Practicing ArchitecturePracticing Architecture
Courtney Brett, AIA, Is 25 Years Old
In college at 14, designing for SOM at 20, with a decade of experience under her belt, the AIA’s youngest member just founded her own firm
By John Gendall
Though in the profession of architecture, 40-somethings easily pass for “young architects,” 25-year-old Courtney Brett, AIA, (yes, you read that correctly) is the youngest AIA member, effectively redefining what it means to be an emerging professional. At 14, she enrolled at Mary Baldwin College to study art and math, transferring after two years to Auburn University’s vernacular and humanitarian Rural Studio.
SOM’s New York office recruited her in 2007, and she spent two and half years working on projects around the world. Just this May, Brett got her license, became an AIA member, and attended her first AIA National Convention, launching her own firm Casburn Brett Architecture in Daphne, Ala., on Alabama’s Gulf Coast, where she has been since leaving SOM in 2010. AIArchitect spoke with her about precocious restaurant doodles, what it means to be an emerging professional today, and her outlook for architecture.
AIArchitect: Many people don’t discover architecture until graduate school. How did you decide on this path at the age of 10?
Brett: We traveled a lot as a family, so I saw many different buildings, and I was just so mesmerized that somebody was putting them together. My parents would give us blank paper while we were on the road or to keep us busy at restaurants, and I drew mostly buildings. I had never seen architectural drawings, but I’d try to draw the layout of buildings without their faces—I later realized I was basically trying to draw plans and sections. A lot of people will choose a profession and gradually fall out of love with it. I’m so lucky I honed in on architecture at such a young age. The more I learn about it—practice, theory, and research—the more I love it.
Architecture is a profession that prizes age and experience. How do you make the case to colleagues and clients that an emerging professional like yourself is right for the job?
I’ve been generally more concerned about that going into meetings than I have been coming out of them. People have less of an issue once they’ve met me and talked about the work I’ve done. I have 10 years of experience, even though [those] 10 years started when I was 14. So I’ve been fortunate in the time I’ve had to be exposed to things like Rural Studio and Architecture for Humanity and to SOM, and to all of these great groups.
People in our profession always ask me if I think I’m at a deficit because I’m younger, and I’m beginning to believe that I think it’s a complex within our own field. People outside of our field are less deterred by a younger professional than I was expecting they would be.
Rural Studio is a very deliberate choice. What drew you to the program?
We went to go visit schools and I fell in love with Auburn and with Rural Studio—[it’s] the hands-on program they have there. It was a real way for architects to be stewards of a community. That was a very early introduction to what it’s like to have a client, and to meet someone who needs the things we’re designing.
You really shifted scales when you went to SOM in New York.
With SOM, I split my time between the healthcare studio and the education lab, and both of those do a lot of work that’s research-based as well as artistic and innovative, so I was able to get exposure to every aspect of practice. I worked mostly on 250 East 57th Street, a mixed-use tower project done as a public-private partnership. My other main project was Qatar Petroleum, in Doha.
The way they construct their teams and the way they treat their clients is just fantastic. I got really involved in Architecture for Humanity. I was the director of development for the New York chapter for the entire time I was [there].
So how did you decide to leave for Daphne?
My term was about to be up with Architecture for Humanity, and, at the same time, I was engaged, and we were trying to decide where to live. I’ve always wanted to have my own architecture firm, and to experience business ownership, so I thought the only way to be exposed to that is in a smaller-firm setting. That way, I wouldn’t be so removed from the risk. At SOM, I was very insulated from a lot of the decision-making that makes that firm run, so I thought I needed to join a smaller team to prepare myself.
I took a position as director of design for the development company DHS Ventures [in Daphne, where my husband grew up.] Architects can be wary of developers because their decision-making is very financial, so I thought it would be a way for me to get involved to see how they make their decisions. That way, I can be better able to provide solutions for clients.
We launched the firm at the end of May. I had already been making connections in the community, reaching out to meet people locally. So I’ve been fortunate in the first few months to have one really phenomenal project that I’m excited about—a seven-acre beachfront mixed-use development.
And you’ve become involved with the AIA, too.
I find they can offer resources that I need as a designer: connections to mentors, suppliers, research, and community. Especially since I’m a little bit removed from all the centers of research and development, it helps draw me closer to the architectural community. Like I said, my passion keeps growing, and I want to keep learning, so the AIA can really provide that education I’m so interested in.
Courtney Brett, AIA. All images courtesy of Courtney Brett.
The Gulf, a temporary food stand Brett designed in Orange Beach, Ala., which is currently under construction.
Visit the AIA National Associates Committee (NAC) website.
Visit the AIA Young Architects Forum website.