40 Years of Architecture

June 24, 2020
Kent Usher Senior Project Manager, Construction Specifier

MA Design, a leading architectural firm in Columbus, Ohio, opened its doors 40 years ago as of 2020.

My career in architecture began 12 years before MA in 1968, as a new college graduate ready to make a change in the world through the built environment.

I always knew I wanted to make something with my hands, even from a young age, and the most honest way to make a living doing that seemed to be architecture. I was inspired by the sense of accomplishment that came from solving people’s problems and I knew this was the work that would allow me to do just that.

I remember working at a drugstore throughout college, making $1.50 an hour, and finally working up the courage to apply to an architectural firm. The man interviewing me asked how much I wanted to make, and humbled by his directness, I told him anything more than $1.50. He laughed and eased up, informing me at that time minimum wage for full time employees was $2.50 and I remember feeling like I had just made it big.

After getting registered in 1976, I was making $8,000 a year and finally exploring the career journey I had always wanted. I was put on the project team for the most spectacular building I had ever seen—the library for the University of Toledo—5 stories tall, with a big footprint, staying within traditional materials and shapes, hitting all requirements, and coming in at $8 Million—all the money in the world, I thought.

Even telling you this story now makes me laugh, thinking that just 40 years later I worked at a Veteran’s Hospital that came in over $1 Billion. My how times have changed.

Becoming a registered architect, 1976

The 60’s

As an Ohio State University student, I spent my days at the Brown Hall Annex—an old noisy space that is very sparsely equipped compared to nowadays. The only “electronics” was the big booming HVAC unit that hung from the bare joists and kept everyone from conversing with each other.

Then, we could work with any “media”—ink, watercolor, pencil, pen—to hand draw buildings, or use sculpture or chipboard to model buildings, even predating foamcore.

Hand-drawing was the only option in the pre-digital 1970s.

The 70’s

In 1974 I became a registered architect. I was promoted to make $4 an hour. We showed up on time, took a ten minute break at 10:00 am and 2:00 pm, otherwise, we were expected to be at our desks.

They didn’t have a lot of inhouse equipment so if you needed to do something more than a casual photocopy you went down the street to the print shop to get your drawing prints. You’d put the stuff under your arm, sprint to the print shop, and you’d come back and your boss would say “what took you so long?”

Then came the Carter administration.

Port Columbus International Airport construction, 1978

The 80’s

The double digit inflation days of the Carter administration directly impacted architecture, making timelines much more compressed. The time it took to get the project to market was much more important because of the financial impact—at that time managing 20% on loan instead of 5%, creating a sense of urgency to get the building up as quickly as possible.

Before this, it took time to move documents back and forth as this was before the advent of fax, or dare I say, even email. One of the great impellers for the shipping industry, things began to change quickly, moving faster and shipping sooner, bringing us closer to our present day privilege of a big package FedEx-ed overnight.

At this same time was the introduction of the Minority Business Enterprise, created to give women and minority owned groups the advantage to get work. The concept became increasingly prevalent in governmental funded projects, broadening in industries and changing the landscape of architecture forever—how firms marketed, joint ventured, hiring more diverse staff. Suddenly, new minds, opinions and thought starters were getting a seat at the table, broadening the discussion and changing design forever.

Pier 1 Imports Distribution Center construction (my wife Mary in the foreground), 1992

The 90’s


25 years into my career and I’m living in a futuristic reality—or so I thought at the time as I was typing away on my personal computer.

In just 25 years, I engaged in the evolution from memory typewriters to a personal computer, and just a few years later, a personal computer with a dual screen. This was big-leaguing it.

Typewriters marked the start of my career, but if you made a mistake, you had to somehow repair that piece of paper. With the introduction of the memory typewriters, you could go back and make changes on the magnetic cards, which was a big deal because if you came back and said you needed to make a change, no one scowled at you like before. The magnetic cards held 20 to 30 pages of specifications depending on how many characters were in your document, so creativity was encouraged in a whole new way.

Then came the Local Area Network – or LAN, as we “computer” savvy people referred to it. The early 80s brought this large office computer that served local area networks, keyboard and monitor, 9 inch CRT grey screen green text. File names were limited to 8 characters, so we had to create our own codes. Gone were the days of running to the print shop for prints. Now, if I went to the console and switched the button to my station and hit print, we could do it in-house. Moving faster, working better. The documents are the instrument of our service, and we were able to deliver documents faster, and cheaper. My how things have changed.

Nationwide Arena construction, 1999

The 00’s

Before you knew it, I had a laptop, a cell phone, and nothing to stop me.

Communication became accessible, and the ability to communicate with our clients forever changed design. The ability to inform what they’re going to get, educate on design decisions and manage expectations created a whole different way to interact with clients.

Accessibility to our clients changed the course of the design process, where in the past the client had to trust the architects where now there is more control of expectations, and changes can be made without surprises. Now, a sophisticated client can ask better questions and a novice client can feel more confident.

With communication comes collaboration, and from that, creativity.

When I was first doing design and drawings, you were hand sketching straight lines and using limited tools. “Good design” had a lot of 90 degree corners, an occasional 45 degree angle, and very rarely, a curve. After all, there was no sense in drawing an ellipse, because you can’t build it.

Technology paired with creativity has allowed us to draw anything, challenging us to figure out how to build it.

The basic guiding principles of modern architecture still exist – the building has to work, with a structure that lasts, and meets the client’s budget. But now we’re able to take it further, push it past anything we’ve done traditionally.

Learning from others (Mt. Rainier Lodge), 2007

The Now

Then, driving design meant an approach of form follows function. As architects, our focus was trying to put efficiency and the owner’s budgets in the forefront.

Today, that’s still very important, but with the evolution of architecture has come an evolved purpose. Design starts differently in the present day, with a much bigger emphasis to push the envelope from a visual standpoint, not just thinking about the return on investment, but the value on investment. Time is limited, and choices are everywhere, so it’s more important than ever to add value and develop true relationships in interacting with clients. A typical project schedule 40 years ago is 50% less than what we do now, and this is a consideration of modern design changes.

And changed they have. Exterior walls used to have four components, now there is a minimum of 10, typically 15. Brick veneer construction was introduced in the early ’70s and I remember shaking my head the first time I saw it, questioning how it could work. Well, look who’s laughing now.

Clients can get information earlier, collaborate better, and complete buildings faster. The progressive adaptation to technology has led us to new limits and revolutionized design.

As I look over my last 50+ years and think about MA’s place in the industry for 40, I can’t help but feel excited for the years that are to come. What we thought was the best, just kept getting better. When we thought we knew it all, we learned more.

Architecture’s power only grows stronger, and I’m proud and energized by the years to come with a firm that brings so much value to my life, to our industry, and to our clients. Here’s to the next 40 years, and more.