A Conversation With Jessica Terrill

Architect receives inaugural award.

In October, Jessica Terrill became the first recipient of the Young Architects Award from the American Institute of Architects, Iowa Chapter. The award is given to individuals who have shown exceptional leadership and made significant contributions to the profession in the areas of design, education, and/or service in an early stage of their architectural career. Terrill shares her thoughts on the creative process, her interest in the integration of art and architecture, and the changing role of women in the profession.

Why your interest in architecture?

As a child, I had an equal passion for drawing and math and science. So when it came to studying something in college, architecture seemed a great balance between something creative and analytical.

Can You Describe your educational and professional experience?

I attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where I received a bachelor’s in design and a master’s in architecture. I moved to Des Moines and spent a year at OPN Architects, followed by a couple years at Herbert Lewis Kruse Blunck Architecture. I will have been at Substance Architecture for nine years in January.

How would you describe the creative process when approaching a project?

First of all, architecture is as collaborative as it is creative. I never work alone; we always work as teams. Those teams collaborate with the client, consultants, and contractors. It takes a lot of people doing a tremendous amount of work to realize any project.

There is rarely one magic spark of inspiration. The artist Chuck Close said, “Inspiration is for amateurs—the rest of us just show up and get to work.” Creativity comes out of the process. We continually work through all these complex factors until we can distill it to something that is very simple, clear, and beautiful.

Schematic design is one of the earlier phases in the design process when we create the “big picture” for a project. It is probably the most creative part of the process, though it represents only a fraction of the work we do. During this time, we do extensive research, which includes learning the needs of our client and considering precedent projects, types of materials, construction methods, and the characteristics of the site where the project is to be built. We look at how a project contributes to the fabric of the community and the impact it will have on its surroundings. We may come up with ten different solutions before selecting a direction to focus on.

What project Are you most proud of?

It would be the Faegre Baker Daniels law office. We used very simple materials to create spaces that are really striking. Upon reflection, the more influential component for me was the integration of art and architecture. The client had a great art collection and we designed the space with it in mind, considering how and in what context it would be viewed. We worked with the client to commission pieces by artist Pete Goche, specifically for their space. Those pieces helped create a place that reflected the character and culture of their office; it was memorable and unique to them.

The public art projects served the same purpose on a broader scale. The “Dangos” and “Expansion” pieces by Jun Kaneko work with the surrounding architecture to create a distinctive experience along the Principal Riverwalk, one that celebrates the character of that place. Many people can be intimidated by art, so I think it is powerful that this experience is open to everyone and can be a part of everyday life.

You were just elected the first woman editor in Iowa Architect magazine’s 60-year history. How has the role of women in architecture changed?

There has long been disparity in the number of men and women practicing architecture. The evolution of keeping women in the field has been a long, slow climb. Though there are many complex factors, one of our field’s biggest challenges is work-life balance.

Traditionally, things like flexible work hours haven’t been part of the work culture because what we do tends to be very time intensive. That has impacted women to a greater extent because of their responsibilities of raising children and running households.

Today, it’s becoming easier for women to fully participate in the profession for several reasons: Men are taking over a greater percentage of household and child-rearing duties. And changes in human resources policies like providing maternity leave and flexible work hours are helping more women remain in the field. As a result, the number of women architects is growing, but slowly.

What do you want to achieve in your time as editor?

Our current goal is to expand our reach digitally and editorially. We only recently established an online presence, and I feel there’s a lot of opportunity for us digitally. For a long time, the magazine was something for architects, by architects. We’ve been making a shift toward connecting with a broader audience.

We realized that in order for people to understand what we do and its value, we needed to change our approach. That’s meant finding a way to talk to the public about architecture and its impact. It’s been a slow evolution as we try to find a balance between speaking to a more general audience while also remaining relevant to the profession.

Describe your community work.

I recently started volunteering with a group called ProjectSPACES, an initiative of the Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation. The committee is charged with developing temporary public art. One of the things that attracted me to ProjectSPACES is their ongoing collaboration with DART (Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority), where they commission work from regional artists and “wrap” them around buses. I thought it was really innovative and unexpected. More importantly, though, it was very accessible. That’s something I found fascinating with the group—they’re taking cutting-edge work and sharing it with everyone.

Tell us about your personal life.

I live with my family in Des Moines: My husband, Joshua Baker, and two daughters, Wiebrie, 6, and Lillah, 3. I’ve been a longtime member of a book club, and Joshua and I try to catch music concerts when we have the opportunity.