Architect Alex Shifflett, AIA, is an associate principal at KGD Architecture who says good design is not just good for communities, but great as a teaching tool for young designers hoping to make a difference. “I’m lucky enough to work on projects that matter because it suits the way I work and think,” she says. Inform recently spoke with Shifflett about her experiences over a decade of practice and what it means for the next generation of architects.

Inform: Did you think you’d be doing projects like the types of mixed-use, community-forward projects you work on now when you decided to be an architect?

Alex Shifflett: I’ve been at KGD since I graduated from school and, at that time, we were doing office buildings—then residential projects when the market changed, and then combined multi-use projects, which have become more prevalent in the industry. It’s something KGD does really well. Being responsive to the market and being diverse is a natural exposure for me at KGD. The pride I have in my projects and my firm—I feel so lucky. [KGD’s] Tom Donaghy, AIA, and I have been working on large, mixed-use projects centered around public private partnerships for over a decade. We are excited about these types of developments and would love to do more mixed-use projects locally or across the nation because of how impactful they are. It makes me feel good as an architect, and it makes the people that live and play there feel good as well.

Inform: How do you think about the scale of the difference you can make as an architect?

AS: For a long time, we’ve been a local firm, but we now have a lot of projects elsewhere—and being able to spread out has been awesome. The exposure has been great for me personally. I’ve lived here in this area my whole life, and this is what I know, but I’m enjoying thinking about how far we can go in terms of making a positive difference—townhomes in Arizona, hospitality in Colorado, and so on. I’m learning things every day. 

Inform: How should someone who is an emerging professional think about their opportunity now?

AS: Be present in your experiences—make the most of those opportunities, learn as much as you can on your own. You come out of school and you don’t know how to do anything, but being curious and interested is enough. You gain so much more knowledge by investigating things yourself than if you wait for answers. Right now, there’s a lot of multifamily going on—and so get into it. Find out what you can learn, and make a difference. Critical thinking is hugely important when so many firms are running thin and fees are tight, so you have to think of ways of being more efficient and productive, and it’s a creative process to think that way. We all ask the same questions when we graduate, and we all have to figure out the answers. Every day, I am still learning new things and doing research. That’s what an architect does. Learning never stops.

Inform: If I have recently graduated from school and I come to tour a project, what am I going to realize about it? 

AS: Specifically for the large mixed-use projects, one will notice the scale and the complexity of them. When you see how the structure works and all the pieces that we had to invent and design to fit all the required program into the building, the whole thing is like a Swiss watch. One thing I push for internally is to gain exposure and experience during construction. It’s my favorite stage of the process, because you can find out if your design is going to work. The general contractor and the owner have a different role during that time, and things become real for the architect—so giving junior staff exposure to that, for our firm, is important.

William Richards is a writer and editorial consultant based in Washington, D.C., whose books include 2022’s Together By Design: The Art and Architecture of Communal Living (Princeton Architectural Press).