podcast | Jun 7, 2023 |
Why risk is an essential part of Katie Vance’s design process

For the third season of Trade Tales, the show will feature stories of business pivots—large or small—that fundamentally transformed a firm. This week, the show covers how the sole designer at an architectural firm came to oversee the practice’s expansion into a design-build studio.

When Katie Vance landed an internship with a large architectural firm in Nashville after college, she expected the experience to gently ease her into the field. Instead, her supervising designer went on maternity leave just a few weeks into Vance’s tenure.

“The contractors were calling me, like, ‘Hey, this lead time isn’t going to work,’ or ‘[Here’s] this detail I need you to sketch.’ ‘What did you specify here?’” Vance tells host Kaitlin Petersen on the latest episode of the Trade Tales podcast. “That was a trial by fire—but what a great learning experience, to be like, ‘It’s on me to get this done and make these calls myself.’”

To Vance’s surprise, the high-pressure environment wasn’t a deterrent—instead, she thrived, earning a full-time spot at the firm. Though she stayed in the role for several years, she soon began searching for a firm that took on the kind of projects she was passionate about, particularly the hospitality ventures that had captured her creative imagination during her college travels. She found what she was looking for in Powell, the Nashville-based architectural firm she joined in 2013. Back then, the team consisted of three architects and had no interior design department—she started as the firm’s first and only designer. Still, the company had its sights set on expansion, and Vance immediately saw a place for herself in that process.

The biggest shift came in 2018, when the studio decided to transition to a design-build firm. As Vance learned, the process required a delicate balance on all fronts: managing the right level of internal and external communication, fostering a sense of collaboration among architects and designers, and finding a rhythm that allowed each department’s systems to coexist. “[We were] learning how to work out the kinks in this model—figuring out: How do we grow, and make it consistently better as it grows?” recalls Vance. The process required trust and commitment from all the firm’s team members, but in the end, it paid off: Today, the practice has grown to a bustling 25-person firm, which celebrated the launch of a new residential division earlier this year. It also fostered in Vance a newfound appreciation for risk-taking—a skill that’s taken her to new heights both on the community level and in each of her own projects.

In this episode, she shares how she communicates the value of artisan-made work to clients, how designers’ skill sets expand in the design-build environment, and why each department at the firm has its own “billing bubble.”

Listen to the show below. If you like what you hear, subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. This episode was sponsored by the Savannah College of Art and Design.

Homepage image: Katie Vance | Emily Dorio

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