How'd I Get Here?: Barbara's Journey

Photo showing an overhead view of a desk with architectural plans, pencils, and computer monitors.
on 22 August 2021
  • Career
  • Journey
  • Summit

Not to be confused with fuzzy post-frat party inquiries, this question spurred an enjoyable trip down Memory Lane.

For as far back as I have memories, I have been a maker. I am grateful to the millenialists who coined the term that so much more accurately describes us creatives. The intersection of engineering, hand crafting, and repurposing inspires me. Finding new uses for old things or new ways to approach a problem or taking what we know and applying it to something else entirely for a surprising result. Learning through doing and blurring the traditional distinctions between mediums and disciplines opens doors to unexpected ideations. Even the etymology of ‘ideation,’ fascinates me.

A Maker

When I was a kid, many of my toys were homemade. I was surrounded by makers. I spent more time building furniture for my Barbies than playing with them in the way my friends did. I remember one time my neighbor complained that ‘I wasn’t playing right’ because I spent all my time making a loosely scaled dresser out of a scrap of 2x4 I purloined from my dad’s shop. In high school, one of my classmates was a phenomenal painter. She told me she could paint anything she saw. I wanted to claim that too. I don’t think I will ever quite hit her skill level, but I enjoy trying and have had some reasonably successful results. I thank my parents for allowing me to be fearless, unconventional, and curious. It gave me an exciting ride and the often-inconvenient belief that with the right tools, I can make anything.

DIY Barbie furniture.

DIY Barbie Furniture

The University of Notre Dame and the Air Force

My years at the University of Notre Dame gave me an appreciation for history, tradition, and world diversity. I wanted to see it all. Walk where ‘they’ walked. Sense what they sensed. How did they do what they did with what they had to make our world what it is today? Maybe someday I could leave a legacy that somehow makes it better too.

Twenty-three years in the US Air Force taught me discipline and respect. I still can’t cut across the grass when there is a sidewalk nearby though inconvenient. I dutifully walk the longer path while mentally redesigning the area to accomodate human behavior more effectively. As the old advertising slogan said, I also got to see the world. They did not say that it may only be as glamorous as spending your birthday camping out in a metal shed on a Korean army post with 28 others who snore. No matter where you go, there is interesting architecture to explore. Architecture has always been an expression of the spirit of its age. Buildings are benchmarks of history and civilizations. Architecture, unlike poems or songs, is a substantial public act. Unlike music or literature, buildings don’t just come and go. They hang around. They tell the story of the people who inhabit them.

Sidewalk next to a dirt pathway.

Sidewalk VS. Goat Path

Journey to Alaska and North Carolina

I chased a man to Alaska and got to spend 20 some years figuring out how to make some of the most extreme environments adaptable to human habitation. The arctic regions prove good design can happen anywhere, on any building type. I was fortunate to work for multiple design firms and one construction firm in Alaska. I got to learn from some of the most capable people I have ever met. The need to thaw out brought me, the husband, and two critters to North Carolina. Standing on my second-story roof, armpit deep in snow, shoveling as more came down cured my love of all things winter. A climate study of the lower US and three trips to the southeast landed us in Asheville.

Point Lay Power Plant in Alaska.

Point Lay Power Plat at Noon in January

Shortly after that, I was hired to manage facility projects for Mission Health. I learned a great deal managing many small projects and the construction of a $50M hospital. The biggest lessons were in relational people skills. Despite it having been the worst job I have ever had by far, in retrospect it was a great learning experience. About the time I was ready to explode, Summit advertised for an architect in Asheville. The timing was perfect.

Mission Hospital - McDowell Exterior.

Mission Hospital - McDowell (Photo Credit: McDowell News)

The Opportunity

The opportunity to develop the architectural office in Asheville was a natural growth step. It got me just beyond my comfort zone and enabled me to continue to learn new things. Design is where my heart is, running right behind innate curiosity and a love of problem-solving. I do not take lightly the opportunity to provide people with an environment that supports, protects, and lifts their spirits. Architecture and good design matter. It affects how we feel every day, which affects how we live and interact as a community. I can’t imagine any other career that would be as satisfying. Besides, who wouldn’t want to be part of the oldest profession? One even older than the one you are likely thinking. God, the original and ultimate designer, created everything from nothing and brought order out of chaos. His greatest creation was people. Buildings house people. Truly worthy architecture honors people. It’s an extension of the work He started and I am thankful to get to play a part in it.


Barbara W. Headshot

Barbara Wagner, AIA, leads the Asheville architectural office and provides local access to our services in Western North Carolina. Barbara understands the uniqueness and diversity of the region. At the heart of responsive design is listening; to clients, to facility users, to maintenance people, and the design team. She is passionate about design that finds the sweet spot between inspirational and practical that creates spaces people want to be in. Where they enjoy being because the built environment promotes their wellness and speaks to their heart. Where they can be more productive because the built environment allows them to do what they do functionally and efficiently in a beautiful place.