Meet Yolanda Cole, AIA,IIDA, LEED® AP

Yolanda Cole was born in Chillicothe, Ohio.  She attended a semi-suburban public school from 2nd grade through high school later when she moved to Columbus, Ohio. Her early years were spent in a small town of 5000 people in Waverly, Ohio, mid-way between Columbus and the Ohio River. “It was one of those not-quite Mayberry towns with the historic county courthouse, the bank, the pharmacy with a soda fountain, the candy shop, the hardware store and an ice cream truck that we followed around on our bikes.” She describes.  Yolanda Cole points out that her small town beginning has given her a solid foundation – and even today - it makes her “appreciate the simple values that her parents instilled in her from the get-go.”

Ms. Cole was artistic as a student and always interested in music and art. “If it had been possible for a girl at that time, I would have taken “shop.”  She says. Yolanda Cole is a Principal and owner of Hickok Cole Architects, a large commercial architecture and interiors firm located in Washington, DC. “She is widely recognized for her leadership in the region’s business community and for her work on many award-winning projects in the commercial/corporate, government, and institutional markets.”

Editor: What kind of student were you?

YC: I was studious - I wanted to be good at everything and I was interested in many different things, including astronomy. I played the piano and the flute. The flute became my instrument, and music became my first major in college.

Editor: What were you like as a young woman?
YC: A little adventurous (like the era) and a lot studious. I managed to have a good time wile maintaining good grades. I worked from the time I was 16 in the summers and on holiday breaks. After high school I attended Ohio State (yes, I’m a buckeye like both of my parents) and earned a bachelor’s degree in Music Education. Then I decided to do something entirely different and went into Architecture.

Editor: What made you want to be an architect?

YC: I had originally wanted to teach flute in college so that I could combine teaching with performance. I soon discovered the reality, however, that someone has to retire or expire for a position to open up – and then who knows where it might be. My parents had built a house when I was about 12 and I would pour though all the plan books and imagine what my new house would be like. My parents were even brave enough to allow me to create tile patterns in the bathrooms and to design my own room (something I don’t think I could allow my daughter to do today!). This may have been the start of it all. So off I went to the University of Cincinnati, where they had a professional undergraduate co-op program in architecture. This would allow me to work while going to school – and with a scholarship in hand, to pay for a second round. I later transferred into the Master’s Degree program in Architecture at Columbia University to finish my education.

Editor: What are some great influences in your life?

YC: I would have to say that my parents were both great influences in my life – in different ways. My mother was originally a home economics teacher in a rural high school, but followed her career ambitions to become the Assistant State Director of Vocational Education in Ohio. She was creative, always worked, and set the stage for me to follow my ambitions wherever they might lead me. My father was an accountant, an attorney and eventually a juvenile judge – and ran his own business out of a historic house on Main Street. He was also known as “Uncle Jesse” to many young people, and has always been a funny, affable guy. Both came from small town roots, pursued Master’s degrees in their fields and were supportive of my desire to achieve.

Editor: Who did you work for after you graduated from college?

YC: As part of the undergraduate co-op program at Cincinnati, I was able to work in Cincinnati, Chicago and New York. It was a great advantage to be an “older” student in an undergraduate program because I was ready to go off on my own and seek new adventures. In my 4th year of a 6-year program I went to New York to work for Kohn Pederson Fox (KPF) – at that time a firm in the making. I never went back. I transferred to Columbia University into the 2nd year of a 3-year professional Master’s degree program and worked at KPF for the next 10 years. It was the high-flying 80s, full of sky-scrapers and design excess - and an incredible experience. The KPF job eventually took me to Sydney, Australia where I lived and worked for 2 years as the senior designer of a 42 story, 1.2 million sf mixed-use office tower. I was only 33 and it was a blast.

Editor:  What made you decide to go on your own?

YC: There is a round-about story here. I left New York in 1991 in order to start a family and moved to the “country house” on the Delaware River in New Jersey. There I spent time as an adjunct professor in architecture at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and started a small firm out of a home office. I designed houses and commercial projects for 2 years while my daughter was young. Then I moved to Washington, DC to return to the professional world. I became an Associate and Project Director at Keyes Condon Florence (KCF) for a few years as it transformed from a medium-sized, regional design firm into a large, national firm, now called Smith Group. 
I was beginning to question whether the resulting transformation was what I wanted in my career, and at about the same time, an unusual opportunity came my way. I was contacted by a developer whose wife was a partner in a small interior design firm - and who wanted someone to join them and eventually buy out the firm. I knew almost nothing about interior design, but was very intrigued by the prospect of running a business – and especially, taking a business from a solid place in the market to a whole new level. This, I have discovered, is what really drives me. I’m a “maximizer.” I spent the next 7 years learning about interior design, buying out my two partners and building a small architectural practice called LyrixDesign, Inc.  At that moment, yet another opportunity crossed my path.  

I met Mike Hickok years before while I was working at KCF. We worked on a large commercial office project together almost 10 years ago where I was designing the base building and he was designing the interiors for Boston Properties. We liked each other immediately and kept in touch year after year, trading stories and asking each other for advice. This turned into a professional and personal friendship that has now become a fruitful partnership. I merged my company with his over 2 years ago and now I have a “bigger sandbox to play in” (as an unofficial advisor recommended to me long ago) and a new company to maximize! 

Editor: What is your philosophy of practicing architecture?

YC: I suppose I would say that in design, I believe that there is design opportunity in every project, however small and however constrained. It’s relatively easy to design something exciting with an ample budget, but it’s a real talent to design something exciting with a tight budget. I would also say that I tend toward straightforward architectural expression in modernism. I respect and enjoy historic architecture, but I do not believe in replicating historic architecture except in cases of preservation. I believe that buildings should be a product of their time and should bear a relationship to their context (historic, political, urban, architectural) – either in response to it or in opposition to it, as appropriate to the project.

As for the service side of the business, I am a straight-shooter. I believe in addressing issues and processes head on and telling it like it is (nicely). This doesn’t always work, but it does win you some amount of respect. Sometimes it backfires because others will take advantage of your honesty. Nonetheless, it leaves me with my integrity and that’s what matters.

Editor: Do you have a favorite architect/artist/musician?

YC: Favorites. I shy away from answering these kinds of questions because I don’t really play favorites. I enjoy all kinds of architecture, music and books, etc., depending upon where I am in life and what my interests are at the time. I don’t spend a lot of time reading about architecture or business outside of my work day – there are too many other things to do! I enjoy classical (my background) as well as rock, blues and other musical forms. I still enjoy astronomy and related science topics (I have a telescope) and have taken up history over the past few years. I am a non-fiction reader, with an occasional beach book thrown in for good measure.

Editor: Do you have a favorite book?

YC: I can’t say that any one book has had a big influence on me, but I did latch on to the basic concepts from “First, Break all the Rules” and “Now, Discover Your Strengths” for use in my business. The idea is that people have innate talents or strengths and you should not spend time on trying to fix their weaknesses, but on maximizing their strengths – because that’s where the greatest growth and personal satisfaction can occur. Building teams of people with the right combination of strengths can therefore produce the greatest results.

Editor: Any teachers that influenced you?

With all of the education that I have had, there are only a few teachers who still stand out in my mind:  my 7th grade history professor, my high school band instructor and a design studio critic in graduate school. All of these teachers were creative in their approach to teaching, gave interesting assignments and encouraged their students to think for themselves – the results of which will last you for a lifetime.

  “I believe that buildings should be a product of their time and should bear a relationship to their context (historic, political, urban, architectural) – either in response to it or in opposition to it, as appropriate to the project.”

Editor: Do you have any heroes/any role models?

YC: I can’t think of any specific heroes in my life, but there have been a couple of role models. There is a lot of talk about mentorship, but I have to say that I have never had a true mentor – in the sense that a person took special interest in me and helped me to further my career. I have a “bootstraps” mentality, full of self-reliance and personal drive. I figure that if you want to achieve something, you’ve got to go after it yourself. That’s not to say that people have not encouraged me along the way. I worked with a principal at KCF, Tom Eichbaum, who, rather than showing me the way, simply got out of the way – allowing me to fly. I then flew the coop to head my own business! As I found myself in a position of leadership, I sought out the advice and support of others whom I admired. One was Linda Rabbit, a very accomplished woman who owns the highly successful RAND Construction Corporation, and the other was my current partner, Mike Hickok.

Editor: Was there anything in your life that you had to overcome?

YC: I think we are all in a continuous process of overcoming something challenging in our lives. This is how we grow as individuals and keep from becoming stagnant. As a woman in a mostly male profession, I have had to rely on my drive, my creativity and my strategic thinking and organizational skills to be recognized and promoted through the ranks. At a critical juncture in my career, I came to realize that I wanted to be the leader of a firm of my own, and when the opportunity came, I jumped off the cliff and went for it. Being the owner of a firm also has its challenges because I am now responsible for the well-being of 60 people on my staff, and the servicing of all of our clients - day in and day out – through good times and bad. Nonetheless, it has been a rewarding experience and I look forward to the challenges yet to come.

Editor: What does it take to be an architect?

YC: It takes creative talent, technical know-how, practical business sense, persuasive communication skills and a thick skin to be an architect – if you participate in all aspects of the profession. Design schools focus on the first element and expect you to figure out the rest once you enter the profession. To be a great architect, it takes an internal passion for design, the ability to communicate and sell your ideas to others and a great desire to leave something behind that others can experience and enjoy long after you have left the planet.

Editor: Can you say something about what inspires an architectural design? What goes through your mind?

YC: We say around the office that “great ideas can come from anywhere.” This is not an elegant statement, but we have found it to be true. Inspiration is a fuzzy thing and its sources are often nebulous. When I first went to architecture school, I had no background in visual design. I did have many years of musical training under my belt, so I relied upon my understanding of composition, rhythm, structure, organization and emotional appeal as a source of inspiration. In school, students are encouraged to think and explore as they design with the hope that abstract or concrete concepts will lead to inspired design. As we move into the profession, practical matters often take the front seat – pesky things like clients’ objectives, schedules, budgets and the constraints of construction materials and methods. Sometimes we lose the passion of design in the process as we make our way through the business side of the bargain. In our office, we seek to regain the innocence of inspired ideas while understanding that in the end, it’s the physical manifestation, or final product that matters – it has to work on many levels.

Editor: Do you spend a lot of time at the studio – evenings, weekends -Do you have to work alone?

YC: When I was younger, I used to spend an enormous amount of time at work – much more than what I have seen in young people over the past 10 years. At KPF the competition was fierce and if you wanted to be noticed, you had to produce many, many design options for those above to recognize and consider. This was not enforced overtime, but self-enforced overtime; and being that the place was full of highly talented, A-type personalities, it lead to a lot of late-nights and over-nighters. The resulting design was great because people cared about design and were willing to make the extra effort to achieve it.

These days, I spend a lot less time in the office, but work at home sometimes via my computer connection. E-mail is pervasive, and I make it a goal to check it and answer it (almost) every day - except on vacation. I don’t take many vacations and only take them for short periods of time because the before and aftermath is sometimes more stressful than the stress the vacation is designed to relieve! I am also responsible for feeding 60 people, so I need to be fully accounted for and present. I don’t resent or regret this because I love my work.

Editor: How does it make you feel to see your designs become reality?

YC: Design turning into reality is a wonderful thing. I suppose it’s why we do it. There is much to be gained by theoretical or intellectual study, but nothing beats driving past a building you personally helped bring into being. Large buildings take a team of people to create and execute, so it’s rarely, if ever, “all mine,” but there is a great sense of pride and accomplishment associated with seeing and experiencing something you worked so hard to achieve – especially when it will be there long after you are. You know every story that led to every decision, and sometimes, you wish that this or that decision had been different, but in the big picture, it’s still a great accomplishment.

Editor: Do you have a favorite among your designs?

YC: I have no favorite designs, but I do have a favorite design experience. As I mentioned before, I had the opportunity to be the Senior Designer for a mixed-use office tower in Sydney, Australia. It was one of the toughest, as well as one of the most rewarding, experiences I have had as an architect. The pressure was very high in the beginning, but the reward was very high in the end. I was able to live and work in a beautiful, foreign country and was exposed to new people, places and ideas. We even taught them a thing or two. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Editor: Do you take aesthetics into account? Function? What is more important to you in designing a building?

YC: At this point in my career, rather than doing the design myself, I provide design guidance and leadership for our talented design staff. I do this by focusing on key projects and clients and by conducting design reviews, charrettes and desk critiques with those who are in the design trenches. I get out the trace paper and sketch as well, but the actual execution is in the hands of our creative project designers. I occasionally miss the boards, but I also relish this more “mature” role.

Editor: The recession of the late eighties/early nineties – what was it like for you?

YC: I was in Australia when the recession hit there first – or I might have stayed there for a few more years. The economy there is very small and there is little room if you are in the business of designing large-scale projects. I came back to the US in 1991 and started a family, taught architecture and opened a small business. I “hunkered down” through that period and then re-emerged as the economy did the same.

Editor: Has there ever anything you wish you never did?

YC: I don’t have any regrets about the way in which I came into architecture or the way in which my career has unfolded. I feel at this point that I am in my prime as a person, an architect and a leader of a great firm - and I look forward with great anticipation to the future. I rarely look back, I always look forward to new adventures.

Editor: What are your thoughts about the role of the architect in society?

YC: If I were to be glib, I would say that architects are sometimes considered the “necessary evil” required in order to build projects envisioned by others. We sometimes feel this way because as a group of professionals, we are undervalued in this society – unlike lawyers or doctors (who are sometimes considered the same, yet no one negotiates their fees!). We therefore struggle to be seen as major contributors to the world around us – which is what we are and what we strive to be. We create the spaces where we work, eat, live and play; we build structures that celebrate our successes and commemorate our losses; and we provide buildings that house our government and shape our cities – this is a responsibility that carries great value as well as great personal reward.

Editor: Would you recommend becoming an architect to a young person?

YC: Yes, I would recommend architecture as a profession to those who have the drive and talent to pursue it. I would suggest, however, that a young person visit several offices and see what architects actually do in the profession before “signing up.” The education and registration process is long and requires a lot of hard work. While schools focus on design, many offices are focused on the business of architecture – which may or may not be the end-goal for a budding student.

Editor: Do you think architects are as involved as they should be in the matters of the environment?

YC: Whether we like it or not, or whether we consider ourselves involved or not, we will all be focusing on the environment in the near future – it will be come a part of what we do every day in our practice. Sustainable design is not a fad and will become an invisible way of doing design. We have many projects that have incorporated energy efficient systems and sustainable materials and processes, but it has yet to permeate our work.

Editor: Would you do it all over again?

YC: Yes, absolutely. I am very happy in my position as a source of vision, leadership and raw energy here at Hickok Cole Architects. I have the great fortune of having a supportive and synergistic partnership and a firm full of talented, loyal staff.

Editor: What are your hobbies?

YC: Golf, cooking and entertaining, reading and spending time with great friends. 

Editor:  What do you think our prevalent style of architecture is?

YC: I don’t know what to say about a “prevalent style” of architecture. In the Washington region, I see a shift away from the traditional architecture of base-middle-top, punched windows and symmetrical facades towards more modern expressions in metal and glass. I see this as a welcome change that gives our city more variety – and pushes the conservative real estate community beyond their conventional comfort zone. This is a sign that great design sells, which in turn, provides more opportunity for more great design.

Editor:  What's the greatest challenge of our industry?

YC: The greatest challenge of our industry may be competition with other related industries that are moving into our traditional market territory. Real Estate brokerage companies are now providing programming and test fit services – and some have architects on staff. Furniture companies now provide design services in-house as part of the cost of their product. Many large corporate companies have facility departments who do internal space planning as well as construction management services. Contractors are promoting design-build as an alternative delivery option and others are edging architects out of the construction administration process. We are slowly being “nibbled away at by ducks” (as my partner would say) as we compete to maintain and expand our services. Nonetheless, I believe that the core business of design and documentation will remain in tact as long as long as we provide real design value and technical know-how to our clients.

Editor:  Thank you Ms. Cole. It's been a privilege.