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Inspiring Conversations with Steve McDowell

Today we’d like to introduce you to Steve McDowell.

Steve, we appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us today. Where does your story begin?
I was very curious as a child about nature, people, mechanical things, and places. I had a pretty vivid imagination and learned to draw what I dreamed up. We traveled very little and so I imagined how places might be as well almost anything else coming to mind. My neighborhood and my grandparent’s homes provided many interesting experiences that continued my explorations outdoors and inwardly that I expressed through drawings.

While in grade school, I was lucky to meet Mickey Mantle and Walt Disney. Each having their own story about achieving their dream which I know now was impactful in my development. Late in high school, my interest in design, architecture, and ecology developed. After a rough start in college and a couple of years working on an automobile assembly line, I finally began design school where my earlier curiosities began to be aligned in architecture. I was a good student but not the top, my real design and leadership capabilities began to develop during my early years of practice but like most architects continue to evolve after every client, project, and collaboration with other designers.

I attended school during the first energy crisis in the ’70s which coupled with an interest in ecology and architecture helped me focus my work on what became known as sustainability which I was fortunate to be part of authoring the Critical Planet Rescue Resolution in 1989 presented to the AIA. That was a critical point in my career as well as the practice as a whole and the construction and real estate industries. Our firm’s work is focused on creating environments that are beautiful and highly functional while also being healthy for people and responsible to the planet and economy.

A few years ago, we were honored with AIA Firm Award and are currently ranked Number 1 in Sustainability and Number 2 in Design. Today, I am a leader of BNIM a leading design firm with offices in Des Moines, Kansas City, and San Diego, and in the process of a new DC practice.

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way? Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
Design is a wonderful but challenging career. It would be easy to say it has been anything but smooth however because I am white and male it has been much smoother and more accessible than if I were not.

Because our firm decided to question authority with respect to carbon, water, resources, and sustainability issues we did face an uphill struggle for a decade or more especially in our home town–Kansas City. However, we were soon welcomed to other cities to learn about our design philosophy and approach. This meant a previously local and regional practice became a national and beyond practice. We were soon traveling and working in multiple climate zones.

We learned a great deal from the early days and continue to work in multiple places including overseas for the Department of State. Today the early struggle is behind us. Our current biggest struggle is diversity in our profession which we are working on multiple fronts to increase the pipeline of students of color studying design and entering the profession.

Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your business?
We are a design company specializing in making places people want to be as architects, interior designers, landscape architects, graphic designers, and planners. Our Core Purpose: We deliver beautiful integrated living environments that inspire change and enhance the human condition.

We are known for design and sustainability. Our approach of integrated design and using scientific modeling to predict performance in terms of human comfort, energy, water, and other sustainability measures produce measurable results that are leaders in our field. Our Subject to Change climate action plan for 2030 is achieving +- 70% better than baseline carbon and energy performance.

Our process is called Human Purposed Integrated Design which is how we deliver on our core purpose and create environments that people want to be in.

What would you say have been one of the most important lessons you’ve learned?
No one knows as much as everyone.

I went to school and entered a profession that lived by this myth of the all-knowing black cape draped genius designer. The myth is false and the world and the places we inhabit or the nature that we make the impact less and or regenerate by our decisions rely on many great and creative minds to imagine and deliver.

Our team collaborates with many other engineers, specialized consultants, scientists, and many others to make the world better. That is how we practice and make our best work.

Contact Info:

  • Email:
  • Website:
  • Instagram: @steve_mcdowell, @bnimarchitects

Image Credits

Dan Videtich Photography, BNIM

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