Kelly Nicholas, AIA, LEED AP BD+C - Associate, ZGF ARCHITECTS
Kelly Nicholas, AIA, LEED AP BD+C - Associate, ZGF ARCHITECTS


Questions for Kelly Nicholas, AIA, LEED AP BD+C – Associate, ZGF ARCHITECTS

Personal Background and Core Values:

What initially drew you to the field of architecture?

I’ve wanted to be an architect since I can remember. I had an early mentor, a childhood friend’s father who was an architect. He kept blueprints, models, and foam-core sculptures around their house. I was so fascinated by him and what he was able to create. I decided I wanted to spend my life doing something hands-on, creative, and visionary, but also tangible. At that time, I didn’t fully understand what the profession entailed, but I’ve been lucky to continually discover more about what it means to be an architect at each stage of my schooling and professional practice. It’s the opportunity to keep learning and evolving that deepens my interest.

Design Perspective:

Can you describe your design philosophy and how it balances aesthetics with functionality?

Many people assume being a good designer or architect is all about aesthetics. To me, that’s just an integral piece of a much larger, more complicated process. The real creative challenges we face are to meet all the program and functional needs of the client, reconcile cost and schedule limitations with the desires of the end users, be mindful of site context and environmental impact, integrate fire and life safety code, accessibility and other local jurisdictional requirements, create efficiencies in structure and systems, detail and specify products that have been proven over time, and bring sustainability and resiliency into every possible aspect of the design. And of course, at every stage, we balance these elements with beautiful design, inside and out.

A lot of people struggle with the inherent inefficiency in our profession. It takes an incredible amount of time and careful thought to do what we do, and it often goes unappreciated. I think it’s important to remember that process is the most critical aspect of design philosophy. We’re meant to iterate, discard, start over, rethink, redraw. It’s only in that labor of inefficiency that we achieve the greatest outcome. The quick solution is never the best solution.


What is your role at ZGF and how do you most effectively leverage your insight, leadership, and expertise?

I’ve grown into a Project Architect/Project Manager role with a focus on documentation, construction administration, and coordination of all the various parties (design team, owner team, engineers, consultants, contractors) that come together to realize each project. Fortunately, at ZGF, I still ideate, space plan, design, model, draw, select finishes, and craft and deliver design presentations. It’s critical for an architect to be part of that early design process if they’re going to deliver a successful end product.

Architecture is an amazing career because it balances such broad skill sets. Architects need to be generalists, both creative and technical, educated and experienced in as many aspects of the design process as possible. At the same time, we must always be willing to face new challenges. I feel fortunate to be in a profession where I never stop learning and growing. My role can change daily, and that’s what keeps it interesting.

Human Connection:

In today’s technology-driven world, how do you prioritize building and maintaining strong human connections within your team and with your clients?

In this field, practitioners should be able to appreciate a variety of personality types and learn how to gracefully balance competing interests. For me, the internal design team is always easy. I am so fortunate to be surrounded by creative, inspiring, caring people, who are all focused on making the world a better place in everything they do. With consultants, clients, and contractors, it’s important to be sensitive to their needs and goals too. This means balancing schedule, cost, function, sustainability, aesthetics, and best practices in every trade. There are always challenges and natural tension within a team that I believe contributes to a better overall outcome. I find it remarkable that with each project we come together as a design and construction “family” for a number of years and build something incredible together. Then we move on and do it all over again with a new team and a new set of goals.

Project Delivery:

What project management methodologies do you typically utilize to ensure efficient and successful project delivery? How do you balance flexibility with maintaining a clear project scope?

The most important thing is to always have a plan, but also be ready for that plan to change at any moment. I am someone who naturally loves to have a plan and stick to it, so I’ve had to learn to become more flexible throughout my career. Having good instincts is incredibly helpful to be able to react and realign appropriately. An even greater skill is to anticipate many possible outcomes and be prepared to deal with whatever comes at you. Developing that sensibility comes with time and experience, and it’s one that I admire most in my leaders.

The best advice one of my leaders gave me was “You don’t need to always have the answer right away.” It can often benefit the project to step back, do extra research, seek advice from experts, iterate, sleep on it, and find clarity the next day that you couldn’t have achieved by trying to have the answer in the moment. None of this is to diminish the extraordinary importance of having a clearly defined scope, set of goals, and design intent at the outset, and to always refer back to it when re-aligning new goals or new design direction.

The AIA|LA Urban Design Committee:

+ As a co-chair of the UDC, share a little more about what a successful city means to you.
+ What do you see as the biggest challenges and opportunities facing urban design today?
+ Beyond aesthetics, what values do you prioritize in your approach to urban design?

Walkability and public transit! We can always use more here in LA, but it’s also about changing people’s attitudes and helping them realize (and USE!) the amazing infrastructure and walkable neighborhoods we already do have. I’m biased because I’ve been carless for 15 years, in several different cities. It’s easier in LA than everyone told me it would be. Achieving appropriate scale and density is a huge challenge facing American cities, and urban areas need the right balance to thrive. Zoning can help, and responsible design certainly helps, but seeing the urban fabric in 3D rather than as a 2D puzzle is incredibly valuable in crafting the human experience. Urban design is all about function and usability. If the final product achieves those elements, aesthetics will follow.

There are few things more important than how we experience space and the world around us. I want to create environments that help the people within them thrive, which starts with feeling safe, comfortable, and stimulated by your surroundings.

Kelly Nicholas, AIA, LEED AP BD+C – Associate, ZGF ARCHITECTS

Kelly is a licensed architect practicing at ZGF Architects in Downtown Los Angeles. A graduate of Rice University, she has over 15 years of experience in the design and construction industry, working on a variety of project types while practicing at firms in Singapore, Texas, New York, and California. Having spent most of her adult life living in downtowns of major cities, her passion for urban density, adaptive reuse, public transit, and walkability makes her an enthusiastic advocate of the Urban Design Committee and its initiatives.