When Nathan Kipnis was six years old, like most of his friends, he rushed home from school to watch Bozo’s Circus on WGN-TV. It probably wasn’t in the cards for young Nate to join Bozo on the air and participate in the grand prize game. But if the opportunity presented itself, Kipnis had a ready answer when asked what he wanted to do when he grew up.
His response, naturally, would be “an architect.”
Perhaps had he been cognizant of such things at the time, Kipnis might have been even more specific, with the answer “I’m going to be an architect, with LEED expertise and an AIA Fellow.”
Kipnis was always thinking ahead. As a teenager, he was fascinated by the solar panels he read about in Popular Mechanics. He knew early on his specialty would be environmental design. He studied solar energy at the University of Colorado, starting in 1979, way before it was fashionable. At the time, only a handful of colleges offered sustainability studies.
As the principal of Kipnis Architecture + Planning, he’s carved out a niche from his base in Evanston. Now, Kipnis has been recognized nationally, as one the 2015 class of AIA Fellows announced last month. He becomes one of just 3,200 of the total 85,000 AIA members with the fellowship title. The AIA Fellowship program honors architects who have made a significant contribution to architecture and society.
The designation is particularly gratifying for Kipnis because he works in a small shop and focuses on the greater good: saving the planet, one building at a time.
I sat down with Kipnis last week and listened as he reflected on his career, the natural resources too many people take for granted, and, of course, the meaning of adding AIA Fellow to his list of professional accomplishments.
On the decision to focus on environmental design: “I made a decision a long time ago when I started my firm that I’m going to go all in on this. I ran it by a guy who was my ‘client #1’ and he said wow, that’s kind of a niche thing. I told him if there are only 1,000 people in Chicago who are into this, that works for me. Or 10,000. I always knew it was right for me.”
On media coverage and awareness of energy conservation: “It popped up in the news every decade and then it got beaten down politically. ‘Oh well, get Saudi Arabia to pump more oil out.’ But it’s reached an obvious point that it can’t be solved like that anymore. Every day there’s less oil available and every day there’s more sustainable energy coming on line.”
On using architecture principles to solve energy challenges: “It’s a copout to say ‘I can’t make it Architecture with a capital A.’ To me, that’s exactly what architecture is. If you look at old homes, there’s always design reflected by trial and error, always resolution of generations of trial and error to directly address the climate they were in.”
On exposure to global issues: “I’ve been very lucky to be in a group with a think tank at Cambridge. They bring me out with 70 other people who are grassroots organizers and I’m with Citizens Greener Evanston. We’ve been working to reduce Evanston’s carbon footprint, and they singled me out because of the work I’ve been doing with Evanston and a proposal for an offshore wind farm there. So, as a little firm it’s interesting that I can hear these global issues and be at the top of it because I’m exposed to these people.”
On being honored as an AIA Fellow: “To be selected, you have to make a significant contribution to architecture and society on a national level. That’s really harder for a smaller firm and we’re a four-person firm. I have done some stuff that’s gotten out there and it makes you realize you have made an impact.”