High School Students Join HKS to Design New Look for Vacant Dallas Building

Curiosity about creative fields brought teenagers Ben Kompare and Ruby Lucas to Dallas’ CityLab High School, where classes focus on architecture, urban planning or environmental science. Thanks to a recent partnership between CityLab and HKS, the two students and their classmates spent a semester learning how their creative pursuits can translate into architecture careers.

Earlier this year, nearly 20 HKS employees from across the U.S. virtually mentored CityLab’s Architectural Design students as they took on an adaptive reuse project to help a Dallas businessman convert an abandoned building into a community-oriented space.

For many of the students, the assignment served as an introduction to adaptive reuse projects. For Kompare and Lucas, the assignment also resulted in a paid summer internship at HKS Dallas where they got the opportunity to mold their ideas into professional-level sketches for the building.

“Over the past year, I’ve been getting a lot more into architecture,” Kompare said. “This internship has really helped me explore that passion a lot more, which I’m really thankful for.”

A Change in Plans

Providing a large-scale mentorship program and two summer internships wasn’t initially part of the plan, however.

Car dealership owner, Don Herring, bought the vacant building in Dallas’ Oak Cliff neighborhood in 2019 because it provided access to his dealership’s back lot. But he wasn’t sure what to do with the window-less building, which was initially a jewelry store and then a land surveyor’s office for many years.

James McGee, who chairs the community revitalization organization Southern Dallas Progress, reached out to Herring in 2020 to ask if he would be interested in turning the building into a space for the community.

“I loved the idea,” Herring said. “I didn’t really have a good plan for the building yet, but I loved the idea of turning it into something productive for the community.”

Herring had just two requests: The refreshed building needed to have an attractive exterior, and the space needed to be productive in some way.

After looking into ways to engage youth from in and around the neighborhood, McGee came across CityLab’s mission and proposed involving students in the design process to give them a real-world learning opportunity and gather fresh ideas for the space.

CityLab teacher Rachel Hardaway was already looking for ways to keep her architecture students engaged during virtual learning, so she quickly agreed to the project and McGee reached out to HKS to ask if anyone at the firm would like to take part in the endeavor. So many HKS members offered to help that Citizen HKS formed a team of 20 mentors from across the country for a larger-than-planned collaboration between HKS and CityLab.

Students Lead the Way

With coaching from from Citizen HKS leaders and other HKS members, CityLab students led a community engagement session early in the semester to hear about the neighboring community’s needs and then got to work compiling their own concepts for the building. Along the way, the young architects attended HKS-led sessions on useful design skills such as sustainable design, adaptive reuse, community engagement and met their HKS mentors several times during the semester for feedback on their ideas.

HKS had offered to design the building’s final concept through Citizen HKS, so Hardaway and the initiative’s leadership decided that it made sense to give two of the students the opportunity to see the design process through as paid summer interns at HKS Dallas.

Before the adaptive reuse project, Kompare and Lucas had only imagined what it might be like to be an architect someday. The class project gave them a taste of life as an architect, and the freedom to add their own personal flare to their work.

Kompare loves Legos, so he designed a Lego model to showcase his community center concept with a community garden and daycare. Thinking about the types of spaces where she would want to go, Ruby proposed a youth center with a lounge, visual arts space, study area, and more.

In May, the students met over Zoom to present their final concepts to their peers, mentors, and Herring, who was impressed by the range and depth of their ideas. Hardaway watched with pride as her students presented to the adults in the Zoom room – a hopeful end to a difficult school year that had forced Hardaway to recalibrate her lesson plans to accommodate virtual learning.

“My favorite part was watching the students engage with professionals that both re-emphasized the things that I was teaching and gave a different perspective to reach the students and help them connect with the project,” she said. “It’s always exciting that it’s not just one teacher, there are many teachers.”

Hardaway and the HKS team selected Lucas and Kompare for the HKS summer internship because of the potential and initiative they saw in the students during the semester. Lucas and Kompare began their internship in July and dove right into their project for the summer: working with HKS designers to create a site plan with construction and permit drawings for the building.

The duo merged and refined their ideas to come up with a final concept for the building: an office space for entrepreneurial startups, a coffee shop because there aren’t many in the area currently, and meeting spaces for local organizations. Lucas and Kompare hope that the center will host programming for youth interested in entrepreneurship as a way to engage that subset of the community as well.

“This project speaks to the power of what we can do together,” McGee said. “The southern sector of Dallas is underserved, so converting this into a space for small businesses will help them get a hand up and bring tremendous value to the community.”

Looking to the Future

Hardaway’s architecture students weren’t able to tour the southern Dallas building because of the COVID-19 pandemic but Lucas and Kompare finally got to tour the site over the summer with HKS Architect and CityLab mentor, Angela Madero Garcia.

“It’s one thing to look at the site on Google Maps and it’s another to go there and see what can be changed or moved around,” Lucas said.

Spending time with Madero Garcia and seeing how she navigates her career as an architect of color has also inspired Lucas to dream big as she heads into her senior year of high school. She hopes to enroll at Howard University after CityLab and is currently weighing architecture, creative writing and music therapy as potential majors.

Kompare said his time at CityLab and his internship at HKS have solidified his aspirations in architecture, showing him all that is possible in the field.

“Sitting back and looking at everything we’ve done – it’s very impressive. I didn’t think I would do this much when I started this project,” he said. 

The Citizen HKS leadership team hopes the firm’s partnership with CityLab will continue next year and serve as a model for future mentorship programs.