An Interview with Ronald Skaggs, Chairman of HKS Inc.

An Interview with Ronald Skaggs, Chairman of HKS Inc.

December 29, 2005

As chairman of international Dallas-based architecture, engineering, planning, and interiors firm HKS Inc., Ronald Skaggs directs the overall activities and serves as principal-in-charge of various healthcare projects designed by the office. A practicing architect for more than 40 years, he has been actively engaged in the design of more than 500 architectural projects, primarily healthcare facilities. "With the exception of maybe nuclear power plants, healthcare facilities are the most complex building types that exist," Mr. Skaggs notes.

A registered architect in 15 states, Mr. Skaggs is certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards. A teen inspired by a series of articles on Frank Lloyd Wright in Life magazine, he went on to earn both his bachelor and master degrees in architecture from Texas A&M University. He has been honored as a Distinguished Alumnus of the University and as an outstanding Alumnus of the College of Architecture, where he an adjunct professor and serves on the advisory board of the Texas A&M Foundation as well as on the board of directors for the Texas A&M Association of Former Students.

The impact of architecture on society crosses all areas of life, Mr. Skaggs notes, citing Winston Churchill, who said, "First we shape our buildings, then they shape us."

Actively involved in the American Institute of Architects (AIA), Mr. Skaggs is an AIA fellow, and was AIA president for the year 2000. He has served in various leadership capacities within the organization, including as past president of the AIA Academy of Architecture for Health, past president of the Dallas Chapter AIA, and as a member of the Board of Regents of the American Architectural Foundation. He is also a Fellow of the American College of Healthcare Architects (an accrediting body), a Fellow of the Health Facility Institute, and past president of the Forum for Health Care Planning. In addition, Mr. Skaggs serves as a member of the National Architectural Accrediting Board as well as a board member for The National Institute of Building Sciences, as an executive board member of the Boy Scouts of America Circle Ten Council; as trustee, vice president and secretary of the board for the Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children; and as an advisory board member for the Salvation Army.

You & Your Career

Tell us about your career in the field of architecture.

I've been practicing architecture for almost 40 years, and I've specialized in healthcare facilities. After I graduated from Texas A&M, I first worked for CRS Design Associates in Houston. Then I had a military commitment, and worked in healthcare facility design for the Army Surgeon General at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. I went back to CRS after my military commitment, and then joined HKS in 1972. I've grown through different phases in the firm. I became chairman/CEO in 1988, serving in that capacity for about 14 years, and then I became chairman of the company in 2002.

What led you to specialize in the design of healthcare facilities?

I was attending graduate school at Texas A&M, and a new professor in the program, George Mann, piqued my interest in specializing in healthcare facilities while I was there. That's what led to my working in the Army Surgeon General's office after I graduated with my masters.

How does healthcare facility design differ from other architecture specialties?

With the exception of maybe nuclear power plants, healthcare facilities are the most complex building types that exist. To design a hospital appropriately, the architect must understand a multitude of operational issues, ranging from nursing care requirements, diagnostic treatment modalities, and building support functions. Additionally the architect must be able to incorporate a large range of building systems, such as communications, materials distribution, waste management, and infection control.

You are actively involved in the leadership of various arms of the American Institute of Architects as well as other architecture and construction organizations. What drives your extensive involvement in the organizations? How is such membership important to your career?

I've been actively involved. I believe strongly that a key to success in a career is involvement. Through involvement, relationships are established, and through those relationships, business is developed. Also, involvement in professional organizations is excellent training ground for honing your leadership skills. I've been actively involved in a variety of associations over the years.

Who (or what) were the biggest inspirations for your career?

I've had several mentors throughout my career, beginning with Professor George Mann at Texas A&M; he's still a colleague and a close friend. Early on in my career, Bill Caudill at CRS Design Associates in Houston was a mentor. The greatest inspiration was Harwood K Smith, who founded the precursor of HKS, which I now chair. He just poured all of his professional thoughts into me, and was a great mentor.

What projects rank among your favorites? Why do they stand out?

Frank Lloyd Wright was credited with saying his favorite project was always the next one. I believe there is some truth in that statement. Each project brings new opportunities and challenges. In terms of actual projects, three come to mind.

Early in my career, it would be the Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children in Dallas. It was a brand new replacement hospital that really got our healthcare practice going. That hospital is still our client today, and people come from all over the world to visit it. In the middle part of my career, Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio is a favorite. It's an extremely large replacement hospital that we designed in a joint venture with another firm. It's a 1.5 million-sq.-ft. hospital for the Department of Defense, and took us into a big part of the national scene.

Currently, my favorite project would be the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, Israel, which I'm actively involved in as the principle in charge. It's primarily a teaching hospital. I'm convinced it will be looked at as an international showplace for healthcare in the 21st century.

You have been honored as a Distinguished Alumnus of Texas A&M and as an outstanding Alumnus of the College of Architecture. What does such recognition mean to you on a personal and professional level? Have you received other professional honors?

Receiving such honors, for example from the university and the college, is gratifying. It recognizes my professional life and services at large. When it comes to other awards that are significant to me, there are two that come to mind. One was from the Association of General Contractors (AGC), which gave me the 'SIR' award; the letters stand for Skill, Integrity and Responsibility, and the award is given to outstanding individuals who have made a positive impact in the construction industry. The other would be the silver medal, a service award for architectural professionals, which I received from Tau Sigma Delta, the architectural student fraternity.

Describe a typical day (or week) of work for you. What exactly do you do? What are your key responsibilities?

At this stage in my career, a big portion of my week is consumed by traveling. As chairman of a national and international firm, part of my role is to be an ambassador to the firm, maintaining and developing relationships. Though I'm no longer CEO, I'm still involved in day-to-day operations as well as the strategic direction of the firm. I also serve as principle in charge of several projects.

What are the most challenging aspects of your job? Most rewarding?

The most challenging aspect is staying up to date on the myriad of issues that must be addressed, while still looking out for interests of company. The most gratifying aspects are watching employees reach their potential and getting positive feedback from clients.

What do you consider your greatest success? Biggest setback?

Leading HKS as a company into the national spotlight would be what I consider my biggest success. Certainly there have been many setbacks, but the biggest would be the inability to see the rapidity of the economic turndown in the 1980s, when our firm had to downsize.

What are the tools of the trade that you use the most?

The most important tool of the trade is architecture by team. One architect can't do it all; you need to work together as a team. The design of a building requires a vast amount of collaboration with other professionals, from acoustics to lighting to elevators. In construction, we collaborate with the general contractors, a wide range of sub contractor and of course, government offices.

What is your favorite gadget?

My favorite gadget is my Blackberry; it keeps me connected while I'm traveling locally or internationally.

What are some common myths about your profession?

The greatest myth is the belief that architects can not operate like a business...I don't think it's true.

What are some of your professional goals for the future?

Our firm celebrated its 66th anniversary this year, my goal is that our firm will celebrate an 80th and then will look forward to its 100th.

Do you feel that is important for someone to be passionate about architecture in order to be successful in the field?

Absolutely. If the person doesn't have the passion and the stick-to-it-ness, they won't make it. You've got to love it to be in it.

Education Information & Advice

How did you initially decide to study architecture?

I decided I wanted to be an architect at the age of 14, when I read a series of articles in Life magazine about Frank Lloyd Wright. Several high school teachers also guided me into the field.

Tell us about your architecture education at Texas A&M. How did you decide to attend Texas A&M?

I was the first person in my family to attend college. I applied to a number of schools, and I was awarded a scholarship to Texas A&M; the scholarship was a big factor in my school choice. Back then, it was a five-year Bachelor of Architecture program. It was a wonderful experience at A&M, and placed a lot of emphasis on student involvement. My favorite courses were design and architectural history; my favorite electives were sociology & psychology, because I decided that I would be designing for people and groups of people and should understand more about them. A&M was a military school at the time, and I was in the Corps Cadets through my senior year. I received a commission in the Corps of Engineers and a military deferment to go to grad school, which led to my going into the Army. I owe a lot of my success in my career to my education at A&M, much of it is due to my secondary education in the Corp Cadets.

In retrospect, what do you now know that you wish you knew before you pursued your architecture education?

What I know now, and I emphasize this to students, is the importance of the influence of a broad education outside of the field of architecture, such as business courses, public speaking, social sciences and other types of courses.

From your view as an adjunct professor at Texas A&M, how can prospective architecture students assess their aptitude?

Students early on begin to see where their strengths and weaknesses are in architecture, particularly by observing other students in the studio setting. Most students go into school thinking they are going to be Frank Lloyd Wright. Design ability is God-given talent that can only be developed so far. But there are great demands in architecture beyond natural talent; students begin to see where these strengths are, where their areas of aptitude are.

Based on what you hear in the industry, what do you think are the most respected and prestigious architecture schools, departments or programs?

That's hard to identify, as most firms hire on a regional basis; some of the schools from which we hire students from are Texas A&M, LSU, Iowa State and some other good schools from which we hire students. There is a publication called Design Intelligence, which polls the principals of firms and asks them to list schools where they get their best hires. They also did a ranking by skills; design, construction methods, analysis and planning, computer applications and research and theory; the schools that came up most were Harvard, Cornell, Cincinnati, MIT, mostly East Coast schools, which relates to firms that were surveyed. By region, the report notes: in the West, Cal-Poly San Luis Obispo; in the South, University of Texas (undergrad), and Texas A&M (graduate); in the Midwest, Kansas State (undergrad) and U of I at Champaign-Urbana (graduate); and in the East, Cornell (undergrad) and a tie between Harvard and Cincinnati for graduate.

Does graduating from a prestigious school make a difference in landing a good job?

In our firm, it doesn't make a great difference. Certainly we want someone with a good background, but if a sharp individual does well at a mid-tier school, it is the personal skills that are important.

What can students applying to architecture schools and programs do to increase their chances of being accepted?

Make good grades in high school, do well on the SAT or ACT, be involved in student activities in high school, which is an indication of leadership. When applying to undergrad school, a student having a portfolio is not an issue.

What other advice can you give to prospective students thinking about an education in architecture?

Students should visit some architectural firms in their areas, and visit some of the schools of architecture, while they are in high school. It used to be thought that they should always take a drafting class, but now, I would also suggest that they take some art classes to learn to communicate visually freehand, and of course they need a good background in math and English.

What is right and wrong with today's architecture educational offerings?

Overall the schools of architecture are dong a good job of educating future architects. The studio approach that has been in use for years is a highly effective way to train future architects, particularly when it includes real-life case study applications. The only continuing problem that I think exists is the heavy emphasis on design, design, design. It's often overemphasized to the detriment of other important offerings of the school; we see this over and over. Falling by the wayside, as a result, are the practical, technical skill areas of architecture, like understanding contracts, how buildings go together, use of materials, things of that sort.

Career Information & Advice

On a basic level, what skills are required to be an architect?

Students should also do some research through the accrediting board, like NAAB (National Architectural Accrediting Board), which offers a full list of student performance criteria.

Are there architecture trends in play that could help prospective students plan for the future?

I actually lectured on this subject last year, in a course called "Looking Over the Horizon." One trend is sustainable environments. Green buildings are no longer good ideas or lofty hopes; they are becoming pervasive in the industry. A green building is sustainable in materials, recyclable materials and energy use. The new students will learn this as part of student performance criteria now required by NAAB, which is going to continue to be important. It's not only energy conservation; it's also building configurations, smart materials, etc.

The global marketplace is another trend, and the U.S. can be expected to continue to be a strong player in the economy. Every student should read the book The World is Flat. A decade ago, I'd never have thought that my firm would have offices in Mexico City and London, but we now do, and we're considering offices in China. The global marketplace is definitely a reality.

Information technology and computer technology is a trend that has transformed our traditional design and construction features. It's had a huge impact on the infrastructure of design as well as how we design buildings. There's a lot of talk about inter-operability between CAD systems, which is a major hurdle in the business. The big thing is what's called building information modeling BIM, designing and drawing with in 3-D visualization; the firms that do not embrace this are going to be left in the dust. These 3-D and other visualization programs are not just for Disney and DreamWorks.

Strategic alliances is another trend. There continues to be a proliferation of alliances for joint benefits in pursuit of projects. We are in the mega project era; these alliances become long term collaborations between multiple firms.

Designing for experience is another trend. The majority of architecture firms are experiencing golden opportunities right now; it's where design and the built environment is becoming more than a commodity. This relates to a book written by Pine and Gilmore, The Experience Economy. In this new economy, the public is searching for positive experiences, whether it is a shopping experience or a sports experience or a vacation experience or a worship experience or a patient experience. The demand for buildings and spaces that elevate the human experience and make people feel good is at an all-time high. That's a positive note for our profession.

What are some of the top challenges facing the architecture field over the next decade?

The increased quality focus is a major challenge for our field; clients want it better, cheaper, faster. We're going to continue to be pressed to improve the quality; it's a speed to market situation. Project delivery has a number of challenges. There's going to continue to be a debate concerning the best project delivery model; the traditional approach, design-build, construction management, bridging... there are a lot of terms being used in a lot of ways on how to deliver projects, there's lot of strong emphasis on that now. It's a cost control issue requiring knowledge-based design and construction.

You can't just graduate from architectural school and feel you are going to continue through your career knowing what you are going to do. You've got to be involved in education and research within the industry. In our firm, we have DoubleCheck, a continuing education program to keep our staff updated on new concepts, new materials, and new ways of putting buildings together.

What specialized computer programs do architecture professionals typically use?

CAD programs come in a variety of forms. Firms are using a wide range of programs, many are CAD-related, and most of what we use are programs such as AutoCAD, Revit, SketchUp in the design phases, and of course computer programs for financial management, project management and everything in between. Also utilization for animation, there are all types of programs, and some larger firms develop in-house propriety programs.

What are the hottest architecture specialties? What other kinds of job tracks are available to graduating architecture students?

There are two types of specialties, the building-type specialties and specialties of phases of work within a firm. In the building type, there are areas like healthcare, sports facilities, hospitality facilities, education, religious and corporate. There are also areas within a firm, such as marketing, programming, design, firm management, project management, specification writing, construction administration and interior architecture.

What area they go into depends on where the students' strengths might be, and typically they find themselves in the area where their strengths may be. Currently, all of these specialties are in demand.

How available are internships? Any tips for landing one?

At our firm, we hire a large number of summer interns. We hire 20 to 30 students a year in Dallas, and our regional offices do the same, it's a good way for them to get to know us, and for us to get to know them. A majority come back to work full time for us after they graduate. We embrace that approach. It's a good way to introduce students to the practice while they are still in school. There are also required internships when you graduate, the three-year IDP program, which is a requirement to get registered/licensed. Graduates work in different aspects of practice throughout those three years: design, construction documents, specifications, construction, contract administration, and so on. It's documented by a registered architect in the firm and sent to the National Council of Architects Registration Boards.

As far as tips to land jobs, students should visit the firm, show a personal interest, and visit early. February is not too early, since by March many of the positions for the summer are filled.

How does architecture contribute to society?

Architecture impacts how we live, how we work, how we play, how we learn and how we worship. As Winston Churchill said, "first we shape our buildings, then they shape us." Architecture is a statement on where our culture is in each economy.

What further career advice can you give to architecture school students and graduates who want to succeed in the field?

What students need to do is to make connections to other parts of their university campus; architecture students spend too much time in their own little enclave. They need to hang out more with medical students, business students, students from the arts and sciences, and so forth, because they will be their future clients.

Editor's note: If you would like to follow-up with Mr. Skaggs personally, click here.

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