Tag Archives: architecture


February 23, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Spring has officially sprung, and I am itching to spruce things up around my house—inside and out.

In other words, spring cleaning. Washing the windows is typically the first item on the list, but this is not as fun as changing my throw pillows or creating floral arrangements to add something more colorful and lighter to coordinate with the new season. Combining succulents with bold colors and metallics is a hot trend (and I’m planning to experiment with them at my own home). I also take the opportunity to weed through my closet and transition to my spring/summer wardrobe.

Normally I create a spring DIY project, but after my yearlong room makeover we decided to change things a bit and feature some new creative talent out there in our city. This issue spotlights a painting project by a professional artist whose love of Moroccan style helped turn an ordinary bookshelf into a portal of sorts.

Omaha architect Steve Ginn spent five years designing a picturesque woodland masterpiece situated on 20 acres in Tennessee. If you love nature and being surrounded by it in almost every sense, you will love this tranquil home.

Does mixing old and new styles ever get old? The Nabitys would say no, as that is exactly their style—rustic elegance. It turns out you don’t have to live at Cape Cod to get the look and feel of being there, minus the ocean.  Hopefully some of these homes or projects will inspire warm weather decorating ideas of your own.

I enjoy that spring is also the beginning of yard sale season. It’s a great way to pick up some great bargains for new weekend projects on a budget.

If you have something you just have to share with the rest of us DIYers, email me at sandy@omahapublications.com. I love to hear from fellow decorators and creatives. 

This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of OmahaHome.

Sandy Matson is the contributing editor for Omaha Home.

Farm Simple Meets High Design at Bellswoods

February 16, 2018 by
Photography by Farshid Assassi

The home of David and Diane Bell is the fruit of conscientious design, a reverent attention to landscape, and an affection for trees that has lingered in the family’s bloodline for generations. While its steel framing and prominent angles conjure the best of modernist architecture, the Bell family home in Franklin, Tennessee, draws substance from roots stretching as far back as the Nebraska frontier.

Nearly 150 years ago, in the open prairielands along the Platte River, Jesse Bell built a forest. Having bought a single square mile of land from the Union Pacific Corp., Jesse, a lover of trees, planted hundreds of them by hand. In the years following Nebraska’s recognition as a state, he established more than 250 varieties of hardwoods and shrubs in the soil of what was otherwise a vast and treeless plain.

When the Burlington rail company sought to lay line in the vicinity of Jesse’s burgeoning woodland, he saw an opportunity. In exchange for right-of-way on his land, he secured a Burlington depot for the area, and got immediately to work hiring a civil engineer and pursuing the task of growing a town.

Naturally, Bellswoods was to be the name. For reasons unknown, the Burlington men didn’t care for all the S’s in that eponym. To this day, we know the treed little town, 10 railroad miles south of Columbus, simply as Bellwood.

More than a century after Jesse first put the family name on the map, David and Diane have expanded the family brand into the foothills of Appalachia on their own secluded oasis of trees. Twenty miles from Nashville, down a rambling two-lane highway bordered by dry-stacked stone walls and plantation vistas, an unassuming turn into the woods leads to the family’s 20-acre estate. Perched 200 feet above the road below and fully ensconced in its forested hillside, the Bellswoods name has finally found its rightful home.     

To encounter Bellswoods in photos alone is to know a particular kind of envy—one fixated less by the rich material beauty of the home, and more with the resonating calm and timeless quietude its design embodies. “We called it rustic modern,” explains Omaha architect Steven Ginn who, over the course of five years, designed the Bell family home. The house’s palette—warm Douglas fir, exposed steel, durable stone—creates an effect that, as Ginn describes, “accentuates and exemplifies the idea of shelter.”

From the earliest stages of design, the Bells envisioned the sort of shelter that would feel fully at home in its environment. “We wanted it to feel very open and draw on the materials of the area…A house that feels like you’re outside,” David explains. With nearly half of its walls made of glass, Bellswoods achieves this effect rather gracefully. Other considerations—a bedside window designed to perfectly frame an existing sassafras tree, a living room positioned precisely to capture the warmth of the winter sun—situate the home within its environment as naturally as any other living inhabitant of the forest.

In designing the home, Ginn drew inspiration not only from the unique environmental qualities of the land, but also the architectural character of the area. Sustained by his own Nebraska roots, Ginn sought to bring an “agrarian thoughtfulness” to the design. Inspired by the 19th-century farm buildings still dotting Tennessee’s rural landscape, Ginn worked to design a home that reflected the understated beauty of these utilitarian structures. “Farm simple,” he calls it. “Everything you need and nothing you don’t.” 

David agrees, noting that functionality was a critical consideration when designing the home. Although Bellswoods can certainly feel cloistered from the rest of the world, the Bells are no hermits. Because the home was always meant to be a welcoming space for visitors in all seasons, Ginn worked to develop a “carefully choreographed space,” allowing for natural, fluid movement. Anchored by a central structural cross, the home is divided into quarters, beginning with the most public rooms (foyer, kitchen, living area) at its entrance, and moving eventually to the more private office and bedroom areas.    

Ginn notes that his understanding of movement’s relationship to structure was informed by his years spent designing Catholic churches with Omaha’s BCDM Architects. “Movement is an important part of the Catholic liturgy. That procession. How you move through the space, the views, what you’re looking toward. The building itself works to direct your reverence and attention.”

A similar sort of reverence is found in David’s personal collection of over 20 years’ worth of reclaimed wood, much of which contributed to the furniture and finishing details of Bellswoods. Like his great-grandfather before him, David describes himself as a “lover of wood.” A skilled woodworker by hobby, he passed two decades living in Germantown, Tennessee, collecting the wood of nearly every felled tree he could find. After accumulating some 15,000 board feet of red oak, walnut, cherry, and several truckloads of his great-grandfather’s Nebraska-grown hardwoods, David couldn’t deny he was having more fun collecting wood than making much of anything with it.

These years of careful collection finally bore fruit when construction on Bellswoods began in 2010. While some wood was used in the family’s dining room table (paired with ebony sourced from Nashville’s Gibson guitar factory just down the road), most of David’s collection contributed to the more than 14,000 board feet of wood used throughout the home’s construction.

While Bellswoods is undoubtedly a grand achievement of style and form, Ginn is quick to note that the true success of any home design can only be measured in the way it enlivens the everyday experience of those living inside. There are certain, less conspicuous details at Bellswoods—the hidden grotto tucked behind the waterfall that cascades into the pool; the accordion windows separating the dining room from the porch, which open and erase the border between inside and out—that don’t show quite as well in photos. Subtleties like these spark a dialogue, not just among family and friends, but between the built world and beyond. As Ginn explains: “The natural light, the movement through the day, the light, the dark, the sun, the wind—they all help to embellish the daily life of the inhabitants, help to further create a fulfilled, enjoyed life.”

Visit stevenginn.com/tennessee-hilltop-residence for more information.

This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of OmahaHome.

Paul Erik Nelson’s Home Office

January 12, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In the historic Loveland Park neighborhood, quietly nestled away along a tree-lined street, there is a home and homeowner with an uncanny fervor for contemporary style and historic authenticity.

Perched atop a grassy lawn, architect Paul Erik Nelson’s 4,400-square-foot residence stands regal with worthy bones updated with deliberate modifications. Nelson, who is the sole partner of PEN Architects—a firm known for both restorations and new builds—took this home as an architectural project and space for his growing family.

Built in 1937, the home was designed by Reinholdt Frederick Hennig in an art moderne style (sometimes called “streamline modern”), which is essentially a refined version of art deco. In line with this architectural style, the home features curvilinear elements inside, such as the stairs, as well as rounded corners around the windows.

Through researching the home, its historic neighborhood, and the original architect in preparation for renovations, Nelson learned that his home has several other companions built with the Farronwall technique before World War II in Nebraska. He explains that the Farronwall technique involves brick masonry that provides a formwork for pouring concrete floors. A hollow space between the massive walls helps to ventilate the house. 

Farronwall construction methods were low-cost, and the structures are known for their unique bombproof sturdiness. “We do feel very safe in this house,” Nelson says, “and older neighbors have told us they took shelter in it during the 1973 tornado.”

In the history of the residence, the Nelsons are the fourth owners—and the home’s exterior offers clues to its evolution. Instead of trying to hide previous renovations, he identified them in horizontal charcoal-gray shingles that accent Hennig’s original beige square bricks. Nelson envisioned “not fighting with the original character” while keeping it light with his own renovations.

To passersby on the street, his front yard’s modern treehouse offers one of his own attention-grabbing additions to the plot of land.

“The treehouse is floating and quite transparent, which is a playful contrast to the heavier more massive feeling of the house sitting on the ground,” Nelson says. “When I built it, the idea was to reuse materials from the original house and yard to enhance its physical connection. The horizontally laid wood slats do relate to some of the linear masonry detailing on the house. We liked the look of the treehouse so much we repeated some of the same architectural elements on an upper-level addition added recently.”  

After purchasing the home, Nelson began removing years of ad hoc additives to reveal Henning’s original detailing and intent. “I could tell there was something special hidden,” he says.

Peeling back the layers of the home’s history and functionality, he reorganized the space with warm wood floors, a new centralized kitchen, eclectic accents, and even turned a former garage into a family room. Some original details—including a rounded staircase off the entry foyer and calico fireplace—remain as a nod to the past. Nelson also opened up the second-floor master bathroom, adding large windows and tub that look out onto a lush back and side yard. This updated space includes protruding windows that double as display areas for personal items. It is through these calculated updates and personal touches that the Nelson family is transforming their 80-year-old home to work for their contemporary needs.

His sense of searching for the bones of a place and proposing tactical updates are also what Nelson pursues in his architecture practice. His office, conveniently located above the garage, is a light-drenched space with rolls of construction documents and balsa wood models neatly organized throughout. Two large iMac screens sit on an elongated desk scattered with notes, family mementos, and design periodicals.

Nelson started PEN in 2011 as a one-man-shop specializing in both commercial and residential architecture. To date, he has completed more than 40 architectural and historic preservation projects. For some of his work prior to establishing PEN, Nelson won an American Institute of Architects award for his work on the Joy Residence, Salhany Residence, and Whitcomb Conservatory on the campus of Doane College.

His approach to design allows each project to develop without a preconceived notion or style. What emerges, like his residence, is a studied product derived from an authentic process where appropriate additives coalesce alongside historic preservation—synchronicity at its best.

Visit penarchitect.com for more information about Paul Erik Nelson’s architectural work.

This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Omaha Home.

The Wigert Residence

December 5, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

On a winding drive, in the northwest Omaha neighborhood of Hidden Creek, sits a residential showcase of contemporary green architecture. The newest addition to the neighborhood is Christine and Ben Wigert’s sleek home.

Designed by award-winning architect Randy Brown, the structure angularly unfolds down a grassy lot with the cookie-cutter designs of suburban Omaha strategically nestled behind a grove of dense foliage.

For seven years prior to building this residence, the Wigerts had been living in a starter home. By 2015, they were ready for a change—“to start the next chapter of our adventures,” Christine says. Thus began their hunt for the perfect new home. Having green space with a view was a priority, and this quickly took them from looking downtown to Dundee to further and further west.

One day Ben saw a home that Brown, his friend, had designed in a new neighborhood called Hidden Creek (near 134th Avenue and Fort Street, close to Standing Bear Lake). They had seen images of this neighborhood before and heard it was out of their price range. However, Christine says they reached out to Brown on Facebook, and “he replied almost instantly and was excited to hear of our interest.” The design process began almost immediately. “After a few e-mail exchanges and sharing of prototypes he designed,” she says, “we were hooked on the idea of working with him.”

After the initial messages, Brown presented several designs with floor-to-ceiling windows for views onto the creek and a rooftop deck. Then one day, Christine says, “Randy surprised us with an entirely new blueprint for a very unique home. He said that after working with us for a few months, he had created a new vision for our home based on getting to know us.” Hidden Creek and their soon-to-be neighbors were also “perfect because the modern eco-living captured both of our favorite design styles and united us around our love for modern architecture.”

Dark wood floors wrap the space while compact nooks, angular supports, and wall cutouts are scattered through the spaces. There are few, if any, 90-degree angle walls— even some of the floors are ramped. The residence is one large open floor plan with the living room attached to both the kitchen and dining room.

The result is a 4,000-square-foot one-of-a-kind structure clad in vertical charcoal-gray siding. It is not only user-specific, but site-specific. Cantilevered spaces and open-ended decks complement the fusion of outdoor and indoor space. Strategic views are emphasized with a flood of indirect and natural light, and a 2,000-square-foot rooftop deck (with space for future gardening boxes) looks onto the wild grasses, forest, and creek adjacent to the building.

The interior design matches and extends many of the tropes found on the exterior. Every space in the two-bedroom home is unique, and nothing is left unconsidered. Dark wood floors wrap the space while compact nooks, angular supports, and wall cutouts are scattered through the spaces. There are few, if any, 90-degree angle walls—even some of the floors are ramped. The residence is one large open floor plan with the living room attached to both the kitchen and dining room. The open concept and high- lofted ceilings “allow us to share the space at all times,” Christine says.

Although the home is now complete and they have moved in, with Brown’s open-ended design, the Wigerts say that there is still “lots to dream about” on both the interior and exterior of their contemporary home.




Visit moderneco-homes.com to learn more about Hidden Creek.

This article was printed in the November/December edition of Omaha Home.

Neil Astle

September 17, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It is not often that an Omaha architect is featured in The New York Times and Architectural Digest, but the reputation of Neil Astle is noteworthy for much more than mere publication clippings. His local homes and buildings remain architectural treasures in the Omaha metro.

Daniel Naegele, associate professor of architecture at Iowa State University and co-author of the soon-to-be-published Astle & Omaha, says his buildings are “highlights of architecture.” Bruce Wrightsman, assistant professor of architecture at Kansas State University and the other co-author adds, “Astle had a profound effect upon architecture in the state of Nebraska.”

Tollefson House (Wausa, Nebraska)

In 2008, Astle was posthumously awarded the Harry F. Cunningham Gold Medal for Architectural Excellence in the State of Nebraska—the highest honor that the regional chapter of the American Institute of Architects can bestow in recognition of distinguished architectural achievement. This path to praise was laid in a dedication to material detailing and modernist ideologies.

Astle was born in Salt Lake City in 1933 and earned a degree in architecture from the University of Utah in 1958. The next year, he earned a Master of Architecture and Planning from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The department was then chaired by Pietro Belluschi, designer of many high-profile buildings, including the Pan Am (now MetLife) Building in New York City. At MIT, Naegele says, “Astle would have been seduced by Eero Saarinen’s extremely popular Kresge Auditorium and Chapel and by Alvar Aalto’s Baker House auditorium.” The concrete-and-glass structure auditorium and brick dormitory with a large S-curve would later be reference points to many of his projects in Nebraska.

In 1964, Astle moved to Ralston; in 1965, he founded Neil Astle and Associates and began teaching architecture and community design at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

Benedictine Mission House (Schuyler, Nebraska)

From 1968–1981 his Omaha-based firm received six AIA Nebraska Design Awards, five Central State Awards and two Architectural Record Awards of Excellence. In 1983, he became a fellow in the AIA. Then in 1999, Astle received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Utah Society of Institute of Architects—the first and still only Utah recipient of this award. Astle died in 2000, receiving the Cunningham Gold Medal from AIA Nebraska posthumously eight years later.

Why such lingering admiration for this Omaha-based architect?

Astle’s architectural style, now known as midcentury modern, confronts the expansive nature of suburbia with a counter solution: intense material and spatial investigations, along with honed detailing. As Naegele says, “The transition from man-made suburbia to Neil-made suburbia is one of Astle’s great accomplishments.”

Searching for authenticity in materials, Astle’s architecture was primarily fabricated in cedar and concrete—aging with the landscape of the site—finding continuity of interior and exterior space. Through their specific placement, these structures cascade on their sites. Like other architecture of the period, searching for simplicity was not simple.

The DeSoto Wildlife Center (Missouri Valley, Iowa)

With a focus on micro details (for example: hinging on cabinets and closet cladding) and using natural light and architectural space, many of his projects (including several Omaha-area homes and the DeSoto Wildlife Center in Missouri Valley, Iowa) strike an uncompromising balance of form, function, and the environment. 

In 1980, Architectural Digest described Astle’s award-winning work as “an architectural gem” and “unmistakably modern.” This respect continues to be felt by many of his contemporaries. Ross Miller, architectural designer at HDR, speaks to Astle’s legacy by simply stating, “he is a true architect.”

Visit aiane.org for more information about the regional chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

This article was printed in the September/October 2017 edition of Omaha Home.

Learn about two Neil Astle homes for sale recently in Omaha in this article’s companion piece: “Two Homes, One Architect”

Ball House (Omaha, Nebraska)

A Fresh Homemade Kitchen

August 28, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Out of all the genius quotes from world-renowned architects and designers, Kylie Von Seggern’s favorite comes from a celebrity chef.

Her profile on Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture’s website lists the words of Anthony Bourdain as her favorite quote: “Find out how other people live and eat and cook. Learn from them—wherever you go.”

The mantra manifests itself throughout the architect and interior designer’s professional work and private life.

Von Seggern prefers adaptive reuse to high-profile mega projects, and she embraces community engagement and activism. Her responsive ideology is likewise evident in the renovation of her home in the Hanscom Park neighborhood.

Kylie Von Seggern

While house shopping in 2015, she wanted to find an older home with built-in character. That’s exactly what she found in her current residence, built in 1908.

The previous owner had lived there for 50 years. The warm gray interior featured dense wood trim, exquisite detailing, and the creek of wood floors. It was the perfect combination of good bones and room for updates.

For the interior remodel, she proposed “more of a modern upgrade” than a total overhaul. The kitchen, however, lacked the rest of the house’s inherent character.

She recently renovated the kitchen to achieve a crisp, airy gathering space. She replaced the limited cabinetry and floors. But she kept the kitchen’s existing plaster walls.

For Von Seggern, the kitchen is important because everyone is always there—regardless if there’s a party or not. Part of the reason stems from her roommate being a chef.

Throughout and beyond her home, Von Seggern’s approach to design and architecture resonates with creative culinary instincts: Like a great homemade meal, “It tastes so good because you made it,” she says. 

Growing up in Lincoln, design-oriented interests eventually led her to the architecture program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

While at UNL, she participated in a 2010 study abroad program to Guatemala where she learned vernacular cinder-block building techniques.

In Guatemala, she began hypothesizing the duplicitous meanings of a home. Von Seggern ultimately realized, “Not everyone wants a McMansion,” and more importantly, “functionality over aesthetics” takes precedence.

She also studied abroad in Germany before completing her degree in Nebraska. With such international experience, her attraction to the Bourdain quotation becomes obvious. The preceding sentence of the full direct quote is: “If you’re [young], physically fit, hungry to learn and be better, I urge you to travel—as far and as widely as possible. Sleep on floors if you have to.”

She began working at Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture after completing her Master of Architecture in 2013, and she began lending her voice to local architectural advocacy efforts as a volunteer at Restoration Exchange Omaha.

Von Seggern’s volunteer work allows her to have a direct impact in Omaha while developing skills in navigating city bureaucracy and finding ways to remain responsive to older architecture instead of reactively always looking for the new.

Back in her home on the edge of Hanscom Park, her kitchen is a perfect example of her finding this balance on her own terms.

Visit alleypoyner.com/kylie-von-seggern for more information.

This article was printed in the July/August 2017 Edition of Omaha Home.

Two Homes, One Architect

August 23, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Scanning any architectural periodical or blog, there are endless examples of buildings with clean lines, simple spaces, and minimal material pallets. Contemporary architecture owes much of this ethos to the modernist architects of the mid-20th century.

Architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe encapsulated the design philosophy with his famous quote: “less is more.” While turn-of-the-millennium McMansions of suburban Omaha represent the antithesis to the minimalism of midcentury modernism, the Omaha metro is home to several notable modernist residences designed by architect Neil Astle.

Two local homes designed by Astle came available on the market over the summer: the Flansburg Residence (located at 2205 S. 111th Circle) and the Ball Residence (located at 2525 S. 95th Circle).

Ball Residence (2525 S. 95th Circle)

Flansburg Residence (2205 S. 111th Circle)

Astle lived in Omaha between 1965 and 1981. During that time, he completed many award-winning architectural commissions, only a handful of which were homes. For his residential work, Astle said, “It is all part of refining a design in a complete way so that clients have few decisions to make—even about furnishings.” Dan Naegele, associate professor of architecture at Iowa State University, says, “They are more than houses. They are dwellings and are to be valued, cared for, basked in, and appreciated.”

Theoretically, Astle was challenging something greater with his suburban homes. Naegele explains that the architect “removed the garage from the house, allowing its presence as a separate entity to create a complex. The remote, innocuous, naturally clad garage, though convenient to the house, was not part of the house itself. It allowed for the house to be low, and to be stretched across the site, rather than piled up in one place.”

The Flansburg Residence, located in the Rockbrook neighborhood, is a 2,500-square-foot home completed in 1969. Nancy Flansburg Novak, senior designer and partner at Alley Poyner Macchietto, grew up in the home and recalls her parents commissioning Astle to build the structure. She says, “my newlywed parents [Steve and Mildred Flansburg] were looking at homes, drove past Neil’s house, and stopped to ask who the architect was. He said it was him.” After a short exchange, the Flansburgs became Astle’s first residential clients. They also became lifelong friends.

At the end of cul-de-sac, the split-level home sits surrounded by foliage. A carefully crafted foyer between the garage and home creates the first of many spectacular spaces. The patina of vertically clad western red cedar, a favorite material of Astle, fully wraps both units. According to Naegele, “[Astle’s] houses are all wood and because of this, they seem to exude authenticity.” This darker space sits in contrast to the light-filled living spaces.

Entering the front door, creamy wool carpet and gray slate blanket the first level, which contains the living room and kitchen. An angular ceiling, clad in horizontal knot-free cedar, fills the entertaining areas with natural light. While the space is incredibly simple, phenomenal woodworking details by Bill Hayes are still in place. Subtle surprises are omnipresent.

Astle once said, “I try to get into families’ needs and express them thoroughly.” Going up or down a half or full level in the Flansburg Residence, Astle’s design philosophy becomes clear. Flansburg Novak recalls the home being “her jungle gym,” with plenty of nooks and crannies for her and her siblings. “It always felt big and open,” she says.

While Astle had free reign on the home’s design, the tight budget necessitated creative design solutions that come off as effortless. The efficient floor plan unfolds with neatly tucked away bedrooms, storage areas, exterior patios, and library. On the lower level, the ceilings were raised to allow the home’s patriarch to practice table tennis—many of his trophies remain in the library. The Flansburg’s home went on to win several awards, including a 1969 Residential Design Merit Award with the Nebraska chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Less than two miles away on the edge of Towl Park, the Ball Residence extends many of Astle’s architectural tropes. Built in 1975 with the same cedar, owner Tami Doll (co-owner and vice president at Doll Distributing LLC) calls the home “a work of art.”

The 3,900-square-foot home features a detached garage, which contributes to the dramatic view of a courtyard where cedar and brick wrap the exterior and interior planes.

“When I walk in, there is a peacefulness about the home,” Doll says.

Upon entry, light fills the space, pulling full-scale picturesque views inside—suggesting continuity between human, architecture, and nature. Three bedrooms and entertaining spaces are neatly organized in an open floor plan and the same cedar covers much of the interior.

The original homeowners, Dale and Sylvia Ball, were quoted as saying, “The single most important decision in the whole process was selecting Neil as the architect.” Their instincts rang true when the home won the Honor Award for Distinguished Accomplishment in Architecture in 1975, as well as being written about  in many national and international publications.

Recently featured in The New York Times (June 14) and academic literature, it is obvious that Astle’s work is significant, but as Doll notes, “I don’t think people realize homes like this are in Omaha.”

Astle’s works are “rare gifts to Nebraska,” Naegele says. These two residences—the Flansburg and Ball residences—offer a chance to reflect and remember how good his work was (and continues to be).

This article was printed in the September/October 2017 edition of Omaha Home. Learn more about Neil Astle’s work in the Omaha area in this article’s companion piece: “Neil Astle: Omaha’s Midcentury Modern Man”

Bringing Meaningful Design Conversations to Omaha

August 13, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Architecture as an intellectual endeavor extends far beyond brick-and-mortar structures. For designer Andrew Conzett, architecture is a form of problem-solving and way to rewrite immediate questions about the built environment through a culturally sensitive lens. Early in his career, he positioned his curiosity at one of Omaha’s most creatively focused firms, developed numerous discipline-blurring projects, and helped curate a robust series of lectures with the Omaha chapter of the American Institute of Architects. This fusion of localized projects and international discourse is one that not only pushes his own practice forward, but also challenges existing norms and perceptions of regional architecture.

Conzett grew up in Omaha. Since a young age, he was inspired by his father, a civil engineer at a large international firm, and his mother, who was consistently involved with social service and nonprofit organizations. As a soon-to-be licensed architect, Conzett is a cocktail of both. He has always been keenly interested in art and landscape, both of which were influential in his childhood years and helped to inform his atypical response to the “I-always-wanted-to-be-an-architect” story ubiquitous amongst peers (many say it was from building with LEGO bricks as a child). During high school, a design competition piqued his interest. This community-focused extracurricular project, which combined multi-disciplinary teamwork and a design-based approach, prompted him to apply to the College of Design at Iowa State University.

While at Iowa State, his intense studio assignments were mixed with conversations and projects with artists and creative thinkers. Working alongside a diversity of artistic studies pushed him to see the multiplicity of architecture. During his final year in the architecture program, one of Conzett’s classmates responded to his non-binary projects by asking, “Do you want to be an installation artist or architect?” Conzett did not know how to respond; however, this prompt of either/or has now become a defining feature of his practice.

While studying, Conzett diversified his architectural coursework with internships at the Omaha Public Library and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, where he interned with artist Sean Ward and curator Hesse McGraw. After graduating in 2010, he moved to Omaha and was soon commissioned to design an office pod installation at the headquarters of Bozell. The project resulted in a spatial intervention that was recognized by the AIA Central States Region’s Excellence in Design Awards for “Detail Honor and the Interior Design Best of Year Award for Budget Interiors.”

His interests in a diverse range of project types brought him to his current position at Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture in 2011. At the collaborative open studio in north downtown where architects work alongside interior designers, graphic designers, artists, and engineers, Conzett is staying busy outside the office as well.

His CV for research-based and experimental projects is dense. Stepping one foot outside the firm, Conzett has worked collaboratively on award-winning projects with Emerging Terrain, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Council Bluffs Park System, including River’s Edge Park. Each project allows him to intensely research form, material, and site. They also provide an instant design-to-built-project process that allows ideas to come to fruition faster than with traditional design-bid-build projects, which often take years to complete. These research-based projects also speak to his interest in architecture as built form that has the ability to blur lines between disciplines and methodologies.

For Conzett, “contemporary architecture practice requires thinking about new methods and materials, and thus inspires me to seek out unique project types as a way to expand my knowledge of design and the built environment.”

His most recent endeavor, the AIA Omaha lecture series, conflates his efforts in community activities and intellectual pursuits. Organized in collaboration with Ross Miller and other AIA Omaha members, the 2017 lecture series is a thought-provoking forum for design thinking. Bringing in award-winning international and national architects, such as Mike Nesbit of Morphosis in Los Angeles and Kai-Uwe Bergmann of Bjarke Ingles Group in Copenhagen, the role of these lectures are two-fold. First, they are an opportunity for professional architects and the general public to participate in architectural discourse. Secondly, the lectures provide a voice for a range of architectural practices that are advancing disciplinary boundaries.

While the series may seem hyper-niche, the visiting lecturers produce a diverse range of project types. These architects discuss the scholarly and tactile impact of design beyond simply making buildings. As award-winning content creators, the lecturers stimulate the public and challenge architects to aim their work to an elevated level of design excellence.

“It is always good to hear professionals talk about their design process and work,” says Emily Andersen, owner of DeOld Andersen Architecture. “But it is even more important to have lecturers come to Omaha that are truly challenging assumptions. The lectures bring the potential of a meaningful conversation that allows us to see into the creative process of other design professionals. And so I really appreciate the work that AIA does, as well as Design Alliance Omaha to help bring that discourse here.”

In all of his work, Conzett is running against the boundaries of the discipline with a keen understanding that traditional definitions of architecture and the built environment deserve to be challenged and pushed forward. “Opportunities such as professional work with [Alley Poyner], design-build exhibition and installation commissions, and the AIA Omaha lecture series are all ways for me to continue to experiment with and better understand the practice of architecture,” he says.

Visit aiaomaha.org/lecture-series for more information.

This article was printed in the Summer 2017 edition of B2B.

Nathan Miller

August 6, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Nate Miller is changing the world of architecture. It is hard to imagine, looking at the bald, bespectacled 30-something wearing clean, dark jeans and working quietly in a coffee shop.

“I think the business industry and the world of construction is ripe for disruption,” Miller says.

He is disrupting this industry through data mining. The building industry comprises several professions—architects, engineers, construction managers, and more. Creating buildings involves using software for computer-aided design, conceptual modeling, building information, and many other components. While software companies have complete packages for the building industry, the separate industries often prefer one software over another, so an architecture company that designs a building using Revit (Autodesk’s CAD program) may not be able to connect their information with an engineering company that uses Bentley’s Reliability, Availability, and Maintainability program. The result is a lot of time spent translating programs. The software companies aren’t interested in creating translation programs—that’s where Miller and his company, Proving Ground, comes in.

“[The building industry] is shifting into much more integrated practices. Nate’s role is in developing new techniques,” says Jeff Day, professor and director of the architecture program at UNL as well as principal at his own firm, Min | Day.

“A lot of softwares already have connection points built into them. Ways in which, at a programming level, you can begin to access a document, or part of a document, and extract data,” Miller says.

Proving Ground builds tools, often in the form of plug-ins, that tap into those connection points. They customize their products for individual architecture clients based on their needs, such as having a business client with a lean budget or needing access to daylight.

This ability to connect systems is helping to drive the world of design by data. “There are so many ways that one can, whether with data and tech, or fabrication concepts and prefabrication, use data,” Miller says.

Miller discovered this passion by learning. He graduated from UNL with a master’s in architecture in 2007 and began working for NBBJ Design in Los Angeles. As he built a design portfolio, he became interested in how to leverage data to help his own computations and design processes.

His ability to prove this came when he worked as the lead designer on the stadium at Hangzhou Sports Park in China. The shell was created in a series of aesthetically pleasing steel flower petals, which used less steel than a more traditional steel cover. The bowl was created from concrete. The company liked that this progressive design also reduced costs by using 2/3 less steel than a stadium of comparable size.

That progressive project proved to Miller that data-driven design worked well. He began thinking about implementing data-driven design on a wider range of products—just as CASE Inc. in New York, a building information and technology consultancy, called him with a job offer.

Miller wasn’t thinking about the Big Apple. He was thinking about the Big O. He wanted to come home. CASE agreed to let him work from Omaha, and Miller continued learning, and using, data-driven design as director of architecture and engineering solutions.

CASE’s clients at WeWork were also using data-driven research for a specific area of architecture and real estate. They focus on subscription-based co-work environments for startups.

WeWork learned their eight-person conference rooms were frequently booked for groups of four or five people. They researched why people were meeting in smaller groups, and discovered what those people needed—number of electrical outlets, club chairs vs. desk chairs and a table, etc. WeWork then started providing less space for conference rooms and more space for desks.

WeWork acquired CASE in 2015, and Miller, who now discovered he enjoyed consulting and working on the tech side, decided to create Proving Ground.

“I think he has a good sense of where the opportunities are in his practice,” Day says. “He’s more like a tech startup than an architect, so he’s coming at this as an architect, but in a tech way.”

Visit provingground.io for more information.

This article was printed in the Summer 2017 edition of B2B.

Designing and Building a Life in Omaha

June 6, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Wanted: beautiful minds.

Omaha architectural and engineering firms continue to hang the “help wanted” sign, roll out the welcome mat, and host job fairs, looking to snag that rarest of breeds: an employee who uses both sides of the brain equally, combining the practicality of a physicist and mathematician with the soul of an artist. In other words, young architects and architectural engineers are hot commodities in a leading job market.

Low interest rates and demand for new development (which shows no signs of ebbing) keep employers busy looking for qualified applicants. Where do they find the necessary numbers? Right in their own backyard.

“Certainly the job market in Omaha within architecture and engineering is very, very, very strong,” emphasizes Christopher Johnson, a vice president and managing principal at Leo A Daly, part of the big three of Omaha architecture firms, along with DLR and HDR. “Even when you look locally at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, PKI (Peter Kiewit Institute), or Nebraska-Lincoln, the interns and the graduates are secure in their employment by the holiday season, before they go home for their holiday break. That’s a lot earlier than what we would normally see.”

Top-notch schooling—the College of Architecture and the College of Engineering on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus, and the Kiewit Institute and the Durham School of Architectural Engineering and Construction on the university’s Omaha campus— provides Omaha firms with a locally grown crop of well-grounded, technically advanced job candidates who work well with others and possess problem-solving skills.

“In Omaha, we typically hire between 10 and 12 architects and engineers every year,” says Johnson. In addition, Leo A Daly’s internship program places about four students on the architecture/interior side and the same number on the engineering side. 

How do the salaries compare?

“Entry-level job salaries are competitive in the Omaha market because we have a very competitive spirit among all the private firms here,” Johnson says. “But when you look at the national picture, you might say they look a little lower.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median wage for architects nationally is $76,100. Omaha’s lower numbers reflect a geographical lower cost of living.

While many graduates take their sheepskin and leave for larger salaries in larger cities like Chicago, Boston, or Dallas, an impressive percentage chooses to stay close to family and friends. Two young professionals who made a conscious decision a decade ago to stay rooted in Nebraska have seen their stars ascend on a local and national level.

Stephanie Guy, project and resource manager at Alvine Engineering in Omaha, and Andrew  Yosten, managing engineering principal and director of mechanical engineering of HDR’s architecture practice in Omaha, both found their calling early. In many ways, they mirror each other’s lives.

“My uncle owned a construction company and I enjoyed building things, but I was always pulled toward engineering,” Yosten, 34, says of his teenage years growing up in West Point, Nebraska. “I happened to stumble across a pamphlet on architectural engineering. None of the other engineering fields really appealed to me until I read that pamphlet.”

Guy comes from a place even smaller than West Point. In fact, Mullen, Nebraska, population 492, is the only town in Hooker County, nestled in the state’s beautiful Sandhills. Like Yosten, she became more interested in how a building functions than in its design.

“When I was a junior or senior in high school, I thought about architecture, but I leaned more towards the math and science rather than the creativity,” says Guy, also 34 and president-elect of the Architectural Engineering Institute. “So I thought engineering would be a natural fit.”

Guy and Yosten earned advanced degrees, two years apart, from Durham on the UNO campus, one of the few schools in the country offering a five-year program combining a bachelor’s and master’s degree in architectural engineering. Each specialized in mechanical engineering, obtaining a breadth of knowledge of a building’s structural aspects, plus its lighting, electrical, heating, cooling, and ventilation areas.

Guy opted to work for a company that focuses strictly on engineering, although she still works closely with architects. Her portfolio with Alvine includes renewable energy projects at Creighton University, renovations at Duchesne Academy in Omaha, a new school of nursing at the University of Michigan, a 50-story residential high-rise and a 50-story Class A office building, both in Chicago.

“There’s something about this Midwestern location and Midwestern work ethic that allows us to be successful,” Guy says. “We’re just a flight away from both coasts. HDR, DLR, and Leo A Daly all started here and are still here, three of the largest architectural and engineering firms in the world, with offices around the globe.”

Yosten, who interned at HDR while in school, felt at home with the company’s global reach from the get-go, especially in the field of health care.

“My mom is a physician assistant in West Point, and my wife is a nurse, so I have a true appreciation for what they do,” Yosten says. “So when I learned how much HDR’s portfolio is geared towards health care, that was a big drive for me to
stay here.”

Some of the notable health care projects Yosten’s teams have guided include the Fred and Pamela Buffett Cancer Center in Omaha, set to open soon, and a $1.27 billion replacement for Parkland Hospital in Dallas, best known as the hospital where President John F. Kennedy died. They’re also designing a new tower for Omaha’s
Children’s Hospital.

What keeps HDR’s 952 employees in Omaha and Lincoln, Leo A Daly’s 130 local employees, over 50 architectural firms, and more than two dozen engineering firms anchored here? The ability to balance a high-powered job and a personal life in an area that avoids getting caught up in the rat race plays a huge role.

It allows Guy and her husband to raise four daughters, who range from an infant to age 9, while pursuing a career that has garnered her numerous professional awards.

It allows Yosten time to play with his 18-month-old twin boys, who he says are “really ornery and a handful” but the light of his life, along with his wife, Jill.

Development may be booming in Omaha, but sometimes the intangibles prove a greater lure for employees.

Stephanie Guy, project and resource manager at Alvine Engineering

This article was printed in the Summer 2017 edition of B2B.