Hon. AIA Dallas
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Profile: Darren James, FAIA
President of a national design build firm. Chair of the Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce. Board president of Fair Park First. Each of these leadership positions would keep one person busy. Add to this board memberships in the Dallas Citizens Council, Trinity Park Conservancy, VISIT Dallas, Regional Black Contractors Association, and the Dallas Regional Chamber, and it is easy to see that Darren James, FAIA has many challenging and time-consuming responsibilities. But when I visited with Darren for this Columns profile, he was calm, cool, and collected as we discussed his leadership roles.
As president of KAI Enterprises, an integrated architectural, engineering and construction services firm, Darren guides its four business units: KAI Design, KAI Engineering, KAI Build and KAI 360 Construction Services. His key focuses at KAI include strategic growth, team building, marketing and communications, and community engagement. With over 120 employees, KAI is one the largest minority-owned firms in the AEC industry. The firm is active in residential, commercial, K-12, higher education, health care, science and technology, aviation, mobility, sports and entertainment, government, water and community-focused projects
Darren has received accolades including the Dallas Business Journal’s 2014 Minority Business Leaders Award, the 2015 Regional Black Contractors Association’s Inaugural Herman Jerome Russell Award, the 2015 Regional Asian American Contractors Association Star Award, the 2016 Who’s Who in Black Dallas’ Game Changer recognition, the 2018 Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance Business Award and the William Sidney Pittman Award, the Texas African American Association of Chambers of Commerce honor for a professional who embodies the spirit and passion of Pittman, an esteemed architect. Darren and his team have also designed award-winning projects recognized by the American Institute of Architects, Texas Masonry Council, Greater Dallas Planning Council and Engineering News-Record. He has written for regional and national publications, as well as has lectured on business, leadership and strategic initiatives.
Where did you grow up, and what were your childhood interests and activities?
I grew up in St. Louis. By the age of 6, I knew that I wanted to be an architect. I had an erector set, and I loved creating with it. My dad worked as an engineer, and he helped me develop my interest in building. I also played baseball and was involved in Boy Scouts, earning my Eagle Scout designation.
Where did you attend college, and what did you when you graduated?
I attended the University of Kansas — I’m a KU Jayhawk. I was very fortunate to study with Hobart Jackson, Donna Luckey and Harris Stone, and graduated in 1992 with my bachelor in architecture. I interned at By Design/Kansas City, where I worked on the African Plains Exhibit for the Kansas City Zoo, as well as on retail and apartment complexes. During that time, I focused on learning to effectively communicate with contractors and building superintendents, important skills for architects.
Why did you move back to St. Louis and then to Dallas?
I moved back to St. Louis to join Kennedy Associates Inc. (KAI) in December 1993
From 1993 to 1998, I worked on design projects, including a new terminal at Lambert International Airport. I developed my passion for community engagement through both K-12 and higher education projects. In 1998, I wanted to learn more about the business of architecture, focusing on sales and marketing responsibilities for KAI, and came to Dallas in 2002, when KAI Texas was formed. In 2005, I was named president and COO of our Texas operations, and I am honored to recently have become the president of KAI Enterprises, our parent company.
What have some of your significant projects been for KAI?
I have been fortunate to manage the DART Green Line, Billy Dade Middle School, South Oak Cliff High School’s renovation and expansion. We also have done projects in San Antonio’s Promise Zone, including a clinic and a credit union.
How would you describe the culture of KAI, and what is the best thing about your job?
We are collaborative, with a focus on transforming communities through integrative design and construction excellence. The best thing about my job is seeing people grow and promoting positive change, both within the firm and in the communities we serve.
You are a past board member of the Dallas Center for Architecture, now known as the Architecture and Design Exchange. How did you get involved with AD EX?
The AD EX minority scholarships program is important to me, and that is how I became involved and joined the board. I believe it is important to be a servant leader, and I bring that mindset to all my community leadership roles.
AIA Dallas recently moved into the new AD EX offices in the heart of downtown. What do you hope the move and new branding at AD EX achieve?
I think the move will allow greater visibility and more accessibility for the community.
The space should be a community hub with more focus on education, nature, and the built environment. Dallas is raising its design sensibility, with more people appreciating great design. The new space can accelerate that growth.
African Americans are underrepresented in the architecture profession. What are some key initiatives that are in place — or that should be in place — to address this?
Our profession needs to continue to do outreach and build awareness for African American students about opportunities in the profession. We need to address perceived barriers to entry and take practical steps, such as having students visit architects’ offices and engaging students with opportunities over spring break and as summer interns. We must demonstrate that architecture is a viable career for African Americans. City Lab High School in downtown Dallas has great potential and is important as a part of these initiatives.
Tell our readers about your family.
My wife of 26 years has supported me throughout my career, including our move to Dallas. She’s also by my side in civic endeavors, and she has my ear when making important decisions. We also have two wonderful daughters and a great son-in-law.
What hobbies do you pursue in your limited spare time?
I like to read. I enjoy photography. I like to travel and take photos on our trips. My brother does photography of people, and I do shots of buildings and nature, so we are a good complement for each other when capturing memories on trips we take together.
You also have a 55-gallon tropical freshwater aquarium. Tell us about that.
Yes, that is a wonderful respite for me. It’s in the TV room. We have African cichlids. They are beautiful, colorful, and they even have individual personalities. Fortunately, they have a decent life span, up to 14 years. After a long day, it is great to watch them — very relaxing!
Favorite books, movies, music?
I like mystery and suspense novels. Two favorite authors are Walter Mosley and David Baldacci. I like R&B, hip-hop, jazz. And I like Christmas music. For movies, I like action and adventure.
Where do you like to travel?
I like the water, so we go to ocean spots like the Bahamas, the Virgin Islands, and Jamaica. When we are there, we snorkel and swim. These trips help me get refreshed and recentered.
What are some of your favorite buildings or public spaces?
Composition is important to me. In Dallas, I like the Ernst & Young building in Victory — it’s a nice composition. I’m also a history buff, so I enjoy the Sullivan buildings in Chicago. KPF’s work is great — I especially like the Federal Reserve building here in Dallas.
How did you decide to get involved with Fair Park First?
I am passionate about community initiatives with a focus on civic engagement, community building, education and mentoring. I originally became involved with Fair Park through the technical delivery team that was organized to provide services for Fair Park. Fair Park First, a 501(c)(3) was established, and I was asked to join. The board elected me as president, and we were selected by the City of Dallas to manage Fair Park, working with Spectra, the company that will manage operations.
What are some of your personal goals for Fair Park?
Creating memories for new and returning visitors. In all my conversations with citizens, the thing that resonated most was great memories of childhood visits, no matter how long ago those visits were. My vision is to give them a reason to come back and experience new memories for stories 40 years in the future.
How does Fair Park First, working with Spectra, plan to move Fair Park into more of a year-round destination?
A lot of activities already happen. We’ll create awareness of what is there, highlighting unique venues and spaces that give people a reason to come from throughout the region, the state, the nation as well as draw international visitors. We want to enhance the appreciation of the Art Deco architecture — protect it and preserve it. We want to create new activities for the spaces between the buildings, such as the African American Museum and the Music Hall. We will do holistic, enhanced campuswide marketing for the park overall, improve, and expand food services and provide greater support for the resident institutions.
How will Fair Park First work with the city and Spectra to preserve and restore the amazing Art Deco buildings at Fair Park?
It will be a combined effort, focused on what is needed on immediate, intermediate and a long-term basis. We plan to work with the city to obtain and raise funds to maintain and preserve these important civic assets. We plan to have more events so that the facilities are “living” year-round, which will improve how they are preserved. We also have prioritized the preservation and restoration of the important public art at Fair Park.
What are some of the major design goals for the new Park that Biederman Redevelopment Ventures is designing at Fair Park?
A key goal is to create a space that is accessible and free for the area’s residents and visitors on a year-round basis, even when the State Fair is open. Biederman Redevelopment Ventures will work with us to create unique experiences for leisure and play. Dan Biederman, the president, wants to create a series of experiences that could include a couple of locations in the area. We’re getting feedback, including a series of community charettes.
How will Fair Park First engage and support those who live around the park, given that many of them historically haven’t had an adequate place at the table on planning?
Some of our board members have deep connections with the neighborhood, and some live in the communities surrounding Fair Park. We plan to have community meetings, and our board meetings will be open to the public. We hope to persuade residents from the surrounding community to be actively involved with us. The board is tasked to connect with the city and the neighborhoods, and we plan to do so.
How can architects utilize their expertise to help shape, influence and improve their neighborhoods and the City of Dallas?
As architects, we need to look holistically at the impact of neighborhoods on surrounding areas and cities, and advocate for actions that improve these relationships. We need to focus on improvements in mobility and to advocate for neighborhood services that ensure availability and access to these services.
You serve on many boards, are the president or chair of two of them, as well as president of KAI’s president — not to mention family responsibilities. What are your time management secrets?
I compartmentalize extremely well. I map out strategies and task lists in my head — rarely do I write them down. I utilize prayer and my faith, and I speak and verbalize my goals. Faith gets me through tough situations when adversity comes. I work hard to achieve milestones and to recognize the achievement of goals as rest stops on my life’s journey. I celebrate success when it is achieved and then continue with further goals to accomplish.
What advice would you give a young person starting out in architecture?
Be flexible. Define where you want to be in one and three years. Listen, learn, observe, ask Questions. Don’t be afraid to take charge of your own career
What do you want your epitaph to be?
He made a difference, and he made this place better than it was before he arrived.
Interview conducted by Nate Eudaly, Hon. AIA Dallas, executive director of The Dallas Architecture Forum. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.