Don Kranbuehl is a Senior Architect and Associate Principal at Clark Nexsen's Raleigh, North Carolina office. Don has more than 16 years of experience in the design, management, and construction spanning the academic, science + technology, and civic sectors. He has led the architectural design for a variety of projects that have been honored with state, regional, and national AIA design awards. Most recently, Don led the design for the UNC Coastal Studies Institute Research Building which received a Chicago Athenaeum International Design Award. Modelo spent some time learning about Don's award-winning designs and unique approach.
On becoming an architect
My decision to become an architect was based on many factors, but grew primarily from my interests in art and music as well as science. Growing up, my two main hobbies were painting and playing the drums. My parents helped me develop these interests through painting classes and music lessons. These helped create a foundation for thinking visually and learning to design through art and music.
When I was twelve, we moved into a modern house that my stepfather, an architect, had designed and built. This gave me the opportunity to experience the power of architecture and begin to understand and appreciate the importance of site, form, material and light. Working with my stepfather at his home office on school projects, I fell in love with a profession where I could combine my interests in art, music and science.
On finding his voice as an architectural designer
A number of influences have been important, including my architectural education at Virginia Tech. During my years in the architectural and engineering graduate programs, I gained an appreciation for a pedagogy focused on discovery, process over product and learning through travel. The Virginia Tech faculty also encouraged utilizing personal experiences to influence and help guide the creative process. Here I once again drew upon the experience of playing drums in rock and jazz bands in high school and college to see how I could apply the notion of improvising in music to improvising in design studio.
My musical knowledge and practice inspired me to explore in an architectural setting rhythm, order, restraint and improvisation while appreciating the importance of listening to the voices of others playing music with you. I could appreciate the value of this in architecture where, in a sense, I was listening to the voices of the site.
Another important influence has been teaching in the architectural graduate school at North Carolina State University for the past nine years. This has helped me focus on the importance of designing public space as well and responding to site forces, both urban and natural. I continue to learn and grow from each studio I teach.
On how his role has evolved since joining Clark Nexsen
I joined Clark Nexsen (formerly PBC+L) eleven years ago when my wife and I moved back home to the Mid-Atlantic after working in Chicago for a number of years. I searched for a firm with a strong connection to an academic setting. Clark Nexsen was integrally related to North Carolina State, as several of the architects were adjunct faculty and many participated in studio reviews. I had worked for Skidmore Owings & Merrill (SOM) for several years where I obtained licenses as both an architect and engineer, so joining the AE firm Clark Nexsen was a natural and exciting progression. The approach to design here is collaborative with a focus on idea-driven architecture. The team-oriented approach ultimately leads to the best design as the AE design team is in the same office and can listen and work closely together. I continue to focus on learning how to make our team-oriented approach a more healthy discourse that encourages collaboration around ideas, site, program and tectonics.
On principles he strives to adhere to
There are many important factors that are key including program, geometry, daylight and circulation. Environmental forces are examined as well to create an energy efficient and sustainable response. But I think at the heart of our design process is that we strive to understand the relationship of the form to the site and how it can create a unique reinterpretation of the site. That understanding drives the idea and design of the project.
We also always work on developing a clear tectonic and material expression that further reinforce the idea. The materials and craft of the architecture are important to us and trying to elevate how one experiences and engages the tactile dimension of the architecture.
I think this is an important question and one that I am always revisiting. Fortunately, as a teacher, it helps me to constantly review what I believe the important principles are to stress to students and consequently it informs for my own design process at Clark Nexsen.
On his role as a designer at Clark Nexsen
As a Senior Architect at Clark Nexsen, my primary focus is to help lead the design of a project from the initial kickoff with a client all the way through construction. At Clark Nexsen, we believe it is important for the architects to help shepherd a project from conceptual design through construction. This helps to ensure that the key elements of the architecture that are critical to the project and the client are kept intact and that there is an attention to the craft and the details in the construction process.
Another important aspect of my role is to listen to the client to develop a clear understanding of the mission and challenges that the client wants to achieve. Other important roles are to lead the design team’s analysis of the site and conceptual design process and to help guide the discourse between all members of the design team throughout the design and construction process. A large part of my role is ensuring that all members of the design team are heard and involved to make sure the best ideas are brought forward.
On recent projects that represent his unique approach
In terms of how we approach projects, we feel that it is important to treat our clients as partners in the design and make it a truly collaborative process. We believe in the power of ideas and use an investigative process to learn about the client’s objectives as well as the challenges and opportunities with their specific project and site.
One project we recently finished is the Wake Tech Regional Plant. It was primarily meant to be a building to house heating and cooling equipment. But the Wake Tech faculty and staff also hoped to make it a place to teach students about building systems. We designed a simple rectilinear glass and steel box with a perforated metal screen layer which screens and highlights the technology. A public path was located behind the screen to lead the students and public along an educational path featuring views of the mechanical equipment as well as the natural setting. The facility presented a unique opportunity to transform the standard “typology” of a utilitarian regional plant into more of “a museum for mechanical equipment” where the equipment is on display to the students and public.
Another recent project is the UNC Coastal Studies Institute. It’s located on Roanoke Island in North Carolina and is surrounded by wetlands and sweeping views of the Croatan Sound. The harsh and severe coastal environment provided inspiration for the building’s design. It is elevated on piloti that touch the ground lightly yet it engages and interacts with the landscape through its site walls and natural lawns. An existing canal governs the building’s simple bent form. This form aligns the building with the canal and captures views of the water and sky.
On the state of design software
In terms of the state of software today, it’s changing so rapidly it’s hard to keep up with it. There are constantly new programs coming out that our Tech studio evaluates for their usefulness in our design process. One of the best results of the new software is it allows for more overlap and blurring between disciplines. We continue to use a wide range of tools from hand sketching and physical model making to digital software such as SketchUp, Rhino and Revit. We supplement these basic modeling tools with plugins such as V-Ray for visualization, Grasshopper for modeling, and Sefaira for daylighting and energy modeling.
On the future of architecture in next 5-10 years
It is an exciting time to be in the field, as there will continue to be an emphasis on making buildings more sustainable and responsive to the changing environment. The global warming crisis demands that the architectural industry respond with responsible solutions that help reduce emissions and help improve the environmental challenges. At the same time, in order for architecture to be sustainable, architects will need to create uplifting buildings that clients want to keep for a long time.
On the future of the firm in the next 5-10 years
Clark Nexsen continues to develop into a strong design firm that creates thoughtful and sophisticated architecture. We want to keep building a culture that encourages discovery and collaboration. Our goal is to create inspiring architecture that responds to the challenges that lie ahead.
On advice he would give his younger self
There’s lots of advice I would give myself regarding school or my first years in architecture but that’s part of the joy of learning – struggling and learning from others. The great thing about architecture is that it is such a complicated field crossing so many disciplines that there is always more to learn. I continue to feel like a student of architecture today. I think if I gave myself some overall advice it would be to slow down – to find more opportunities to slow the process of architecture down as good design takes time.