Joel Tomei, FAIA has a diverse background that ranges from custom single-family residences to new towns for populations of 200,000. He finds this diversity inspiring and is able to work comfortably at all scales of design. Throughout his career, Joel has shared his knowledge through mentoring and serves as the seasoned professional to his group in the AIASF Mentorship Program.
Why did you decide to become a mentor? What do you value most about the experience?
For years in conventional private practice, I always saw the value of mentoring and being mentored. My motivation was to give back to the profession as best that I could through the AIASF Mentorship Program, where I have been involved for 5 years. The key, in my career, has always been to have the “fire in the belly” for whatever my goals. For me, the greatest value is to see those inspired and elevated by a particular educational experience.
Is there something you wished you could have learned earlier in your career, or misconceptions about the profession that people don’t hear enough about?
There will be huge amounts of work and time commitments expected of you. You have to have a love of what you are doing to be able to make the kinds of commitments that are expected to help generate exceptional and satisfying results for the team.
I was very lucky not to have many misconceptions about the profession. At a very early age I knew that I wanted to be an architect. When I was 12 years old, my mom took me to an architect’s office so that I could see for myself what it was like. Both my wife and I were dedicated to our careers in the first 15 years of marriage before we decided to start a family; this gave us time to get an early foothold and be able to adjust to the new demands of a family and combine that with our careers.
What do you feel is important to share with someone interested in becoming a mentor?
In my opinion, to become a valued Seasoned Professional you must be the primary motivator and lead by example. If you are successful, others will follow. Everyone in the group brings something to the table, and should be recognized openly for their contributions by organizing an event.
When planning group tours, I have tried to make sure that the scale of projects is varied—the intent being not to be afraid of working on any size project since they all share many commonalities. Also, not to be afraid of any size office for the same reason. I was at Berkeley, working in a two-person office and I took a job with SOM Chicago (a 1,000-person office) and found many commonalities. For example, large offices are usually composed of smaller studios which are similar to smaller offices. I also found that enormous projects (for example, the Yanbu new town of population 200,000) can be designed within a year’s time frame, which is very similar to a custom single-family residence which can easily take a year to design.
The goals of all participants need to be recorded and updated each year.
Was there a pivotal project or moment that made a turning point in your practice?
Early in my career, I became involved with a large project at SOM Chicago: a masterplan for a Dow Chemical Headquarters in Midland Michigan. I became so inspired by the scale of this experience that I asked the General Partners if they recommended that I gain further experience in large projects in the office or go back to school to pursue another degree with large-scale project emphasis. They left the decision up to me, and I decided to take a leave of absence from the office to pursue a joint master’s degree in Urban Design and City Planning at Harvard. After graduating, I continued to work with SOM in Boston and San Francisco on many large-scale projects. As a result of these experiences, I cannot think of any project, whatever size, without considering both the small and large-scale aspects when evaluating the constraints and opportunities in the design.
Your favorite recent group activity?
My favorite activity in the past year was our customized tour of the renovated 9th Circuit Court of Appeals because of its historical uniqueness and diverse architecture in the courtrooms, not typical of courtrooms and courthouses today. It was truly inspiring. This tour included a viewing of the new base isolators which required Government Services Administration (GSA) clearance in order to see, so this was quite a unique experience for all.
Learn about the coming Mentorship Program year at aiasf.org/group/Mentorship.