Big Picture Plans

Big Picture Plans
Design can be an elusive concept. But to Phillip Clark '67, '72(MS) and Mary Ellen Blunt '79 design is at the core of what they do—from planning bridges to building museums. These alumni are big picture planners, approaching each project from a conceptual point of view. They design. They plan. They manage a project in its entirety from purpose to compliance to return on investment. Top in their fields, their experience at WPI fueled their desire to look at projects wholly and holistically and ultimately answer the question, "How are we going to make this happen?"

Chances are you've been in the presence of Phil Clark— if not the man himself, then certainly his work. As chairman and CEO of Clark Patterson Lee, a design firm based in Rochester, N.Y., Clark has been instrumental in numerous high-profile civil engineering, architecture, and planning projects, including a regional water supply system in Genesee County, N.Y., and the Mint Museums in Charlotte, N.C. Over the last 40 years, leveraging the civil engineering education he received at WPI and advanced studies in transportation planning, Clark methodically built a company from scratch to the nationally recognized 200-employee firm it is today.

What makes Clark and his company stand out among his peers is his low-key but purposeful common sense approach. He knows what works—whether that means designing a multimillion dollar state-of-the-art emergency room or a $400,000 addition to a public middle school.

Clark knew in the 7th grade he wanted to be a civil engineer, after working on a career-focused social studies project. "With civil engineering I could work with big trucks," he laughs. "It was cool."

Like most men entering college during the '60s, the Vietnam conflict had a life-changing influence on him. "For my generation, it was the focus, right or wrong," he says. At that time, ROTC was a two-year requirement for incoming WPI students. Vietnam was ramping up and the war weighed heavily on decisions about the future. "You had a choice: Join the military (engineering corps). Get married. Be a teacher. Work in aerospace," he says. "For a civil engineer, the choice was the Navy. It seemed pretty safe. Had there not been a war, I probably wouldn't have gone that route, but I still would have pursued civil engineering."

He joined the Navy Reserves, received commission in the civil engineering corps, and began a master's in civil engineering. But his reserve unit was activated just months before graduation and a tour of duty as a Navy Seabee Company Commander in Vietnam followed. Discharged in 1971, and married with a child on the way, he obtained a position in New York along with finishing his graduate studies through WPI.

His next job was for New York's Monroe County, where he helped manage its wastewater construction program. He broke away in 1975 to start his own business. "I was as good as anybody at it," he says, "and I assumed I'd continue with it until one of the firms I was working with offered me a full-time position."

But when he landed a major project, everything changed. Within two years, the firm had grown to a staff of 20. "I had a young family to support," he says. "It was like staying afloat in the middle of the ocean without a life vest. Survival is motivation." Eventually, the firm branched out into other areas of expertise, including architecture, transportation, and building systems engineering, in order to be a "full-service" operation. "We do it because it works," he says.

Today, the firm focuses on the process of developing projects, not just designing a building, a bridge, or a museum— a point he considers key to meeting market needs. "We develop projects on all spheres," he says.

For instance, Clark Patterson Lee is the architect of record for the $50 million Mint Museums complex in downtown Charlotte, N.C. "We lead and manage the project team, which includes urban design and architectural specialists from Harvard, as well as the building engineering and detailed architectural plans."

The perception of design is flawed, he says, for it applies to both engineering and architecture. "Engineers design, they adapt, they fill a specific need—the form, the size, the scope, the functions—so that it all works. It's a more holistic view."

But high-quality, multidisciplinary design is not the only cog in Clark's business model. Stay out of big markets, like Boston, where you can't compete, he says. Focus on markets that allow you to work on projects that are purposeful and meaningful. Know the company you are and the company you want to be. "We work on relationships," he says. It's more important to focus on reasonable growth in a way that is rewarding and fulfilling, without dramatically changing the company. "We've created a culture here that works," he says.

"We are not a mega firm, not an international firm; never will be, never want to be. Being a mega firm is not on my bucket list."

Outside of Worcester's Union Station, Mary Ellen Blunt is standing on a small grassy meridian, waiting to have her photo taken. Behind her, a swirl of cars winds its way through a rotary (a traffic circle, if you're not from New England). A driver, entering the rotary from Summer Street, rolls down her window and asks Blunt for directions to UMass Memorial Hospital.

The fortuity of the situation is not lost on Blunt, transportation planning manager for the Central Massachusetts Regional Planning Commission (CMRPC). If you need directions, she's the one to ask. Few people in the Commonwealth know the roads better than she does. (In fact, she explains that the rotary outside Union Station is a modern roundabout—it was designed specifically to move traffic more safely and efficiently than the old rotaries or traffic circles.)

The CMRPC includes the City of Worcester and surrounding 39 communities. Through its regional perspective and coordinated approach to planning and development, the commission aims to improve the quality of life for those who live and work in the area.

"There's a complex process that goes into designing transportation corridors," says Blunt, who has worked for the CMRPC since she took an internship one summer as a student at WPI.

And while her department doesn't actually design the roads, it does play a pivotal role in determining—and recommending— how the roadways, or other areas of transit, should be designed. They conduct major studies and collaborate with local and state officials, planning experts, and engineers, all with an eye toward ensuring that projects meet state and federal guidelines.

Blunt began at WPI as a math major, but she switched to a degree in planning, an area that better suited her interests. The program offered a mix of disciplines from urban development to environmental science, ecology, geology, and biology. "The classes took a conceptual point of view," she says. "In other words, we asked, 'How do you make that happen?' It gave me a holistic approach to how things are done."

For her Interdisciplinary Qualifying Project, she focused on planning transit services in the Blackstone Valley for elders and people with disabilities. That project—coupled with her internship at CMRPC—solidified her future career in planning.

Indeed, WPI taught Blunt to consider all elements that factor into any design decision. "If we know that an area is a high-crash location," she says, "we have to look at why. It may not be the design of the intersection, which is the conclusion people often jump to. We might conclude that people are driving while distracted. If that's the case, we can't design something that prevents that."

Today, Blunt continues to ask how and why questions, focusing on the impact of an overall project, rather than on the minute details of one engineering problem. "I'm much more the big picture planner," she says. "I like to decide where to put bridges. I like to think about where people are coming from, where they are going, and what they want to do once they get there. I like to think about the purpose, the order of magnitude."

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Last modified: October 08, 2009 13:25:14