Mike Smutny is a construction administrator in the living studio, working on senior living, multifamily, and mixed-use projects – and often helping other studios with construction projects as needed. Jennifer Sodo sat down with Mike to learn more about his unique perspective on architecture – from bringing his design sensibility into the field to his personal connections to environments for older adults. (Interview edited for brevity.)
Jennifer: Can you tell me about your journey to becoming a construction administrator in our living environments studio?
Mike: I have always been interested in both music and architecture, and when it came time to choose a major in college, I decided to pursue music. I quickly discovered that I liked music better as a hobby than a profession; this was the 1980s, so pivoting to studying business seemed to make sense. I worked in the business world for a few years, but it was not a satisfying career, so I returned to graduate school in my late twenties to study architecture.
After graduating, I worked on all aspects of architectural projects: design, drawing production, code analysis, specifications writing – everything. At some point, I stepped back and looked at the path to advancement in many architecture firms, a project management track. I worked my way “up” as a project manager for a bit but realized the more I got into it, the more I was back to the business side and the further away I was from the architecture practice I enjoyed. So, I decided to shift focus and move into a full-time construction administrator role, which allowed me to stay in touch with clients I enjoyed as a project manager. It also let me stay closer to the actual building and design aspects of the field.
Jennifer: Over the course of your career, have you had any experiences that shaped your outlook on the built environment? What did you take away from that experience?
Mike: Having worked on many senior living projects, I’ve had personal experiences with loved ones that gave me a unique perspective on the buildings we design and the codes that govern them. We were working on a memory care project a few years ago in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which had more restrictive regulations for emergency egress than most other jurisdictions. To avoid the “elopement” of residents, many memory care buildings across the country use delayed egress, which prevents exit doors from opening freely for a set number of seconds. Tulsa’s regulations did not allow for delayed egress, but we worked closely with the client to develop graphics, written documentation and verbal presentations to defend this strategy for the community.
Ultimately, the regulators allowed us to provide delayed egress at exit doors. It was a rigorous exercise, but it was fun to dive into a specific challenge so deeply with a client to prove why they thought this strategy was in the best interest of their residents and employees. And all this time, my mom lived in a memory care community and was a flight risk. So, this became a really personal exercise for me, too, because I wanted the families of the residents who lived in this new building to feel the comfort I did that my mom was safe in her community.
The Community Life Center at Trinity Woods in Tulsa, Oklahoma provides space for residents to gather informally or in conjunction with scheduled events in the adjacent auditorium.
Jennifer: Given that you frequently walk through buildings under construction, is there one aspect of the design and construction process you’re particularly passionate about improving?
Mike: From a construction standpoint, I think it’s important to educate contractors and subcontractors on why they’re doing certain things. It’s shocking how many masons I’ve talked to who don’t know why they install simple things like mortar nets or base flashing. Talking through the intent of a design or an assembly might help catch issues early, particularly regarding details aimed at keeping water out of buildings.
I also think it’s essential for those in the field to have design skills or sensibilities. When I worked as a designer, I was pretty indecisive – the sky is the limit at the outset of a project, so how do you find the correct lane? What I like about being a construction administrator is that things must constantly change or evolve to accommodate existing conditions or coordinate with other trades. And because I can talk to our design team and understand their intent, I feel empowered to make decisions to support those design goals.
Jennifer: What advice do you have for other designers to help us create beautiful yet buildable environments?
Mike: There are obviously things people design that are challenging to construct, so we need to be looking for simplicity wherever we can. And if something is complex, our quality assurance reviews during construction documentation – or earlier – should catch those things. Our teams should work through how that assembly or design can be detailed.
It’s also important to step back from the computer screen or drawing board to see our buildings from multiple angles. Sometimes I’m walking a site and can see some incongruities. We often draw 2D interior elevations, but we have to be careful about designing the transitions between those spaces when they open to each other or round a corner. Or, on the exterior, have we taken advantage of our 3D models to walk all the way around the building, or did we focus on developing a few key views for renderings?
Mike’s work on the meditation room at the new Hebron Oaks at Oakwood Village in Madison, Wisconsin ensured the as-built space (left) closely matched the design intent conveyed in the pre-construction rendering (right).
Jennifer: What’s your hope for the building industry in the next ten years?
Mike: I’m in a unique position to have started my career drawing on mylar, transitioning into various CAD programs, and finally moving into Revit – and I’ve seen tremendous advances in each technology around what we can build. Computer modeling has allowed us to build more complex designs quickly, and changes are easier to make now.
I’m excited to see the next step forward in design and documentation software – I think emerging technology will allow us to design and change things more quickly, giving us more time to focus on and think through the design. And hopefully, that makes both the design and construction of buildings better in the end.
This interview with Mike is part of a series that highlights the unique experiences and perspectives of our living studio team members. Check out previous interviews on shifting perspectives and empathy in design. Stay tuned for the next installment!