An Intentional Role Model: Catherine Knight, AIA
This article was originally published in GroundBreak Carolinas on March 4, 2023.
Catherine Knight, AIA, thrives on challenges. As Design Leader at A M King, a leading integrated Design-Build firm, it’s Knight’s job to ensure that a given client’s needs are being addressed throughout the design and construction processes – from initial client interface through project delivery.
Bringing buildings to life is a big enough undertaking, yet Knight still manages to make time to promote careers in design and construction. Much of this is through her long-time involvement with the American Institute of Architects (AIA) at the local and state levels. An intentional role model who does what she can to attract more women and minorities into the industry, Knight was recently elected to a leadership position with AIA South Carolina that focuses on that mission.
GroundBreak Carolinas caught up with Knight to talk about her role as 2023-2024 Equity Director for AIA South Carolina, her obvious passion for the architecture profession, and how she passes along knowledge to others. She also gave us some insight into the world of Design-Build – from both a designer’s and a client’s perspective.
As the Equity Director for AIA South Carolina, what do you hope to accomplish or put-in-place? What types of events or initiatives are planned?
I’ve been involved with AIA Greenville (South Carolina) since 2016 when I initially served as the WIA (Women in Architecture) liaison. I served in different roles after that, ultimately becoming President of AIA Greenville for the 2022 term. I’m excited to continue serving the design community at the state level through the Equity Directorship. Our committee has been working on laying the groundwork for a South Carolina Chapter of NOMA (National Organization of Minority Architects) as well as working to bring a “Say It Loud Exhibition” to AIA South Carolina’s new Center for Architecture event space in 2024.
You are also active with the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) Greenville. How do your leadership roles in AIA and CSI intersect?
I currently serve as the Vice President of the CSI Greenville Chapter. In this role, I assist with monthly programs and with our yearly Spec Fair learning event. I’ve enjoyed participating on both boards as we serve the same design professionals in the Upstate region. I also contribute to partner programs, including an upcoming code seminar and some hands-on continuing education opportunities.
Describe your role as Design Leader for A M King. What types of projects do you get involved in?
As Design Leader, I work with the other design team members, consulting engineers, and internal Operations colleagues – helping with day-to-day project management and ensuring that a project is moving forward smoothly.
Our work at A M King encompasses new construction, renovations/upfits and expansions. Two of my current Design-Build projects in the Southeast are a pork processing and cold storage facility located in Virginia and a specialty chemical processing facility in South Carolina. I also work on various manufacturing projects with our onsite facility management teams.
What do you find most challenging about your job? What’s the most rewarding aspect?
For me, every day brings new challenges – questions from the field, coordination with engineers, reviews with the client. I need to ensure that these elements are working together and in harmony with the overall intent of the project. While I must overcome challenges every day, it’s through those efforts that I’ve come to really love what I do for my team and our clients.
You have a long list of credentials behind your name: AIA, CSI, LEED AP BD+C, O+M, CDT. Is there one in particular that you are most proud of?
I love learning and enjoy continuing to grow as an architect in the profession. I want to keep growing my skills and certification capabilities as a way to better serve my team. I’m most proud of becoming officially licensed as an Architect (which brings the AIA designation). It’s a long process and there were lots of nights of sacrifice away from my husband scouring the books and study materials, taking the practice exams, and scheduling the exams. I was lucky to have a very supportive family and friends. It’s a marathon endeavor.
You are highly proficient in modeling software (by Autodesk and Adobe). You even served as an Adjunct Professor for nearly five years. What changes have you seen over the years and where do you see this technology headed?
I have taught at ITT in Greenville and at the Architectural Foundation of San Francisco to assist students in learning and utilizing Autodesk programs, including Autodesk’s AutoCAD, Revit, 3DS Max, and Navisworks, and Adobe’s Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign. I have a lot of industry experience with all of these.
Since I started in the design profession, technology has become more intuitive and allows for real-time collaboration opportunities. Changes can be made quicker and more efficiently, and clash detection has become easier to address. We’ve also been able to provide clients with real-time walkthrough capabilities through their digital project – ahead of construction – to help them visualize the feel and view of the space. I see this technology continuing to advance to allow for further virtual visualization and continued higher levels of collaboration and coordination.
When speaking with young people, what reasons do you give for why they might want to consider a career in design and construction?
I think it’s an exciting opportunity to work on something outside of yourself, something bigger, more complex. Studying and working in design and construction develops a wide range of soft skills, such as time management, communication, and organization – and you learn many other interesting skills and knowledge along the way too.
A M King is actively engaged with Clemson University students in the School of Architecture as well as the Nieri Department of Construction, Development and Planning. Please elaborate.
I was able to get more involved with Clemson University, as well as Anderson University, through AIA Greenville. I hope to continue A M King’s involvement through participation in career fairs, firm crawls, design reviews, and serving as a local resource to the student community. We are seeing a strong interest from students in learning more about the Design-Build methodology. I believe that A M King can be a great resource as our company exemplifies how fully integrated Design-Build works. A M King enjoys strong university partnerships, and we offer summer internship opportunities.
Traditionally, architectural firms have leaned toward the “design-bid-build” approach, but this is beginning to change here and across the country. Give us some insight.
I have noticed in recent years that many traditional architecture firms note “Design-Build” as one of their offerings. This often includes partnering with a contractor on projects. In my experience, this is a very desirable way in which to serve clients as it brings all the players “to the table” early in the process. Construction teams can help design teams by sharing industry trends and constructability feedback throughout the design process, helping to create a smoother transition between design and construction.
How do your (A M King) clients benefit from the fully-integrated Design-Build method, where design and construction are offered by the same company?
From the first meeting, our clients have a team that has their best interest in mind – with the desire to follow the project from design into construction, and ultimately completion.
Our operations and design teams are involved early in the process; we are discussing, collaborating and sharing ideas with our clients on industry standards and trends, and historical project experience. No team is working alone in a silo and that leads to some great project outcomes.
Your career history includes residential construction and interior design. How did you make the leap to industrial/commercial design?
I’ve always been intrigued by large-scale projects and the human scale as related to the mass of the building. One of my favorite projects early in my career was the reuse of an existing manufacturing facility that was closed, but we were able to create a business incubator that gave life to this fantastic building and created a new community of small businesses within these buildings on campus. From an adaptive reuse perspective, it was challenging and encouraging to see such a large-scale building gain new life.
What piqued your interest in pursuing Architecture?
I actually wanted to be a chef before I finalized my decision on pursuing architecture. While I didn’t pursue a culinary career, I’ve found a lot of overlap in my love of food and my love of architecture.
I love the process of “building” a recipe and all the various elements that need to go in, sometimes in a particular order or schedule, and how these elements interact to create the final product. There is something glorious about the construction of a tiered cake that is reminiscent of building construction, the same physics apply: strong foundation, disbursement of weight, properly sealed connections. Many of my projects in architecture school always seemed to have a ‘food’ element incorporated into the project narrative. My thesis project ultimately morphed into a farmer’s market and food education facility in the heart of a food desert in my home state of Connecticut.
Tell us about your community involvement.
Community involvement is very important to me and I’m thankful to work for a company that values this for their employees. As previously mentioned, I’ve done a lot of work in the past with Habitat for Humanity. I gained hands-on experience building houses in the U.S. and Mexico that ranged from standard wood frames to pueblo mud-brick structures. I became particularly interested in how to bring a building to life through superior design and construction partnerships. I fell in love with the process of seeing a building come together and the combination of time-honored techniques passed down through generations and new efficiency innovations. I knew I wanted to contribute by designing buildings in a way that easily translates into the field to the teams who are building them.