PROFILES IN EXCELLENCE with architect Mike Wetzel, AIA of SWABACK
28 years ago Mike Wetzel joined forces with one of the most respected architecture firms in the Valley, Vernon Swaback Associates, now known as SWABACK. Together with his fellow partners, Mike has completed some of the most challenging and interesting architectural projects in Arizona and around the world.
During his tenure, he has cultivated an incessant desire for learning. From valuable life lessons to understanding architecture as it relates to the environment, Mike has continued to build on his brain bank and enrich his understanding of what makes architecture highly functional, beautiful and truly unique. During our interview with him, he shared with us some of the lessons he picked up along the way.
LESSONS LEARNED ALONG THE WAY
I’m a believer that you want to surround yourself with exceptional people and talent. You want to seek out those who are better than you, because the only thing you can do is learn. That’s a little nugget that I carry with me every day – always learn something new. Here are a few of the important lessons I’ve learned during my career.
1. Always be forward thinking.
Try to think outside of the box. Keep this in mind as you develop a project, from its inception and while you work through the details. At Swaback, we believe our clients come to us because of the level of thought we put into each of our designs. Rather than settling for the first attempt at an idea, we develop numerous designs, let it sit and then we get back to it making it even better.
2. Be honest and up front with your team as well as your clients.
If I don’t know the answer to a question, I will say, “I don’t know what the answer is, but I’m willing to find out.” It’s impossible to know everything or be an expert at everything …but I want to. I have my passions and the skills I’ve honed over the years. Maintaining that level of honesty not only with the client but with myself only helps build a level of trust that benefits the project and the working relationship.
3. The design ultimately belongs to the client.
I may look at other work as inspiration, but I really focus on letting that inspiration and my own creativity help me fulfill the client’s wishes. I have to ensure I’m really working for them, not for my own satisfaction. Clients come to us to help them design a custom home or project that is unique to them. I wouldn’t want to give them my design. Collectively, we’re working together to achieve their vision.
It’s important to not keep the project all to yourself. When you open yourself up to collaboration, the project starts to snowball into great ideas. It evolves and becomes better. As we reevaluate the design and get down to the details and how materials transition, involving other professionals allows us to conceive new angles and approaches that might go in a direction that we didn’t think was possible before.
5. Mentors are everywhere.
Life Learning is extremely important to me, which is why it’s hard to recognize just one mentor who made an impact on my life. I’ll start with my dad. While I was growing up, my dad was a railroader and would do construction on the side. I absolutely loved being with him when he was out in the field. He taught me to always do more than was expected. These experiences helped me learn how materials work together and how custom homes are constructed.
Honestly, I can say being surrounded by Vern Swaback, John Sather, Jon ‘B’ Bernhard and Jeff Denzak, this team of professionals have been significant mentors to me and so inspirational to watch. I mean the talent just pours out of them. It’s fascinating to be around them and learn from them.
6. Historical projects are highly informative.
I am always seeking out and studying historical projects. Traveling to find these treasures are an essential part of being a good architect. Especially when you see something designed and built in a time when materials and equipment were vastly different from today’s advanced technology.
A lot of times architects talk about style. We never like to use the word ‘style’ because we always think that good architectural design should be timeless, not associated to a style. When you compare historical and current pieces of architecture that are timeless, one thing they have in common is they fit extremely well in the context of their surroundings. That, in and of itself, is inspiring to see.
Once you recognize those specific details, you can build on that knowledge and try to think about how the architect and the team developed that project and how something came together. I believe many different factors in society and in the design process that were utilized impacted how civilizations produced their architecture at that specific time in history and how they too were forward thinking.
I don’t want to sound cliché, but I know the environment and climate play a significant role in how we design. You can physically see how different environments impact architecture or how the pieces of architecture fit within an environment. In Arizona, we only have a few months of intense heat and the rest of the year is beautiful. Homeowners want indoor and outdoor spaces that flow seamlessly from one to another. Looking to the environment to shape our designs helps a home’s plan live better.
Also, we want a project to have as little impact on the land as possible. Not only in Arizona, but in any project or architecture that we design. We want there to be a light touch on the land, so it looks like the custom home fell from the sky, landed on the site and nestled itself into the land. The landscaping in Arizona, the palette, and the species of plants are simply incredible. The palette of the desert offers so many beautiful colors. We take cues from nature with its organic composition and how can we tie that into the architecture.
SWABACK ARCHITECTS AND TEAM DSC®
Currently, I’m working with Team DSC® on a project for a custom home that I designed from the ground up years ago with Vern Swaback. Their communication style is just incredible. It’s detailed and on time. Every week, the team sends out an email with an update on the home’s progress and the upcoming 3-week schedule. The process of getting submittals, responding to RFIs and making sure our questions are answered is exceptional. They are proactive and address issues before they arise.