Sam Smead

Specializing in the strategic planning and design of education facilities, Potter Architects founder Jeff Potter, FAIA, led the AIA Northeast Texas Chapter (now part of AIA Dallas) and the Texas Society of Architects before serving as AIA’s 88th president in 2012.

This Q+A has been edited for clarity.

What’s your greatest achievement?
I think my story is defined by a web of successes that, combined, put me at a gratifying place in my journey. Having colleagues who put me forward for recognition like the Edward C. Kemper Award and most recently, the Distinguished Alumni Award of my alma mater, Texas A&M University, is hard to top.

What is the most memorable moment of your career?
Being elected president of the AIA in 2011 was certainly a momentous event, but hardly more so than walking out of the inauguration of my successor, Mickey Jacob, FAIA, believing that I had led responsibly and made meaningful contributions.

There have been many notable days, being inspired by brave colleagues in matters of ethics and advocacy and realizing, to complete amazement, that some of my younger colleagues were calling me a mentor.

I founded my firm when I was 26, so I have the gratification that comes with being the author of a lengthy built resumé. Architects enjoy a fabulously tangible return on their intellectual investment, and even when things didn’t go exactly as planned for me, the outcome has almost always been positive, even delightful.

I am a schoolhouse designer and I’ve always reflected on my grade-school years: the sensory experience of a light-filled, naturally ventilated classroom (in hot and humid Louisiana), hoping to make a positive impression on the students who are on the receiving end of our work. A few years ago, a school principal that I worked with calculated that I had positively affected tens of thousands of schoolchildren in Texas. That was a memorable moment. Often “moments” roll in like the fog; they are no less notable.

What inspired you to get involved with AIA?
Without a doubt, senior faculty at my alma mater, Texas A&M University School of Architecture, who demonstrated the responsibility architects have to their profession. As a practitioner in a non-urban area, I knew that I must remain connected to thought leaders or the profession would leave me behind.

What have you hoped to accomplish through your AIA advocacy?
My advocacy achievements have mostly been focusing on and carrying forward the collective concern of my colleagues. At one point, I realized that I had an interest in and sensibility for leveraging the public perception of architects. Our research demonstrated that the public admires architects and find us mysterious; their perception is based on outdated images and tropes. When I hear someone use the term “blueprints,” it reminds me of how much work we have to do. AIA’s national component and board of directors were very supportive in expanding the sphere of influence that we enjoy. This sphere could be greater and, like our designs, requires constant maintenance.

As a practitioner in a non-urban area, I knew that I must remain connected to thought leaders or the profession would leave me behind.

What’s your approach to architecture?
I was trained in a Modernist sensibility. It is the language I know and love, but I appreciate it the most when it responds to place. I’ve always relied on intuition; the more I grind away at a design problem, the further I get from a balanced solution. My wife Shelley is a landscape architect, and seeing the environment through her eyes, I’ve learned to admire the work of a skilled site planner or landscape architect.

I was trained in an era that focused on site and edifice (and robust self-confidence), and am approaching the end of my career in the era that focuses on community. As an AIA leader, I’ve been able to enjoy post-graduate opportunities to work across generations, keeping my skills evergreen.

Architects have steadfastly held on to the idea of generalism as opposed to breaking the body of knowledge up into specialties; design thinking is the playbook for problem-seeking and problem-solving from high altitude. This intellectual posture demands constant growth. I’ve worked hard in life-long learning and offering my clients a glimpse of the world as architects see it.

What’s the best description of your leadership style?
That’s a question best left to those I have led. I think that they would say I’m fairly democratic, optimistic, good-humored, and that I inspire others to shape the profession of their dreams.

How has your leadership style changed over the years?
Thanks to my wife, Shelley, I’ve evolved to be less of an introvert. The more I have engaged in service endeavors, I’ve learned that I get a lot when giving, whether it’s with colleagues, students, or community.

What is the greatest challenge facing architects today?
Navigating a leadership/authoring role as bargained for in licensure, with the contemporary acknowledgment of our role on a collaborative team. The body of knowledge grows, as does the role of technology in our analysis, synthesis, and delivery—particularly in the pursuit of environmentally appropriate design. How do we manage our desire and capability as creators, and market reality as collaborators?

Surely, there is concern about the threat technology poses to the design process and built environment. I don’t have a prediction as to the effect of artificial intelligence, but at this early stage, it doesn’t feel good. Architecture is emotion. I certainly hope a world remains for the sensory experience that great design offers.

Architecture is emotion. I certainly hope a world remains for the sensory experience that great design offers.

What should architects do to respond to that challenge?
This idea is hardly innovative, but education and training should include leadership immersion outside of discipline and home—like study-abroad, but across disciplines. It’s hard to be optimistic about the way we’re governing ourselves as a society, but an architect’s perspective can and does have a calming effect when we advocate for policy in areas in which we have expertise.

My baby-boom generation believed in individual initiative and mission, and I suppose I still do. Whether by design or by accident, the discipline’s adherence to generalism places the profession in an admired, but tenuous place. I’m not sure I have a good answer to the question, but a client once told me, “there’s too much to teach, I’m just trying to teach these kids to teach themselves.”

What jobs did your parents have?
Symmetrically, my father was in the structural steel business and my mother was an accomplished watercolorist. My path has been a genetic inevitability.

When did you first realize you wanted to be an architect?
My high school had technical drawing courses across all four years, and I had a kind teacher who encouraged me. Combined with my parents’ influence, I adopted a heightened awareness of the natural and built environment.

What would you have been if not an architect?
Early on, I wanted to be a fighter pilot, but realized I was probably not of the right mind-set. The flight suit was appealing, though.

What is your favorite building?
A question better answered with contextual examples, but the first to come to mind: the Temple of Hatshepsut, because of its site selection and commitment to purpose. An easier question would have asked my favorite guitarist: Jeff Beck. He just passed away and I miss him.

Which five architects, living or dead, would you most like to have dinner with?
These would be five people who have influenced me as mentors, architects, and professors.

What does winning the Edward C. Kemper Award mean to you?
The recognition is unique. I was nominated by AIA Dallas, which by itself is an overwhelming acknowledgment. I’ve had the great fortune to lead my colleagues by virtue of their vote, but this is a singular award for a story that spans my professional and volunteer career—a story that includes leadership of AIA, communicating to the public what architects do, expanding the diversity of the profession through the Architects Foundation, and an unexpected role as a mentor. I am thrilled to be recognized!

An abbreviated version of this article first appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of ARCHITECT.