Stuart Coppedge wanted a career that would allow him to simultaneously nurture the technical and creative sides of his brain. He “happily” ended up in architecture.
“I actually started out wanting to be a marine biologist and then shifted to chemical engineering,” said Coppedge, one of five principal owners of RTA Architects in Colorado Springs. “I loved the science part of chemical engineering, but found I was more suited to combine the engineering and my artistic side into architecture.”
Coppedge, who earned his bachelor’s degree in architecture in 1984 from the University of Oklahoma, joined RTA Architects in 2004 after 18 years with another local firm, HB&A.
“It was a good time for a change and [there were] some good opportunities here,” Coppedge said. “It’s worked out well for me.”
Coppedge sat down with the Business Journal this week to discuss RTA’s role in shaping educational opportunities for at-risk students, the architecture industry’s workforce challenges, and why automation may not be such a bad thing.
What is your role at RTA Architects?
I’m one of the owners here. There are five of us that are on our board. … We share all of the management and leadership duties of the firm, which we like, because we’re all in the business because we want to be architects, not CEOs. It allows us to kind of do both.
At the same time, we recognize that the most important thing we do as owners is keep the doors open. … We’re very proactive when it comes to building our future leadership here so that we can move on and get out of the way someday and let the younger group take over the firm. We’re trying to make it a very organic, natural kind of process.
Talk about RTA Architects’ mission.
Our primary focus through the years has been K-12 education and health care. That’s what we’re best known for. We’ve also done a lot of retail work through the years, and the last several years have really gotten more into what we call civic work — things like the Pikes Peak Summit Complex, new restrooms in the Garden of the Gods. … I’m just finishing up a master plan at St. Mary-Corwin [Medical Center] in Pueblo, where Pueblo Community College is going to move all their health care programs into the old east tower. … Again, it’s a combination of higher education and health care. I think looking into the future, there will be more and more partnerships like that. We certainly want to be a part of that.
Why do you think these health care/higher education partnerships are gaining traction?
I think part of it is, there’s relatively small amounts of funding coming out of the state, so most higher ed projects are getting built in some sort of partnership, … whether it’s a partnership with industry or a nonprofit like a health care group. It’s probably an economic thing as much as anything for the higher ed, but it also makes a lot of sense, because it connects the students with their future employment systems.
How are you involved in the community outside of RTA?
One of the blessings for me of being at RTA is that we encourage people to be involved in the community. Over the last several years, I’ve been able to serve at the local, state and national level with the American Institute of Architects, and also on the boards of Atlas Preparatory School, the Downtown Partnership and the Downtown Review Board, which is essentially the planning department for downtown. I chair all three of those boards. I’m a member of the 2016 class of the Leadership Pikes Peak signature program, which has been a great thing. I’m a big LPP fan and proponent.
Why are those particular organizations important to you?
I think downtown is critical. If downtown is healthy, then the entire community is going to be healthy. Our downtown has transitioned over the last decade or so from a sleepy little place to a really exciting place, with a lot of folks moving downtown. … Whether it’s young people or Baby Boomers, a lot of folks in either of those spectrums really enjoy downtown. A lot of great things are happening, so it was good to be involved in a leadership role there.
We do a lot of K-12 education design, so I’ve always appreciated that. One of my sons and my daughter-in-law are both Teach for America alums, so I kind of began to understand education for at-risk youth and inner-city education through them. So when I had the opportunity to join the Atlas board, it was kind of a natural fit there. I think we’re making a big difference at Atlas. This is our 10th year, and we just graduated our third high school class a couple weeks ago.
What role do you think architects can play in shaping educational opportunities for at-risk youth?
Architects are — by their nature and also training — both able to look at things at a 50,000-foot level and down into the details, and to move back and forth between that. As an architect, I feel comfortable backing up and looking at the big picture and asking questions and making decisions based on long-term things, but also able to get into the details and understand the nuances of regulations and budgets and all those things that we live with every day in the architecture world. I think that’s the biggest thing, is the ability to look at both detail and very, very high level — and also dream a little bit. Be creative. Ask the question, ‘Why not?’ and then make good evaluations.
What are the biggest challenges facing the architecture industry?
I think workforce is a big challenge. The recession hit us pretty hard. At one point about 40 percent of folks that were in architectural offices in 2007 were gone by 2010, so we lost a large number of young people who would really be moving into leadership roles and really understand the business and understand the industry. Right now there’s not as many of them, so we’re missing that cohort of people.
Plus the economy is really hot, especially in Colorado. We’re all competing for the same unicorns, that perfect man or woman out there that would do so well in our office … — workforce at the construction site, too. All the construction companies, the contractors, are having trouble finding enough people, which then impacts us because schedule becomes much more critical, because if you lose a week, it might mean losing a month.
So that drives opportunities to work more closely with the contractors and the building side of the industry and really team together to make things happen on behalf of the project and the owner.
Another big change is automation, artificial intelligence and just in general where things are going from a computer standpoint. How can we utilize artificial intelligence in the future to do the things that it can do really, really well, and let the people really lead the connection to the client and creative side of things? It’s both a challenge, but it’s also really exciting potential.
What advantages are there to automation?
It can leave us more time to do the relationship side of it and really lead the projects and provide great data and information for our clients to make decisions and let us do, at least for the time being, what only people can do — not see AI as a threat, but as an opportunity. That’s connected to building information modeling, which we’re all using now for the most part. We create the building in three dimensions virtually on a computer before construction starts — to be able to do a better job with that and streamline the process so that the model that we build translates into the model the contractor uses to do their sequencing, their construction planning and even potentially fabrication. Some of that is already going on — not skipping steps, but having the steps accomplished in a different way.
What role can RTA Architects play in the future of the Colorado Springs architecture industry?
A lot of us can be engaged in the community in ways that are meaningful to us, or that we’re best at. Use our connections, our talents, our desires and our time to be able to lead. … There are different things we can do to use the skills and the knowledge that we’ve gained as architects, as well as our time and our passion to engage in the community. As the largest firm in town, we can cast a pretty big net in support of the community. … We really have folks that are engaged in the community all over El Paso County.