Posted on April 28, 2020 by Sean Garnsey

(April 28, 2020) — UTSA College of Architecture, Construction and Planning alumni Brian Korte FAIA (’94, BFA-Arch) has been elevated to The 2020 American Institute of Architects (AIA) College of Fellows. Brian is a partner at Clayton & Little Architects and is the first Fellow among the CACP’s former students. In 2020, the AIA elevated 116 member-architects to its prestigious College of Fellows, an honor awarded to only 3 percent of AIA members that not only recognizes the achievements and architectural excellence of the architect as an individual, but also elevates before the profession those architects that have made a significant contribution to architecture and society on a national level.

Where are you from originally?
I was born here in San Antonio at BAMC at Fort Sam Houston. When I was a toddler and an Air Force brat, my family moved to Colorado while my dad went to graduate school at Colorado State University, then in the mid-70’s we moved to Fairfax, Virginia which was a great place to grow up in and around Washington D.C. during the Bicentennial (1976). Then in 1979 my parents decided to get back to warmer weather to retire and we relocated back to San Antonio and I have been here since then.

What set you on the path to becoming an architect?
Having grown up with four older brothers, I learned an early appreciation for craft and detail through observing them build model airplanes and cars. As I got older, I became quite good at it, so combining that with an enjoyment for doodling, drawing, and for making things, as well as an admiration for 60’s and 70’s ranch houses, is likely most of what pushed me in this direction.

What brought you to UTSA to pursue your Bachelor of Fine Arts in Architecture degree?
After graduating from high school, I considered 3 options: the UTSA Department of Architecture, accepting a basketball scholarship and moving away, or entering military service and becoming a pilot. Neither of the two Texas universities that offered scholarships had architecture programs, so I decided to stay close to home and go to school. I often wonder what my path would have been like had I had continued playing basketball at one of those schools instead.

What stands out when you reflect on the time you spent at UTSA?
Back in the late 80’s, the original 1604 campus felt pretty remote as compared to what it is today. The original core of buildings designed by Ford, Powell and Carson were a real contrast to the surrounding unspoiled woods: they were brutalist, mostly concrete, but modern. It was fun to see the campus expand over four years. My favorite building was the central power plant, which was beautifully utilitarian clad in rusty cor-ten steel. When I started, architecture was part of the Interiors Department and throughout my tenure there the school was pushing for accreditation. It was fun learning how to work in a studio environment, but during that time it was mostly a commuter school, so classmates rarely stayed in studios late the way they do now. This was a real contrast to attending graduate school at UT Austin a few years later, where students worked in studios around the clock.

What does your typical day look like?
We are currently working in a remote office setup from home, but under normal conditions I look forward to going into the office every day. I have the benefit of working with a talented bunch of architects that make the work enjoyable and bring a lot of fun to the studio. Typical days include sketching conceptual ideas or details, reviewing design or graphic progress with my team, a lot of writing and correspondence for projects and marketing, and being on the phone for at least half the day with contractors, consultants and/or clients. I normally travel at least once a month to projects outside of Texas, connecting with clients and consultants and meeting with the craftsmen that make our ideas become reality.

How would you describe your experiences working with Lake|Flato, BK.Architect, then Clayton & Little?
Right out of UTSA I worked for the late Andrew Perez FAIA, who was the Director of the Architecture program at the time, then went straight to graduate school at UT Austin. Upon graduation, I worked for former UTSA professor Richard Mogas for a couple years.

I joined Lake|Flato in 1997 and worked there for just over 17 years, which was fantastic. I had a wonderful mentor in David Lake FAIA, a team of talented partners to lean on and learn from, a great group of colleagues and worked on some high-profile projects. This is where I developed the most professionally, having been given a lot of rope to push the design and detailing for my projects and develop and mentor the younger colleagues that I was fortunate to work with. Having a huge backstop and resources was fundamental to my success.

In 2014 I started my solo practice BK.Architect LLC to complete projects for clients in California that I had been working with for a decade (Epoch Estate Wines and Saxum Vineyards). During the two years of construction on these fantastic buildings, I also continued a personal passion for design and fabrication of custom furniture and hardware for these clients collaborating with my good friend, the late Max Patino (aka Cactus Max).

In 2016 I had the chance to partner with a close friend and co-found the San Antonio office of Clayton & Little, a multi-disciplinary design firm based in Austin that was doing more work in San Antonio. Most of the firm’s work at the time was based in Austin and spread around Texas, and I saw a real opportunity to help grow the brand and expand the geographic reach of the firm, having worked previously in California, Colorado, Idaho, South Dakota and Virginia. We now have several current projects outside of our Texas roots in California, Hawaii, and the US and British Virgin Islands. We have a great studio downtown along a quiet section of the Riverwalk in the original Greengate Building on North St. Mary’s Street.

As you’re licensed in California, Hawaii, Maryland, and Texas, can you share some of what you’ve experienced practicing in multiple states?
Building in other states and different climate zones reflects our commitment to the study of place: climate, natural resources, cultural precedents, and historic building traditions. Each project allows us to learn from craftsmen who have expertise with their local building practices and continually teaches us to think of the environment first to inform design.

California is the most difficult state in which to work due to a long regulatory approval process, but amazing sites make these permitting hurdles all worthwhile. The most rewarding aspect to working in varying climates is being able leverage different construction techniques and applicable building science so that projects are artful, yet practical, and as high-performing as they can be.

Other than that, I just need to juggle renewing these licenses annually and maintaining continuing education requirements required by each state.

Can you discuss your attention to specialized detailing and how this shows up in most of your projects?
I like to bring an honest straightforward approach to my work, uniquely informed by circumstance, process, and ultimately the act of building itself, where each material is authentic and carefully chosen and engineered for the job it will perform. Rich, well-crafted materials are the essence of each structure, so how they come together provides focus in my work. I also fancy certain building components that often take a back seat, so I tend to give more attention to things like stairs, openings, gutters, custom lighting and hardware, and integrated mechanical systems. I feel that there is a consistency in my body of work, but also that each project feels unique to its place and owner.

Can you discuss what it’s like to work on projects at different stages, such as designing, detailing, and managing? Is there a role or certain type of projects you enjoy most?
Each project is different, but working on each phase from start, at conceptual design, through its completion of construction is essential for achieving the expectations we set for our work. Conceptual design is a pretty exciting phase to start a project timeline, because it is where creative ideas are born. Some ideas come rather quickly while others take time to emerge through deeper exploration and study, and where complicated program elements begin to be puzzled together into a thoughtful solution. The stages of design development and documentation continue that layering of ideas while bringing key collaborators to the table such as consultants and contractors.

Detailing will always be an important part of the process for me since it is the backbone of my work and, as German architect Mies van der Rohe once said “God is in the details”.
I enjoy all phases of the design process, but I think that the construction phase is my favorite since all of the team’s hard work leading up to that point comes together with new challenges to actually construct a vision. This is where our ideas become real.

In my role, I am involved in every step of design, but I also get to work with and mentor talented colleagues and help them realize their design ideas. This collaboration is the most rewarding aspect of my career.
I tend to enjoy projects where we have patient clients that understand that good design doesn’t stop until they occupy the building, and where we can create buildings that exist within the convergence of distilled design, regional ecology, resiliency and ingenuity, and that take a step back and let the natural landscape be the star of the show. I really enjoy landscape focused projects like wineries, and challenging adaptive reuse projects such as Armstrong Oil and Gas (Denver, CO) and Epoch Tasting Room (Templeton, CA). The existing salvaged structures were able to contribute such grit and richness to the project and leverage the past for the future.

Can you share some details about a few of your recent projects or notable past projects that you have found most interesting? Perhaps you could also discuss your 2009 Armstrong Oil and Gas Project, which received a National AIA Honor Award and an AISC Honor Award and the Saxum Vineyard Equipment Barn which earned numerous awards including an AIA Small Projects Award. We have several fantastic projects on the boards and under construction right now including wineries in California and Texas, a couple of vineyard barns, and custom residences in California, Hawaii, and Texas. I am really excited to see all these progress through construction. One particularly interesting project is a wine cave in the Hill Country. It is essentially a private wine cellar on a client’s ranch, bored into a limestone hill and finished out with architectural concrete and some custom millwork. We are photographing this one next month.

Armstrong Oil and Gas was a pivotal project in my career. Prior to its start in 2005, I had been working with a high-profile Hollywood client for almost a decade that had a lot of ups and downs and I considered alternative career paths. AOG was a perfect storm of sorts: great client (who I am still working with today now 16 years and counting), and a wonderful late 1800’s building with great bones and a rich history. This project “hit for the cycle” as far as design awards, including the AIA Institute Honor Award for Interior Architecture in 2011. It was especially rewarding for me personally, because I designed just about everything in the building and also personally made over 40 pieces of custom furniture and an art piece composed of salvaged electrical disconnects that the client stated was “worthy of hanging in the MoMa”.

Other notable projects include SK Ranch, a 4-building modern Texas villa in the Hill Country with designer Sara Story; and Saxum Winery and Epoch Winery in California, each of which has led to more high-caliber work.

The Saxum Vineyard Equipment Barn finished in 2018 has also been widely awarded, including an AIA Small Projects Award in 2019 and Dezeen Awards long list to name a couple. It is a simple, yet elegant structure made from salvaged drill stem pipe that’s sole purpose is to shoulder a photovoltaic roof that harnesses enough solar power to take the adjacent Saxum Winery and its vineyard irrigation pumps off of the energy grid.

What does it mean to you to be the first UTSA Architecture alumni elevated to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects?
It is a huge honor for me. I am not only humbled to be the first, but I never could have imagined these accolades when I started at UTSA back in 1986. Even with the professional successes or project design awards that I have been honored with to date, I still feel like I haven’t achieved everything that I hope to accomplish.

Do you have any advice for current students?
The biggest challenge that I see young architects dealing with, one that they don’t necessarily expect coming out of school and jumping into an office environment, is that projects are most often are non-linear. They start and stop quite often. Some projects are fickle and the environment of design can be unpredictable. Being prepared for that expectation will help curb frustrations after working long hours toward deadlines. Learning how to take advantage of the time in between is what is valuable. Another valuable skill is being malleable, not only to circumstances like these, but adapting and growing with the needs of a firm that evolve over time, continually looking for opportunities to grow personally and professionally.

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— Sean Garnsey