By Libby Castro Special to Published Dec 12, 2009 at 3:01 PM

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Jan Van Den Kieboom, owner and lead architect for Workshop Architects, Milwaukee. Here's a guy who has learned how to make design by committee actually work and still make a kick-ass building. Really.

Workshop Architects primarily works on higher education buildings such as student unions and campus remodels around the country.

Van Den Kieboom's first education project was the remodel of the union and commons at UW-Oshkosh in 2001 and since then, Workshop has worked on six different UW campuses and several out of state campuses.

As of late, Workshop has been working on the UW-Madison Union South expansion and remodel as well as University of Oklahoma in Oklahoma City.

The gift that makes it different from many firms who do what it does is its ability to manage and incorporate the many ideas, opinions and thoughts of those involved. It is said that the UW Madison project had 27,000 people involved on the design committee. Obviously that included many students, but Van Den Kieboom and Workshop encouraged this by throwing campus-wide cookouts and gatherings to allow students to share their ideas.

Now that takes guts. Not many people can manage that type of involvement let alone ask for it. Personally, I know that Van Den Kieboom and his staff listen to each and every voice they hear, and everyone involved must be proud to say they participated because of the awesome building that shows up as the end result.

That is what makes the firm unique and very special to an archetype like this. After all, in Van Den Kieboom's words, "It is the students who ultimately pay for this to happen. For that reason, and the fact that this is their space, we need to hear from them and allow them to see themselves in their campus for years to come."

Van Den Kieboom and his talented team of architects and designers have begun to document their process in booklets that illustrate and explain the many phases of the project. They share this with the universities and use it to present and give lectures about the firm and their process. I hope they will find a way to publish this information and share it with the masses, but that is not the plan for now.

Design by committee can work in another surprising way. In 1996, Van Den Kieboom was asked to submit his resume for a small Wisconsin village that needed some urban planning work due to a tornado damaging the town. With no experience in urban planning, Van Den Kieboom instead wrote an essay to the city council about what he imagined it would be like to live in this town. The essay must have had something for everyone -- they bought his vision and Van Den Kieboom won the contract.

A couple of things that struck me most about Van Den Kieboom are his influences and his commitment to people. Usually when asked who their influences are, architects name a slew of famous architects whose careers they followed and admired. But Van Den Kieboom (who is Jan III), answers this question by naming two people without missing a beat: His father, Jan II, and his wife, Leigh.

Van Den Kieboom's father, Jan II, after spending years on ships in the Far East, emigrated from Holland and worked in McCormick Hall at Marquette University. Though he knew very little English, he passed an entrance exam and began studying engineering -- eventually working on the Apollo Space Program. One day, someone asked him if he knew who to talk to about building their new house. He said, "I'll do it."

He didn't exactly know how to draft plans, but his father, Jan I, was a blacksmith and Jan II was very handy. He aligned himself with people who could draft up his ideas. With Jan III in tow, he would break down barns and reuse the materials and he would go to the quarries at night and collect field stone. That practical experience was in front of Van Den Kieboom since he can remember. The homes that Jan II built still stand in Greendale today.

Van Den Kieboom spoke very affectionately about his wife, Leigh, and his two sons (one of whom is named, yep, you guessed it, Jan). Leigh and their sons often participate in the research Van Den Kieboom has to do for his higher education work and that crossover helps them spend quality time together.

When I asked Van Den Kieboom what keeps him up at night, he answered, "not much" with a big smile on his face. He used to worry a lot when the workload was light, but through experience and the support of his wife, he has learned not to let that bother him as much. He has and always will worry about the people in his life. Whether they are employees, family members or close friends-personal issues worry Van Den Kieboom.

When I asked Van Den Kieboom what project most describes him as the architect he likes to be, he really named all of them at one point or another.

Van Den Kieboom is pleased with every campus his firm has worked on. So pleased in fact, he is hiring a luxury bus to take the entire firm (18 architects and designers) on a road trip to visit all of the Wisconsin campuses to see what they have done, how they look now, and especially for those new to the firm, to learn about this archetype. Not only will that be a great learning experience, it will be good QT together as a firm. Naturally, that's one of the things Jan wants to cultivate.

Long term goals for Workshop are to grow the business internationally, as well as nationally, and to continue to add high caliber people to the staff. Van Den Kieboom describes Workshop as a place where "talented people can be talented." He appreciates the diversity of talents at Workshop and hopes to add to that diversity with people who are talented at many art forms, interests and backgrounds. Take a look at these projects, visit them, too, and let me know what you think.

Libby Castro Special to
Libby received her Masters of Architecture from Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah Georgia and spent one year in Florence Italy with Syracuse University. While in Florence she worked for and Italian architect/industrial designer. She lived in San Francisco for eight years immediately after college. There she worked for three architecture firms with projects ranging from the nuts and bolts of retail to retail branding to high end residential and custom commercial buildings. Libby returned to her native Wisconsin where she is the Architecture and Design Manager for Novation Architectural Products and a partner in LP/w Design Studios. To date, her most accomplished and important job is mom of two beautiful girls.