Profile: Dan Noble
Contributed by:
Douglas Dover

Profile: Dan Noble, FAIA

Dan Noble, FAIA, FACHA is president and CEO at HKS, where he leads the strategy and development of the global design firm. Under his leadership, the firm has won numerous design awards from organizations such as the World Architecture Festival and Fast Company. Columns visits with Dan about practicing architecture, both globally and locally.

DD: Did you always want to be a designer or did design find you?

DN: I always wanted to be a designer. And well, an architect. I did not know the difference. Since I was 13, I wanted to be an architect. Growing up in Aberdeen, South Dakota, I’d visit construction sites and doodle. I designed and built a bunk bed and dresser for my brother. Growing up, the distinction between a designer and an architect wasn't there. I still don't think it's a distinction.

DD: How do you define globalization?

DN: I would define globalization beyond the physical idea of worldwide locations. To me, it’s a more all-encompassing concept of influence or shared knowledge. You are informed by the cultures and experiences. You understand and include different voices from a wide swath of people, race, ethnicity, education, religions, cultures.

I have been to pretty much every continent, and have not been Antarctica, but we have offices in Shanghai, Singapore, India, Mexico, London, Middle East. We have had offices in Abu Dhabi, had offices in Chennai, and now we have it in Delhi. The more you travel, the more you see people are similar and the more you see their differences and missions are similar, but the expression of how one interacts with that human condition is so varied. You'll also see how fortunate we are in the United States when you see the poverty of the rest of the world and the dire circumstances under which a lot of people live. So you become aware of the human condition, and you become aware of our connection to the planet, you become aware of how people's actions affect that relationship between our ecosystem. I think it's more of a cultural awakening and an awareness of the impact design can have on the world and how you want to be in tune with the area where you're working. So you're talking about how people are similar, but people are also very different. And that cultural manifestation, or the symbolic built manifestation of that culture, is going to be different everywhere.

DD: How do you account for local traditions and practices when you are practicing globally?

DN: You are doing research. Every project should start out with this idea, brainstorming on what is the culture, what is fitted, what is the proper fitting for this culture in this site, this context. So it's not just the culture, it's also where the building sits within that culture, the site, the context. You do research into the tighter site and the community, the civic aspects of the site. And you collaborate with the owner, you collaborate with the consultants. Ideally you work on-site for a time, perhaps four days of the week, and come back to the office, tighten things up, and then go back on-site. Sometimes we do camp out on-site. In our Shanghai office, we have over 60 people, and 99 percent of them are Chinese nationals. So you know they live there, so they understand the culture. Every one of our international offices, a vast majority are from the area, region, and country.

DD: At what point did you discuss going global?

DN: We discussed going global probably around 20 years ago. I was director of design of the firm, and I want to say we made the commitment to go global in a big way in the last downturn in 2010. In 2000, before 911, we had offices in Mexico, we had a partnership in London. And I want to say that we had opened our office in Shanghai, but I'm not 100 percent sure.

In our strategic plan, we said we wanted to be more diverse. We want to be more diverse in our offering, in what we do in architecture, what we do and where we do it. We want to be more than just an architecture firm. We want to be a design firm that helps solve problems. We have an advisory group. We have doctors on staff, nurses on staff. We have former athletes on staff. We have financial economists, sociologists, psychologists, Ph.D.s  in research. All these people are helping us to create another offering with the firm that's based on intelligence.

DD: It seems to me all architects should be considered global. I'm thinking about sustainability, the environment. I mean, we are all in this together.

DN: Exactly. If anything is going to be an example of this, certainly this COVID situation shows we are all in this together. A sneeze in central China is now affecting 30 million people around the world. That, to me, should be a wakeup call. We are connected, and how we interact with each other, how we interact with the planet, how we are sensitive and empathetic to others. And when people are talking about wearing masks, they are not talking about it to help you but talking about it to help others. You may be fine, but you may be an unintentional carrier. So tells us more about being conscientious of your neighbor. And I think that is a lesson worth keeping through all this.

DD: How do you feel about other global architects getting hired for prestigious commissions in Dallas. Does that bother you? Or do you welcome that?

DN: Ah, you know, I wouldn't say I welcome it. But I wouldn't say it bothers me. We are a local architect and a global architect. This is the competitive edge for architects who are primarily active in the Dallas marketplace, with strong relationships with clients, with consultants with governing bodies, their deep expertise in a particular project type, their connection to the local supply chain, and their knowledge of the local culture. All I would ask is that when these opportunities come about, that the local architects be given an equal opportunity. I don't mind if we lose the commission in a fair fight. But when we aren't even invited to the dance, that is problematic.

DD: Does the HKS participate in any pro bono work?

DN: Oh, yes, an awful lot. We have a group within HKS called Citizen HKS, and we do pro bono work annually. In fact, you can go to our website and see it.

We did a birthing clinic with Kachumbala, Africa, where we did the design work for free. We went to Kachumbala, met with a tribe. They had a birthing clinic where the infant mortality rate was terrible. And we lived amongst them for a few weeks, saw what they were doing, and sketched out some ideas, and put together a design package. They started the idea of building it.

They couldn't come up with the money. So we had an internal fundraiser and raised around $55,000 through employees of HKS. That was enough to get the materials for them to finish it. And we sent some of our people to South Africa to help them build it. It was a great story. It's on our website.

Lane Technology, a project over in Fort Worth for the homeless, we did pro bono. So we put hundreds of thousands of dollars a year into pro bono work.

Interview conducted by Douglas Dover, senior architectural designer at Strand Architecture. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.