Architects are obviously known for their role in designing and creating the built environment. And after a long day of client meetings, draw reviews and redline markups, it would be perfectly understandable if they went home, closed the door, and kicked back with a drink and a good book.
For many of us, however, our role frequently extends far beyond the built environment to include leveraging our skills in service of social justice and the betterment of our world.
As an Architect and Project Manager, Brandy Koch has an astute hands-on understanding of the issues facing the design industry today. She has been recognized with the ’40 leaders under 40′ award and one of the ‘Top 20 Leaders Under 40’ by ENR Midwest. Brandy has particular experience with onsite construction administration for complex projects including academic, cultural and commercial projects.
Brandy also volunteers regularly and has served on numerous board and committees for the AIA, AEC Cares, the Chicago Architecture Foundation, Diner en Blanc Chicago, and other non-profits, which seek to improve and enrich the communities through neighborhood clean-ups, hunger relief, and beautification projects throughout the community. For years, she has been pursuing her passions and putting her skills to work outside the office, getting her hands dirty, and pitching in to support causes she believes in.
In today’s episode Brandy and I discuss volunteering, its impact on the communities where she lives and the intersection it provides between her personal and professional life. With a particular focus on her work with AEC Cares, we take a look at what inspires her to volunteer her valuable time and what keeps her engaged.
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 afternoon, everybody. Welcome to the Architects Possibility Podcast. I’m David Bradley, and I have the pleasure today of sitting here with Brandy Koch, a good friend of mine and architect out in Fresno, California. She’s a senior project architect with Teter Architects, and we’ve known each other for quite some time over many years in many different capacities, but I invited Brandy here today because I know her to be someone who is always on the go. Who’s always involved with some kind of event, with a charity, with some kind of volunteer activity. And I wanted to invite her to join us and just talk about her volunteer experiences and how they relate to her architecture career or not. You’ll really enjoy the time that we spend together here. Brandy was President of AIA, Illinois chapter in 2013, and then shortly afterwards she was the chair of the AIA national political action committee, the first woman and the first young architect to hold that office. So she’s been involved with AIA for many years at many different levels and has now taken, I believe, taken a brief hiatus from… not from being a member of AIA, but in all of her activities there in her move out to Fresno, and is working hard with Teeter. And I guess that’s going to be my intro to Brandy. So, welcome to the podcast. It’s great to have you here!
Thank you very much for having me. I really appreciate it.
Yeah. I’m really excited to talk to you. I, like I said, I’ve always known you to be somebody who was on the go, running every morning and baking goods for everybody else and working so incredibly hard at your work and your business, but I’ve always been impressed by your volunteer work. And so, I’m just curious, but like, what can you tell us about your experience as a volunteer and as an architect?
You know, it’s kind of interesting cause there’s a lot of people that, you know, they kind of have an idea about volunteering and finding time for it. And, you know, trying to be both of the feeling like it might be like an obligation to do it versus something that they want to do. And for me, it was just always kind of something that was just…came natural to me. I just, I enjoyed being out in the community, doing stuff. And perhaps that came because of the fact that I’m an architect. And I just really enjoy the community and trying to make the community a better place, one way shape or form or another, but it was just always kind of something that was just always there. So it wasn’t necessarily a thing to try to have to make room for. It was just more so of trying to find what I wanted to do and, in some cases, that I didn’t want to do because there’s a lot of times that I would kind of over-commit myself and have to kind of dial it back in to something that I really felt that, that great fulfillment with, that me as a person and then also as an architect that I felt that my time with, you know, that area of the community or those organizations actually made a difference.
Is it something that you always did even growing up or did it start in college or afterwards? Like, what was the foundation of your volunteer work?
It was something that not, I mean, like, as I kind of was thinking through my volunteering prior to our talk today, I was remembering that, back in high school, I became president of the national honor society in high school. And I was the president for two years and I actually worked to create a program that actually allowed us to create little gift baskets with gifts to be able to give to kids who were in the hospital over the holidays. Just something fun, something that would work for them. So it might be like a little puzzle or a little coloring book – obviously not in the hospital so it makes it really hard to give them like Easter candy – but trying to come up with things that we can do collectively to go into the hospitals and give that – nothing at all whatsoever to deal with architecture.
But it just, to me seemed like something that would be nice to do for the kids that unfortunately were spending a holiday away from the big family activities stuck in the hospital. So, and then going into college, you know, I had other activities that I would volunteer in around college. There was the ACE program that would get high school kids interested in architecture, construction, engineering-type careers. And I used to always be one of the people that would help give them tours around the architecture campus at school, to be able to talk to them a little bit about what it meant to go through architecture school, to give them an idea if they wanted to come that route or if they wanted to do engineering or construction – naturally because the architecture school’s the smaller of the three I was really trying to sell hard for the kids to come over to architecture.
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So once you got into your career and you looking around and you mentioned sort of trying to find the balance of where to put your energy and where to put it most effectively, what volunteer organizations have you chosen and what drew you to them?
So I think probably the first one as a pro… As like a professional aside from still going back to the colleges and still talking with college students as somebody who is now out of college and just kind of coming as a visiting person to, you know, one of my former professor’s classes to, you know, get some tips of advice called the incoming freshmen for architecture. After that, I started looking around the community and there was, so, Keep America Beautiful. They have two ____, two major cities that can sign up. So I actually joined up with a city for part of the Keep America Beautiful group and worked through that. And we had projects with them that was trying to beautify the city through neighborhood cleanups, but then also through giving awards to businesses and residents for keeping their property looking nice.
In some cases, you know, when it’s a charter bus facility and all they have is a whole bunch of blacktop, makes it really rather difficult, but when even a place that is predominantly blacktop still goes through the effort to put in small flower pots and planters at the areas that they actually can. It really does spruce up the outside of it. So finding ways to build awards and recognize those businesses for doing that. Then on the flip side, being able to help create an actual environment, a reception, to bring the community in, to understand what the organization was doing and why we were recognizing these businesses. One, to try to help advertise it for the businesses who are doing a good job keeping the city looking nice, but then also just to simply make them more aware of what they can do, both in it for their own businesses or their own houses and in their communities to try to keep spreading the word that there’s an organization out there.
There’s ways that we can all work together to keep enhancing our community and making our community better. That was kind of like my first start into it. In the process of that, I also obviously was kind of getting involved with AIA on the actual like, true profession standpoint of it. But even with my involvement with the AIA, I have always kept some sort of involvement in a local group or local organization. It was just, for some reason, I just, I felt that I needed that balance, that bit of being with people who aren’t all architects.
It does make…I…it just worked overall better for me. It just…I think it just helped me better understand my community and make me just in general a better architect because I got to be out with so many people that this wasn’t their profession. So I got to meet a lot of people and talk with lots of people who might not have anything to do with any sort of a developmental type project, that I got to talk with about, you know, what it was that I did and why architecture was also so important in a community, even if you were standing outside in a park, not inside of a building and why it was still important.
We do have a tendency to sort of talk amongst ourselves as architects. And what I hear in what you’re saying is that it kind of helped you keep your pulse on what was going on in the local community, but also represent architects in a sense. I mean, it was an opportunity. I think the volunteering actually became a way to evangelize about the role of architects in society and put you in touch with people who may not have drunk the Koolaid, but are definitely interested in where the crossover might be.
Yeah, yeah. It was one of the things that I remember is… I was on the AIA Illinois board and was making my way through as being treasurer and then becoming elected as the president for the Illinois board. And I remember asking the board several different times over the course of me being in those positions, how many times they’ve been out and they met somebody who’s never met an architect before. And usually nobody around the table was able to tell me when the last time was that they met somebody who said they never met an architect. To which I always responded, “well, you need to get out more” because we, you know, there’s these stories and these books that have been written and people in movies, and they kind of depict these architects as these people who are very standoffish and very kind of high on themselves and high on their influence to the world and people because of those instances have kind of formed this idea about architects and what architects do. And then all of a sudden they meet somebody like me who’s, you know, throwing, you know, lumber over my shoulder and swinging a hammer and they’re sitting there, like, you’re an architect? I just, I didn’t think you guys were allowed to one, wear color and two, be outside in the open world, you know?
Well then I’m sure it also is something new for them too, because, being a woman as an architect out there, I’m sure you’ve probably, I mean, I can’t imagine you haven’t run into surprise because most people think architects are all Mike Brady. Right. So a great opportunity to be a role model for young women who want to enter into that profession.
Well, and I think it’s not even only for young women, I think it’s for anybody who doesn’t look like Mike Brady.
Fair enough. Yeah.
You know, just simply the fact that there is somebody else that can walk into a room that doesn’t look like Mike Brady that can also call themselves an architect. And it’s just…it helps to kind of shift the perspective a little bit. And it was…and it was really interesting cause I remember working on a project and talk and I was going around the building and kind of looking at some of the staff and how they worked in some of their spaces to try to help design a new space for them. And the women in the office were commenting about how I was always in some sort of, like, a really bright color. Every time I came into their office and I told them, I said, well, considering I’m the only woman that is sitting in these meetings and most men are sitting in there in their dark suits, I figured that I’m going to help emphasize the fact that there is somebody different in those rooms. So I always wear a bright color.
What a way to stand out.
Well, because it was, you know, they talk about having a seat at the table and all this other stuff and it’s like, but at the same token, it’s like, it might be subtle, but it’s just once again, just highlighting the fact that there’s somebody different. Who’s had a different experience every time that I’ve walked into a building. And there’s a benefit when you get to have that diversity sitting around the table.
Right? Absolutely. What’s been your favorite volunteer activity or do you have a particular organization that you really felt passionately about?
Probably me, I would say as far as the closest tie to architecture would probably be AEC Cares. And that was an organization that got started several years ago. And it was basically…it kind of came together out of the idea of what we were starting to do with AIA Illinois, with our executive vice president, Mike Waldinger and the conversation that he had with Laura Marlowe at Reid Costruction Data at the time. And they were talking about when the AIA goes into some of these big cities, as opposed to only improving the cities by a whole bunch of architects – some cases 20,000 give or take – that show up at a city to rent hotel rooms and go to tourist sites and bars, restaurants for the convention. Why don’t we make an impact in another way, as opposed to just the economic side of it from the _____.
So they came up with this, AEC Cares for architects, engineers, and contractors who care in a way to bring together all the people that are already coming into town for this convention, come a day earlier, use what the architects can do with our design efforts and then also what the industry providers can bring to the project. So we ended up…we got people like USG that started donating out of their foundation dollars to help fund community projects in the city that the convention was in. They were also donating ceiling tiles and other materials for the project. We had groups like ____ who sent a crew of people there for every single AEC Cares project in addition to product, to be able to be installed. We also had other groups like _____ and Sherwin Williams and some of these great groups out there that are huge companies.
And they’re all just donating the material because at the end of the day, the architects spec the material to go into projects that the contractors then buy. So if these companies want to get some extra publicity out of it, they’re going to be at the architects convention with a booth. Why don’t you also give us some material to paint some walls and put in some new flooring and make a rundown place a much nicer place for maybe an existing use, maybe a new use conversion, renovation, whatever the project might be in that city. So that to me was kind of like the beautiful culmination of what I’ve always wanted to be able to do was do the architecture stuff, but actually being able to get my hands dirty and cause I loved doing actual work and being out there and doing this kind of great impact back to the community. And once again, I’m still meeting with all these people with the organization and the users of this in facility to be able to talk with them about what do they want. And again, I’m still meeting with a lot of people that have never met with an architect before, had no idea what an architect could do for their project, and were just in complete awe by that little bit of work that we were able to do with a bunch of volunteers to automatically transform their space.
I know that AEC Cares has been something that’s been really successful and very popular. I mean, dozens of people were volunteering. It’s great because, as you said, you could leverage the presence of the manufacturers and the contractors. You also had all of the, well, free labor of people attending the conference, right. Who are like, Hey, I want to do something, something substantive, something where I can get my hands on things and actually do what we, I think, all entered architecture to do, which was to have an impact on communities and super cool. Was there one AEC Cares project in particular that you thought was especially successful or that you enjoyed the most?
I would have to go with a little home court advantage of when I was the project manager for the AEC cares project in Chicago. So that was a lot of fun because of living and working in Chicago. So having this project, you know, basically like, you know, as you say right in your backyard and it was…there was prior to that, AEC cares…the city of Chicago, they closed down several schools throughout the city. And they started consolidating schools and this was a school that was in wonderful shape that was sitting vacant. And at the time it was mayor Emanuel and he wanted to try to test out this pilot program and see whether or not they could make a different organization, basically kind of rent a school and use it to keep the school from sitting vacant, pay the utility bills and, you know, do the maintenance on it.
So that way it was still giving good back to the community. So this was the first project that they did with that. And it was interesting because of just the fact that it is Chicago and it was going to be one of the largest conventions that was happening in AIA history leading up until that. And we had so much material that was being donated that we actually just left piles of material for Metropolitan Family Services, which was the nonprofit that was going into this school, for them to use to continue the renovation. We actually, with the pro bono design team, we actually designed all the spaces based off of what they wanted to convert all of the classrooms into for different…they had testing centers, they had doctors that were going to come in midway through once the organization kind of got up and running with the site to be able to do some, you know, basic general tests for health – ears, you know, sight type of stuff – with the younger kids to get them ready to go into a Headstart.
And then in kindergarten programs, there was programs that were being developed for helping the parents test and get into better jobs that was going to be offered here. So there was a lot of growth that they saw available. So we designed the spaces to accommodate that. But in a one day blitz build there was no way that we were going to be able to renovate an entire school, but we got a whole bunch of flooring donated that they later installed. We had whole bunch of paint that was donated that they later put into all these other classrooms. Same thing with ceiling tiles and other stuff. So that to me was just that culmination of where everybody really understood what this meant and what providing this type of facility in what at the time was the neighborhood that had the highest per capita murder rate in the country. And the fact that we showed that community that people still cared and we were not going to let that school sit empty. We were going to make it a place that was going to give back to their community, to their children, to their families, help everybody in that community grow and become better. So that to me was just that beautiful, like, culmination of how everything comes together and it just works well.
It also sounds like it ties back to that desire of yours to impact locally and to be connected to your local community as well. Is…what’s…what’s surprised you the most about your volunteering experience?
I think the friendships that I developed from it. So the interesting thing is, so AEC Cares happens just once a year. It’s not…it’s not strictly community-based, it’s community-based, based off of wherever the national convention goes to. But what’s developed is a community of AEC Cares volunteers. And to the degree where there’s actually volunteers that come for AEC Cares but they don’t attend the convention. Like, that’s the type of community that’s developed around AEC Cares and that’s what they’ve been able to create. So I have friends that I pretty much only see once a year at AEC Cares and we talk beforehand and we, you know, kind of communicate and work through things. And it’s gotten to the point now where, you know, the different people that are officially like on the business side of AEC Cares that they just call up, you know, like the core group of us have been involved with AEC Cares for all these years and they just find out that, okay, well, what do you guys want to do?
Hey, you know, the design team, like, they’ll send us drawings beforehand, like the design team’s thinking about this, what do you think? Can we make it happen? And, you know, we’ll kind of talk amongst ourselves and we figure out they’re like, “Oh yeah, no, we can totally do that”. Well, we got this, you know, sometimes the day of we sit there and we’re like, really, did we really have it? I don’t know, but we always finish, even if it’s, you know…Oh my gosh, we did an AEC cares in Houston. I think it was two years ago now. It’s kind of weird being in COVID-land because we missed one this year. But it was so hot and it was so humid…
In Houston. Yeah. And we were doing all this outside work to kind of build it. And it was further…I mean, it was a wonderful shelter to be able to help people that had, you know, obviously fallen on hard times, to be able to get themselves in and off the street and out of addictions. And so we were building raised planter beds for them. And because obviously a lot of the people coming in also had children, so we were doing some renovations in their playgrounds. So we’re doing all this really heavy physical labor. That’s very dirty outside, you know, digging things, mulch, installing, you know, assembling. So it’s hot, it’s humid, you’re sweating for Tuesday and being just covered in sawdust or, you know, mulch dust or dirt.
And then it starts to rain and then everything starts to become mud, and then it stops, and then just the sun comes out and it gets even more humid than it was earlier in the day, which I didn’t know it was possible. But as you said, it’s Houston. And I think partly through me and one of my very dear friends that I’d been friends with…and I talk with him regularly now because of all of our times working on AEC Cares and we were staying there and we were…we just looked like pigs that had just come out of mud with the way our clothes were hanging off of us and, like, the dirt caked all over us. And we stood there for this photo and I love the photo because it is just , there was no stopping until everything was done. It didn’t matter how hot it was. It didn’t matter how dirty we were. And at the end of the day, there was volunteers that literally just threw all their clothes away. They just knew that it just was not worth the effort to attempt to try to even wash them. So I actually have photos of like volunteers, clothes that they just threw in the trash,
The glamorous side of volunteering. Right?
I know, you know, but you just sit there…you need…but the humor of it, but also just that beauty, that that’s how hard they worked. They worked so hard that they had ruined clothes that they will never be able to wear again, but they were there until it was done. And that’s just, yeah, it didn’t matter.
Yeah. That’s awesome. What skills do you think have translated over from architecture to volunteering or from volunteering back to architecture? How have the two sort of interlinked for you?
For me, I think from architecture going into volunteering, it’s definitely that ability to manage the whole project and to understand all the moving parts and all the moving components that have to come together to make the project successful. So whether that is, you know, on the design side and architecture and making sure that all the different building systems are all coming together or, you know, trying to logistically figure out how you’re getting all of these volunteers and all of these people to make it into a site and actually fit, um, and actually being able to be productive when they’re volunteering. Because when you try to cram a whole lot of people in a room to do volunteer work, it’s that case of, you know, too many chefs in the kitchen. At some point in time, people are just going to stand around and not do anything. There has to be that balance.
So from the architecture side into the volunteering, I think that definitely came with me and became a really great benefit of how to try to figure out that balance. From the volunteering side back to architecture, I think it’s my ability to bring things back to real world and really keep things out of the “architect-speak” and into the average person dialogue. Because when I’m talking with organizations that have never talked with an architect before they end up in building spaces that were donated to them or whatever. So the idea of actually designing anything for themselves is never in their realm of thinking usually before we actually arrive. So, going from the idea of that to working with clients…very similar, you know, they’re used to just…sometimes they get some builder or they get some landlords who just rent them out of space. And their only option is to change out the carpet and a paint color.
So trying to talk through with them, their own internal logistics of how they work and how their staff function and where they see their organization and their company going in the future, are they going to grow and expand? So they need room for expansion. Do they have a certain, you know, culture within their firm or their company that they want to make sure comes through once they go to a larger space? And how do you actually create that for them? That I think has really been one of the key things that I’ve learned is how to have those types of conversations with…and we’ve all been guilty of it…with some of the terminology that architects use and people look at us and they’re like, what? What’s that word? I don’t know what that means. So it’s figuring out different ways to be able to communicate in a way everybody can understand it. We’re all on the same page and not feeling like, you know, anybody is there for any sort of prideful gain in their career, but we’re all there to make sure that this project is a success for the people who are actually going to use it.
What tips do you have for any architects who are looking to get active and engaged in their communities? I mean, do you have any thoughts about that?
I think one thing is, you know, when people always say, you know, one, start with what you have a passion for. So…and a lot of times people think that that means, well, I have to have a passion to helping the homeless, or I have to have a passion for wanting to feed the hungry. It’s not necessarily saying that that’s your passion, but it is saying that if you see people that are sleeping in camps alongside the road, and it just bothers you and you wish that they were able to have somewhere safe to sleep at night, then maybe you do figure out how you can help raise awareness or help raise funds that can help with the homeless population. Maybe you really enjoy cooking and you just…but maybe your kids have gotten out of the house. And now it’s just, you know, you and your spouse at home, or just you at home and you miss cooking for a lot of people.
Well, maybe that is a way for you to go and get engaged with a food pantry or a soup kitchen to be able to go and help cook and feed people. So I think just figuring out different things that you might enjoy doing just on like the small little scale and then figuring out is there some need in your community that you can help with. And keep in mind that may also be going to your animal shelter and helping to walk dogs simply because, one, you would love to have a dog, but you don’t have the time to be able to have a dog because as architects a lot of times our schedules get kind of crazy, right? But there’s nothing that says you can’t go to the shelter and help walk dogs on a Saturday morning.
It’s just, you know…it’s everything that you would normally just like to see and, you know, could experience throughout,
Well, then it goes without saying that it doesn’t have to be architectural related because, even as you’ve proven, like, you can carry your skillset no matter what the application is from your career into your volunteer activities. And it’s all gonna round itself out. Is there…I’m curious if there is a volunteer experience that you have yet to have, that you would love to do?
Hmm. Volunteer experience I’ve yet to have that I’d love to do. You know, I would think honestly, I think probably my next volunteer experience actually is going to be something dealing with helping the homeless population here in California. It’s a huge issue out in California. There’s, you know, lovely weather year-round makes it much more conducive for people being outside a lot more than other parts of the country that are very, very cold, different times of year. So…but the one thing that I’ve found very disturbing for me is listening to some of the politicians talk about how they would go about “dealing with the homeless problem”. And it…I have an issue with the idea that they look at it as a homeless problem, because I feel that as soon as they start talking about it in that dialect, that they’ve removed the human aspect from it.
And now all of a sudden you’re dehumanizing the people that are actually out there. And I think there needs to be a way to approach how to offer both services and support for people that are suffering from homelessness. Because a lot of times you…I mean, the number of people that I have met that you would never know were homeless for a period of time in their lives. And it might not necessarily be that they were sleeping on the street, but they were bouncing from friend’s couch, to family’s couch, to friend’s couch, sleeping in their car for a period of time and whatever, but technically they actually had no address to be able to call home and they had to keep schlepping their stuff in and out of other places and putting it into the trunk of their car or putting it into a shopping cart and pushing it down the sidewalk.
And I think that there’s a way to look at that and look at a way to bring a sense of humanity back to how we help people that fell on bad times. You know, fell in with the wrong group, you know, maybe got an addiction going, maybe lost their job and lost their ability to get the proper mental support that they needed to be able to keep themselves able to function regularly. And there’s a way to help people get back from that. But as long as people keep looking at that as something that is not human and trying to figure out how to cram them into different spaces, as opposed to actually creating a space that they would actually want to be in, then you’re not going to act…I mean, we’ll never solve the problem. If you cram people into a place that they don’t want to be in…because clearly they would rather live outside in that case. So I think that there’s a way to come up with a good solution by utilizing obviously both the architecture side of it. Um, but then also being able to do the volunteering and the community involvement that I like so much and being able to marry those two together, out here.
Sounds great. Things coming up on the horizon. Well, listen, one last question I always ask everybody before we sign off, is what do you want your legacy to be?
What do I want my legacy to be. Yeah, it’s kind of interesting. Cause I will say that being somebody who has been working in this profession, I got my first job in the architecture profession when I was 16 and I’ve been working for firms ever since. And I always think that my legacy is going to be something along the lines of helping to support kids down through younger schools, you know, grade school, junior high, going into high school to get a better understanding of what architecture is and what, you know, and… I’m not gonna say anything negative about engineers or contractors…but I think just in general, the overall industry – obviously more towards architecture – but making sure that they understand what that is and why it is such an important role in society. And I think going from both helping to educate them on architecture, and then also being able to help provide scholarships and grants for nonprofits to be able to help pay for architecture services, to be able to keep themselves. I think somewhere along those lines, I think is what my legacy will probably end up being. Just the way to be able to keep bringing in people into the architecture profession that may have never heard about it before. And making sure that you get organizations that are able to get the services that they need to make their organizations and their impact on the community even better.
I look forward to having you back on this podcast, when that all happens, that’s really exciting. For anybody who is listening, I’ll provide links to some of these organizations in the show notes and Brandy Koch, I just love chatting with you. Thank you so much for being out there in the world as a volunteering force of nature. I really…I acknowledge you for representing architects so well and being an ambassador to their communities and for your commitment, for the impact you have on society. Thank you so much.
Thank you very much for having me. This was great.
Thanks for joining us this week on the Architects Possibility Podcast with architect and executive coach, David Bradley, produced by Blueprint For Living Coaching. Make sure to visit our website where you can subscribe to the show in iTunes, Stitcher, or via RSS so you’ll never miss a show. And be sure 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!