To describe the Executive Director of Denver Community Planning and Development Brad Buchanan, FAIA, as “passionate” would be an understatement.
For him, architecture is about much more than simply design—it’s about continually pursuing a greater understanding, problem solving and making a difference in ways that have the greatest impact on people.
Though he has always been motivated by his own service ethic, Buchanan did not necessarily plan on working in the public sector when he first became an architect.
He moved to Denver in 1982 after graduating with an architecture degree from Miami University in Ohio. He spent a few years working at Urban Design Group (which later became 4240 Architecture), but the recession of the 1980s hit Denver hard, and Buchanan was laid off at the age of 25.
Despite his age, Buchanan saw it as an opportunity to establish his own small architecture firm. At first, he took “any project [he] could get his hands on.” But he arrived at a pivotal moment in his career when he was hired to design the fire station in Allenspark, Colorado.
“I was in a meeting with the board of directors, and I asked how they were going to get the project built, and they responded, ‘well you’re the architect, don’t you build it?’”
Motivated by the fact that he had not yet landed his next project, and his ski pass was not yet paid off, he said, “Of course I do!”
That’s how he first began offering construction management services, which later grew to design build services. Not only did it change Buchanan’s business, but it forever changed the way he thought about architecture.
“By being involved on the construction side, I learned what my drawings did and did not do well, and the real power of the lines I drew,” Buchanan recalled. “I learned how much design happens in the field. From then on, having a better understanding of how buildings are constructed changed the way I designed.”
From there, Buchanan wanted to learn more about the marketplace and how projects are financed, the political landscape around architecture and urban design, and the value of incorporating input from stakeholders and residents.
“Learning about the forces impacting the built environment has been a constant theme throughout my career because I think architects should be aware of and involved in all of them,” said Buchanan.
Buchanan took it upon himself to attend meetings and “show up”—something that he encourages all architects to do. He has been involved with AIA, both at the local and national level, for his entire career because it allowed him to share knowledge with fellow architects as well as take on leadership roles.
In 1998, Buchanan was asked to serve on the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission—his first civic endeavor. He also joined the original Blueprint Denver Task Force, which allowed him to see firsthand the value of city planning and how it informs architecture. Buchanan served as president of Colfax on the Hill for nine years, served on the board of the Downtown Denver Partnership and was involved with the Denver Zoning Code Task Force, which initiated the first new zoning code since 1956.
Meanwhile, his architecture firm grew to 60 employees, and while they were still considered a small firm, they were designing between $50 and $80 million worth of construction per year. Despite billings success, Buchanan noticed that the projects he was most passionate about were the ones that changed people’s lives in significant ways.
As a result, he established an internal tagline for the firm: “contributing for no good reason.”
“I wanted to contribute for no specific reason—but rather because it was the right thing to do,” said Buchanan.
In 1999, Buchanan founded Freedom by Design, a nonprofit that creates design build projects for the low-income disabled community. In its first year, the Denver architecture and design community embraced Freedom by Design and completed 26 projects. Since, the nonprofit was taken over by American Institute of Architecture Students, and is now headquartered in Washington, D.C. Today, there are more than 60 Freedom by Design chapters across the country and they complete approximately 500 projects per year.
For Buchanan, creating Freedom by Design solidified that his motivation was not money. It was about finding what mattered to him and contributing in a meaningful way.
“Quite simply, I have been blissfully happy since then, because I don’t think there are many professions that allow you to have that type of impact. To me, that’s the greatest gift of architecture—to have the privilege of making a difference through our profession.”
Buchanan encourages all AIA Colorado members, regardless of their type of practice, to find what they are passionate about and use their unique problem-solving skills for greater impact.
After Buchanan’s firm was bought by RNL, he was appointed by the mayor to his current role as executive director of Denver Community Planning and Development, a job that he describes as “the best decision I ever made.”
In his role, Buchanan uses his skills in architecture, construction, development and planning to make a difference for the city every day.
When he is not working, you’ll likely find Buchanan at his 100-year old cattle ranch in Strasburg, which he and his wife purchased in 2006. Buchanan’s ranch has shaped the way that he thinks about urban design.
“Every day I witness the value of both urban and rural places, and how those two are inextricably linked,” said Buchanan. “Understanding both of those places, and understanding the problem of urban sprawl, is critical to becoming an expert.”
It’s the idea of urban sprawl and its impact on sustainability, affordability, equity and mobility that most concerns Buchanan in this time of unprecedented growth in Denver. He believes that it’s urgent for architects to understand and value the differences between rural and urban environments, while also appreciating how they connect. In fact, he spoke on the topic at a TEDx event in 2014.
Buchanan has found a niche in merging architecture and public service, and he encourages other AIA members to take action and give back to the community.
“Denver is an amazing place to get involved, because the best idea wins. It doesn’t matter where it came from,” Buchanan said. “Because in Denver, when you show up, work hard and are there for the right reason—to make a real difference—we invite you to the table.”
One of the focuses of Buchanan’s work is to ensure that architecture is at the forefront of decision-making in Denver.
“It is one of my great hopes that during my time at the city, I am able to elevate the role of the architecture and design community, and make sure they are an impactful player in crafting the future vision for Denver.”
If you’d like to get involved in the planning efforts ongoing around Denver, check out the Denver Community Planning and Development website.