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Architect of the Month: Rachael Johnson, AIA, SmithGroup

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Colorado native Rachael Johnson, AIA, EDAC, is an architect at SmithGroup, a 1300 employee, integrated design firm with 15 offices in the U.S. and China, including the firm’s newest office in Denver—a welcome base in the Intermountain West, better positioning the firm to serve regional clients that include the University of Colorado Denver, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Craig Hospital, Colorado School of Mines, and many more.

Rachael currently serves as board president-elect for AIA Colorado. She is also responsible for bringing the Christopher Kelley Leadership Development Program (CKLDP) to Colorado.

What sparked your interest in architecture? 

I have always been interested in space and the human stories within them. Growing up with passion for math and art, I easily worked my way to architecture, but it wasn’t until college when I realized the awesome and scary power of a poorly designed space (or the powerful benefit of a well-designed one). A family member had gotten ill and in my visits to the hospital I was baffled at the dusty wall paper and the less-than-calming paintings on the walls. I wondered how any person could heal there. Designing a built space struck me as powerful good a person could contribute to this world. I quickly transitioned from school to a design job working on healthcare environments.

What is unique about your approach to architecture?

I have found that my interests and values in the work have strongly evolved toward a focus on human stories. We design spaces mainly for humans – the design thinking and full outcome of a work can only be realized when people occupy, react to and react in these spaces we build. Some of my favorite architecture seems dry and plain when photographed after hours with no people present, but these places come alive and begin to reveal the best of themselves when in use. I think of Millennium Park in Chicago and the Jay Pritzker Pavilion—but when the symphony gets started and the people flood in, what a different place! Anymore, architecture feels like the fanciest blank canvas about and within which the human condition roams.

What is your niche/area of expertise?

My career has been focused on the design and execution of built healthcare environments. I have worked on anything from electrical infrastructure expansions within a large hospital, to medical imaging equipment replacements, to full new medical campus planning, design and buildout. While all types of architecture change so rapidly over time, I have seen healthcare environments designed and built over the course of three years only to reach ribbon cutting with outdated medical equipment and rooms. Healthcare design is so very technical but also highly empathetic in its nature. It is very scientific and research-based. I am thrilled when I walk into a hospital and meet with our end users only to find out they are geniuses – fixing human hearts or valves or knees every day. Healthcare design right now seems to be have the most impact on human fulfillment. I do think this specific industry will always be changing – and hopefully will be seeing a drastic change away from reactionary healthcare delivery toward a focus on preventative human wellness instead. This would change the spaces we design and who we engage with throughout the design process.

What are some of the most exciting Colorado projects you have been involved in recent years?

Except for a couple years in the DC area, I have spent my career here at home in Colorado. Many projects I’ve worked on have been with my previous firm and remain confidential to an extent but, in general, I’ve worked with large, national healthcare systems both on large projects and small, local renovation tasks. Some of the most fun I’ve been involved with have been small, rural clients in our mountain communities.

Most recently, we’ve been working with Centura Health and a design partnership between SmithGroup and Boulder Associates. Still in the early stages, we are exploring a new Centura Health Orthopedic and Spine hospital to sit on a community-focused master plan. The focus on community engagement and whole-person care is some of the most exciting work I’ve experienced in my career.

How has your involvement with AIA impacted your career? 

I have been an AIA member in Colorado since college when I participated in the Colorado student chapter of the organization. I started getting more engaged when I lived in Alexandria, Virginia. AIA Northern VA’s education sessions helped me get through my licensure exams on an expedited schedule, and my participation in AIA DC’s Christopher Kelley Leadership Development Program (CKLDP) really launched my leadership path in the organization. Upon returning to Colorado, in partnership with AIA CO, we started the first expansion program to AIA DC’s local CKLDP. Serving on the AIA CO Board as Secretary and now as the 2021 Board President, has knit my career and AIA more closely together—I believe in the good our industry can do for Colorado and AIA is enabling this community to be bigger and better for humanity. I know my involvement has had some indirect impact on my career though I don’t think I can quantify that – but I have been able to fulfill other passions and desires as a volunteer servant for the profession of architecture beyond the day-to-day of my work with specific clients.

You recently started working for Denver firm SmithGroup. What kind of impact do you think the firm will have on Denver?

My move to SmithGroup has surprised me – the change was unexpected and this historic AE firm continues to impress me. While SmithGroup has a new Colorado address, the firm has been working here in Colorado for over 20 years and in the local healthcare sector for a portion of that. Now, we can serve our existing and new clients with local rapport and relationships. Also, in an everchanging industry, this company seems to be the best suited to evolving with our worlds’ changes. I am a little star-struck getting on calls with my coworkers across the world—my heroes are not the “star” architects but the invisible deep thinkers in the background. SmithGroup seems to place the same value I do in these types of thinkers and clearly has invested time and energy in bringing them all together. Though adjusted to the needs of our clients and industry now, I see SmithGroup as a nimble business with a community of passionate, responsive and even catalytic thinkers. I couldn’t be more excited to continue discovering what my firm can contribute and how we fit into the next era of design and architecture.

What do you see as the biggest challenge for architects in Colorado right now?

In light of COVID-19 impacts on the profession, our biggest hurdle is relevance. Architects, historically, have not been great business people or marketers of their own services. The world’s needs are changing and to keep the industry and the profession viable, we need to be as nimble as the changes that are occurring. How, for example, do we make the case for building a new restaurant (or any other non-essential business in a pandemic time) after seeing these places vacated in mass? The business models we serve will change and we must change to continue to serve.

Lately, conversations within and outside of the industry have focused on Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusivity for people – for our industry professionals and for the occupants of our creations. We are also a little late to the game in actively and positively affecting our natural environment – we must take greater and more impactful actions in our work and lead in the movement to fix the great damage we’ve done to the earth (our industry has a bad track record here). Sure, we have much to do and get caught up on, but we also should be looking forward. What will the next evolution in our industry’s service be? How can we be even more nimble and proactive? I am hopeful that we can remain relevant and I am convinced we have and will continue to find purpose and meaning we can serve.

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