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5 questions … for Glenn Birx, chief operating officer of Ayers Saint Gross

Birx has been with the Baltimore-based architecture firm for 35 years — long enough to see it grow from ten people to more than 140

By Steve Kilar, The Baltimore Sun

10:06 PM EDT, August 9, 2013

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Over the past 35 years, Baltimore architect Glenn Birx has nurtured a global career without having to leave the firm he started at in 1978.

At Ayers Saint Gross, Birx has had the opportunity to work on projects as diverse as the construction of a hospital in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and the transformation of ruins in the ancient walled city of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, into a museum.

"There's always new things to learn," said Birx, Ayers Saint Gross' chief operating officer. Not only do his projects offer variety, but the business itself is also constantly changing, offering new challenges: "The way we did buildings in 1978 is completely different from the way we do buildings in 2013."

What has kept you at Ayers Saint Gross for more than three decades?

It has been easy. When I started at Ayers Saint in 1978 as a draftsman, the firm had 10 people. Since then, the firm, now Ayers Saint Gross, has grown to 144 people. That growth is a direct result of the excellent work done by the extremely talented, high-quality people that have worked for us during that time.

Working with those people has been fun, educational, inspiring and very satisfying. Our talented staff has been able to convince clients around the world to hire us, and has produced an amazing body of work in Baltimore, Maryland, around the country and around the world. There was simply no reason to move elsewhere when I am having so much fun.

What are some of the projects you're most proud of and why?

There are so many, it will be difficult to list them all here.

A recently completed project, the University of Baltimore Law School, on [N.] Charles [St.] and Mt. Royal [Avenue], across the JFX from Penn Station, has been a five-year-long, satisfying effort. I had the opportunity to work with [architect] Stefan Behnisch of Stuttgart and many hardworking people at his office and from Ayers Saint Gross. The building's design is very innovative, featuring glass partitions around a 12-story atrium, LEED Platinum status (to be applied for), and an innovative, super-efficient heating and cooling system using 53 miles of plastic tubing embedded into the concrete slabs.

Another nearby project, to be completed this month, is the National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon (or the Presidential Library for George Washington). It will house George Washington's personal papers and artifacts for scholarly research by academics.

Another Maryland project is the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland in College Park. This was another five-year project, and it features a symphony hall, a recital hall, a dance theater, a black-box theater and proscenium stage, making it one of the premier university facilities of its type in the country.

I also had the opportunity to work on the new Visitor Center at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello home in Charlottesville, Va. Completed in 2008, this building features an understated wood design and exterior — so as not to interfere with Jefferson's mansion — that blends in with the natural wooded surroundings and contains ticketing, a museum, classrooms and a lecture hall as a preview of the mansion for the hundreds of thousands of people who visit it each year.

But what I am most proud of are my two daughters, both adults, who both have wonderful husbands and have made careers out of caring for others, one in public health and the other in education.

You're registered to work in 38 states and have projects across the globe. What are some of the challenges you've encountered working outside Maryland?

Obtaining work outside of Maryland is often easier than in Maryland. Outside of the state, we are considered as experts in our field of college and university design and planning. But very often Maryland officials see us as "local" and favor out-of-state firms, even though we employ over 100 Marylanders paying taxes.

Working in other states outside of Maryland for our client base is not that difficult. We need to understand the local climate, building materials and building codes, but we have a lot of experience with that.

However, working outside of the U.S. does present some difficult challenges. Because U.S. colleges and universities are so well respected around the world, and with our vast experience with planning and designing them, we are able to secure overseas commissions and import that knowledge internationally.

We learned where our value was considered necessary, which resides in our knowledge of how U.S. campuses run academic programs, and where our value is not as important, which is in construction documents (traditionally, "drafting"), which can be obtained for a lot less fees than our U.S. salaries require.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of working overseas is getting paid for our work. The rule of contract, which governs the work we do and how we get paid in the U.S., is far less important, if at all, overseas. A contract breach in the U.S. is usually enough for the parties to act reasonably. However, overseas, it is not, as the process for curing a contract problem in the local court system takes many years, and is usually never fully resolved.

If we have something an international client wants, they will pay us, but they will stop paying us, contract or not, if they don't feel a need to. We therefore proceed with work only upon receipt of a retainer and only deliver work if they have paid us for past invoices. In this way, we can usually get about 90 percent of our fee, and we plan on that at the outset.

What do you tell young people to do in order to prepare for an architecture career?

The first thing that I tell them is that a career in architecture is very rewarding and interesting. I tell them that I haven't had a boring day "at the office" in my 35 years of practice.

But if you don't have the stomach to speak in public and to make presentations, to work with a large amount of risk and liability, to lead a large, diverse group of people, to receive criticism, or to accept responsibility for the health, safety and welfare of the general public, then you should look to other careers.

Getting into architecture schools requires the top high school grades. Getting through architecture school requires perseverance and a thick skin. An architectural internship requires three years, minimum, and the passing of a difficult national test. It's a good thing that an architecture career is interesting and rewarding.

I would advise anyone interested in an architecture career to learn how to draw both by hand and by using building information modeling (BIM) software prior to architecture school.

Is there any type or style of building you would like to design that you have not yet had the opportunity to work on?

ASG's primary market are colleges and universities, who build almost every building type. I have, therefore, had the pleasure of working on laboratories, classrooms, office buildings, hospitals, performing-arts facilities, business schools, law schools, parking garages, central utility buildings, nursing schools, science buildings, computer buildings, athletic facilities, renovations, housing projects, libraries, fine-arts buildings, bookstores, admissions buildings, student unions, and many other specialty buildings or programs that colleges and universities build.

The style of campuses that we work on include neo-Georgian, modern, Gothic stone, brutalist, postmodern and just about all other styles. In the last 10 to 15 years, most of those buildings have been increasingly more energy efficient and sustainable. In the last 10 years, all of our projects have been completed using BIM. So the only building type or style that I haven't had a chance to work on are those that we haven't developed yet.

I am, however, looking forward to the future of a fully integrated practice, which is an inclusive, team-oriented approach to design and construction made possible by the use of BIM by architects, engineers, owners, contractors and subcontractors. This process promises to make the design and construction of buildings more efficient, less costly, more sustainable, less contentious and more satisfying than in the past.

Glenn Birx

Title: Chief operating officer, principal and vice president, Ayers Saint Gross

Age: 56

Hometown: Born in Baltimore, raised in Linthicum

Current residence: Phoenix

Education: Bachelor's degree in architecture, University of Maryland, College Park, 1980. Also attended Virginia Tech.

Family: Wife, Karen, a physical therapist in Anne Arundel County; daughters Laura and Emily

Hobbies: Skiing, scuba diving, surfing and golfing

tended Virginia Tech.

Family: Wife, Karen, a physical therapist in Anne Arundel County; daughters Laura and Emily

Hobbies: Skiing, scuba diving, surfing and golfing

/b>Skiing, scuba diving, surfing and golfing