Design architect Matt Slagle especially enjoys designing stairways because of their technical complexity and the possibility to be creative. Photo by Michael Buck
In June, design architect Matt Slagle will be presented with the 2014 American Institute of Architects Young Architects Award at the national organization’s annual conference in Chicago.
The Young Architects Award is given to individuals who have shown exceptional leadership and made significant contributions to the profession in the early stages of their architectural careers.
Slagle found out in January that he was one of 18 young architects across the country receiving the award this year.
“It certainly was a long shot for me. It was an honor to be nominated. It’s nothing I ever thought would come to fruition,” Slagle said.
The award comes on the heels of Slagle’s acceptance of the AIA Grand Rapids Chapter Young Architect of the Year Award, which he received in September 2013.
Slagle has contributed to the design of more than $500 million worth of architecture and has received numerous awards for his work. He said he began pursuing a career in architecture early on, after being encouraged by his family.
He noted that watching Mike Brady on “The Brady Bunch” helped spur him along. “Mike Brady, working from home, had a cush job, it seemed like,” he said.
In reality, his path to becoming a design architect was not so easy and ended up taking him nearly a decade to attain.
A Grand Haven native, he first attended Baker College in Muskegon on a full scholarship, but after two years, he moved out West to attend the University of Colorado in Denver, where he discovered his credits wouldn’t transfer. He then embarked on obtaining a bachelor’s degree in business administration and then a master’s degree in architecture.
During this time, he also was working at various architecture firms and gaining experience so that, by his third year in the master’s program, he was able to begin taking the architectural registration exams.
“Because I had so much experience, I actually got my architectural license before I graduated college,” he said. “The typical process is to graduate, and then a three- to five-year internship, and then you can start studying for the nine exams.”
After seven years in Denver, Slagle returned to Grand Rapids.
He joined TowerPinkster in 2006 and credits the firm for giving him his “biggest career break” because of the many opportunities it’s already provided him.
One of those opportunities involved the Battle Creek Area Mathematics and Science Center. The building, at 171 W. Michigan Ave., was formerly home to the Kellogg Cereal City USA Museum, which opened in 1998 and was expected to welcome close to a million visitors per year. It ended up having fewer than 100,000, and eventually closed.
Today, the building has been transformed into a world-class science, technology, engineering and mathematics facility that provides advanced education to high school students, and curriculum support and professional development to educators in Michigan.
The renovation of the building included adding glass and metal portions to its second and third floors, two flights of cantilevered stairs around a three-story-high pendulum, and a series of “inspirational moments” throughout the center. Slagle said one of his favorites is a place where physics students are encouraged to drop objects and then time how long they take to reach the ground.
He said the unique stairway construction serves as a learning tool for physics students.
“There is a three-story pendulum that is drawing in the sand constantly, so I took the stairs and cantilevered out around it, and then on the second floor it goes the other way, cantilevered out around — but it bounces. … People would be uncomfortable with that, so to take the bounce out, there is a stainless steel rod and aircraft cables strung up to the roof, and that just stops it from bouncing.”
Students are able to examine how the rod and cable construction removes the bounce.
Slagle said stairways are his favorite feature to design and he collects pictures of his favorites.
“They are very technically complex,” he explained, adding there is a lot of creativity that can go into a stairway.
While he likes projects that allow him to be creative, he noted it’s really all about the client.
“I generally put solutions on the table,” he said. “I’ll put three concepts down and I try to show no preference to any one of them, and then the client will say, ‘OK, let’s do this, but can you think about this and this,’ and then I come back with two more variations to hone in on what it is they are after. Once we have a concept, we can tailor the look and feel to their values.”
Slagle works with a project team of eight to 10 people, and typically may be involved with up to three buildings at a time.
He said he has worked on several schools during his career, including Linden Grove Middle School in Kalamazoo and Thornapple Kellogg High School in Middleville. He is currently working on a Northview High School project.
School design needs to be very functional and safety focused, he said. For example, he designed the lobby of Linden Grove Middle School so that parents could pull up on one side of the building and school buses on the other, and all the students could still enter through one entrance area.
Slagle said many of today’s schools have undergone significant additions, so there might be a 10-year-old gymnasium on one end and a brand new performance center on the other, making the middle of the school the oldest portion and in need of updating.
Thornapple Kellogg was one of those cases. “We cut the middle out of the school,” he said. “This was two and a half years, five phases of construction.”
Northview currently is involved in the same type of project.
“The auditorium is on one end, gymnasium on the other. We cut out the middle 100,000 square feet and stacked it up,” he explained. “It’s by far the most complicated — three years of construction, seven phases, six sub-phases — so, 13 phases of construction.”
And, he said, it’s taking place while 1,200 students attend classes.
Slagle expects to see more of those projects over the next several years, noting that the economy is recovering and construction projects are amping up.
He said space for collaboration is a big feature in his school designs, providing students with a place to sit and study when they’re not in class.
“I hate corridors. You can’t do anything in a corridor but walk back and forth. I like spaces to be collaborative spaces that you also circulate through,” he said.
When Slagle is not designing buildings, he likes to hit the ski slopes. He and his wife, Liz, volunteer with Cannonsburg Challenged Ski Association. Their interest in the association began after their daughter, who was born with spina bifida, became involved in the program.
“As a family we go out, and my wife and I volunteer, my daughter is in the program, and my other daughter is in the ski school program — so we spend Sundays at Cannonsburg.”
He also leads a group of volunteers from TowerPinkster each year in a Habitat for Humanity project. This year he said the firm has enough volunteers to take on two houses.