Inside Track: Putting his mark on Grand Rapids
Architect Isaac Norris strives to innovate and change perception of local neighborhoods.
Isaac Norris finds similarities between his love of music and his work as an architect.
Performing as a jazz saxophonist around Grand Rapids, Norris recognizes the fluidity found in both music and design. The two are undoubtedly connected in his mind, as he often puts on music and loses himself in the process of design.
For him, however, music offers much quicker results.
“People say architecture is frozen music and there are many architects who incorporate fluidity into design, which I think is the essence of music,” Norris said. “Music is an intuitive process to improvise a solo. One thing I like about music; you get quick results. I know if I play a solo good or bad, but architecture, it’s long lasting.
“It may take years before you understand the success of what you’ve done. Music is more instant gratification.”
The 53-year-old Norris runs his own firm, Isaac V. Norris & Associates, and has for nearly 27 years, but it’s still a journey figuring out where he’s heading next. Starting a small firm in Grand Rapids posed its initial challenges of finding new business, including finding new clients and what areas to specialize.
The daily grind continues to question how to improve, even if that means working with others to expand his reach.
“We’re still finding our stride,” Norris said. “We’re working within our means. What I’m learning as a sole practitioner is you can’t do everything by yourself. You have to strategically work with others, other firms, consultants and it is OK not to know everything. You can lean on others to build your portfolio of work.”
Early on in his entrepreneurial endeavor, Norris was helped by an old mentor, Grand Rapids architect Judson Jones. Norris had been commuting back and forth between Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo architecture firm Kingscott Associates, before realizing during one of his drives he could be making a much larger impact in his own backyard.
“I was making that drive every day and just one day realized, ‘What could I be doing home in my own backyard where I grew up?’” Norris said. “I could help people learn about design and the careers in design.”
In high school, he had worked with Jones, an African American architect, who showed Norris it was possible to run a successful practice and set him forth on his journey to become an architect. Once he decided to step out on his own and start the firm in Grand Rapids, Jones, still a practicing architect, offered up a project.
Norris said Jones wanted to help foster another African American architect because there are so few nationwide. The job was small, a quick renovation project for Grand Rapids Public Schools, but a job nonetheless.
“It wasn’t pretty, but it helped get my feet in the door,” he said. “He was a working architect still, but he wasn’t competitive.”
The assistance was enough to entrench the importance of mentorship in Norris forever. As a member of the National Organization of Minority Architects, Norris regularly brings in sons and daughters of people who tell him they’re interested in architecture, groups from organizations such as the Grand Rapids Urban League and Grand Rapids Public Schools.
“It’s a tough profession to get into from a standpoint of education,” Norris said. “It’s very demanding time wise, so part of it is you have to see people who look like you who are successful.”
Meeting an architect with the same skin color at a young age showed him becoming an architect was possible, so his interests growing up from drawing and painting to building model cars all made sense as he entered the working world. He received an associate’s degree from Grand Rapids Community College before venturing to the University of Detroit School of Architecture — now called University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture — for a bachelor’s degree.
He later earned a master’s degree in architecture from University of Detroit Mercy and a Master of Science with an emphasis on construction management from Western Michigan University.
The co-op program in architecture school was beneficial with its placement in mentoring, job shadowing and apprenticeships it offered.
Professional connections and mentors were important to Norris, as he got his start in his career, but a major influence for Norris, especially as he launched his own practice, was his mother. For years, she ran her own beauty salon and, at 76 years old, still works.
“She’s an inspiration for me to keep going,” Norris said.
Norris also is fueled by the projects he designs, and there is no shortage of examples. His firm has designed more than 120 LEED-certified homes and a number more of LEED-certified buildings, including the Salvation Center Kroc Center, 2500 S. Division Ave. Other projects Norris designed include Uptown Village, Goei Center and a variety of projects for Grand Rapids Public Schools.
In his more than 25 years running his firm, he’s noticed a trend of quicker expectations. Projects are expected to progress quicker, from design to construction. With technological advancements, he said those expectations make sense, but he still wants to push the design quality and opportunities in each project.
Securing clients was a struggle early on in his business and continuing to expand his portfolio offers a challenge, but he enjoys his journey.
“I work with some great companies, contractors, and we have a plethora of great contractors here in town,” he said. “I want to continue to create. “We’ve been doing a lot of housing, which is fun, you can see how you’re impacting neighborhoods and changing neighborhoods.”
Currently, Norris is heavily involved in housing developments in the Madison Square neighborhood, which he looks at as an opportunity to change a neighborhood and the lives of future generations.
He said the phase of replacing old housing styles with similar designs is not where his company wants to be moving forward.
“We want to push the envelope on design, push the envelope on smaller, more efficient homes,” Norris said. “Small homes that are more affordable, more adaptable to a family who wants to live in the city. The work we’re doing in Madison Square area. The houses in that area, I like the houses to stand out and that they look different, that we’re creating a new sense of what the neighborhood looks like.”
As he helps change the thought of a city’s neighborhood, Norris said he hopes the design being fostered in the area will be definitive for generations to come.
“We’re beginning to define what Southtown and Madison Square neighborhood are, so at some point in time, people will look back and be able to define that period of when growth and expansion and creativity really began to take focus and develop a neighborhood for the better,” Norris said. “Our children are watching. They’re seeing things get built and things coming from nothing in a neighborhood. They know you can make it, too; you can do something creative, too. You see people of color out there hammering and nailing, and you can do it, too. The legacy I want to leave is that if you work hard, anything is possible.”