A Chat with Larry Good : Xavier Spencer

Larry Good : Xavier, remind me where you were born and where you grew up.

Xavier Spencer : I was born in Houston, TX. I grew up on the northwest side in the Greenspoint area, and I went to C.E. King High School.

LG : Alright…see? I didn’t know that.  And you went to Prairie View, is that right?

XS : Yes, Prairie View A&M University.

LG : Was that your first stop after high school?

XS : Yes it was

LG : Did you go into architecture immediately?

XS : I did. When I was younger I loved to draw and build models. Someone said the word “architect” and that stuck with me. I remember thinking to myself, “I can get paid to do this?”  The brother of one of my football coaches in middle school was an architect, and he came up to the school and talked to me about being the profession. He also showed me the models he had built and a set of drawings that he was working on. The love of architecture, I guess, developed early for me, so that was my choice when I went to Prairie View; I went specifically for their architecture department.

LG : When I was in junior high and high school, we had architecture drafting as one of the classes we could take as part of vocational studies…we had wood shop, metal shop, electric shop and architectural drafting. Did you have that in high school? Did that help spur these interests?

XS : I did. We had a vocational drafting class at our high school, and you had to be a junior in school to enroll in it. The class mainly dealt with mechanical drafting, but they also threw in some architectural work with it. That was my first exposure to AutoCAD. We started off drawing by hand on a drafting desk and then we jumped into AutoCAD.

LG : See, they didn’t have that (AutoCAD) when I was going to school.  Are you from a big family? Do you have many brothers or sisters?

XS : I have one brother and one sister.

LG : Where did you fall in the birth order?

XS : I’m the youngest.

LG : Okay, so you were following everybody…

XS : I was following everyone to Prairie View, it kind of runs deep in my family.  My parents went to Prairie View, that is where they met. My sister and grandmother went to Prairie View; however my brother went to TSU (Texas Southern University) on a football scholarship.  My brother is a civil engineer, my sister is a nurse and of course I’m an architect.

LG : And I’m glad you are. How many years did it take you to get out?

XS : Four years for my Bachelor of Science in Architecture and 1.5 years for my Masters in Architecture.

LG : Did you do that at Prairie View as well?

XS : Yes. I got my Bachelor of Science in Architecture when Prairie View made the switch from a 5-year to a 4-year program, and then I entered into the Masters Program.

LG : Do you get to specialize when you do that? I know A&M has different specializations when you do their 4+2 program.

XS : At that time they did not have any specialization. It was just architecture, in general.

LG : You know that’s what happened with Brian Moore. He decided to specialize in Environmental Design when he did his Masters and that’s why he is a planner today because that captured his imagination. Did you join us fresh out of Prairie View?

XS : I joined GFF a year out of school. I stayed in Houston and I worked with a museum that restored historical houses and churches on the northwest side of downtown Houston. I did that for about a year, and then I joined you in 2005.

LG : Well, that was a neat service that you did.

XS : It was fun and it was very interesting. The buildings were mainly Methodist or Baptist churches near downtown Houston. To observe their condition and document the historical details for restoration was beneficial.

LG : Who was the agency or group you were working for and how did a museum get involved with restoring churches?

XS : This was the Rutherford B.H. Yates Museum in Houston. The founder was passionate about historical buildings, primarily in this section of Houston. It was a historical area that was mainly rundown or was being torn down to build new, cheap construction for residential housing. She worked with the locals to establish it as a historical district to protect some of those buildings from being torn down or burned down.

LG : Were you active in the actual restoration work? Or just in the documentation and the instructions about what to do?

XS : Primarily in the documentation and instructions about what to do. In addition, I would also help build models of the buildings and create renderings to help the fund raising efforts.

LG : So then, who actually did the restoration work? Different contractors?

XS : Different contractors that they had a relationship with and could afford at that time.

LG : That is cool. I like that. We tend to lose a lot of that fabric and I hate to see that happen. Okay, so then you joined GFF and I know a lot about the projects you worked on. Remind me who your supervisors were when you first started and who you were working with on some of your early projects. Who were the Project Architects and Project Managers that taught you things that helped you along the way?

XS : When I started I worked under Don Kubala. My first project was Arlington Highlands Phases I, II and III, and I was in Joe Patti’s studio.

LG : Joe is a natural teacher. I bet he took every opportunity to teach you.

 XS : He did. And Don did as well, eespecially when we go to the job site. He’d teach me different things about what I was drawing, why it was important, and how to coordinate with the consultants and the contractors. I learned a ton coming fresh out of school.

LG : Were they ever scary?

XS : Joe was.

LG : [smiles] I knew the answer to that.

XS : [laughs] I was warned about his teaching methods when I started.  I learned that he’s not scary, he’s just very abrupt. He’s very truthful. But in his heart, at his core, he is a teacher and he cares about your career and how you grow. If you can get past his loud voice, you will be okay.

LG : We all learned a lot from him. No question about that. You’re very diligent, you’re a hard worker, and you’ve got great work ethic. What do you do to balance that? What are the fun and relaxing things you do to take a deep breath and put the office aside?

XS : Mainly I play a variety of sports. I’m a part of an outdoor volleyball team, the GFF basketball and softball teams, and a bowling league once it starts up again. My primary sport is soccer. I’m in two outdoor leagues and we play on Wednesday and Friday nights.  And lastly, whenever I can, I try to play golf. I’m not very good, but it’s relaxing and I enjoy the game.

LG : Golf can be a frustrating sport. It sometimes gets you going the other way because you get mad at yourself. You’ll hit a great shot and you’ll follow it up with a really lousy shot. And then you’ll hit another shot and then you’ll miss a short putt. And you just go, “I’ve had enough of this game!”

XS : True. People who play golf a lot have told me that you have to have a great sense of humor and you have to take it lightly. When you’re having a good game enjoy it, and when you’re having a bad game make fun of yourself.

LG : Amen. So is soccer your favorite sport?

XS : It is my favorite sport and it came out of necessity. There was a time when I needed to get some exercise  because I was having some health issues. Soccer is a sport where you run a lot and it seemed like a good idea. I ended up loving my teammates and loving the sport.

LG : Soccer, I think, is just all about teamwork. What position do you play?

XS : I play Center Back, and it’s also known as “Stopper”. My primary job is to find the opposing team’s best offensive threat and just shadow them to make sure they don’t score on us.

LG : What’s been the best learning experience about working on Central Texas A&M? What’s made you grow the most? Where do you feel like you’ve advanced your career the most on that project?

With Texas A&M, I believe it is project management. In school and when you first start out, there is little talk about how much time and effort it takes managing consultants and consulting with the client. The business side and management side of architecture was the most eye-opening to me on Central Texas, for both buildings.  Clark was one of my good friends and mentor. He taught me a lot about the business of architecture and the decisions you need to make as an architect.  I’ve also learned more on the technical aspects of design and carrying that thru the project from working with Kup and Jon.

LG : Was Founders Hall your first BIM job?

XS : It was not. Park Lane was my first BIM job. That is the first job that I know of (aside from the Crate & Barrel projects) that we had in Revit. It was by far the biggest project that we had in Revit. There were a lot of learning experiences on Park Lane and that helped when working on Founders Hall and Warrior Hall.

LG : I expected you to say that the biggest learning experience was how much you’ve been involved in the Construction Administration and spending time on the job site. Do you have any adventures? Anything that happened that was the biggest, most difficult moment? Do you have a story for us?

XS : I do have a story, but it comes from working on St. Paul UMC actually. This was early in construction when the GC was just starting to excavate around the southeast corner of the building where we were going to add in the elevator tower. Prior to excavation, we noticed  that there was large cracking in the brick that went down the south and east faces of the building at this corner, so we knew there were some structural problems already present in this area.  They started out by excavating a little bit and doing some test studies. The plan was to put a pier at that corner to stabilize it before the addition of the new elevator tower which would also help stiffen it. When the contractor began excavating the crack had widened on one corner. The GC stopped work, and the structural engineer called for stitch bracing (steel straps) to help hold the crack in place. When the contractor continued to excavate, at one point, the whole corner of the building started to slide off…slide away from the rest of the building! So on Monday morning I got a call from the contractor saying he needed me to come to the site ASAP because the corner of the building was sliding away and he needed to know what to do.  I was 25 or 26-years-old working on a 100 year old historic building in the Arts District, and a corner of the building was beginning to collapse..that was a deer-in-the-headlights moment. The structural engineer, Jon Rollins and I went to the site to discuss a solution. Eventually a jack was placed underneath the corner and it was lifted up back into place as much as possible, and steel plates and CMU were also added to stabilize this section while the piers and grade beam were installed.  The jack, CMU and steel plates were left in place and encased in concrete.

LG : You were part of the AIA Emerging Leaders Program. What were two or three of your favorite experiences that were part of Emerging Leaders?

XS : One of my favorite experiences was the Saturday retreat with my new classmates. We met each other the day before (at the kickoff meeting) and we met some of the alumni as well. The retreat was a 6-hour event for us to get to know each other. We participated in several fun, group exercises that focused on the basic rules of communication. I think that day helped set the tone for how we developed friend-wise and colleague-wise as we went throughout the program.

Another favorite experience was listening to some of the speakers during each class.  The speakers that came in were from all walks of life, and ranged from folks like you that are running a successful business, to those that are working within a company.  It was interesting to hear how they juggled family, work and being actively involved in the community.

Lastly, I really enjoyed the lessons that were taught by Pete (Dr. Pete DeLisle, Hon. AIA Dallas of The Posey Leadership Institute at Austin College). He emphasized leadership and interpersonal skills. In architecture school you are taught to be very technical, very thought-oriented and you’re also taught to use resources. The space between all of this is your leadership and interpersonal skills, which is developed and not necessarily taught.  Your leadership skills and how you interact with supervisors that are above you or people that are working under you will affect them personally.  Understanding this dynamic is important in becoming an effective leader.  It helps establish the ability that we have to influence people without having authority over them, whether it is a member of the project team, a client, the city or a developer.

LG : Alright, last question. Let’s look five years down the road. What do you want to be doing or what do you envision yourself doing five years from now. What does a typical day at GFF (we’re not going to let you leave) look like five years from now? Dream a little about what sort of things you’re doing, what your activities are, responsibilities…

XS : Five years from now I believe I will be transitioning into more of a Project Manager role. I will be going to more civic events and will have more involvement in the community. I see myself managing multiple projects and mentoring the people that are working with me. My responsibilities would be facilitating the project meetings, maintaining the relationship with the client and following up with the project architect on the progress of the project.

The overriding goal for me is to be a “well-balanced architect.” Not just technical. Not just business, design or marketing oriented; but a well-balanced architect that can be plugged into any phase of the design or construction process.  That’s where I see myself in 5 years.

Perfect. That is really what I wish for you and expect from you too. I think you are really ready to be the lead on a project. You know, to have a team that you are really directing. I see that happening really soon. So I’m glad that is what you envision because I think we can make that happen. And I think you are very good at it. You are a very well-rounded architect and you’re just going to keep strengthening your skills. I’m really pleased to hear you say you want to find those civic activities, the things you want to volunteer for beyond the office. So if you can continue to be active in sports, you can fold in community involvement, step up leadership in the office it sounds like a full-time job to me.

Fun day! Thanks for your time Larry.