Al Hernandez, AIA

Alejandro Hernandez, AIA, NCARB is a principal at Stantec Architecture Inc. and is their Texas architecture discipline leader. Al served as 2021 AIA Dallas president and is beloved around chapter for his enthusiasm and passion. Al is an engaged leader actively coaching and supporting the career development of younger generations through service on the Dallas ACE Mentor Executive Board and on the AIA Dallas Board of Directors, among others. When Al isn’t running teams or designing tomorrow’s education facilities, he’s spending time with his family, who loves to travel and explore the outdoors. Here, 2020 AIA Dallas president Maria Gomez, AIA visits with Al about his inspiration and path to Dallas, as well as their shared Colombian heritage.

It’s such a great thing to have the connection that we have with having grown up in the same country with a lot of things that are similar. Share a little bit about growing up?

My dad was in the military. He’s a colonel retired from the Colombian army. So we moved all over the place. I think my mom counted about 17 deployments, a couple abroad. But very fun young years, getting to know lots of different cultures and exposed to other things. I was involved in the Boy Scouts. And being the son of the army colonel, I was dreaming on becoming a navy officer.

At what point did you want to become an architect?

The biggest influence was my teacher in high school. The last two years of high school, I took architectural drafting, taught by an architect. It was more like a studio, so it was very fun. We had to do lots of research on why we were doing what we were doing and talk about context. And we did models. All the drafting back then was by hand. But I fell in love with that.

I did go to the naval academy after high school. But about a year and a half later, I realized that my thing was architecture and decided to call it quits.

How did your parents feel about this change?

They were definitely not fond of it. My older brother was already in his senior class in the equivalent of West Point. And my little brother was about to enter the air force. So I was breaking the rules.

Why and when did you decide to move to the U.S.?

That was a tough decision that my wife and I made over 20 years ago now. We did it for our daughter Manuela. Manuela was diagnosed with a severe case of autism. We thought the opportunities for her for a better future were higher here in the States. She was 3 years old back then. And we were young and crazy. We really didn’t think it through. It took about only six months between the date that we decided to do it and the day we landed in Tampa.

So you ended up moving to Tampa first. How did you make your way to Dallas?

We landed there and went through all the craziness of becoming legal residents to the United States. I couldn’t find a job because first the paperwork was in the process. And also my English was terrible.

I finally found a job, and everything was going very well. Then the bubble burst in 2007 or so, and my employer started making staff reductions, and they held on to me as long as they could. At the beginning of May 2008, they had to let me go. I couldn’t find a job in Tampa, so I expanded the search. I told my wife we had to consider moving out of the state. She said, ‘Well, why don’t you look in Dallas, where my sister lives?’ So, I started applying remotely, trying to land interviews. It was nearly impossible to get an interview. On July 5, I packed my computer, my suit and ties in my car, and I drove from Tampa Bay to Dallas to start applying in person. And I started knocking on every door and put in my resume across the entire DFW area. On July 21, 2008, I received the offer from SHW, now Stantec. The family joined me on Aug. 8, and here we are.

In Colombia, there’s a lot more formality with respect to professional interactions than there is here. So how did working in Colombia differ from working in the U.S.?

What I found different is how the residential market is not in tune with architects here in the States. I feel that we as architects, when it comes to the residential, we have an eye on the custom high-end residence. But the rest of the world, if it’s not a high-rise downtown, it is not for us. It’s more developers covering the suburbs of North America without an eye of an architect, without the influence of an educated professional in creating dwellings. We take the suburbs, and there is this sprawl of housing that we live in. We sort of turn a blind eye to what’s happening there. And of course, now it has grown so much.

Why that is the case here, and not in other places like Colombia, is here you don’t need an architect; to submit a house for permit, you need a structural engineer, but you don’t need our architects. In Colombia, if you’re going to build a house and you’ve got a permit the house, you’ve got to have a set of drawings that are signed and sealed by an architect. And I think it would have made a big difference in the U.S.

Now, from the other perspective, the cost of housing would be impacted by having that professional engaged in every house. But it certainly has impacted the way houses look, the way developments look, and cities look because of that, so that’s a great point.

When did you decide to join the AIA?

I joined in Tampa Bay as soon as I could. I was not licensed yet here in the States. I was still going through all the craziness of the transcripts and stuff. So, I joined as an associate, and I remember going to the events without knowing everybody. I just saw in the calendar there was an event, somebody will share a project or something, and I will put on my best shirt and go there and start trying to engage in conversations here and there. My wife used to say, ‘How can you just show up somewhere where you don’t know anybody just to talk,’ and I’m like we must somehow meet people.

I ended up moving to DFW, and soon after I was going to some events trying to engage. About two years later, I was a member of the Latinos in Architecture (LiA), a newly formed network. And a little down the road, I became a chair for LiA. And somehow Zaida [Basora] discovered me and started inviting me to places and committees and the board and the Texas Society of Architects, and here we are – very, very involved since then.

You make it sound easy, but I know it’s been a lot of work. The first time I met you, you were still chairing the LiA Network. And I remember that particular year a lot of people showing up for events. And I remember you told me, ‘Maria, it’s so easy. You just have to put some Latin music on if people want to dance.’

That’s exactly what networking is about, helping people with the experience. You were just talking about where you come to a different place, you don’t know anyone, and you want to be connected to people. One of the things that I appreciated about the AIA is there has been a very concerted effort in making it a lot more approachable. The first time I went to the AIA in the early 2000s, it was felt like a club that many people didn’t belong to, including me. And slowly I started to get engaged. And I’ve noticed through the years how much more open and how much more welcoming it is, not only as a space physically, but the culture and the people. It’s moving in a great direction.

What do you think is the most compelling reason for members to join and engage in our chapter?

I’m one of those who get paid to do what I love. Architecture is my passion. AIA is that stage where I get to share with colleagues and peers about what we do, celebrate great design, learn, mingle, write. AIA, for me, is the architect’s playground. And the AD EX is our clubhouse, our treehouse. What is the most compelling for me is, ‘Hey, would you like to share and talk about what you love, what your passion is, and learn and share ideas?’ And AIA gives us this great stage to celebrate what we do.

Interview conducted by Maria Gomez, AIA. It has been edited for brevity and clarity. This article originally appeared in the Spring 2023 “Vibe” issue of AIA Dallas Columns magazine.

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