Christine Costa is an architect from 9-to-5 and a woodcarver after sundown. She works in the Downtown office of RTA Architects on Tejon Street, and prior to her arriving in Colorado Springs, she earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture from Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan. “I grew up an hour north of Detroit — in Port Huron,” said Costa.
“While at Lawrence Tech, I began working for a firm in Southfield called Neumann/Smith — they had an office in Detroit as well. I worked for the firm for 10 years, doing a lot of commercial, historic renovations. My whole life was in Michigan until my husband and I moved here in June 2017.”
Costa’s sister is in the Air Force and stationed in Colorado Springs, so Costa and her husband frequently vacationed here. With the Springs in mind, the Costas decided to save up for some significant time off. “We started hoarding money for two years, planning everything,” Costa said. She and her husband pinched pennies so they could live a year without working. “I don’t think anyone actually thought we would move, until we had our truck packed up,” Costa said. “We were just taking a life break. We wanted to see what it’d be like to be retired before 65. We wanted to move and not have to work right away … we wanted to explore Colorado. We rented a tiny apartment in Manitou ... but it had a garage so I could still whittle. It only lasted about eight months, though, before I began working full-time again.”
The carving that Costa is referring to relates to her side project: deadtree workshop. During Costa’s sabbatical, her hands created deadtree. She realized the rejuvenating energy of whittling wood. “Woodcarving is calming,” said Costa. “Whenever I work with my hands, I’m relaxed and in the moment. I can sit for hours and my brain feels refreshed in the end. It’s awesome; I get to make things and my mind is actually healthier.”
Costa and her husband have since moved to Woodland Park, into a chalet cabin with a large garage that allows Costa to fabricate utensils, dishes, trays and more. “When you start handcarving … shaping with knives, gouges and chisels, that’s when you can sit there quietly — which is what I love.”
Costa talked with the Business Journal about her background, the work of RTA Architects, the lessons of deadtree workshop, and what she values.
How did you end up working for RTA Architects?
Architecture is a really close-knit community, even in Detroit — where I’m from, everybody knows everybody. So I knew the Springs would be really tight. I started talking with local architects — not asking for jobs, but just to see what it was like here. I went to an event at the Briarhurst Manor in Manitou Springs. I ended up talking with someone from Bryan Construction, asking what architecture firm they like, because I respect construction workers’ opinions on architects. This person introduced me to Stuart Coppedge, one of the principals of RTA Architects. [Coppedge and I] started talking, then I went in for a couple interviews, and was quickly hired. Honestly, I was more casual than usual about the interviews, not because I didn’t respect RTA — not that at all. I was just more confident and assured because taking time off from work taught me something about work-life balance: I understood the value of life, and my value, outside of work. Anyways, since being hired, I’ve been working for RTA for about 3½ years now.
What do you like about RTA Architects?
Usually in a design firm, you either get pigeonholed into being a designer, drafter or into construction administration. It’s often very segmented. At my last firm, I always worked with designers but never did any design myself. At RTA, there are no designers, everyone has to do it themselves — it’s fun, and you become much more well-rounded as an architect. I hated it at first; I didn’t want to design — I just wanted to draft and do all the technical stuff … use my methodical left brain. It was awful at first, I thought, but now I like designing. Really, I always wanted to be an architect. And the good thing about architecture, it uses both parts of your brain. In school, as a kid, I loved art classes but also math.
So now, I can do design work and all the detailed, drafting work — with some construction administration too: working with contractors on-site, while the building is being raised, as it’s being realized. I love doing that, because I learn so much as the building is going up — you can see your mistakes, and know what not to do again.
What do you use to draw your blueprints or drafts?
At RTA, we use Revit, which is an Autodesk software product. It’s like AutoCAD. I used to work with AutoCAD in Michigan — and I love CAD. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Revit; it’s different than CAD. AutoCAD is much more like drawing on a piece of paper, which is how I work best or what I prefer, personally. I love drafting with pencil and paper. Anyways, we use Autodesk’s Revit at RTA.
What’s a local project that you’ve contributed to, and what’s another of RTA’s projects that you’re proud of?
I’ll answer the second part first. One of my favorite recognizable projects is the new Summit Complex on Pikes Peak — the new visitor center. I did not personally work on that, but it’s an RTA project and it’s really awesome.
We work on a lot of schools. My favorite one, that is just finishing up, is Cañon City Middle School. It’s a 1928 historic building that wasn’t protected by the historic society. They initially intended to tear it down. We did the master plan for them and insisted on keeping part of the historic building, because it’s just so great. We kept part of the 90-year-old building but created this modern addition with this really cool concept about respecting [history] while looking into the future — moving forward, while recognizing the wisdom of the past. I had done a lot of work like that in Michigan with Neumann/Smith, so the Cañon City Middle School project was given to me by RTA because of my previous experience.
RTA focuses a lot on health care and education projects, by the way. You, or anyone, can see the work we’ve done through our website, which is rtaarchitects.com.
Do you have any personal favorite architectural styles or movements?
I really love brutalism architecture, but I can appreciate them all. I used to hate postmodernist architecture, but it’s growing on me. I’m slowly started to love it, actually. It’s got a bit of sarcasm to it that I can appreciate it. And mid-century modern is simply a shoo-in.
Tell us more about deadtree workshop.
With architecture, you can always just click Control Z. But with woodcarving, when you break the head off of a spoon, you can’t undo that. In my brain, it’s almost a habit to think, ‘Oh, I can just hit Control Z.’ But no, you can’t do that — you have to start over. It’s good for your brain to not think about Control Z all the time, because life doesn’t often work like that, at all.
I make spoons, cutting boards, dishes, coffee scoops that also act as a clip for your pound of grounds or beans — and most recently, walnut mortar and pestles. Some of my work is displayed and available for purchase at G44 Gallery on Boulder Street, Downtown. I also have a website; you can find me at deadtreeworkshop.com or through my Instagram account, which is: @deadtreeworkshop.
Editor's note: This Q&A has been corrected. The original reported a networking event at the Summit House on Pikes Peak. The event was at the Briarhurst Manor in Manitou Springs. The CSBJ regrets the error.