Asking questions: Julie Snow

Apr 24, 2022

Founder, design principal, and CEO at Snow Kreilich Architects (Minneapolis, MN), a nationally recognized, award winning architectural studio.

By Liisa Andreassen

Since founding Snow Kreilich Architects in 1995, Snow, FAIA has earned national recognition as both a practitioner and academic. She’s taught architecture at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard, Yale University, Syracuse University, the University of Southern California, and the University of Minnesota College of Design, and received numerous professional awards. Snow says that the studio focuses on producing architecture that performs against multiple measures of design success.

“To serve people and the environment in the Twin Cities, as well as those halfway across the world, we assemble teams, design workflows, and ask questions of a wide range of stakeholders – stakeholders that are not usually at the table,” Snow says. “Questions challenge topics rooted in how the environment shapes and influences the human experience. The overarching goal, whether domestic or abroad, is to utilize design thinking to reimagine the built and unbuilt.”

A conversation with Julie Snow.

The Zweig Letter: Your online bio shares that you work on every project that comes the firm’s way. How do you balance design work and management? What’s the sweet spot for mixing the two?

Julie Snow: Matt Kreilich, FAIA is a partner and design principal in the firm and one of us is always engaged with each project. Sometimes we’re both on it and we often check on each other. As the studio grows, we’ve been fortunate to attract studio members who are good at doing everything from finance to HR, etc. so I don’t have to worry a lot about that. I want to create. Matt does more studio management than I do. It’s a perk of being the founder – I don’t have to do what I don’t want to do.

TZL: How would you describe your company culture? How do you work to maintain that culture?

JS: Diverse. Focused. Respectful. We strive to create a workplace where people don’t have to sacrifice their personal life for their professional life. People do interesting things in their private lives that will bring interesting things into their professional lives. We strive to maintain a 40-hour work week for all, understanding that sometimes there will be crunch times on projects, but allowing for time off when that extra time is spent.

TZL: In your opinion, what’s one of the most inspiring architectural designs in the world and why?

JS: I’ve been thinking a lot about social dimensions of public space. A great building space that is a model for how we do this is the Stoa of Attalos in Athens. It’s a sort of middle space between architecture and outdoor public space that accommodates conversation and encounters.

TZL: Have you had a particular mentor who has guided you – in school, in your career, or in general? Who were they and how did they help?

JS: Mentorship comes from all directions – academic, professional, and clients. I think you need to learn from everyone. I’ve learned a great deal from clients over the years. Constant learning is what keeps things – including our firm – interesting.

TZL: What skills are required to run a successful practice? What do you wish you knew starting out that you know now?

JS: When I first started the business, I ran it much like my checkbook. I didn’t want to be overextended. I think I would take more calculated risks. I would also have hired more senior leaders. I had one senior leader and all the rest were young grads. I spent my time teaching and managing at the same time.

TZL: Since founding the firm in 1995, what’s the most significant event/technology that made a solid impact on how the company does business?

JS: There have been many events, but three that spring to the top of mind:

  • When we got the contract for the General Services Administration U.S. Land Port of Entry in Warroad, Minnesota. A Land Port of Entry project must span the distance between design excellence aspirations for architecture that represents “the finest in contemporary American architectural thought” and Customs and Border Protection’s pragmatic goal of securing our national borders. The Warroad LPOE design is attentive to the safety and comfort of CBP officers, providing a canopy that continuously covers their work area, while also providing a warm welcoming portal to the United States. The design concept began with creating a black shell which anchors the building in the vast landscape, with portals through the port lined in warm heartwood. Building volumes are inflected, increasing officers’ visual site surveillance. This is the first U.S. LPOE to employ a ground source heat pump system, which reduced the government’s purchase of energy by 50 percent. This project really made us think about public work and what it means in terms of its political, social, economic, and cultural context. Public buildings simply must represent our highest ideals of democracy.
  • The murder of George Floyd. This was a moment when we had to face how inequitable our society has become. It made us look inward and outward at the professional work that we do. Among our many equity initiatives, we’re now in the process of working toward being a JUST organization. The JUST Label is a voluntary disclosure tool for organizations to measure and share their commitment to equity and social justice. Some of the metrics include ethnic diversity, employee engagement, living wage, and community engagement.
  • Climate change. Architecture is playing an extraordinary role here. The studio signed on to the AIA 2030 Commitment to achieve net zero emissions by 2030, and we’ve been developing our toolkit to get closer with every project. We are thrilled to have collaborators both in and outside the studio to explore building envelope, siting, low- and no-carbon structural systems, innovative mechanical systems, and renewable energy.

TZL: They say failure is a great teacher. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?

JS: I think I’ve had a thousand little failures along the way that have all taught me something. I think the greatest is to go with your gut. There have been instances when I took on a project that I was pretty sure was not the best move, but I figured I could make it work. I ended up having to back out during the project when it would have been smarter not to take it to begin with. Pay attention to the writing on the wall.

TZL: In looking ahead, say five years, what big changes do you anticipate implementing in your day-to-day operations?

JS: Now, that we’re slightly post-COVID, I think we need to reevaluate having people come into the office more often. Like many, we made it non-mandatory. We have 40 employees and today there are three people in the office. We have many young designers and I think they need that culture of collaboration – a studio culture – where you hear and see and learn things.

In addition, we founded and are continuing to support a non-profit arm of the business – ASK. ASK is made up of architects, engineers, scientists, designers, builders, community activists, mothers, and children, among others. The scope, typology, and structure of any project team can be reorganized and optimized to work at various scales and typologies. We assemble diverse teams based on the specific needs of a project, not a one-size-fits-all approach. To serve people and the environment in the Twin Cities, as well as those halfway across the world, we assemble teams, design workflows, and ask questions of a wide range of stakeholders – stakeholders that are not usually at the table. Questions challenge topics rooted in how the environment shapes and influences the human experience. The overarching goal, whether domestic or abroad, is to utilize design thinking to reimagine the built and unbuilt. We ask, we listen, and we creatively respond to complex questions.

TZL: What type of leader do you consider yourself to be?

JS: It’s funny. I don’t really want to be a leader. I want to be an architect. I lead out of necessity. I find patterns and try to be inspirational and transformational.

TZL: Does your firm work closely with any higher education institutions to gain access to the latest technology, experience, and innovation and/or recruiting to find qualified resources?

JS: Many studio members teach at the University of Minnesota and Matt and I lecture at numerous other universities. Part of our idea in creating ASK is to explore new technologies, innovations and create shared experiences with academics. We’re working on creating more relationships in this area and have a board member from the University of Minnesota. We believe that working with professionals in academia will allow us to do more innovative and interesting work. 

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