Zach Benedict

An architect with a vision for the city

Zach Benedict, photography by Neal Bruns

Zach Benedict, photography by Neal Bruns

Zach Benedict often points to how OXO reconfigured the humble potato peeler as an example of how proper design can make life easier. That’s what he does, after all: make life easier for people in health care settings and nursing homes. Benedict is an award-winning (including the prestigious Young Architect of the Year nod from the American Institute of Architects) partner with MKM architecture + design. Find out what inspires him and what makes a community “livable” as we play 20 Questions.

1. How has design changed since you’ve been out of school?
It might have, I don’t know. I’ve probably changed more than it has. I think design and economic development are focusing more on people and their happiness and their experiences than we were thinking about architecture as artifact.

2. What are some trends to watch?
The one I spend most of my time talking about is aging populations. That’s probably the major trend, especially for this area and most of the Midwest’s rural communities. The other is the fight to justify innovation. Should it be good or great? That’s where architects tend to live, and we’re at the mercy of that discussion.

3. What is it about design?
I like design because it’s a platform for fleshing out ideas. There’s the problem-solving capacity, and that’s interesting and fun, but I like the other part of (design) much more. It can be the part of the project that tells a story or sparks a discussion.

4. Where do you get your inspirations?
It’s more a question of what’s the experience you want (a building) to convey. It’s about that idea.

5. Where do you see Fort Wayne’s built environment trending?
For the last 10 years, the city of Fort Wayne has spent, to our credit, a disproportionate amount of money in the urban core. Over $600 million in 10 years. That’s a lot of money. They were all on regional draws – Parkview Field and the library. That success will stagnate if we don’t pay attention to what are called the “collar” neighborhoods, the neighborhoods contiguous to downtown. Almost every economic indicator has ticked down for those neighborhoods over the same period. That’s not sustainable. We really need to focus on livability downtown. You still can’t buy toilet paper downtown.

6. Define “urbanist.”
An urbanist is someone that focuses on how design can impact places, how it can make you feel.

7. How have Baby Boomers influenced design?
They’ll influence differently because they’ve grown up the epitome of consumer culture. I don’t really like generational generalities, but their whole life they’ve been able to fight for what they’ve wanted and they spend a lot more time thinking about what they want than previous generations. They tend not to settle for something they don’t want. It’s introduced a refreshing look on quality of place. Now they’re demanding neighborhoods feel and function a certain way, and they can put dollars behind that demand.

8. Why are you an architect?
When I was 6, we lived with my grandparents. He told me that I should be an architect because architecture can change the world, and at 6 that sounded really neat. I didn’t do any research on it, but I was still telling people I was going to be an architect.

9. Were you surprised at what it would take to become an architect?
I loved the education. I stayed as long as I could stay – I got three degrees. I loved, loved college (Ball State).

10. What makes a community “livable”?
I think the aspiration is that a community shouldn’t limit a person’s potential. Good livable communities do the opposite. Everything we touch that’s designed – houses, cars – changes our perception of how good our everyday routine is. To me a livable community brings out potential, instead of limiting it.

11. To what do you attribute your success?
I don’t know if I’m successful! I have an interest in asking difficult questions. And I’ve been as unsuccessful as I have been successful pursing those answers. Some of the recognition I’ve gotten has also gotten me to lose clients! We’re asking interesting questions and relishing in things that we don’t know. That’s where I spend a lot of my time. I’m perfectly content not knowing. To me, that’s a better place than pretending I do.

12. What would you like your legacy to be?
I would love to have a reputation of someone who tries to add value to the problems he’s been given to solve.

13. What teachers influenced you?
Sister Theresa at St. Mary’s school in Avilla. Sister was very instrumental in treating children like adults and expecting them to behave like they can make a difference. Keith Hoffer, my AP History teacher at East Noble High School. I came more prepared for architectural school because of him. He changed the way I approached school. And I could name 20 at Ball State. Wes Janz – he forced me to understand things I didn’t agree with.

14. What’s most fulfilling?
I like it all. I like the doodles, I like the drawings. I even like the technical drawings. The most enjoyable part is trying to understand the meaning behind the project. And I never know what that is going in. I like the scary part.

15. Is that because you like to challenge yourself?
To some degree it justifies why you need an architect. If I’m giving you something I did for somebody else, then you don’t need me. It’s part creativity and part liability. You’re the artist with the highest frequency of getting sued.

16. What’s one change you could make?
I wish I was better at balancing work, life and hobbies. My brother bought me a ukelele for Christmas.

17. Who would play you in “The Zach Benedict Story”?
My wife, Nicolette, would prefer Paul Newman, but I don’t know about that!

18. What’s your secret ingredient?
Sriracha sauce.

19. How can we retrofit all these buildings to adapt to the aging population?
We can be more honest about the needs. The Americans with Disabilities Act was really written for returning Vietnam vets in wheelchairs, not for the blind or developmentally disabled people.

20. What makes you hopeful about Fort Wayne’s future?
I think one of the big problems in the Midwest is a (lack of) pride. They don’t have any. In the last 10 years I’ve been here in Fort Wayne, that’s changed.

First appeared in the April 2015 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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