Behind the Screens: Grant C. Uhlir, FAIA

Image of a man leaning up against a column with plants off to the side.

Grant Uhlir Behind the Scenes. Credit: Evening Cue LLC

“Behind the Screens” is a new series developed by AIA Chicago’s Editorial Advisory Committee to highlight the members of the chapter. Throughout the year, the series will showcase Fellows, Architects, Associates, and Affiliate members.

Principal, Global Director of Large Projects

Bachelor of Architecture, cum laude, Iowa State University;
Architecture/Urban Studies, University of Bath, England;
Bachelor of Arts, Architecture,Iowa State University

AIA Chicago and AIA Chicago Foundation Involvement
President, AIA Chicago Foundation, 2016-2017
Vice President, AIA Chicago Foundation, 2015-2016
Treasurer, AIA Chicago Foundation, 2012-2014
President, AIA Chicago, 2009
Board Member, AIA Chicago, 2005-2010
First Vice President/President-Elect, AIA Chicago, 2008
Executive Committee/Finance Committee, AIA Chicago, 2007-2010
Vice President – Sponsorship, AIA Chicago, 2006-2007
Director, AIA Chicago, 2005-2006

Where do you find inspiration?
I find inspiration in nature, travel, family, and the urban environment. The beauty, peace, calm, and the vastness and variety of nature invigorate my soul and help me to recenter. In my Gensler leadership role, I travel globally. Since my time working in China and living in Shanghai, I have been inspired by and curious about various peoples, cultures, and customs throughout the world. These vast and varied global experiences provide inspiration, deep appreciation, and collectively contribute to who I am as a person, an architect, a leader, and a spouse and father. Experiencing and interacting with the diversity of global urban environments inspires me. Visiting new places — watching and experiencing a new or “unknown to me” environment — is exhilarating.

What gets you out of bed in the morning?
This morning, it was the “opportunity” to shovel snow. But on a typical morning, as I make the bed, I often think about the opportunity to make a difference, to learn, and to lead (like making fresh tracks in the new-fallen snow). I look forward to the day ahead, the conversations, the collaborations, and the excitement of what the day will bring. I reflect on my role as a leader, a father, a partner, a son, a brother, a neighbor, and a friend. On occasionally challenging days, I strive to find the upside.What will I learn? What can I teach? What will I bring to the solution?Celebrating the collective successes of the client, the project, and the team is uplifting. Finding optimism in the unknown, the difficulty, the ability to overcome, to achieve success, to learn, and to share. I enjoy my home-to-office daily commute to reflect on these thoughts.

Grant C. Uhlir, FAIA, at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab; Photo: Evening Cue LLC

What has been a large challenge or obstacle as an architectural professional and how are you working to/how have you overcome it?
Several client relationships and project commissions come to mind. The Shanghai Tower was challenging, as the project was a first in many ways. It was a complex program and large scale that involved organizing and leading multicultural teams, managing and delivering within a highly aggressive schedule, navigating numerous government review and client approval processes, the cultural dynamics, languages, customs, and living and working away from family. This all contributed to the experience being both challenging, but more importantly, highly rewarding.

In Chicago, my principal role leading the Gensler team, in concert with HDR, on the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab was a remarkable opportunity to design a facility to support a new vision as the first-ever “translational”research hospital. The patient experience and remarkable outcomes that happen at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab are transformative and globally renowned. The opportunity to overcome a challenge, collaborate, and deliver a highly successfully designed flagship facility was uplifting.

Lastly, the repositioning and redevelopment of Chicago’s Old Post Office required a heavy lift by a tremendously talented and diverse team, supporting the city, and a visionary developer, 601W Companies. In my early days at Gensler, I originally became involved in leading the design and managing our team’s efforts working with multiple owners, developers, governmental agencies, etc. in the early 2000s. To have been involved over two decades (and the inherent challenges, numerous obstacles, and fits and starts) and to now see “sleeping beauty” awaken, the success of the Old Post Office is a project success I often refer to when challenged with a new obstacle. Anything is possible!

What is the most effective step you’ve taken in your work or your firm toward a more equitable profession?
In my practice and in my various leadership roles with AIA Chicago and the AIA Chicago Foundation, I have always championed creating more opportunities in our industry for diverse talent as well as designing for the most inclusive, equitable experience. As president of AIA Chicago in2009, a focus of my presidency was to promote and advance diversity within the Board of Directors as a foundation to represent the diversity of our membership, of our expertise, and of our communities.

At Gensler, I am proud as we continue to lead the industry by example and partnership, defining “5 Strategies to Fight Racism” in 2020 and evolving to spearhead numerous initiatives focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion. On a more local level, I co-sponsored the debut of GAP, the Gensler Apprentice Program, with founder Kelly Westwood in ourChicago office, who developed an idea into a firm-funded proposal creating a unique program that has created a new career path to design beyond the traditional route. Additionally, my participation and involvement in the ACE Mentorship Program over many years supports and encourages equity in the profession today and for the future.

What is the most effective step you’ve taken in your work toward a more sustainable built environment?
From adaptive reuse projects, including the Old Post Office and the Willis Tower in Chicago, to large-scale new construction, sustainable practices have been integral to my portfolio. Shanghai Tower, for instance, achieved LEED Platinum Certification and a China Three Star rating and was the most sustainable super tall building in the world when completed. In fact, Shanghai Tower is being showcased as a best practice example across the region and globally, including being referenced as a successful project that is informing rewriting of China’s updated building codes.

Gensler frequently partners with organizations, including the AIA, ULI ,and the United Nations, on pledges to eliminate carbon emissions in architecture. Our involvement, including our Gensler Co-CEOs participation and presentations at COP28 (Conference of the Parties, theUnited Nations Climate Change Conference) last fall, is another example.Recently, we debuted Gensler Product Sustainability Standards v1.0, which establishes sustainability performance criteria for the top 12 most-used, high-impact product categories selected for our architecture and interior projects. Importantly, we’ve recently made this research and program available to the entire U.S. design and construction industry, with a goal of expanding this offering globally.

What is your favorite quote about architecture?
“Architecture is not just about creating beautiful spaces, but about creating meaningful experiences.” — Julia Morgan

To me, this quote highlights the transformative powers of architecture and design and the role we, as architects and leaders, must inspire to by evoking emotions and fostering lasting connections.

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