Architect Andrea Kabala left her role as project architect at Perkins&Will in 2014 to work as design manager for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. While the required skill sets for these positions are similar, her lifestyle and engagement with nature changed immensely with the job at TPWD. On a recent spring afternoon, Kabala and I retraced the steps of her professional path and took stock of what matters most at work. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Stephen (Chick) Rabourn: What brought you to Texas Parks and Wildlife, and what is your role there?

Andrea Kabala: I’d never really had much experience with state parks until I got a dog, Sabine. She was a bit of a trailblazer, so we loved to hike. The more we hiked, the more we looked for interesting and unique places to explore. It led to a love of state and national parks and being out in the middle of nowhere. My role at Perkins&Will was as a project architect. Most of the time I was in the office, so I liked to get out of the office and hike at state parks around Dallas: Tyler State Park or Lake Mineral Wells State Park, and even Fort Parker, which is about an hour and a half south. I really enjoyed seeing the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) buildings at Tyler and Fort Parker. And then the other facilities made me think that they probably had a staff architect or group of architects that worked for the agency, so I started looking around for job postings for both Texas and the National Park System.

Through long hours in a corporate firm I was able to learn a lot and was given a lot of responsibility, which was often described by others as drinking water from a fire hydrant. And because I was offered the opportunity to do as much work as I could do, it gave me the tools to start looking elsewhere for a job where they needed skills that I had — which was everything from design to spec writing, to construction observation and the ability to put together a set of drawings. I was up at work pretty late one day and decided to take a break. I was scanning for jobs [chuckle] and finally saw a posting for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Architect. I was super excited — over the moon — and I immediately dreamed about the possibility of applying and working there. And I felt like they needed me [chuckle]. I say that jokingly, but they needed me, and I worked hard. I had the job experience, having been at Perkins&Will for nine years. And I cared about the agency and their mission, and I wanted to be a part of it.

My role at Parks and Wildlife has changed since 2014, mostly due to more and more funding — and also the passing of Proposition 5 in 2019, where 100 percent of the sporting goods sales tax now goes to TPWD. I’m in the design branch, and there are about nine architects, four engineers, and one landscape architect. Every biennium we receive this list of projects from our partner divisions, and we divide up the projects among us. Then we scope the projects, and we work with the site staff, resource managers, biologists, wildlife biologists, natural resource coordinators, archeologists, historic preservationists, law enforcement, maintenance supervisors, park planners, and the users. We coordinate with them. We put together the program, the cost estimate, the budget, the schedule, and the planning documents. Smaller projects are done in-house, with the project architect acting as a one-person firm providing drawings and specifications, as well as acting as the project manager all the way through. Larger projects are completed by outside firms, and we review and coordinate throughout. We discuss everything from if there are existing trees that are too close to the building, view sheds, historic view sheds, archeological sites, and then even construction timing, staging areas, materials, you name it.

SCR: How does this compare to your time at Perkins&Will?

AK: My first job was at Perkins&Will, and I came on to a large hospital project in Arizona that was at about 50 percent CDs. I didn’t know AutoCAD, and I certainly didn’t know anything about hospitals. I was given a role to coordinate all the equipment and interior elevations for the entire hospital, so that was a tall task. I was lucky because I had a great project architect. I think for anyone to be successful at a job, it helps when you have somebody there rooting for you. And I did have that somebody that would take the time to show me how to do things, work through things, who made me feel comfortable and that I could count on to give me good information. I was given a heavy lift from the get-go, doing something I’d never done before, not knowing how to draft. It took many hours. And then I just got into this routine where it was always a lot of hours, always something new that I’d never done before, and it had a timeframe associated with it. It seemed like there was never enough time to go from not knowing how to do it to figuring it out and finishing it. Those two things did not coincide, so you had to put in the extra hours.

That was pretty much my whole time at Perkins&Will. In 2008, I became project architect for the Baylor Scott & White Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center. I worked only in AutoCAD for three years, and then they decided to do that project in Revit — and that was a curved building and none of us knew Revit. It was a new program: linear accelerators, high-dose rooms, and MRIs on the seventh floor where you had to coordinate the route for the magnet. There was also a utility tunnel connecting an unbuilt project to one already built, plus a bridge.

SCR: I think I’m getting PTSD just thinking about it.

AK: Yes — and it was like that. You love your job, but there was a lot of stress and challenges.

SCR: It seems you were promoted quickly into a leadership position. Were there any dynamics of being a female in charge that stick with you?

AK: Yes. I was usually the only female present, especially at the cancer center during construction. And then, being younger and being the project architect — there was never disrespect; I just had to prove myself. People didn’t immediately assume that you knew what you were doing or what you were talking about. You had to demonstrate it. And then it worked itself out. But I had a great role model on the project — Ann Piazza, a principal at the structural engineering firm L.A. Fuess. She was just an incredible person to witness in the architecture and construction world, and in terms of how she communicated — very bright and easy to talk to. She was such a cool cucumber in her responsiveness and how she handled problems. I had a lot of respect for her and wanted to be just like her [laughter] — to not lose your cool, know your business, don’t be quick to react or give an answer that you don’t know. I tried to take a leaf out of her book and just be good at what I was doing and not really worry about the people in the room. Just do your job and do it well. She did do that, and she wasn’t affected by the personalities. She’s a positive role model for a lot of women in architecture and engineering.

SCR: It sounds like, as hard as the work was, you worked with many supportive and inspiring people during your time at Perkins&Will.

AK: It’s true. I didn’t have mentors, but I was surrounded by a lot of talented people whose footsteps I wanted to follow in. I never wanted to phone it in. I appreciated people that knew what they were doing and how they approached problems. The design lead for the Richards Group headquarters, Ron Stelmarski, [FAIA,] was the same — the way that he dives into a project, reads every book, and knows all the precedents. He completely immerses himself to try to deliver something that he can be proud of and that the clients appreciate. He’ll do whatever he can do to get it done. He’ll also expect you to meet him on Sunday afternoon to go over why he decided to take two columns out of the atrium [laughter]. We did take the two columns out and it did make the atrium space much improved, but we did end up with a 5-foot-tall plate beam on the roof that we had to flash and roof over — basically, the beam has its own roof.

SCR: What’s an example of a great day at work?

AK: Scope validations and a project kickoff are probably the best days. They’re usually long days, but take, for example, scoping the new headquarters at Palo Duro Canyon State Park: early rise, drive seven hours, stop in gas stations along the way, get snacks, and arrive at Palo Duro. Meeting with people that work for the agency; meeting with the consultants sometimes for the very first time; putting faces to names in the Mack Dick Pavilion — this beautiful space in a beautiful park — and running through the kickoff meeting. Having the opportunity to hear about all the elements that make that park so special, aside from just the obvious one that is Palo Duro Canyon, then meeting with these subject experts that have great things to say and lots of interesting facts to share with you.

SCR: Does TPWD consider hiking, camping, and swimming valid research for your projects?

AK: Unfortunately, we have to do that on our own time. We all want to go swimming, I promise you.

SCR: What were some of the tradeoffs of moving into state work from Perkins&Will?

AK: Fortunately for me, I wasn’t making so much at Perkins&Will, so when I took the pay cut to go to work for Texas Parks and Wildlife, it didn’t hurt as much. I wasn’t bound by any kind of golden handcuffs at the time, you know what I mean?

SCR: Sure.

AK: Taking a salary cut was not something that hurt me to where I wasn’t financially able to make that decision and make the move. The pay is lower, but the work week is typically 40 hours with state holidays and a flexible schedule to where, as long as you get your work done, you have sick leave and annual leave and people respect that you are going to have time with your family or need to take time off. You’re allowed to have that work-life balance and do what you need to do — stay home with your sick child, do those things and not feel guilty about it, and not suffer from it greatly to where you’re going to go under as far as your workload is concerned. You manage your own schedule, and you’re given enough time to get your work done. It’s rare that you’re under deadline after deadline, because you establish all your own deadlines. Our former executive director used to say that we get paid in sunrises and sunsets [laughter]. That is a Carter Smith line — and we all agree.

SCR: That line plays especially well for architects, I suppose. Park buildings tend to be low-tech buildings that don’t disturb the landscape too much. Are there any particular challenges to building in the state parks?

AK: It’s a great question. From my perspective on building, it has to be resilient. It has to be easy to maintain. We always talk about the McCoy’s test. Is this something we’re putting in the building? Can the maintenance technician easily pick it up from a McCoy’s or a small hardware store in Ranger, Texas? It’s not something that is only made in Germany, has a six-week lead time, and is $500 to replace. We have to think about the service technicians that are available in the area, what they’re likely to work on, and hardware store availability. But it can’t be something that they’re replacing every month or two months. And are we designing things that are easy to use by the user and the public? And then it still needs to be a beautiful space, but it’s not a building that we’re trying to get on the cover of Texas Architect [laughter]. It’s a building that everyone is happy to use and have, and it works for them. But the design is not driving the bus. It has to be more thoughtful than that, not just like a cool roof slope or this cool design element or this screen.

There’s a funny story about Palo Duro. We had a new campground with a new group building with nylon window screens. The windows had just been installed into the building. When I went up for a site visit, the nylon screens were shredded, and I thought maybe somebody went through there with a mower that was throwing up the granite gravel. What the hell happened to the window screens? It was the grasshoppers! They had eaten the window screens. And you know how firms like to have those exposed beams on the exterior? The rafter beams and rafter tails are awful for us because it’s just a perfect place for every kind of spider web, hornet’s nest, bee’s nest, or barn swallow.

SCR: What advice would you give other architects who may also be looking for alternative paths?

AK: People tend to think about architecture firms, but even the Air Force has in-house architects. If somebody is interested in a change and is licensed with about five years or more of well-rounded experience, a position as a project manager or owner’s representative at a university or government agency can be a rewarding path. Also, you’re not limited to major urban areas and have more freedom to live in a more remote and affordable location if there is a big agency or university in the area. Plenty of architects can get burned out, or the construction industry can slow down. These positions allow you to still be an architect and do what you want to do — what you went to school for — but just at a different pace or to home in on different aspects of architecture, like planning or construction administration. It’s worth looking into.

Stephen (Chick) Rabourn, AIA, is an architect in Marfa.


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Nice article and interesting perspective! As a career architect at Perkins&Will I think there are some unfair points made regarding hours and pay. For starters, I don’t know anyone that has ever worked more hours than Andrea chose to work (other than maybe the Design Director.) I don’t recall her asking for help or asking for less hours. I do recall her having a tenacious drive. I have an excellent work life balance at Perkins&Will and, of course, there are overtime hours from time to time. Secondly, our pay is competitive in the Dallas market. As architects, generally speaking, I think we are all underpaid. This is an industry problem, not a Perkins&Will problem. 🙂

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I have been reading Texas Architect for 36 years and this is the first time I have ever been moved to write a comment. Usually there are three articles about hero buildings and/or hero architects, a feature on urban design and a book review. This article featured a “real” architect, doing an unsung job and having a fulfilling career.

I hope you will feature more stories like this in the future.


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