Good Design Starts with Good Listening ft. Dick Miller

Dick Miller, an architect by trade for over 50 years with Earl Swensson Associates, shares how he brings together vision, skills, and virtue on each of his architecture projects and the teams of people he works with. He has a talent for seeing the potential in his staff and assigning them based on their abilities. Dick Miller’s life demonstrates how a layperson can incorporate their faith into every aspect of their life and encourage the best in the people surrounding them.

Sister John Dominic: 

I grew up in Nashville and one of my privileges over the years is getting to know wonderful people, and oftentimes these are friendships that spoil me by their goodness. I think, “How can I share? How can someone else enjoy this goodness that I experience?” You (Dick) and your wife Shar have been a second family to us. Dick, can we begin by you giving us some background about yourself, and then we’ll dive into what your profession has been? 

Dick Miller:

I grew up in Salina, Kansas. We met when we were teenagers and dated all the way through school. We got married very quickly after that. She was 19. I was 22, so we celebrated 56 years this year. We both came from sizable families. 

Sister John Dominic:

That large family environment has shaped everything that you’ve done. One of my wonderful experience is about how welcoming the two of you are to everyone. 

Dick Miller: 

We got together a lot. It was a very natural thing that we continued once we got married, and that’s happened everywhere. We love to be with people and bring people together.

Sister John Dominic:

You’ve obviously done very well in your profession. The most beautiful thing is how you welcome everyone. Even if I happen to come to town, I’m always welcome. I think that’s so important because sometimes people are isolated and how do you bring people together and create community? I would imagine when you’re doing architecture that background would influence what you’re doing. When I think about architecture, I think about three things: vision, skills, and virtue. That’s what I’d like for you to unpack for us. If we take vision, do you see the building before it’s done? What’s the process for you? 

Dick Miller:

The process begins with your client and a discussion. For our 30th anniversary of the company, we wrote a book together and called it 30 Years of Listening. The fundamentals of architecture are listening to you the client. The first thing we do is sit down together, and I would ask you what your goals are. What is the end goal with this? We would delve into it in depth and eventually get into great detail about how this works. Listening to the client is where your vision begins. We may come in with one idea, and they had another, but the whole idea is service. You don’t walk in with a vision of the exterior. You talk about how it functions. How does it need to work for you? You design this building or space from the inside out talking about the task that will take place in there. As it evolves into a real element, you talk about the relationships of spaces. How do you want this to function? How do you see things flowing through it? This is particularly important in medical work because there are upwards of 30 departments in a hospital, and they all work together in some form or fashion. Some are closer related; some are remotely related, but they all relate. The size of the room is easily determined, but how it functions and how people flow in and out of it is a different matter, and that’s how you begin your design.

Sister John Dominic:

You were recently acknowledged to be inducted to the Tennessee Health Care Hall of Fame and nationwide as one of the top 25 for healthcare design. What’s different in how you are approaching it? 

Dick Miller:

There are a lot of people out there that do what we do, and the secret to us is surrounding yourself with great people and that’s what we do. I don’t do it all. I used to design a lot and still do. I’ll pick a project a year and do it, but you transfer these abilities to the people that work with you and help train them, and they work the same way. People are looking for what we’re offering. We don’t do a lot of advertising. We’re blessed that 85% of our work is either reference or return. That’s how we built our business. 

Sister John Dominic: 

When you talk about surrounding yourself, I imagine from where you started and where things are now the skill sets are a little bit different. Technology has influenced the industry I am sure. What do you do when you’re building a team? What do you look for in a person? 

Dick Miller:

The technical part is relatively simple. Experienced men in today’s world of computers is like anything else. Different people have different abilities, but what you’re basically looking for is a people person who has the ability to sit down and communicate, the ability to understand and translate what people are telling them, and then convert it into a living organism, which is your building. 

Sister John Dominic:

Do you find that more challenging to find that mindset, or is it like I would be when I was a principal of the school and I see someone come in to be a teacher and can see certain qualities in a person you think they may not be there yet, but we’re going to work with them and pull it out of them. I always found that exciting.

Dick Miller:

That’s very exciting. You may hire a person for a certain task and discover in the process that they have this other ability. We have many of those in our company where they come in to do one task, and you found out they’re so good that they don’t need to do that task over here. We all have different things that we’re good at; It’s a matter of matching those people and those gifts that they have and then that translates into your design process. 

Sister John Dominic:

You talked about vision and skills. If you were to think about virtues, that would be a part of your team which you were looking for in someone. What would those be? I imagine patience would be one. I could think of a whole list of them, but I want to hear what you would be looking for. 

Dick Miller:

One of the mentors I ran into early was Dr. Frist Sr. He founded the Hospital Corporation of America. His prime thing was good people to get good people. That’s the bottom line. That’s what you’re looking for. You find these good people, and you make a place for them and match their abilities with what you need done. If you’re successful in that, to me that’s part of the virtue that you refer to – the honesty of how you approach doing the work we do. When someone is humble, they recognize their own talents, but they also look at others and rejoice over what they have.

Sister John Dominic: 

You and and your wife Shar are magnanimous. You have these embracing souls of everyone that comes around, but humility counteracts that one that you also recognize the good in others, so I’m going to ask a tough question of you. If you can think of the projects that you’ve done, what’s the one that has been the most rewarding? 

Opryland Hotel.

Dick Miller:

That is a tough question. You almost must put those in categories, but three projects stand out. First, the Opryland hotel. We started that hotel in the late 70s and did all four of the expansions on it. We watched that grow from a small start out to over 600 rooms and then to 3000. That was fun because we were a much smaller firm, and everybody did everything right down to the screwing light bulbs and hanging pictures before that first phase open and that was exhilarating. Another great project was the Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital. That had this fundamental goodness of what that does. We got caught up helping those children. 

Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital

Sister John Dominic:

That building is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Shar took me through it, and it’s so beautiful. I think when the families come there, there’s heart-wrenching situations why they would have to bring their children, but the joy in the space and the whole way the building flows helps. I’m sure that was part of all the discussions when you’re doing the vision. It came through beautifully. 

Centennial Medical Center

Dick Miller: 

The third project was the Centennial Medical Center. The first phase was done in the late 80s/early 90s. We’re still working there after all these years because of what it’s become. That was so exciting because it was a new era in design of hospitals that put inpatient, outpatient, and everything together on one platform. We designed the garage first; it fits 2,000 cars underneath. We didn’t know what the buildings were going to look like on top of it, but we set it up on a structural grid that would enable us to build anything.  

Sister John Dominic:

There are 2,000 cars underneath? I’m visualizing it in my mind now, and you wouldn’t have thought that that was the first phase. Nashville is growing, and we experienced that with the traffic and watching everything that’s happening. Another building you had a hand in is the Batman Building, a Nashville landmark; Can you tell us about that one? 

The Batman Building in downtown Nashville.

Dick Miller:

That was a unique building. It’s a general office space originally for AT&T. It was for Southern Bell, and when they interviewed us for that project, they said, “We want a signature building on the skyline that is recognizable and will be,” and we were lucky enough to be selected to do that. We did 50 different exterior models that we physically built to scale, and we still have that last model which is the one that got built. 

Sister John Dominic:

That’s what you call an example of the virtue of patience. You start one and they ask for another one. How long did it take you to get to that point? 

Dick Miller:

We did those quickly, probably in three months. That building also had a very strict budget. Most people are surprised by that because they think it looks like it may have had an unlimited one. Everything was studied down to the inch, even the floor heights to get the maximum dollar for your dollar. 

Sister John Dominic:

What about the Nashville Symphony?

Dick Miller:

There was a design architect specialist that was hired, and we worked together on that design. We executed the design, and we were the ones that put together the detailing and how to build that like a project you would have built 50 years ago. That’s real stone. There’s nothing in there that isn’t real, and it was such a task to detail that it’s two buildings in one. The performance hall is a floating building inside of the other structure. That’s done for sound purposes. If you ever go in there and look up, you’ll see two walls up there and two sets of windows. The sound in there is isolated, and that’s part of what makes a great concert hall. 

Sister John Dominic:

That must have been exciting to work on and be there for the first concert that was held there. You are also so wonderful with your support with Belmont University. You built many of the buildings on that campus? 

Dick Miller:

Yes. I don’t know the number exactly, but we are working on a Performing Arts Center there as we speak. 

Sister John Dominic:

You’re also working there with the floating building. You can take what you learned from one project to another. Your team can pull that knowledge that you gain to apply. That’s probably what makes it exciting.

Dick Miller:

We’re totally responsible for this one. The difference in the two halls is that the Performing Arts Center at Belmont will support any performance including plays or symphonic presentations and voice. It’s a multipurpose building. The Nashville Symphony is one purpose and that’s for the symphony’s music. 

Sister John Dominic:

Thank you so much for your time and sharing your experience. I forgot to ask you at the beginning what’s the full name of your firm and how long have you been there?

Dick Miller:

It’s Earl Swensson Associates. I’ve been there 53 years. I’ve never worked any place else.

Sister John Dominic:

That’s something in and of itself that you’ve been loyal and placed it. You obviously worked with the owner. 

Dick Miller:

Earl was the founder, and he hired me. I think I was the eighth employee, and we made a great team and that team grew to what we are today, which we’re very proud of. I am the oldest person in the firm at this point but the youngest start. 

Sister John Dominic: 

With the youngest heart for sure. You’re still out there playing golf, fishing, hunting, and taking care of all your grandchildren. Architecture is something you’re passionate about. Is there anyone that you look to as a mentor or you love their style? 

Dick Miller:

One of my great mentors was Earl Swensson himself as far as architecture. The historic architect that I have always have been fascinated with is Frank Lloyd Wright and some of the work he’s done. It’s incredible. Every chance I get, I will go see something he’s done.

Sister John Dominic:

We need to bring you back to Ann Arbor because that was the same style the architect that Tom Monaghan loved, and he has some video of his own architectural drawing. Now I have a reason for you to come back up and see the roots of Ann Arbor. I appreciate everyone who listened to this special edition of our podcast of Mind and Heart. Once again, thank you for your hospitality by opening your home so that we could have this wonderful conversation that I can share your many talents and your goodness to many of our listeners who can look at what it means to live a virtuous life and to be a person of integrity. You truly are an example of that. 


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