Tom is founding partner and design director for Generator Studio, a Kansas City-based firm with many successful local projects as well as nationally prominent work focused on hospitality and professional sports teams. Locally, Generator Studio continues to assist many communities in their revitalization, with projects such as Taco Republic in Kansas City, Kansas, the renovation to Corinth Square Shopping Center in Prairie Village, Kansas and a new hotel in the works in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Kansas City - the first in the modern era for Troost Ave. In 2012, Generator Studio won an international call for architects for a temporary pavilion on the South Lawn of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
Previously, Tom was founding partner and design director for Crawford Architects, overseeing the design work of the Kansas City and Sydney offices. From 1994 to 2001, Tom was an associate shareholder and lead project designer at Ellerbe Becket (AECOM).
Tom strongly believes in giving back to one’s community. He is a board member and long-time supporter of the Child Protection Center, as well as a supporter of Impact KC and the Women’s Employment Network. Additionally, Tom is a board member for the Center for Architecture & Design – a non-profit dedicated to bringing together the creative community as one voice.
"We saw people that would over-promise and they didn’t have the capacity to deliver. Mike and I agreed that if we were going to do this then we always check-in before we make a promise. You better understand if you can deliver on a promise before making it – clients remember if you don’t."
You started Generator out of your garage – what was the best part of working in the garage? The worst? To clarify it was my business partner Mike's garage – but the best part was it really felt like family. We were truly starting from scratch – that was the really cool part and it was also that feeling of 'Oh my god, holy shit!' It really was the whole breadth of emotions in between those two.
How long were you in the garage? 4, almost 5 years. We grew from 2 guys and 2 dogs to 6 people and 2 dogs, but the garage was alright. We had 2 bathrooms in there and that saved the day. The worst part was leaving. When we got office space we knew that era was done – and it was the sentimental part of knowing we were probably never going back to that situation again. You grow, get bigger, then business gets more complicated – everything scales. Really the worst part was leaving. We had a client tell us that if we ever left the garage they wouldn’t hire us again.
Did you always want to be an architect? Yes. Growing up, construction was a big part of my family. I had a great great grandfather that built many of the significant buildings in Minneapolis. My grandmother would take me on the weekends and show me his buildings. It got into my blood a long time ago. And, both of my grandmas always promoted drawing by hand. I did look at being a pilot – there are lots of pilots in my family, but loved the creative part of architecture. Something drew me in about making a difference – my great great grandfather's buildings made a difference in Minneapolis – I felt that desire that I wanted to have an impact on the city.
This is the best part about working in KC: We love it! There's something special about Kansas City right now – the creative forces are churning and there is a lot going on. Putting stakes in the ground in 2009 – we knew that a creative class was building in Kansas City – we felt that timing was good because we knew if we could make it work then, that when the economy turned around it would really take off. Everyone is talking about Kansas City and we're happy we're a small part of that growth. I just took a position on the Center for Architecture & Design Board of Directors because I strongly believe in finding ways to get the creative community to all work together – I feel like that’s the best thing happening right now to help us all grow.
Who do you most admire? Most influential person in my life is my grandfather – he's a business man and an inventor. And, what he taught me and I still learn – he's 103 years old – is the value of living up to your promises, knowing your business and to always challenge yourself. To always challenge yourself is the most important thing. Knowing the things my grandfather was a part of – finding ways to demagnetize mines in World War Two and then helping co-invent autopilot for planes – it reminds me that whatever our generation does it is hard to replicate the impact that generation had. That drives me – it makes me think, 'what have I done today that even comes close to what they did back then.
Your favorite TV Weather Person? I don't really pay attention, but I did meet Karli Ritter at a Dinner Lab event - she's really fun and spunky!
What was one of biggest challenges in the early years? Assuring clients that we could get the job done – that wasn’t easy to do. We had to rely on our past work. Our work as architects – 95% of it comes from word of mouth. We would not be in sports today if not for word of mouth and our past clients that believed in myself and Mike (Kress) We avoid RFP’s like the plague – there has to be a really strong reason why we pursue one. Everything is about relationships for us. We were confident that we had relationships and that was a huge part of moving forward with Generator Studio. We felt like people trusted us. The second part to that is, you often don’t get a second chance. That’s is a lesson learned over the years - we saw people that would over-promise and they didn’t have the capacity to deliver. Mike and I agreed that if we were going to do this then we always check-in before we make a promise. You better understand if you can deliver on a promise before making it – clients remember if you don’t.
You were on the skatepark committee taskforce – what is the best skatepark in the city and who is your favorite skater? Penn Valley. And, KC native Sean Malto of course!
What was the first place you ever had a ‘real’ job? My first real job was in college doing residential construction to help pay for college. It taught me a lot about architecture, running a business, life and delivering on your promises. I wish every architect would take a job in construction for at least one summer – I've run across people that have worked construction – we always look at them for job opportunities because I know they’ve put their time in and know the value of hard work.
If you could spend a day with anyone – who would it be? Will Ferrell – the reason for that is you have to find humor in your life. To have the opportunity to listen to him and shoot the shit with him would be amazing. I would love to sit down and wax poetic with Thom Mayne, but that’s a different thing.
KC could do this better: There’s so many good things going on right it's tough to pick something out. I think the development community can take more risks. KC has always been a conservative town, and we have tended to hold, wait and see, rather than go forth with bravado. I think our time is now – we can be a little riskier and we can afford to break the rules and lead rather than follow. Our work with LANE4 has been interesting – on Corinth Square they saw the opportunity and we were fortunate to be part of that through our relationships. It was a big risk to try and turn that around – it doesn’t seem like it now, but back then they were buying a center that was literally dying. One of the key things for architects is to understand your clients business – understand the challenges they are trying to solve. We help them solve those problems.
Favorite Building in Kansas City? My favorite space is Rozzelle Court at the Nelson Atkins. The proportions, the light.
Biggest challenge facing KC in the next 5 years? Carrying the momentum we have right now. People have a tendency to sit back and think things are great, but we have more work ahead of us now because of this momentum. We have to rise up to meet that challenge. Maybe an equal challenge to maintaining the momentum is the state line. If we could find a way to limit growth, like Portland has, so we can then act as one community for the greater good I think we will be better off.
Will the Royals repeat in 2016? Make the playoffs? Yes. No doubt.
KCI; new or remodel? New, I've changed my mind on this. I was staunchly remodel, but I’ve realized there are more issues with trying to renovate the buildings than we the public understand. There is a point where it doesn’t make sense to hang on anymore. A point where the bones don't support what the building needs to be. I really hope Kansas City can rise above and lead the country with the airport. The new airport is one of these opportunities to lead with design acumen and take risks. They did this when the built KCI originally – it was groundbreaking . We have to embrace taking risks – if we build a square box then we’ve failed.
You've mentioned you live your life according to 10 guiding principles: will you share them?
1. Health is number one – if you don’t have health you have nothing. 2. To be interesting you have to be interested. 3. I attend events where there are very few architects. This helps build our business. 4. At events meet at least one other person and make a connection with them. 5. Challenge yourself and your ability to deliver on what you’re promising. 6. 95% of our business is through referrals. 7. Know everything about your business. 8. Know the numbers – architects are generally bad business people, but you must know the health of your company. 9. Get out of the office and use your PTO! 10. What did you do with the power when you had it.