Michael Smith is National Science & Technology Practice Leader at NELSON Worldwide. Lab Manager recently spoke with Michael about his career, experience, and personal interests.
Q:How did you get started in your career? Did you major in your field in college, get an internship, switch careers mid-stream, etc.?
A: I got my start in science and technology architecture purely by fortunate accident. While a graduating senior in the College of Architecture at the University of Arizona, I was fortunate to be offered an internship at the largest firm in Tucson—Anderson DeBartolo Pan, which specialized in healthcare and advanced technology building design. I found that I really enjoyed highly technical building types and subsequently arranged my career to specialize in buildings for health, science, and education clients.
Q: What is a typical day at work like for you?
A: I have been practicing architecture for over 30 years now. Throughout that time my career progressed in what one could think of as a normal trajectory of professional development, from draftsman to technical architect and designer, to project manager and then to practice leader, responsible for overseeing project teams doing the planning, design, production, and construction of projects large and small. These days as a practice leader I still am responsible for overseeing the successful delivery of projects for my clients, but I am also highly involved in business development activities and in growing the practice.
Q: Tell us about a great book, movie, song, or TV show you’ve enjoyed recently.
A: Oh, my goodness, I don’t even know where to start! I don’t follow television programs very closely anymore, but I love books and films and am a musician. In my leisure time I enjoy reading, watching movies, and I still sing ‘90s alternative rock at a local bar about once a month.
Q: If you weren’t in this profession, what job would you like to have instead?
A: I’ve only really had two career passions in my life—architecture and aviation. In high school, I was fortunate to participate in magnet programs in both architecture and aerospace education through the Air Force Junior ROTC program. Upon graduation I enlisted in the US Air Force where it was discovered that I had a defect in my spine which prevented me from passing a flight physical. With my dreams of a career in aviation dashed, and after being honorably discharged, I enrolled in a university architecture program to pursue a career in my second passion. But given the opportunity, I would still love to become a commercial or sport pilot.
Q: What is the biggest work-related challenge you’ve faced? How did you overcome it?
A: My biggest, and recurring, work-related challenges have always been the result of client’s unrealistic expectations, particularly when it comes to costs and schedule. Practicing architecture daily over many years gives you a clear understanding of what it takes to deliver a successful project from beginning to end. But most clients don’t procure design and construction services very often, so it’s difficult for them to understand forces in the marketplace that affect the cost and time it takes to design and construct new facilities. It has become particularly difficult to predict cost and schedule in the post COVID-19 environment we’re now entering where supply chain issues and labor shortages have combined to challenge expectations as to cost and schedule. My solution to this challenge has always been to be frank with clients from the very beginning and to work with them to determine what’s possible, not simply to tell them what they want to hear.
Q: What is your favorite building, lab-related or not?
A: There are numerous laboratory buildings by various well-respected architects that I admire greatly, but I think that the Farnsworth House by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is the single finest piece of architecture I’ve ever seen. Its minimalism and attention to detail have been a huge influence on me throughout my career, as expressed in the Interdisciplinary Science and technology Building 1 at Arizona State University, which I was responsible for completing in 2007.
Q: What lab projects are you working on at the moment?
A: The biotech market is red hot at the moment, so I’ve recently been involved in preliminary planning studies for several start-up biotech companies. Because intellectual property concerns are of great importance to these start-up biotech firms, I am under a non-disclosure agreement with all my most recent clients and cannot mention the names of the companies. However, I can say that I recently did the preliminary planning for a company who is leasing laboratory space in the San Francisco Bay Area and am about to begin the same process for another company in Los Angeles. I recently completed a preliminary study for an international biotech firm that’s interested in expanding its campus in Maryland by adding a new, 90,000 SF R&D building on an adjacent greenfield site. I’ve also just completed a similar site development study for a confidential government laboratory client in New Hampshire.
Q: What’s your typical order when you visit a coffee shop?
A: Plain black coffee. I’m “old school!”
Q: What is one important skill you think that all lab design experts should have?
A: The ability to listen carefully and understand their client’s needs.
Q: If you won a multi-million-dollar lottery tomorrow, what would you do with your winnings?
A: Complete the renovation of my farmhouse in rural Alabama.
Q: What kinds of hobbies or interests do you have outside of work?
A: I tend to be a bit of an adrenaline junkie, so my activities outside of work are typically thrill-oriented. I enjoy motorcycling, sailing, flying, and skiing in particular.
Q: What do you hope to accomplish in the next few years in this new position?
A: My goal is to develop a sustainable science and technology practice at NELSON utilizing the firm’s national platform to serve academic and biomedical research clients from coast to coast.