Q&A with Katie Barnes, Managing Partner

To celebrate Women's History Month, we sat down with Katie Barnes a Partner and Principal-in-Charge at BRS to hear about how she first became interested in architecture, her leadership philosophy and her words of wisdom.

Q: I understand that you recently wrote an “essence statement” in a leadership workshop. Would you mind sharing that?

KB: My essence statement is based on my inclination to cultivate connection, integrity and wisdom while nurturing a fundamental clarity and creativity which contribute to a greater whole. 

Carl Jung said, “Life really does begin at forty. Up until then, you are just doing research.” I relate to that. I’ve permitted myself to change as I grow.

Q: What drew you to architecture?

KB: My dad, Downing Thomas, was an architect with his own practice. I used to play under his desk when I was a kid. When I expressed interest in studying architecture he cautioned, “This is not an easy profession.” I am grateful for that because architecture school and practice are often quite different.

Since my Dad warned me about architecture, I pursued a dual degree in architecture and sociology for my undergrad. I learned as much as possible about both fields while I was in school and got a job in architecture and as a social worker. Through the experience of trying both, I learned that social work was not for me and focused my efforts on a career in architecture.

There was a popular book for architects called The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. Everyone at the time was reading it, and I thought, “Okay I’ll read it and get a sense of what the field is like from a different perspective.” I was not too fond of the book. The protagonist, an architect, is a very principled hero figure with a huge ego and the book celebrated individualism over collectivism. I was left thinking the profession wasn’t a good fit for my personality.

I got some names of people who graduated from my alma mater who were practicing architects and had studied sociology in college, and I wrote to them. I asked them if they applied their sociology learnings from school into their profession. I didn’t get many letters back, but I got one from a woman who suggested, “Maybe you would be interested in community architecture.” And that’s what lead me to BRS.

Q: You’ve said, “After working as an architect for 23 years, I realize that I should have gotten a dual degree in Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience and Architecture.” Why?

KB: I love both of those subjects equally. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience seems to me to be the study of things which are fundamental to a well lived life. It underlies everything. It is foundational to how we relate to ourselves and other people, whether in architecture, law, or any profession. If we can understand ourselves better and relate to one another, then we can have a better quality of life regardless of the medium in which we work.

Q: What advice would you give to an architect just starting their own career?

KB: I have a judgement about advice. When people say, “This is what I would do,” that isn’t necessarily relevant to another individual (regarding career path or life advice). Rather than give advice of what you would do, I agree with the idea that it’s better to try to understand what that individual is seeking and who they are. Then draw out of them what their chosen path is and support them in getting to clarity regarding that path in a way that’s authentic for them. 

I guess I didn’t answer your question. My recommendation is: Develop your skill in truly listening to your clients’ and the environment’s needs rather than creating architecture that is simply a representation of your identity.

Q:  When did you start at BRS?

KB: I started at BRS in the summer of 1997. I liked the culture of BRS and the casual, fun work environment. When I was first researching community architects, a friend of my late husband said, “BRS is different.”

Q:  What makes BRS different?

KB: BRS was different because they had a woman partner, Roz, before many other Denver, or even national firms embraced women at that level of leadership. They also had an employee-centric practice. This firm is good about supporting individuals in their paths. I’ve been challenged to grow and learn at just the right time when I needed to grow and learn at BRS.

Working “on the firm” in addition to working “in the firm” is fascinating and challenging work. I really enjoy it. I can put into practical application my interest in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience! I’m lucky I have great business partners and a wonderful team of architects, interior designers, and marketing experts in the firm.

Q: You are BRS’ first female managing partner, and you lead the firm. What is your secret to your success?

KB: Most importantly, it is a collaboration between the other partners and me.

We often recall the founding partners’ values that have been instilled in the firm and are still evident today. The fact that they made the decision to focus on community work still strongly resonates with us – about 80% of our current workload is comprised of community recreation projects. 

In 2020, we formally developed five sets of values for how we work and design that align with the founders’ values.

We talk about how important it is to keep these values in focus despite outside pressures at times to shift to a different model or culture. The world feels like it is changing faster and faster and becoming more and more complex, so we always have to check in to evaluate if this is still the right thing in the long term for everyone in the firm. It is helpful to have a touchstone of values, mission, vision, and purpose to guide us.

Efficiency & Effectiveness

Q: These are two things we talk a lot about at BRS. We have Lean Construction Principals and Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) which make us really efficient. And on the other hand, we have this people inspired process where we want to get it right for the client which can be seen as working effectively. I’m curious from you, is there a push and pull between the two or can you live with both?

KB: I think they are both equally important.

Lean is about the smart use of resources which includes respect for people. I think Lean and IPD (which is a contract procurement method incorporating Lean principals) tie back to the fundamentals of social psychology, which fascinates me. Lean offers an innovative way of doing things.

When I read The Toyota Way, I saw the immediate application in BRS’ firm culture. The principles of the Toyota Production System align with several aspects of Lean. Employees on the production line of most automobile manufacturing plants were not allowed to stop the line for any reason even if they saw a problem because the businesses’ goal was focused on the bottom line and stopping the line meant losing money. Toyota turned this original way of doing business upside down to encourage people on the factory floor to stop the production line and discuss a concern as a team with the managers. What they found was that they made a better, more effective product, and had happier engaged employees. The business benefits by developing client loyalty and trust while engaging employees’ superpowers. 

Lean isn’t all about efficiency; it’s about effectiveness. Effectiveness is doing the right thing, in the right way, at the right time. You can be super efficient and be ineffective because you are working on the wrong problem.

Fundamental Skills

Q: Tell us about the Fundamental Skills Course you and Zach created.

KB: We started the Fundamental Skills Course, an in-house training course at BRS, with these goals in mind – help us increase self-awareness and improve collaboration and quality of life.

Cohorts attend six classes where we explore three areas of focus around self mastery, relational mastery, and integrity. We learn about how our biology is wired so that our brains make up stories which are frequently inaccurate and worse than reality resulting in stress. If we can reduce stress at work, then we can enjoy our lives more.

Travel broadens your world and your mind

Q: You still stay in contact with past partners Roz and Marcia, sometimes going on vacation together. Tell us something you learned from your travels with them.

KB: Two things:

  • In the last 6 or 8 years we have attended art workshops together, which pulled me back into drawing and painting in a way that I hadn’t done since architecture school. That feeds me creatively.
  • Roz and I have traveled to Turkey, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and France. Being in those different cultures is invaluable for life especially with friends. Travel broadens your world and your mind.

It was a gift when the founding partners reached out to organize the Ron Rinker Prize to create an in-house scholarship for travel. As an aside, Ron Rinker was one of those people who didn’t give me advice but would help me clarify what I was considering at the time. Fed by his desire to learn and grow, Ron would take study trips all around the world.

Q: Katie, we appreciate all you do for BRS. Thank you for your time today!

KB: Thank you for doing this!

Click here to contact Katie.

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