our built environment – using proven building science methods. He also has assisted state and local governments to develop and implement carbon reduction polices, such as building energy benchmarking ordinances and state energy codes. Steve continues to exert his influence on the Chicagoland area as a freelance Architect and Sustainability Leader at Green Hat Eco-Studio.
Join us this week on the Architects Possibility Podcast for an engaging conversation with Steve about his various experiences, his underlying commitment to energy efficient design, and how he’s created a career and life that mirrors his curiosity about the world.
Welcome to the Architects Possibility Podcast with David Bradley of Blueprint For Living Coaching. Each week, we connect with design professionals, just like you, who are using their creativity, leadership, and passion to make the world a better place in ways both big and small, every day. Now, here’s the host of the Architect’s Possibility Podcast, architect and executive coach, David Bradley.
Good day, everyone. This is David Bradley with the Architects Possibility Podcast. I’m talking today with Steve Kismohr, an architect in Chicago. I invited Steve here specifically… Steve and I have known each other for a number of years…but specifically because, of all the people that I know, Steve has not followed a traditional path in architecture. And I find his journey to be both interesting, fascinating, and probably instructive for a lot of architects who feel that they have to box themselves into a certain way of doing architecture. So Steve, welcome to the podcast.
Thank you. Thank you very much.
Good to see you. I am…perhaps since I just led in with this, perhaps maybe you can give us a short kind of a nutshell of what your career arc has been, and we can kind of go from there.
How much time do you have?
Apparently weeks and weeks!
Actually, you know, it is very interesting. I recently was talking to a recruiter and she sent me a job as a literal…The term was “nontraditional architect”.
Seriously. So it’s spot on, it’s…
So it’s a real thing!
…It’s a real thing. Yes. I have an interesting background because I worked in construction when I first got out of undergrad for a few years. The job market was terrible and actually…all of my good friends in undergrad were all about doing something hands-on. So we all did that. My…one of my friends is still a welder. One guy is still in construction. He never…construction management…He never change dout of that. And one guy, yes, another guy’s in construction building fabulous multimillion dollar homes in beautiful Telluride, Colorado. So we don’t feel bad for him at all! And I’m the only one who…who bridged into architecture at all.
But as noted, I haven’t stayed there the whole time. I worked a number of years and then as you know me, I came down to Chicago to go to grad school. And my goal really that before I even applied was wherever I go to school, I’m going to stay there and work there because you get all of these great connections by going to school. And I learned from undergrad, I lost all those when I went back to Minnesota. And so grad school, I’m staying there and it’s worked out very well. I’ve definitely made a lot of connections and I’ve also had a lot of different jobs to make more connections. So I worked in architecture for a number of years and then…and I’ve always been in sustainability at the same time…So building science that’s been there for my whole career. Probably cause my dad’s a scientist. He’s an organic chemist, which nobody wants to do, but he is good. He’s retired now. So he’s happy. And he’s always happy, so it doesn’t matter, but, uh, I’ve gotten certainly a lot of around the dinner table discussion about science. So that was no problem to weave my way into that. And then you know, 2010 and market crashes, and I’ve got this background of architecture and I had done a lot of lead certifications by that point, could say I’m a sustainability consultant as well. I worked doing both architecture and that for a number of years and I got a job at a nonprofit. So let’s add on another label working a hundred percent on energy efficiency and still that building science background as well. And that was, you know, they…that was Obama’s timeframe. So there’s lots of funding coming down from the federal government to the state, and to the cities. And they needed somebody that had some technical background like me to explain what these cities and States had gotten themselves into. If you want to say it that way…Or signed up to, to include some energy efficiency aspects. So that could have been anything from city hall leaks. What should we do to…we want to improve the YMCAs it’s inefficient. Let’s do a lighting upgrade. Let’s build some more insulation in the walls to let’s add LEDs to the streetlights and to the stop and go lights. And then that wrapped me into building efficiency. I finally got into that after a number of years, still at the Midwest energy efficiency Alliance and I began to create…and then I was on the policy team.
So I created a bunch of ordinances in major cities in the Midwest that are about, um, tracking energy of a building. So that’s building energy benchmarking. So benchmarking is “draw the line in the sand” and then track that energy use over the next year. Right? And so that’s basically a bottom line definition of how cities then track their energy use and create their greenhouse gas emission goals by saying, okay, we have now a line in the sand to compare what’s our percentage savings that we want to have a goal for in the next five, 10, 15 years. So that was really eye-opening to be just a hundred percent energy efficiency, but kind of evolve my sustainability into thinking more on the energy side than anything else. And then I went back to architecture because that’s sort of what I wanted to do again. And the sustainability then eats its way into there as well. So that’s what I’m doing right now on the sustainability side, mainly, with a little architecture in there just for fun.
And I know you’re also doing some volunteer work up in Evanston.
Yeah, so I really think that’s a big thing in my…I don’t know if it’s a quill im my hat or if it’s just a belief, but I really think that architects should be giving back to community. Really everybody should be, but certainly architects, we are that holistic sense of…we have a great way to synthesize problems and ideas and present them. And that’s what a lot of organizations need to be fully functional and to project what they want to do in the future. And architects are a great asset to them. And so I volunteered all over the place, a lot of different things, a lot with AIA Chicago.
And right now, yeah, as you mentioned, I’m working with some friends and then it’s expanded with this nonprofit called the Evanson Transit Alliance. And so we’re a connecting vehicle. Evanston has been a place where there’s been a little bit of bike trails or on-road designated bike lanes. But as we like to say it, “all trails end in Evanston”, so there’s no connection, right? To get through from Green Bay Trail and the North, come through Evanson, then go into Chicago, which Evanston’s… Sorry, for those not in Chicago, you gotta know Evanston is the first suburb North of Chicago. So we’re talking about making a connection from the suburbs into the city and, and that’s North-South. And then we’re also talking about East-West at the same time. So, my friend brought me on because I have a policy background from my nonprofit world days and the vision. So how do you talk about making grants? How do you make that connection between the different organizations, how to talk about collaboration and visualize that in our group, but also then bring other nonprofits in and speak to that process with them. And of course, if you’re going to do anything with the city, you’ve got to get them involved at the same time. And so there’s lots of collaboration needed for that short-term, long-term, thinking at the same time
As someone who bikes on the North shore a lot and suffered my way through Evanston, from one, getting from one bike trail to another. I thank you. I know what a pain in the neck it is to get through from one place to another by bike. When I hear your story and I know that there’s even more stuff that you haven’t shared with us, like your international travels and there’s so much that’s multifaceted about your career and how it’s formed. And yet I’m also present to the fact that there is an arc to it, right? There are consistencies in theme across the entire thing. What I thought was interesting as I know that a lot of people have a very narrow idea of what architecture is and architects are and what they do. And there’s sort of the traditional Mike Brady, architect, where you go, you get your degree and you go practice, you do your interning, you get your degree, you go work for a firm and, you know, decades ago you would stay with that firm for 30, 40, 50 years.
You’d retire and you’re done, but you’re basically on a, on a particular track. And what’s fascinated me about your background…And I think it kind of matches mine in some respects… Is there’s sort of an accumulation of experiences that come from a multitude of different, different areas, but they fuse together into something that’s really unique. And that makes makes you marketable in a different way, right? There’s… It’s… there are many places where people can come to you because you have that policy background, because you have the sustainability background, because you have construction background… That actually works to your advantage because it’s super well-rounded and kind of a Renaissance man experience of architecture, which is kind of how I see the profession as a whole is it’s a Renaissance industry. You have to know a little bit about everything.
Right, right, right. I agree with that a hundred percent. Yes. It can be detrimental in the same point that some people want to have you to have a lot of experience in one specific field of architecture, or just be the specifications guy or just be the sustainability guy. Even I don’t have that. But I think it’s an asset because at this point I’ve worked on almost every single type of building. And so there’s bits and pieces that come about. So the example that’s great is I just got finished working at Daikin Youngquist, which is a restaurant firm in hospitality. And I never worked in the restaurant world in design, but I had done lots of catering and restaurant physical work, growing up all the way through my first 10 years of architecture, because, you know, it pays so well. I wanted to maintain a savings account at the same time as a living. So I knew the physical surroundings and when they said, you know, what is the barkeeps dishwasher? You know, I can imagine what that is, even though I haven’t specified one before. So it was really easy for me to understand, you know, what’s the Hobart, sorry, that’s even better. Do you know what that is?
I actually don’t …
Right. That’s just the manufacturer name, which everyone’s like, Oh, okay. I know those in my field, but typically that’s the dishwasher. And, you know, and I understand the physical interaction of people and machinery in the restaurant world, because I know the process of how those work. So when the consultant comes back and says, this is the layout of the equipment that I wanted to do, I can actually have a meaningful conversation with the client. Yes. But the consultant who does the kitchen equipment and my boss all at the same time without knowing the…without having a lot of experience on the design side, because I know mentally, I can imagine how that works in physical space like architects do, I’ve trained that with experience at the same time.
Right? Well, I think those are some of the best architects too. I mean, we all have the human experience of living in buildings, but architects have a way of actually taking their life experience and the use of space and making it real in the built environment in a way that’s very sensitive. I’m always struck by architectural designs that make no sense because they don’t kind of align with how a human being would actually use the space. And you can tell that it’s somebody who designed something because they followed a particular theory or they had a particular idea, but it didn’t actually match the way the space was going to be used in the end. When, in the course of it…so, there’s this arc in your career, there are themes that go along the way, but also turning points. And when you get to the turning points, I’m curious, like, what moved you in one direction or another when you reached a turning point? Cause I think a lot of people are at a turning point right now in the profession, especially with the pandemic. And there’ve been a lot of layoffs and furloughs and reduced hours. And there are a lot of people trying to think about, you know, where am I going to go at this point in my career? And of course we all have turning points, whether it’s transitioning out of our firm or starting with a new one or making a decision to go somewhere else…what…what pushed you in one direction or another, as you got to your turning points in your career?
Well, it’s a combination of course, because I don’t do anything on a one-off. Part of it actually is I don’t force things so much. I see what plays out, what’s going to happen, what comes towards me and then utilize that as, a decision point or a direction that’s taking me that way. Okay. I’ll go with that flow, if you will. Or if you’re into the Chinese medicine or even yoga for that matter, it’s the energy movement and you… It’s taking you along like the current of a river and the best way is to move with the current. As we know if you’re in a lake or a river, or Lake Michigan with some turbulence, the best way to go is to go along with it. But you know, I have that multi-family or… I have the background of multiple things and [inaudible] too.
But so I’m able to adjust and thrive, I think, when something takes me in that direction. So it’s actually, I, you know, I am a Renaissance guy. I really like a lot of things and I’m happy to change. And I don’t mind it at all, but I still keep that in the background, my history as part of my new experiences. So like I said, the building science part and the sustainability is always there. I weave it in as I can. Sometimes that means…so, example: let’s say the firm that you’re working for, they don’t do sustainability, period. Boom. They don’t care about you and your sustainability aspects. They’ll talk about, I’ve been there. That’s no problem. You know, that’s just means, okay, well, we’ll pause for a little bit. I won’t bring that up. We’ll talk about that later. And as time progresses, we’ll also slowly bring that in and that’s something that actually former colleagues – Susan King, this great woman at Harley Ellis Devereaux – we claim this term “stealth green”. It just means that the client doesn’t need to know. It’s just a practice that we have embodied and we’re doing this all the time and it just slowly creeps into the process.
Going with the flow…
Right? Well, it’s just what we do, you know? So it doesn’t…so, example, right. Everyone likes the examples. So what the hell are you talking about, Steve? Okay. So, um, we know as architects, you design to code that’s…but that’s the floor, that’s the bottom, that’s the basement. We want to really be on the first floor of these designs. So let’s bring it up a little bit, right? So that means you can do that all sorts of different ways. There’s no rules. But example, okay. I know the building envelope’s a very important part in maintaining energy efficiency. Fortunately, currently we’re in 2020 Chicago and Illinois follow the 2019 IACC or 2018 ICC, 2015, 2018 IACC. We have to now have a layer of insulation on the outside, but, so we are mitigating the flow of heat to cold from inside to out, and we are stopping from a bridge. Great, one inch, that’s all I gotta do. It’s a floor.
Well, “stealth green” says, make it two inches thick, an inch and a half. It’ll be a little better. Nobody will know… The cost is very minimal. Not bad. It’s still constructable. And it’s a win-win for everybody. And we know buildings are lasting, you know, you can say 30 years, but you’re wrong. We’re talking about 50 to a hundred years is typical. That’s that’s normal. And some clients require you to go to a hundred years. That’s what their vision is, which is pretty good. And that means, okay, well, what’s the code going to be in a hundred years. Think about that when you’re designing your next building, right? If it’s my legacy, I think…I think that we should be doing carbon zero buildings right now because the code one, isn’t going to be net zero in my guess 20 years at max. And we have those folks on this committee for climate change in the house right now, 2020 that have made this policy document to say all these things that we want to have are about energy savings, going to net zero energy use in our buildings among other things, you know, that’s a five to 10 year window, then that’s even closer. So if we’re thinking about long term, yeah, my legacy would be, we got to get there right now, really, you know, limit the global climate change. So at 1.5 or 1.5 C or Celsius, because hey, the legacy is I’d like to stay on this Earth for awhile longer. And I’d actually like to eat the same vegetables and…I don’t do animal products…but the same vegetables that I’m eating now, instead of, well, “I’m sorry, sir, but we don’t serve cantelope and grapes anymore and can’t have any wine because those things don’t grow under this increase in temperature under these conditions”. What else would you like…right. I mean, that’s reality, right? Talk about hot under the collar. Yikes.
Is there…what’s been your inspiration throughout all of this, that kind of keeps you going as an architect, not just as an architect, but in all the iterations of your career, has there been sort of one consistent vision or passion drives it all?
Well with the building science background that I got, when I first started architecture, the science thing is…so I’m talking about early nineties, late eighties, mid eighties, we had the energy crunch. Right?
And that’s all about energy production or consumption at the same time or let’s say availability that would be both… My guess is that’s probably had a big influence on me. And so I’ve had that concern quite a bit, I would say throughout. But the interesting thing is, as my career has evolved and I would even say technology has evolved for us architects and engineers, we have slowly been able to account for that and then model for that energy use or even what is the existing energy use to that building. And so now we can predict what the energy use intensity is, and then predict what it will be and measure what it is, which we could always do through our utility bills. And then, okay, what’s that? How is that going to degrade so that we can think about maybe increasing that savings at the front end? So degrading well, even out to where we really want it to be. We didn’t get much more sophisticated at the time, which is great. We’re getting more and I would call it more reality-based which is fabulous. Like, you know, when I was in undergrad, we had one class on CAD and that was incredibly archaic. But very exciting.
…and ground-breaking at the time. Right.
Yeah. I made a, you know, I made a walk-up teller and that was, it took forever to do, but that was exciting.
Cutting edge. Yeah.
So much has changed. Just in the profession and the industry since you and I have been involved with it. I was thinking back to when you’re talking about your experience in construction, your experience in food service, your travel experiences, your, I mean, you’ve had a lot of experiences that weren’t necessarily traditionally architectural experiences, right. And yet you’ve got the traditional architecture training. I’m curious what the crossover between those things has been like, what have you brought from your non-traditional, your non architectural experiences into your architecture and how has your architecture, your practice of architecture informed your experiences out in the world?
Well, we talked about a little bit all of the giving back, right? The volunteer thing. And we probably want to explain to the audience…you’re alluding to travel. So, I took a year off. So, it’s a great story. I took a…I worked two years in…so I worked construction right out of undergrad. I worked two years in architecture and one of my friends who was catering with me on the food service side said, Hey, Steve, I got this great idea. Let’s take off for a year and travel around the world and then we’ll come back…
Right. That’s what my mom said, maybe. And you know what? It happened. We worked crazy hours, were basically at two jobs, 80 hours a week for a year, saved up, went around the world, literally… A year is a little long, but we stayed with a lot of people along the way that made us have a very enjoyable time in just settling down a little bit and seeing what the culture is there. So, I mean, that’s something that’s really, probably quite influential in every little part of the world that… Even, let’s say, okay, world state, city, neighborhood, sub-neighborhood level, it has its own little culture, which always fascinates me as to how people created that and how it has lived on for X amount of time. And how can you tap into that to make that space then be accepted that immediately and to the neighborhood as “this is a useful thing”.
And people go to that and thrive because it’s not pushed away. It’s actually accepted into the neighborhood as part of its fabric. And that’s quite interesting to me. It’s beyond the sustainability. There’s a little bit of sustainability element there that you’re weaving it into the nature of quote unquote of the neighborhood and the fabric in the neighborhood, which I said, but also the long lasting ability of it to stay useful.
I mean, I think in my travels abroad, the most successful neighborhoods are the ones where the community is invested and involved and have a say, have a voice and feel like a, whatever it is being done in their neighborhood is beneficial for everybody and gives them a stake
And they take ownership. That’s exactly where you’re going.
Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. What…as I mentioned, there are a lot of people right now who are probably facing career changes and many of them due to circumstances that aren’t necessarily under their control. What advice might you have to somebody who’s currently facing a change in their circumstances? They’re looking for me to pivot. I’m trying to figure out what’s next.
I have lots of those ideas that I’ve implemented as well. So, I don’t know what to say about…I don’t have any advice about if you should apply at places consistently, that’s what I’ve done. Doesn’t necessarily work or not work. I’ve used my network to find out, put my ear to the ground and have them put their ear to the ground to find out what’s going on. And that it at the least, it makes you feel good because you’re reconnecting with people, you’re still in your architecture community then, and sometimes you hit a, get a nugget. Sometimes it takes a lot longer than you realize, you know, that’s fine. The other thing that I have done too, is up the ante a little bit. So I went back to grad school. I got my…and so that turned it over…and I got my architecture degree.
And then I got licensed immediately cause I was done with IDP then. And then I immediately got my lead certification, AP accreditation, excuse me. But when I, so that was like, boom. But then when I got hit a lull, then I increased my lead AP to be building design and construction. More recently then I got the Well-AP and it retooled. And then I even did some other testing that we’re not going to talk about cause that didn’t work out, but I’m, you know, we’re adults and our brains need to keep getting fed and retooled and moved again and again and again. And that’s how some people say that’s how we have a long and good life is to not let things sit, to keep reinvigorating them. But then so that’s, you know, that’s the intellectual side. That’s great. What about the physical side? I love to tear apart things and put them back together and replaster walls and tear up floors to do that too.
I know you’re currently doing a remodel.
That’s a much bigger thing, but you know, I, so we had, let’s see last time, in two 10, then I made a niche in my wall and I found, I live in a vintage condo. It’s built in the teens. I wanted to build this…19 teens, literally 1917, I think. Kay waiting. There we go. I think it’s built in 1917. So, condos conversion and late nineties or not so great. Just letting you know that, but this was interesting. So I found out that my, they really only can change it about half of the building, half of my unit. So the other half is still there. So I found this out because I got new ceiling fan and the guy’s like, Oh, you got one of these black electrical boxes. They don’t make these anymore. This is cool with electricians all jazzed up.
And so then I think, Oh, what else is in that wall? So we make a recess because I cut out the gyp board. There’s more chipboard cut out again. There’s underneath there. So now I have two layers that are in a, what, like a four by four size. I have a niche in the wall, which I’ve done on architecture projects. I’m like, this is great. I can put a little space for pictures or painting to be sunken into the wall and put a frame around it. And now I have something that’s niche, right. Something that’s unique and enhances my space. So that was then…now this time, I’m hanging up this, I don’t even know how many… 50 pound mirror, which is an old, you know, they had those piano…I don’t know what it’s called…Even a piano, a place where you put your music…
I don’t even…
…like the music…And on a piano, it’s probably four feet long. So somehow we got acquired. This thing is a big piece of glass with a nice frame around it. Wow. This would be fun to hang on the wall. I gotta reinforce the wall. Hold on. Let me take that down, all on it. And boom, that’s it. So that’s happening this time. Yeah.
What do you want your legacy to be?
Well, you know, I said that I’m interested in everyone going net zero. I think that’s the cool thing right now. That’s needed. Definitely. So I’m, you know, we talked about the remodeling part. I’ve got this interesting project that I’m taking on myself up in Madison, Wisconsin. Bought a little property up there that is in very rough shape. So I don’t know a ton about passive house right now, but I’m learning, I guess that’s another thing I’m learning about my brain space. I think that’s the way to go right now. And we’ve seen people who’ve done that for single family homes, blah, blah, blah. And now we’re getting to be 10 story multifamily buildings and people are starting to think about, we can do this for an office building. That would be interesting. And you do that and you’re 90% off the grid. Then your energy use is pretty, pretty low. So you know, for me to do that, I don’t know if I can do it myself. I think I have to have some help, but that’s, that’s where I’m going right now.
Something tells me you’re not going to have trouble finding people to help you. Steve, I want to thank you for taking time to just chat with us about a career that’s been both multifaceted and all over the place. And yet really focused at the same time. It’s really great to talk to somebody who’s taken their architecture background and applied in so many different ways, so many different places and totally see a future with more adventures and more twists and turns. And they’re all gonna make sense, which is really cool. So…
There’s no rules, right?
Why should there be? Thanks so much, my friend.
Thanks for joining us this week on the Architects Possibility Podcast with architect and executive coach, David Bradley, produced by Blueprint For Living Coaching. If you found value in the show, be sure to give us a rating on iTunes and share it with an architect you know! remember to tune in next week for our next episode of the Architects Possibility Podcast. Until then, keep celebrating the possibility in your life and make it a wonder-filled day.