Milestone Met: KCAD MArch Alum Becomes the First to Launch His Own Architecture Studio

Posted April 19, 2023 in Master of Architecture

In 2014, Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD) opened its doors to the very first students in its Master of Architecture (MArch) program. And just eight years later, one of its first alumni has established his own studio.

Brad Shiel (’17) founded Ambient Architecture Studio in Grand Rapids in September 2022,and we sat down with him recently to learn more about his journey.

A man in a blue sweater smiles into the cameraBrad Shiel

First of all, congratulations on opening your own studio! Tell us about your business.

I really appreciate modern design and green design. I’m involved in the Green Home Institute and USGBC and am LEED Certified. In 2009 I was given the opportunity to be the LEED Administrator on a project for West Shore Community College, which was awarded LEED Silver. This immersion into sustainable design practices earlier in my career still influences my way of thinking about the built environment, and I continue promote sustainable alternatives for every client.    

I also like public realm projects like park buildings and art galleries, and lately I’ve been working on several homes, additions, and cabins, too. I’m trying to stay modern if I can, but I also lived in a 1912 foursquare for 20 years, so I can appreciate the restoration and historic preservation part of it, too.

How do you feel about being the first graduate from your program to reach the milestone of opening your own studio?

It’s awesome! I had started out at KCAD in the Graphic Design program over 30 years ago and had left to pursue my undergrad in architecture at a different college. So, being able to come back to KCAD to obtain my master’s and now be able to accomplish this means a lot to me. 

Are you surprised that you were able to open your own studio so soon, or was that always part of the plan?

Yes, and my wife is equally surprised! It was never the plan to have it happen so quickly. In retrospect, the pandemic had a little bit to do with it, realizing I could work from home. Also, my father passed away in 2015 right when I was getting started with the KCAD MArch program, and that kind of reset my values. I’d been working on the studio connected to my house, and I when I got it finished, I felt like, why not? 

A house
The remarkable transformation of Shiel's home (above) into a a fully-remodeled home and studio (below) is a testament to his skill and vision as an architect.

A house

Let’s take a step back and talk about how you got to where you are today.   

As I mentioned earlier, I had originally started at KCAD studying graphic design. After some personal reflection at that time and thinking about potential career choices after college, I decided to take a career assessment test through Grand Rapids Community College to make sure I was headed down the right path. When the assessment results came back, at the very top of the list for best matches regarding my interests and aptitude was architecture. 

I had never considered that as an option before and was very intrigued. The more I looked into it, the more I discovered that the field of architecture offered the type of profession where I could still use creativity but apply it in the built environment with many different types of career choices. I decided to take the leap and change my focus from graphic design to architecture.

What did you do after your architectural undergrad graduation?

Because my switch from graphic design to architecture had significantly extended my undergrad years, I decided to work for a little while before heading back for my master’s degree. That ‘little while’ turned into many years as we raised children and life happened. I had heard rumors that KCAD was considering a Master of Architecture program, and when that became a reality, I jumped at the chance to come full circle and finish off my education where I had started.

Why did KCAD’s MArch program stand out to you?

I had looked at all four of the other accredited programs in Michigan and chose KCAD because of the artistic and collaborative focus of the college. I was also accepted to Boston Architectural College, which was one of the first online programs, but I didn’t want to study remotely. The location had a lot to do with it, but the fact that it was KCAD specifically had the most to do with it. I was excited about the art school part of it, and I was excited about the fact that it was in my own backyard.

Were there any instructors or experiences in the MArch program that particularly stood out to you or shaped what you're doing now?

Dr. Mick McCulloch stands out. I appreciated his professionalism and his deep knowledge base of architecture and theory. He takes architectural subject matter very seriously while still being respectful and human in his demeanor and delivery. I’m so glad he’s in charge of the program and he holds my utmost respect. Dr. McCulloch had some of the highest expectations of any professor that I'd ever had, but he knows how to help people learn and be supportive at the same time.

Kasey Vliet challenged and exposed me to some cutting-edge computer design programs I wouldn’t have taken the time to learn otherwise, and that's kind of inspiring. And Thom Danckaert taught a professional practice class that was very helpful, too.

KCAD describes its MArch program as a forward-thinking, collaborative approach. How does that mesh with your experience?

The program is very much about taking a step back to ask ‘why.’ What is the community we're doing it for, and what impacts does the project have on them? That's the core of the program. It’s not about ‘starchitecture’ or designing the coolest looking thing. It’s more about what’s socially appropriate versus just, ‘that's an awesome looking building,’ so there’s a lot of research and outreach and collaboration to figure out what that means.

What's your vision for your business going forward?

Just to be able to make a difference, even if it’s small differences along the way. I had one project where I was able to make the main level of a home barrier-free for a gentleman who had a debilitating disease. He was able to stay at his home because I was able to figure out a creative way to accomplish it that nobody else had thought of. 

As far as the size of my business, I don’t necessarily want to grow at the moment…however, I could see collaborating with others on projects occasionally. I am trying to stay involved in the architectural community, like partaking in student critiques at KCAD and joining various professional associations and groups. As far as my vision for the future of my business goes, I feel like I'm living it right now!

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