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Spotlight - Brantley Hightower, Founding Partner, HiWorks

image Brantley Hightower, founding partner of HiWorks, started his own architectural firm in 2012, balancing family life with interests and hobbies related to the field.

SAN ANTONIO - In the office, Brantley Hightower is celebrating the fifth anniversary of his firm, HiWorks, and recently got his drone license as a bonus. At 40, he still considers himself to be a student of architecture as well as a student of the world. Noting that he feels incredibly lucky, he has done projects in the Hill Country, the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, Houston and as far west as Fort Stockton.

 

 

 

    At home, he and his wife, who is also an architect, have 7-year-old and 4-year-old daughters who keep life interesting. He observes that the biggest challenge of adulthood is time, which has forced him to become super efficient with that resource as he reinvents himself and evolves throughout his life.

Where did you grow up?
    I grew up outside of Fort Worth in Arlington, TX. When my parents grew up there, it was a small town. When I grew up there, it was a suburb. So, when I went to school at UT in Austin, it was sort of my first urban experience.
    Then, I wanted to live in a real city, and Chicago seemed like a good place, and it certainly was. I had a great couple of years there. I got to live in a big city, work for a big firm, but I always knew I wanted to end up back in Texas.
    So, I came back to San Antonio. I got a job at Lake|Flato, which was primarily why I came to San Antonio. I worked there for a couple of years, and then went to grad school at Princeton – got a touch of the Northeast, got to reuse all the sweaters that I had from my time in Chicago.
    The main reason for going to grad school was I wanted to teach. That was about a year-and-a-half program, and then I came back to San Antonio, started working again at Lake|Flato and taught at a number of schools. The life of the adjunct is not a particularly glorious one, but I enjoyed it. So, I taught at UT Austin, UT Arlington, Texas Tech, and Trinity.
    I’m not teaching currently. I hope to again at some point. But now that I have kids – if I’m going to spend time with kids, I might as well spend it with my own as opposed to somebody else’s.

What did you study at UT and Princeton?
    At UT, it was a dual degree program – a bachelor of architecture and a bachelor of arts. In high school, they tell you to do everything you possibly can, and so there was this dual degree program, and I said, “I have to do that.”
    At the time, I felt that the liberal arts stuff I was doing was taking away from the architecture, but I started it and I wanted to finish it. In retrospect, I’m really glad I did it, but for completely different reasons.
    Because I was able to take philosophy classes and film classes, read literature, and other things that I would have stopped doing in high school had it not been for this other program. I think it enriched my life in a certain way, and I think it has led to me being a better designer.
    One of our jobs as a designer is to solve a problem, but to solve that by bringing in lots of other things, which can come from art, history, landscaping – all the things that you don’t necessarily get when you’re in a very labor-intensive professional degree like architecture.

What did you like about teaching?
    Just to step away from practice. It’s so cool to be able to design and have stuff to be built, but there’s a lot involved. There’s building codes and accessibility standards. All things that are important that we need to do, but the sort of big idea of a building – often, you have to carve out space for it and hold it to be very precious.
    In school, that’s all you’re worrying about. And so, to take a step back from the day-to-day grind and just talk about big ideas, and not having to worry about budget can be kind of fun. Playing in the sand box of ideas is what I’ve enjoyed about teaching.

How did you wind up volunteering at UT Children’s Hospital as Skippy the Kangaroo?
    I had a friend who was pre-med, and she volunteered at what was then Brackenridge Children’s Hospital, and she mentioned that they have this purple kangaroo who went around and visited the kids on Sundays. I thought, “This is my chance to fulfill my lifelong dream of being a Muppet.”
    She put me in touch with some volunteer coordinators, and on Sunday mornings, they would bring in kids who were coming in for ear tubes or normal-type surgery, and the kids would come and see where they would go, the operating room, play with the masks that they would have on when they would be waking up in the post-op room. So, they would understand the physical environment that they would be in, and then the big prize at the end was they would get to meet Skippy the Kangaroo, which for a while on many Sundays was me.
    After that, we would go into the various rooms and visit some of the families that were in there for more serious things – kids going through chemotherapy. Even before I had kids, that was hard.
    This was back in the Barney days, so you’d walk into a room, and kids would say, “It’s Barney.” You couldn’t talk, but you could demonstrate that you had a pouch.
    And they would trot Skippy out for fundraisers as well. There was a 10K of some sort that went to the Children’s Hospital, and the guy who blew the horn to start it was the governor, who at the time was W. And so, somewhere, there’s a photo of future President Bush and me as Skippy the Kangaroo.

Tell me about your wife, Clara.
    We were both undergraduates who started college in 1995. She was originally from California, and her family moved to New Braunfels.
    At UT, the School of Architecture is relatively small, so we met as friends. We were in the studio for three years and then started dating. We took our time. We dated for about eight-and-a-half years. We met in Austin. I moved to Chicago. She moved to Dallas. Then, she moved to Chicago. Then, she moved to San Antonio. Then, I moved to San Antonio. Then, I moved to New Jersey, and I came back to San Antonio. We had a lot of our own lives to figure out.
    By the time we got married in 2006, we knew where each other was coming from. Right now, Clara works for THW here in town.

Tell me about your daughters.
    Sammy is our 7-year-old. She just finished first grade, and she is incredibly enthusiastic about everything, which is to say she’s very loud. She discovered rollercoasters a couple of years ago. She just finished her Daisy Scouting career. I was a scoutmaster with her. She loves hiking. Something I always wanted to do at UT was go out and visit all the state parks around Austin. I never had the time, and once Sammy was born, I would go out early on Saturday or Sunday morning, put her in a little backpack, and we went to every one of the state parks around here.
    Darcy is 4, and she started out more laid back, and she’s developed into our honey badger in that she’s always just smiling and she doesn’t really care what you say or what your opinions are.
    It’s interesting watching their person-alities develop in ways that are completely independent to anything we might do as parents. I think that makes me feel better as a parent to know that they will become whatever they will become regardless of anything I might do to mess them up.

How did your book, The Courthouses of Central Texas, come about?
    When I taught at UT Austin, the studio project for the students was to assume the county courthouse in Lockhart burned to the ground. The idea was, what do you do when you have this historic context? Do you rebuild something new? Do you move it? Do you try to build something to that historic style?
    Turns out it’s a really difficult project, and while the design solutions were interesting, the most interesting thing they produced were a series of analyses of existing historical courthouses. It was a poster where they looked at five or six different ones – it had elevation, the plan, how it’s set in the courthouse square.
    When we pinned that up for review, people would come by and look at the projects, but they always went and looked at that. And I would go look at that, because it was really fascinating. One of the things about buildings that you don’t really think about is that they’re really kind of hard to compare to each other, because they exist in physically different locations. You can’t pick one up and look at the other next to it. So, while there were lots of books about courthouses that had pretty pictures or talked about their history, there wasn’t really one with an architectural analysis.
    It was something I was really interested in as well – how did these really great buildings come to be built in these really far away small towns throughout Texas. That was the genesis of the book – these questions that I wanted to answer.
    I thought maybe this could be a book. So, I shopped it around to a couple of different publishers, and I tried UT, and they said, “Yeah, let’s work on this together.” The book came out in 2015, and it’s been a really great experience.
    It was never intended to be a money- making venture, per se. I see it as outreach more than anything else – something I’m excited about, something a lot of other people are excited about, and it’s fun to be able to share that passion.
    So, about once a month, I try to do an event of some sort. I gave a talk at the Ban-dera County Courthouse in May. And I did a presentation at the San Antonio Masonry Contractors Association (SAMCA) Golden Trowel Awards Banquet in June. I talk, sell a few books. My cut from those books doesn’t typically cover the gas to get out to the event, but it’s about something else.

Tell me about your podcast.

    Once I stopped teaching, the podcast was a way to teach in a slightly different format. It was a medium that I knew nothing about, but I had a lot of fun learning how to tell a story that way. I did two years of an episode per month, but this year, I’m taking more of a whenever-I-feel-like-it-approach. It’s called “The Works” and it’s about the built environment and arch-itecture. It tells stories about how things come to be built in the world. It’s an opportunity for me to nerd-out on a subject I’m interested in.
    I wanted to learn more about the fake Alamo they built in Brackettville for the John Wayne movie. I went out there, talked to the people, the current county judge whose father was the guy who was sort of responsible for getting that built.
    We always talk about living in a structure with the assumption that it’s on Earth, but there are other places you could live. So, I interviewed an astronaut, Charlie Duke, who is one of the six men to have landed on the moon, talked about what it’s like to live on the moon. And right now I’m working on an episode on planetaria, which is the plural form of planetarium, and how these remarkable spaces came to be built – shockingly a lot of it was paid for as part of a federal grant during the ‘60s in the space race.

I’ve seen your FAQ. Tell me about the hilarious little elements you’ve built into your website.

    Websites tend to be pretty formal and therefore dull. There are a few Easter eggs in the website – if you click the link for Princeton, it goes to a clown college. In the renderings that I do, usually Waldo is standing in the corner somewhere or there is some historical figure who’s relevant to the project who finds his way in there. I’m trying to communicate that I am a person, and I have a personality, and if you’re going to go to the trouble of reading all of the website, I want you to have a little bit of something waiting for you at the end. –mh


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Mary Hazlett mary@constructionnews.net