[UTA Magazine]


Work force: VLK Architects
Quality workers, quality design

In a way, UTA built VLK Architects. So it's only fitting that the firm would return the favor by designing two of the
University's buildings.

Rola Fadel and Scott Dunning
Alumni Rola Fadel and Scott Dunning of VLK Architects visit the construction site of the Continuing Education and Workforce Development Center. Almost half of VLK's employees have UTA degrees.

Of the company's 60 employees, 28 have at least one UTA degree. The design team for the new continuing education building has three alumni, all with master's degrees. Four of the firm's seven project architects hold UTA degrees, as do all the project coordinators.

The company is designing the Continuing Education and Workforce Development Center that recently broke ground, and it designed the Chemistry Research Building that sits at the heart of the campus.

VLK has also assisted on feasibility assessments and other smaller projects on campus. Its primary jobs are public education facilities and corporate training centers.

The 65,000-square-foot continuing education complex is budgeted to cost $6.78 million. That's a big project in Chad Davis' eyes, and he says doing work at his alma mater is "fun and difficult at the same time."

"You want to show your talents, but you must also fit within the university setting," said Davis, the project designer, who holds two UTA degrees. "You have a whole lot of constraints when you're working in a university environment."

UTA has long boasted one of the area's best architecture programs, and it has become a conduit to firms throughout North Texas. But University alumni, both with bachelor's and graduate degrees, are perhaps nowhere more popular than at VLK, the second-largest architectural firm in Tarrant County.

UTA exes work in every department, from management to construction administration.

John Wallis, who earned a master of business administration degree in 1991, is a principal and handles most of the company's financial issues. Coupled with the architecture and civil engineering degrees he earned from another university, he said the financial training he received at UTA has given him a balanced education that's perfect in his current role.

"The business aspect of architecture is an area that most colleges of architecture don't focus on," he said. "My M.B.A. emphasis was on finance, and it's helped me tremendously in areas such as budgeting and cost estimation. I handle most of the business aspects for our firm—the banking, the 401(k), the insurance—and I enjoy it."

Though he's not often at the drawing board, plenty of his classmates are. Wallis said the firm hires UTA grads because "we need talented employees."

And they're queueing up to sign on.

"It's like one tells two, and they tell two," Wallis said, "and next thing you know, we've secured some really fine individuals here through word of mouth. We're tied to the University from that standpoint. … There are good feelings going both directions."

Strong ties to UTA have been nothing but beneficial, Davis said, and just because half the company's work force graduated from the same place doesn't mean that everybody thinks alike.

"Everybody has a different path. You can go through the same school and never have the same professors. And they [VLK employees from UTA] all have different expertise."

UTA's architecture strength has long been in design, which made theT school a perfect fit for Davis. "I feel like I got a really good education. I found it to be very well-rounded, and it prepared me for my work at VLK."

Besides being a member of the team working on the continuing education project, Davis also recently designed a high school in the Denton Independent School District and a ninth-grade center for Crowley ISD.

Though Davis says his education readied him for his career, Wallis said that when it comes to a career in architecture, there's no substitute for experience.

Which makes UTA grads all the more in demand.

"We look for folks who graduate and want to continue to learn," Wallis said. "This is an experience-based type of profession. It's a complicated profession that's learned on the job. UTA produces talented people. By the time they finish, they've demonstrated a desire to learn. They're well-equipped, and they have that internal motivation."

They also have a certain loyalty. Some VLK employees serve on the University's Architecture Alumni Board. Most still visit their old professors. At least one is such a part of UTA that she spends much of her free time on campus.

Donna Austin, a 1980 master of architecture graduate, is working on the continuing education complex even while she's working in the old one. She has taught yoga there part time for six years.

"It's kind of exciting," she said of work on the new structure. "It's such an interesting project."

Austin has experienced a few of those in her career, including other assignments for the University. She had a hand in some of the campus apartments built in the 1980s.

"Those were the only new apartments on campus before a couple of years ago," she said. "It's amazing that there weren't more dorms. How do you keep a student population the size of UTA?"

Sustaining a lot of UTA folks in one small place? VLK Architects seems to have that one figured out.

– Danny Woodward


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