A Journey in Design: Paul Holmes

Thursday, June 2nd, 2022

Pope Design Group’s Vice President Paul Holmes retired at the end of May after 30 years with the company. We are so grateful for his contributions and commitment to helping make the firm what it is today. To help celebrate his journey at Pope, we asked Paul to share his perspective and memories. Here is that conversation:

You got your start in construction and carpentry? How did you make the leap to architecture and joining Pope?

I definitely did not come to the profession through a conventional pathway. I’d graduated from college with a major in philosophy, and after working in wilderness education for a few years migrated to commercial construction to pay the bills. I was a carpenter, jobsite superintendent, estimator, and eventually a project manager, then started developing projects and putting together design-build teams. Jon Pope and I met in that way and one day he called me saying he thought I was on the wrong side of the table. I’d been strongly interested in architecture for years and had taken some courses at the University of Minnesota through extension but had set aside going back and getting an Architecture degree for practical reasons. Jon’s call gave me the opportunity to enter the profession in a business development and project management role, and then over time to qualify to take the architectural registration exams and become licensed in Wisconsin – one of the states that doesn’t require the professional degree. I’ve regretted not having a formal architectural and design college experience, but on the other hand have never regretted having done the degree in philosophy that equipped me to contribute in other unique ways.

What type of projects did you work on when you started at the firm? How has that changed or remained the same over time?

When I started at Pope in 1992 the firm was doing a lot of office, education, retail, and industrial work locally, as well as Target stores across the country. Early on I helped out on the Target account, and worked with clients like Tetra Pak, Ben and Jerry’s, and Seagate, St. Paul Public Schools, and with developers like Duke, Liberty, and United Properties. As the firm broadened its expertise into healthcare and housing, I was involved in those project types too, but most of my work has been centered in office, industrial, education, market-rate housing, and worship facility design. Jon Pope used to describe me as the firm’s centerfielder, and looking back, I think that’s probably right.

Careers in the architecture industry can often be fluid.  What made you want to stay at Pope?

I was invigorated and excited by what I was doing. I really felt, and still feel, born to do this work, and, having been given the opportunity by Jon Pope to come in and eventually help lead the firm provided constant challenges and rewards so complex and exciting that it never occurred to me to look elsewhere.

As you started at Pope Associates in 1992 and stayed with the firm through the last 30 years, experiencing its growth, highs and lows, and evolutions, what are some moments or memories that will always stick with you as you reflect on this journey?

Our industry is project-based and it’s always an adrenaline rush to get an exciting new project or to have a finished product that client’s love and find transformative. Those high points are easy to recall. But there are other high points that are more about solving thorny business problems in a fair way – doing the right thing regardless of the short-term cost – so that over time the firm maintains its reputation for being trustworthy. To the extent that I’ve ever helped drive tough decisions based on treating people fairly, and from that I’m intensely gratified. The low points are around things beyond the firm’s control, including 9/11, the Great Recession, and the unexpected loss of a business partner. All of those were tough and were difficult to navigate, but over time they pale in comparison to the highs.

Projects can often involve years, many conversations, tough decisions and critical challenges. What is some advice you have for those starting out in the profession?

I’m always impressed by the breadth of skills and variety of strengths this career requires. From strategic thinkers, strong communicators, and analytic types on one hand to detail-focused building scientists on the other. Firms are necessarily diverse as a result, and those in the profession will always find themselves surrounded by people like, and very unlike, themselves. The common denominator should be core values. Those are what bind a team together and give a firm it’s culture and reputation.   And, if those core values include using design as a tool for improving people’s lives, then we should begin our work with every client by putting ourselves in their shoes and determining what it is about this project that will have a positive impact on the people who will use the space. Keeping the client’s goals in the forefront and understanding their perspective makes those tough decisions and critical challenges easier to navigate.

As you look back, is there anything you would have done differently, knowing what you know now?

I regret not being better prepared and self-aware when I was promoted to a leadership position. I spent too much time talking and too little listening and was too sure my ideas were always right. I missed chances to effectively support and empower coworkers as a result.

You’ve worked with so many kinds of clients through the years, from high-technology corporations on one hand to schools and churches on the other. What are your takeaways when it comes to designing for such different uses?

Clients have different goals and needs, but the process that we use to uncover and respond to them is fairly uniform, and, whether it’s a corporation interested in bringing new products to market or a school interested in increasing enrollment, the built environment is a key ingredient to their success. If we come to every project type asking how we can enhance the experience of those who use the spaces we design, then we’re on the path to success.

Of course it’s hard to pick favorites, but what is the project you are most proud of and why?

If I had to focus on one project that was particularly challenging and gratifying it would be the redevelopment of the St. Paul Monastery campus in Maplewood, where we worked for nearly five years with the Sisters of St. Benedict and McGough to uncover ways for the Monastery to use their land and building resources, and welcome others to be part of an expanded community. The project included a new monastery and chapel, new affordable family townhomes and affordable senior rentals for CommonBond Communities, and repurposing of the existing monastery for local multi-service organization, Tubman.  At one point in the process, after a contentious and particularly late City Council meeting where the project received city approval, I found myself toasting our success at 1:30 in the morning with a group of very happy nuns, some in pajamas, in the basement of their monastery.  If that’s not a career high point, then I don’t know what is.

Some of your projects have involved travel, is there a favorite place you got to go?

Early in my time at Pope there were one or two years where I flew more than 100,000 miles. There were exciting projects around the country, and I enjoyed working in many of those locations. Fortunately, when my wife Laura and I started a family the travel demand subsided, and I’ve been able to be much more present than I might have been if my projects were spread across the country.

From this side of your career, what have you found most rewarding about the work that you do?

Looking back the projects fade but the people don’t.  It’s interesting that after saying all these years that our work is about people not buildings, it turns out to be absolutely true. The relationships I’ve enjoyed with coworkers at Pope, with general contractors, project managers and clients are the things that I value most and am most rewarded by.

Now, as you look forward to a new journey in life, what are some places you look forward to visiting?

I have lots of interests and look forward to having more time to pursue them, and of course to finally having more time to spend with Laura doing things that we both love. Travel will be part of that (we’re hiking a piece of the Appalachian Trail and visiting Norway this summer), but I want to find ways to contribute and serve as well, so will be volunteering and hopefully getting involved in the non-profit world. I have tons of energy and hopefully a lot of years left to help make a difference.