Member Spotlight: Interview with Brent McClure, AIA, Principal & VP of CAW Architects, Inc.

INTERVIEW WITH Brent McClure, AIA, Principal & Vice President at CAW Architects, Inc.

Brent McClure is Principal and Vice President of CAW Architects and has nearly 30 years of architectural design experience in California. A longtime and award-winning architect, Brent is a leading advocate throughout the Bay Area for designing healthy and vibrant educational environments. At CAW, Brent oversees the design of large and complex educational projects: from campus master plans to new science and academic buildings, athletic facilities, and performance spaces. Brent has led the designs of 100’s of educational and community-based projects including the first two LEED Platinum public school projects in the Bay Area. Working with public and private schools, universities, religious, non-profit, and community-based clients, Brent is committed to creating lasting spaces that positively impact the greater public, that create spaces for learning and living where today’s and future generations can thrive, and that transform and humanize the built environment.

What sparked your interest in becoming an architect?

I developed an interest in architecture at an early age in high school and felt driven at that time to become one. It was a combination of loving math, drawing, and for me, figuring out how things are built. As a kid, I would often take things apart to learn how they work and are assembled. Then try to put them back together. There were a few times when I was a kid, I would take my bicycle apart and put it back together, only to find two or three screws still laying on the ground when I was done. Good thing it still would ride!

In high school, I took some architectural drawing and design classes, and once I started to sketch plans for new buildings I was hooked.

What skills have you developed in your architectural journey that you have been able to apply into other aspects of your life?

Besides all the soft skills that you develop through years in the profession, such as multi-tasking, working with teams, and communication skills, the one that stands out to me the most is problem solving. So much of what we do as architects at all levels of the profession is problem solving or “design.” Everything from figuring out how to best resolve a construction detail, organizing a drawing set, to designing a plan. Even figuring out how to engage with a client, lead a programming and design process, or work with a stakeholder committee. All of these take design and problem-solving skills.

Outside the office, we are always confronted with issue that require the same mindset to figure out and using that architect’s problem-solving (or “design thinking”) skills often helps to find better outcomes in life.

What are the kind of projects that you currently work on?

I’m working on several projects at a variety of scales. We’ve just finished up a new Junior Museum and Zoo in Palo Alto this project includes an education center, small children’s museum and an interactive zoo. The zoo is fully netted so some of the animals can roam free with the patrons creating a truly immersive experience. We’re in construction on a new two-story classroom wing building at Silver Creek High School that has 10 classrooms arranged around a shared atrium space that opens onto the adjacent plaza giving students a variety of informal educational and social experiences. We’re also developing a district-wide master plan for the Sequoia Union High School District. Here we are leading a detailed community outreach process to understand the needs of each school site and then translate them into projects. This plan will then generate campus improvements for the next 10 years.

What is the most interesting aspect of your job?

There are a few. I love the variety as every day is something different; from working on design, meeting with clients, to being out on job sites. We are fortunate to have a variety of project types and client types in the office, which helps keep the work fresh. Likely, the most interesting part is meeting with clients to understand their goals for a future project and then ultimately translating their vague and fuzzy list of project needs and goals into hopefully a well-designed project. When the client is thrilled with the result at the end of the process is incredibly gratifying.

You are an active member of AIA Silicon Valley board. Can you elaborate on this experience?

I became truly active in the chapter very late in my career. Although I’ve been a member for many years, wished I had gotten involved when I started out in the profession. Now that I’m active in some committees and on the board, I’m truly surprised at all the many programs and opportunities there are for fellow architects of all levels in the profession to benefit from. I’ve met so many incredible people and have been fortunate to work alongside them, an experience I wouldn’t have had if I didn’t get more involved. Architecture is a unique tribe, and few outside the profession “get it.” Networking with fellow architects outside our firm and building friendships with others has been deeply rewarding. I would encourage every architect, either fresh out of school or a seasoned architect like myself to get involved and contribute, even in small ways. It’s never too late.

How do you think the architecture profession can improve equity and diversity?

I think architecture firms need to create welcoming and inclusive opportunities and spaces for all people that are engaging in the profession. The profession is so people-focused, that giving everyone opportunities to succeed within the profession can be easily accomplished when you see the joy in working together to pursue great design in every project opportunity, we are fortunate to have.

What ways do you think emerging professionals can be better supported by AIA?

I think a greater awareness of the programs and initiatives that the chapter has. Often, we are all so busy, that we lose sight of these activities outside our daily jobs and lives. I also think a greater interface between emerging professionals and senior architects in the chapter could benefit both young architects as well as the senior leaders in the chapter. Let’s find a way to make this happen!

Can you elaborate on your recent experience with AI.22 and tell us briefly about the various challenges involved with in person signature events post pandemic?

Helping with the AI.22 Conference was an arduous and incredibly rewarding experience for me. Putting together a one-day conference with 14 sessions is a tall order, and then on the heels of COVD presented another layer of complexity. The biggest challenge was the state of flux the world was in, which in turn drove our conference planning into the same state. We were constantly planning and then changing plans as we would go, from the date, the venue, and even speaker changes. We did find the hybrid and virtual experiences worked much better than we initially thought, which is something no one could have anticipated pre-COVID. It was great to meet new people and see so many in person, some for the first time in two years. It was great to be back!

What is your advice for someone starting out in the field of architecture as an emerging professional?

Try to learn in everything you do. Ask questions. Seek out answers. Try to build a professional network, within your firm, and where possible outside your firm as this is a people-driven profession. It takes an army of people to get a project to the finish line and having great people to work with at every stage builds in the satisfaction of this profession. And lastly, seek out mentors wherever you can and build those relationships. There is so much to learn, and after 27 years in this noble and rewarding profession, I’m still learning every day. Having a passion for the profession is what makes architecture so exciting.

How does having an AIA networking set you apart from other design professionals?

I believe it really helps you to learn and grow faster in the profession. You’re exposed to so many more individuals at different firms and different levels of the profession that it broadens and deepens your experience in the profession. There’s something powerful being engaged with larger numbers of like-minded people who share a passion for architecture and advancing the profession.

If you had one message you wanted to share with the community, what would it be?

Nurture your own passion within the profession and always be seeking out opportunities to grow as an architect.

What architecture blogs or websites do you regularly follow?

The Architect’s Newspaper. But it’s the print edition. :)

Interviewed by Madhubala Ayyamperumal, Assoc. AIA, WELL AP, LEED AP BD+C

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