The Gibbs Spotlight: Ron Frantz

GCA Communications intern Kali Curtis (K) spoke with Ron Frantz (F), the director of the Environmental Design program here at Gibbs! We sat down with Frantz to learn about how the use of technology and design methods have changed since he was an architecture student. Frantz received his Master of Architecture (1981) at Tulane University. Read on for highlights or click the link below to access the full podcast. 

K: Hello everyone, welcome to the Gibbs Spotlight. My name is Kali Curtis, and I am a web development and professional writing intern at the Gibbs College of Architecture. Today we are talking to Ron Frantz. Ron Frantz is the director of environmental design and he graduated with his master’s degree in architecture from Tulane University in 1981. He has been working at the Gibbs College for 10 years. So, the first question I have today is how have design methods and practices changed in the field of Environmental Design since you were a student? 

F: To clarify, I went through architecture school, so I’m a licensed architect. So, I went through the architecture design process. But what I can do is because there was so much focus on the environment when I was back in college, and I believe at the time I was at Tulane University studying architecture, the College of Architecture at OU was called the College of Environmental Design. So, it may get a little bit blurry here if that’s okay. For frame of reference, I was in college from 1976 to 1981. A very long time ago. As I tell students, “So last century.” We were talking about passive solar energy, which people now consider, I think, sustainable design. Now, we were also talking about wind energy that was coming right out of the huge gas shortages and the whole energy crisis of the early ’70s. So, it was like, how do we make fuel-efficient cars? How do we make fuel-efficient buildings?

The National Trust for Historic Preservation had big posters: “to tear this building down and rebuild it would use x number of gallons of gasoline,” sort of showing how keeping existing buildings intact saved what was already there. They called it embodied energy. And they also talked about what it would take to rebuild it. So, you spend the energy and time to tear it down, you have to put it somewhere in a landfill and rebuild it. So, it’s interesting, just to see how we’re still talking about the same issues, they may have different names. Wind energy was a huge issue. It is interesting to see all the wind farms in Oklahoma now. Solar energy was a huge issue. So, I think people call it net-zero, keeping the carbon footprint small. This is all stuff that we were talking about back then, just different terms. 

Ron Frantz (pictured second from the right) and students of Historic Preservation Planning visit Sapulpa, Oklahoma, on Route 66 and home of Frankoma Pottery.

K: How would you say that the use of technology has changed since you were a student? 

F: I was there when it was all hand-drawn. So, we spent a lot of time learning hand-lettering and labeling. Right after I graduated from college, they moved to things called the Croy machines, where you could type things out on stickers and then put them on the vellum sheets. I used a T-square, right as I was getting out of high school. My fourth or fifth year, we changed to Maylines, which were sort of parallel bars that were on sort of strings or guides on each side. And then as I got out of college, it moved to the pin bar system where you had layers of sheets of vellum. And you drew different things on different layers. And so, it was just pre-computers. As I was getting out of school, some people were taking some of the early computer classes; I did not do that. So, one thing is you had to do everything by hand. You change something you had to erase it all. If it were a big mistake, you started redrawing it all. I can’t imagine trying to do things like that now. The only thing is that computers are here. And yes, it’s great. You can move things around and it’s digital. But I don’t feel like students have any more time than what they did. They still seem to be short of time, still don’t quite get all the drawings completed. You know, people are still always just needing more time and needing more drawings no matter what. So even though we’ve got much more technology, it seems like it hasn’t helped us with our time all that much. 

K: So, the next question I have for you is how have the changes and methods of design and technology personally affected your own career and projects? 

F: I went through architecture school and really focused on historic preservation. And a lot of it was dealing with learning who in town was a great stonemason, a great brick mason, who could craft handmade wood windows to replace wood windows, who could plaster, who could refinish wood floors, where the resources were for press metal… So that’s sort of what we did. We focused on the craftsmanship and that’s still there. However, I got out of school in 1981. You know, after I got out of school, there was no discussion about asbestos, and dealing with existing asbestos. That’s a new topic we deal with. There was no discussion about lead-based paint and how you get rid of that. Because they just ended using lead-based paint in 1978. So, they just had stopped using it and now we have to be concerned about that. You had to worry about locks on doors and windows. And now they’re electronic security systems that guide everything. Now you have all the cameras, all the video monitoring. Yes, there was heat and air, but it still was a new thing to be incorporating into historic buildings. To work in heat and air, we could have never guessed how many other systems we’d need to work in. All the cabling systems for the internet. Now, sometimes you don’t even have to worry about that. It’s all Wi-Fi, it’s all cable-free and stuff. But all the cables and all the growing uses of electricity, power, the lighting, all the different types of lighting that are available.

So, so much of the technology has really expanded. It’s moved away from focusing on the craftsmanship that must be done. But the real challenge is getting all the new stuff. Another overlay that we now have, and I tell students about, is the Americans with Disabilities Act came into play in 1990. So, we tried to think about how to get people into buildings, how to make bathroom stalls as accessible as possible. Some doorways, things like that. But we really didn’t have to overall think about that until 1990. And I’m so glad that’s been added as our population has grown and the percentage of the population falls under ADA guidelines. So, lots of big changes since I was in school. 

Ron Frantz is shown above with his students and the private owners at the Frank House in Sapulpa, OK.

K: Yeah, that’s really interesting. The next question I have for you is, what thoughts did you have about the field when joining? And how did your thoughts differ from reality? 

F: I am still the only architect in my family. The only person in this whole realm of anything like this. My family tends to be more medical, and engineers, and technological business. So, I didn’t have anybody in my family to talk to about going into architecture. I just knew I loved to look at buildings, loved historic buildings, I love looking at house plans and building plans. Even as a kid from first grade, I was always studying houses and things. And so, I really think I was focused on the design of stuff. I wasn’t really too much into structures, technology. Now we have to think so much about bolts, the siting for water runoff, you know, stuff like that. I wasn’t really interested in all of that stuff at all. I was interested in the design of things.

And so now I realize you have to think more about the buildings. Even historic buildings, you’ve got to address things. And that’s part of going to school is learning more about what you need to know. And so now, I look at it and go “How do people design buildings?” because there are so many different things. The other day, I went to Zoom Lunch and Learn for continued education credits. And it’s all about issues about attaching things securely to the rooftops of buildings, air conditioning units, signs, mechanical systems, lines, like gas lines, or anything, how to keep those things from blowing off during a hurricane or tornado or high winds or breaking during severe cold or stuff. And it’s like, that’s the first time I’d really ever thought about that part. you know I’ve always looked up there and went “boy that just doesn’t look stable, it could fall over.” But I’ve never thought about those things. So, I continue learning more about different systems all the time. 

K: Whenever you first joined the field, you were basically just thinking about the design and you weren’t thinking about, oh, there’s all these other technicalities that I have to worry about. 

F: Right. Yes. And the historic preservation field was very new when I went into school. And the National Preservation Act was in 1966, where they really formulated a sort of historic preservation profession. So, I went in just 10 years after this. So many things were ill-defined, or you just were reaching out. And once we found somebody else, you know, everything was through mail, through printed materials, magazines, through the card catalog at the library, through old-fashioned phones, there were no computers, no internet. I couldn’t just type in “wood windows” you know, and it pulls up 130,000 sites or something, and that’s just in Texas and Oklahoma. 

So, you really had to dig to find somebody who knew about that stuff. And so, I think that’s where things have really changed a lot. Being able to find things, not having to go to the library, not having to find a physical copy of something. Even if you’re on-site, you can pull it up in your pocket. If we were talking, I would go, “Oh, I can give you the number to WF Norman, where they still make the metal ceilings from the 1910 stamps, and you’ve got that pattern in your building. I could pull it up and show you this is the pattern that they’ve got right here.” And so that’s gotten much better. So, I think overall, in the 40 years that I’ve been out of school, the profession has gotten so much more complicated and so many more layers have been added to it. And we think that environmental design has been around for about 40 or 50 years, too. We’re talking so much more about rainwater runoff, and you know, the impact of buildings on things. I think everything’s just gotten so much more complicated, but they’re just so many more of us using so many more resources. 

K: Yes. So, it’s necessary to start worrying about that stuff. Whereas back then, people might not have even thought about the way that it would impact the environment and everything. So, the next question, did you have an example of a past or current project that you wanted to talk about and share? 

The photo above shows work being done on Collinsville’s Historic Main St.

F: I sort of had a very nontraditional architecture career, because I’ve worked very, very little for private-sector architects. I’ve worked a lot for state agencies, or universities, for nonprofit organizations. And I’ve worked a lot in sort of a more preservation planning realm, working with whole communities to create programs and processes for revitalizing their downtowns and revitalizing their neighborhoods. Which is very sort of strange for an architect. I’ve used my architectural stamp maybe two or three times in 40 years. I just haven’t built that many new buildings. But I have had tremendous experiences working in communities all over Oklahoma. I’ve probably worked in about 150 to 200 Oklahoma communities of all sizes, shapes. What probably was one of my first ones to do was in Guthrie, Oklahoma. I was right out of college; I was working part-time there because they could only afford me part-time. And I was working for an architect part-time so I could get my hours in on my licensing process. But I would travel to Guthrie two to three days a week and prepare facade restoration drawings for the buildings in downtown Guthrie (that’s the territorial capital of Oklahoma.) So, there were all these whimsical buildings built there, between 1889 and about 1920 that looked like they should be in Eastern Europe. So, I was putting together resources of people who could do the metal pin smithing on the buildings, metal ceiling repair, stone repair, masonry repair, people who could rework wood Windows, everything. We had very little to work with at that point and no other community had really tackled anything like that. 

So, I was having to find people all over the country who could give me leads and then work with local contractors to see if they could do that type of work. And then work with local building owners and business owners saying “you just can’t paint over it and call it quits because it’s structurally a problem here,” or something. So that was fun at age 23 getting to provide documents for about 75 buildings in two years. It was challenging. A lot of nights I didn’t sleep well. When we got a project, I was always fearful something would happen or something. But once we got the project finished, I go, “Oh, I don’t have to take it on all myself. I’ve got this great group of people here in town, a great group of craftsman.” It happened to be mostly men, there were some women. I got a lot of great resources here, researchers, volunteers, people like that. I got to work with so many incredible women and men in this small town, who had resources, but they’ve never been able to really channel them towards the restoration of buildings, and it was sort of tapping into all these people and going, “Oh, we can pull this off,” you know. So, that was a fun project. 

K:  Was there any other thoughts that you wanted to share today about anything? 

F: Yes, I would. I’ve sort of talked much about architecture and historic preservation. But I would like to talk a little bit about Environmental Design if that’s okay. I’ve been coordinator now of that since May of 2013. I really love the Environmental Design program, we have so many young men and young women come into the program from all over from all different directions. We have a number of students coming straight to us from high school, which is interesting. What they’re looking for, they were able to find us on different websites, through Christopher C. Gibbs College of Architecture website, or through the University catalog, or OU or something. And they come in, we have a number of transfer students who come from all types of backgrounds. And I like it because it’s such a diverse group of young, potential community leaders. And they come into this program, and it sort of keeps me on my toes, because not everybody’s interested in architecture, historic preservation, so I have to learn about them and see what are their interests? And how can I tap into their interest and build on their interest? And I tell students never, ever make apologies for your previous major, or two, or three, or your previous college or anything. Come into the program. You have academic amnesty. I don’t care how well you did, how poorly you did, or if you were struggling. You know what, come into the program and put your whole self into Environmental Design. 

Don’t forget about your previous studies; continue to add to that layer. And so specifically, on some projects, I’ll say, “okay, Kali, I know your major was this before. So what I want you to do is look at this project from that perspective. But give me an environmental design solution.” And hopefully, I don’t stress students out too much by doing that. But I try to treat them with respect. And then this, I think, makes our classes and our projects so much more interesting, because we’ve got all these different perspectives coming into it. And then as they graduate, it is just amazing where they fan out and I would have never thought.

F: This one student was into a Professional Golf Management Program, he happened to ask, and at that point, we had another faculty member Hope Mander who said, “oh, I can connect you with the person who takes care of everything with that at OU.” I have one young woman who came into [Environmental Design] and found public health. And she’s just gotten into public policy graduate school. I’ve got one who just went into law school. Of course, we have students who’ve discovered landscape architecture, regional city planning, and they love that. Some find architecture. There have been some other programs that I just go, “I cannot believe that person was sitting there.” Hopefully, I helped them get to that stage, you know.

So, I just love Environmental Design, the way it’s set up. It’s a very flexible program. So, if you come in your freshman year or even late your junior year, we’re able to work with you. Also, we can sort of tailor it to you. We have four core courses, we can tailor it, but I also love that you get sort of a sampling of everything else in the college. So, there are classes through landscape architecture, and RCPL, a little bit of interior design, a little bit of architecture, we have a lot of students who are interested in building things, the construction science, so they can keep that in mind and take some of the construction science. So, it sort of helps them find their way to one of the other associated programs. We’ve even had students graduate and then go to the master of urban design program in Tulsa because they sort of found that that was what they were interested in. So, I really like the Environmental Design program because it’s just such a diverse group of people and interests. 

K: Yeah, that’s really interesting. It sounds like the program is kind of like a stepping stone to see what you like the best.  

F: Right, right. Yes, it is. It is. And, you know, some of our students have sort of been struggling a little bit in college. I mean, college was not easy for me. So, I understand really well. You have a bad semester or two, and you’re just going, “Okay, maybe this isn’t for me.” And I really like seeing some students who might be sort of a little bit challenged, and they come in and they find their firm footing, and then they take off. And it’s like, how cool was that? You know? So, I love finding that, and then some students are just really right on target, they know exactly what they want to do. And so, I really just like seeing their successes. I tell students, we have two choices here, we can either make each other, or we can break each other. And I don’t think breaking each other is any fun at all, nobody gains. So, I’m here to make you, you’ve got to be here to help make me and make yourself and together, we’re gonna pull this off.

I do really like that environmental design has such a strong relationship with the OU Institute for Quality Communities (IQC). Shane Hampton is such a great director down there. And he’s just this natural leader. And he is just doing such incredibly good things. We had another faculty member Hope Mander who was a great role model for students. She was actually an Environmental Design major and then went into our RCPL program, and she was so good. She retired, now we have Vanessa Morrison, who is just absolutely fabulous too. And so, I like that we sort of double as the faculty for Environmental Design and the staff for IQC. And we’re able to sort of bring the two entities together on different class projects and things and I feel so fortunate to have IQC as a supportive home. Also, it’s just great to be within the College of Architecture and receive so much support from Dean Butzer, as well as the Assistant Dean Loon, and then all the directors. We continue just working more and more with all the directors and I feel very fortunate that we get to work with so many people all within that one building. It’s a very good setup.  

K: Well, thanks so much for meeting with me today. Thanks again for listening to the Gibbs Spotlight. Tune in next time to hear more stories from the Gibbs College of Architecture. 

Editor’s note: this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.