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Home | DALLAS / FORT WORTH | Spotlight | Spotlight – Zelma M. Loeb, AIA, NCARB, Owner, Loeb Architects, LLC

Spotlight – Zelma M. Loeb, AIA, NCARB, Owner, Loeb Architects, LLC

image Despite obstacles, Zelma Loeb (shown at an assisted living center she designed) stayed on course for success

DALLAS – Once in a while, someone steps in to keep a person steady on her true course when a situation threatens to detour her. It happened to architect Zelma M. Loeb, owner of Loeb Architects, LLC, and it happened more than once. Whether it was a classmate who provided much-needed encouragement during a doubtful moment or a school board that came to her defense when a professor tried to fail her because she was a woman, it was clear that people believed in Loeb and her design talent. Based on what she has accomplished in her field, it looks like they defended the right person.

Tell me a little bit about your background, Zelma.
    I was born in Michigan and went to college at the University of Detroit, which I lovingly call “Motown U!” I had to don white gloves and do some Motown in order to graduate.

Love it! What did you study?
    Architecture; it was an accelerated program. It also included an internship program within a five-year program in which you get licensed.

What sparked your interest in architecture?
    I grew up in a 150-year old farmhouse that was, let’s just say, mechanically, plumbing and electrically challenged. I loved going on home tours and looking at new homes and building designs.
    First, I did the traditional thing and took the secretarial path. In high school, I worked in a co-op program and did the secretarial work, believe it or not, for the United States Air Force Reserves at Selfridge Air National Guard Base. I worked right underneath a pretty high-ranking commander. That was different! It was interesting to see people from the Pentagon come in, and here I was, this 18-year old girl working as their executive secretary. Their regular secretary was taking a lot of vacation, getting ready to retire, and they had their eyes set on me. I had architecture classes in high school and started taking them in college and thought that I could always do the secretarial thing [if architecture didn’t work out]; it was a second career in my hip pocket. But, I dove in and went into architecture, much to my family’s surprise, and here I am!   

Was architecture a natural fit for you?
    It didn’t come without a struggle. I had the professors that didn’t think women should be in architecture – and believe it or not, they were the young ones, not the older ones! I even had some of the guys that I went to college with tell me to transfer out of the class before it even started [because of the professor’s opinion about female architects] and I wished I had listened to them; they were right. I had to challenge my grade, but the board passed me. It’s funny now to look back at it because my buildings are known for design, getting through all of the city and state inspections and having extremely low architectural change orders, if any.

Was your path easier after you earned your degree?
    When it was my turn to get a job in Detroit, there were none to be had; it was the early to mid ’80s. I ended up in Tampa, Florida and met my future husband. In 1986, I got married and moved to Clearwater, Florida and started doing nursing homes. I spent five years in Florida and then my ex-husband was transferred to Houston, Texas.

Did your work translate well in Houston?
    I showed up with a portfolio full of nursing homes and assisted livings and never found an architect in Houston that did them. There were plenty of hospital architects, but really nobody for long-term healthcare that it was their mainstay.
    One of the first interviews I went through in Houston was with a man who had done one nursing home. I asked him who in town was the architect for nursing homes, and he pointed to me and said, “You’re it, you’re the nursing home queen!” I found firms that did one here or there, and I ended up at one of those but it wasn’t their mainstay. They did multifamily housing and churches. The couple of years that I was away from healthcare and did multifamily housing were a blessing because they were all A+ facilities, and I was able to take some of the design concepts and transfer them into the nursing homes when I got back into doing long-term healthcare.
    I went to work for Hearthstone Assisted Living in Houston as their in-house architect. They said I was a needle in a haystack to find; they were shocked that I was right there in Houston, and I was surprised they were in Houston because there really weren’t any healthcare operators there to speak of.
    I was in Houston 16 years and started my own company and then I transferred [to Dallas] in 2004. When I opened my office here, things started to slow down because of the economy; a lot of people waited to do their projects because they weren’t sure what was going to happen with Medicare and financing were hard to obtain. We were pulling at least 22 projects a year through the door and watching none of them get to the construction phase.

What was it like to transition from an employee to an employer now responsible for everything?
    I wore a lot of hats, especially at first, and I wish I had had the ability to team up with somebody that was also in long-term healthcare. Coming out of another state, I didn’t have the ability to do that. There are more people in the industry now, since it’s a hot commodity.

Do you have advice for women who want to start their own business in construction?
    Remember in construction who is going to sign the contract, and it’s generally not the person working in the building. It’s going to be the owners and the operators and they are hard to get in front of.
    The construction business for women has gotten better, but for women who are owners, it’s still the good ol’ boys network. I have gotten shut out events like trips to Florida or Mexico.

You’ve been in Dallas 10 years; do you think you’ll stay here?
    I like it here, but I do miss I do miss Florida. I’m a beach bunny, not a snow bunny. As treasurer of the Lake Lewisville Sailing Club, I go out on boats in Lake Lewisville for cruising or for racing.

You race? Do you place? Do you win?
    You know, it depends on how much the wind is blowing and beer has been drunk! I spoke at the (e-publication) Bisnow, which does a special focus summit once a year, and they asked me to be on a panel. The moderator asked me a question: “To look at you, what would we never think you do?” I told him I was a pirate, that I go out and race sailboats out on the lake and I beat and pilfer the power boaters! But I don’t do the hardcore racing. The boats I go out on are usually more cruising boats that are 28 to 45 feet in length.

Do you own your own boat?
    No, not yet. Getting there! It’s on the horizon!

What is your dream boat?
    Right now, the boat I like the most is from the Feeling Lines made in France. It’s a beautiful, beautiful 48-ft. cruising boat. I’d also have to go to France to pick it up.

That’s tough, I’m really feeling for you! Would any family be going on that trip to France with you?
    I have a 17-year-old son. We were actually talking about going to Europe but had to postpone it. He likes to invent things. He’s a thinker, and likes to tinker around with things and likes computers. Right now, he’s a junior in high school, looking at colleges to attend.

What is that going to be like, Mom?

And see, here I was thinking you might tell me you were going to miss him.
    It’s going to be expensive, and he thinks he’s going to be going out of state, way out of state! I think the reality is starting to set in with him and a better choice would be to get his feet wet at some great schools here. He likes materials engineering and nanotechnology. There’s a lot of that here, and a lot of that over in Europe too.

What are your future professional plans, Zelma?
    I’m thinking of taking on a partner. I’d like to get someone in Loeb Architects with me, not just to help me market, but I really need to start teaching other people this profession. There was an attitude once back in the day where I didn’t have time to train people. Now that I’m approaching my mid-50s, I realize that I need to start training other people. I’ve already got some project managers from construction companies that I’m toting along and some draftsmen, but I really need to teach somebody the design aspects of it.

Personally, what are some things you would like to do?
    I would like to get into painting. I used to draw and I would like to pick up acrylic or oil painting pretty soon. I did some in high school, a long time ago.

What do you like to draw?
    Landscapes. As a matter of fact, since we were talking earlier about people telling you you can’t do something and you can …
    I took a painting class in high school, and apparently, I was supposed to take a drawing class first but there was no prerequisite written down. I was in the class a week, and the teacher made a comment that students were not going to do very well in painting if they had not taken the drawing class first because you have to draw first before you could paint it. I, of course, thought the comment was directed at me. We were putting our projects in the closet for the day and a girl I had gone to school with since the first grade came over to me and said, “Zelma, anybody can draw. No one is born with it. It’s something that you learn. Never mind what she just said.” Honestly, if she had not said that, I probably wouldn’t have stayed in the class and I may not have done architecture. Who knows? But she was right; if you just study it long enough, you can learn anything and get over these little bibbles and bobbles you have, like the roadblocks I faced in the architecture classes. 

Is she your friend on Facebook? I hope you thanked her!
    I need to find her!

Besides finding your long-lost friend on the Internet, do you have any plans?
    We have a client right now who we are doing a continuing care retirement community for; they are currently out of the country wrapping up their financing. The country that they went to has a tremendous need for long-term healthcare. One of my draftsmen has worked in Europe and he tells me to go over there and do a university lecture tour. He said I’d be like a rock star! I’m actually starting to look into that. I will go to Europe and do the university lecture tour. And since I’m in the neighborhood, I’ll just pick up that sailboat that’s sitting over there waiting for me!
    Located in Dallas, Loeb Architects, LLC offers architectural services with an emphasis in seniors’ healthcare, multi-family housing and clubhouse design. –mjm

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Sue Johnson sjohnson@constructionnews.net