Jeremiah I. Tolbert II, AIA, NOMA, on The Mindshift and More

Palo Alto High School Sports Complex. Architect: Tolbert Design Architects

When we logged onto Zoom to interview Jeremiah I. Tolbert II, AIA, NOMA, LEED AP, for this first in a series about Practice, we were immediately interested in his Zoom background. Tolbert explained that what we were seeing was the loggia of a 94,000-square-foot project he designed for his eponymous firm Tolbert Design Architects.

The Palo Alto High School Sports Complex wraps around an existing pool and replaces two gyms, a boys’ and a girls’: the former built close to a century ago, the latter stemming from Title IX. 

Ambitious, right? Considerably more so knowing that Tolbert Design Architects, with its span of public, private and university commissions, is a solo practitioner office.

So, this series, devoted to sharing approaches to challenges for practices and career paths starts there.

AIA California: What is the key tenant to success for Principles of solo or small practices?

Jeremiah I. Tolbert II, AIA, NOMA, LEED AP: I did [the Palo Alto High School Sports Complex] by myself, but the key is, you’re never doing anything by yourself. The key is collaboration. [For instance] working closely with the general contractor made this project a success. The project had to go through DSA [Division of State Architect], and getting through DSA, you have to go through hoops. As a solo practitioner, especially, you can’t do it by yourself. Recognizing that it takes a team to create good projects, it makes your life so much easier. It really does.

AIA CA: What has been the largest challenge for your firm and/or your career? How did you respond to it, and what was the outcome?

JT: The hardest thing as a solo practitioner, and my career, was trying to balance work and life. I’m sure [it’s a challenge] for all careers, but even more so for architects, who are nocturnal. For someone like me, I got married, I have kids, and so the all-nighters or almost-all-nighters don’t work very well anymore when you have kids that wake up at 6am regardless of what time they go to bed.

AIA CA: How did you address it?

JT: I’ve been working for myself for thirteen years, and I’ve completed over 100 projects of various sizes. So, earlier, before the kids, I was cranking them out. But now, it’s a little bit more strategic.

I had a mindset shift with my project and client selection. For example, when clients are interviewing me, I’m actually interviewing them to see if they would be as good for me as I would be for them. That’s beneficial because good clients allow you to do good projects.

No one really knows if a client is going to be great until you’re really working together but being able to manage expectations and deadlines and that sort of thing [is important.] It comes down to communication because a client could be absolutely spectacular but if you’re not good at communicating and managing their expectations, then it could quickly turn.

AIA CAAs President of AIA East Bay, you launched a mentoring program to support underrepresented Black and Latino junior high school students and then opened up a second program, The Ripple Effect, in which you trained university students at UC Berkeley to mentor high school students. What do you advocate that others do to reduce barriers to Practice?

JT: That’s actually a little tricky. Because I would encourage people to do something that they have a passion for, and I don’t want to say, “you should do it this way” if you don’t have a passion for it.

I only became an architect because of my second-grade teacher, who gave me the term “architect.” It was [through] an in-class writing assignment: “what do you want to be when you grow up?”

I knew like five careers back then, you know, businessman, teacher, firefighter, policeman—that sort of thing—and my exotic one was astronaut. But, I had done that for a writing assignment in first grade already. And I was stumped because I was tired of saying “policeman,” or “teacher.”  When my teacher saw I wasn’t writing (I normally was a student who would) she asked me what was wrong. I replied, “I don’t know what it’s called.”

She said, “Describe it to me. What do you like to do?”

My exact response was, “Well, I like to draw and build things.”

She said, “Oh! That’s called an architect!”

My 8-year-old brain exploded because I had never heard that word before. For some reason, it was a big word, like “onomatopoeia”, it was just magical. So that inspired me. I was exposed early and never let go of the word “architect.”

That’s the evolution of my [philosophy] about having a passion.

My passion is: let me expose youth of color to architecture and the design-built world who wouldn’t otherwise have that opportunity. It’s quite powerful what we do, because we affect the built environment, and how people move through space, and how we live, work and play.

In my classes, I’m not trying to reproduce a bunch of architects per se; however I’m definitely exposing them to design-thinking and letting them know that they could choose any career path that they want when armed with this type of knowledge.

When I was [attending] Cal Berkeley, I went to school with a lot of people who studied or majored in architecture, and they’re not necessarily doing architecture. They may work at Apple, or they may work as furniture makers, or developers, or all sorts of career paths. A friend just told me that he’s opening up a new division for Tesla. The one thing they all have in common is that their background training is design-thinking which allowed them to enter and succeed in other career paths.

Giving [students] the tools to be able to maneuver within the world better, and be positive civic agents-of-change within their own communities is the basis of what I want to provide them. So if there happens to be a development happening in their own neighborhoods, they can help speak up for their community—that’s what I’m trying to produce.  If they all descide to become architects, that’s just a plus!

This interview has been edited and condensed for flow and brevity.

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