St. Louis Character: Paul Wuennenberg builds on his love of design
Published in the St. Louis Business Journal - August 1, 2018
Inheriting a 100-year-old, cast-iron concrete mixer might not be everyone’s dream, but for KWK Architects' Principal Paul Wuennenberg, it matched perfectly with his love of building and design handed down from his father.
“My dad was a constant tinkerer, you know, we always had cabins and he was constantly building stuff and experimenting," Wuennenberg said. "I was given the mixer he used when I was a little kid pouring all sorts of docks and patios. He wanted to be an engineer, but as a kid growing up in the Depression, he had to quit and help support the family."
Wuennenberg, 55, grew up in Crestwood and chose Vianney High School because of architecture teacher Jim Farrell, who offered a program there that Wuennenberg said was more of a college course. Farrell spent time connecting students with the community, so Wuennenberg worked for architects while in high school. Farrell's influence on Wuennenberg was so strong that Wuennenberg went back to Vianney for the next 15 years to work with Farrell’s students until the teacher retired.
After Vianney, Wuennenberg received a bachelor's degree in architecture from the University of Kansas. Wuennenberg started his career in Boston, then came back to St. Louis after three years to work with Mackey Mitchell and Associates and to build a house for himself by hand. “The cost of housing was crazy in Boston and I really wanted to build, so I moved back to St. Louis where I had some infrastructure and could live in my mother’s basement while I did the framing.”
In 2013, Wuennenberg and a group of other Mackey Mitchell architects started KWK Architects. There were five of them when the firm started and today there are 15, he said. The firm had $3.7 million in revenue in 2017. Much of its success can be attributed to a national reputation for educational housing and dining facilities. Southern Illinois University of Edwardsville Director of University Housing Michael Schultz values Wuennenberg’s passion and expertise in university students.
“Paul has immersed himself in serving the college student population at a very high level,” Schultz said. “He is able to vision the needs of the university and the needs of the students to provide an exceptional student experience that will create a developmental environment and a lifetime of memories. Paul continues to stay on top of his game and brings new ideas."
Wuennenberg, his wife Rosie, 17-year-old son P. J. and 16-year-old daughter Anna live in Fenton. He also has a lake property where he is building a home by hand.
What made you want to be an architect? Since I was a kid, I wanted either to be an artist or an architect, and architecture just fell out of my love of building and my dad's love of building.
What are your hobbies? I like to paint, draw and I am a buildaholic. Over the last 20 years, I built my own house out in Eureka on five acres. I designed it, built a house and a pool house. Now I’m building a house at the lake by hand. I think I have one more house in me! I also do landscape painting and portraits. I have painted since I was eight years old. I just love it.
Why a lake house? Growing up, we always had a cabin on a river or a cabin on a lake, so I spent the summers just loving the water, the crickets, the night sounds and the bullfrogs and just want to be back to that. When I get too old, just roll me off the dock. That's the way I want to end it.
Vianney High school seemed to make a big impression on you. Their program really engaged the community and gave students the opportunity to present their final project to professional architects. For the next 15 years, I came back and I gave the class their final project and had them down to the office to see what we do. I wanted to give back everything I got there. I loved the program because there's maybe one or two students that come out and go into architecture but the rest of them become lawyers and bankers. So they got exposure to architecture and the struggles and came to understand architecture isn’t just drawing up blueprints. As an architect, I was also able to come back and design the additions to Vianney and the new skin, so that was probably one of my most important projects as an alumni.
Why the specialty in academics and institutions? I love working on campuses, one, because it's pedestrian-oriented. Also, it's not doing jack-in-the-boxes in the middle of a parking lot. There's an actual context and there's tradition. We create something that fits well within the immediate campus, but also create an environment where students feel comfortable at home and help them create a sense of community. I've got a tremendous opportunity to influence how students interact with one another. We're creating a stage set for their future memories, for interactions. Little things like creating what we call “sticky spaces” where they can bump into each other and hang out for a moment, like a window seat on a stairwell.
What makes a good student community? One of the things that we try to do, especially with freshmen buildings, is create space that makes them feel involved. Within the first three or four weeks, freshmen decide whether they are going to stay or go, so this is really important. We are trying to break down dorms into pods where there is maybe a grouping of residence rooms and then a bathroom that serves them. The pods have a smaller, family feel. Students live on their phones and they'll even text their roommate who's in the bed next to them. So how do you get them to meet in an analog world? Those sticky spaces are important but everybody has to go out and do laundry, so we place the laundry next to a game room or maybe it's next to a study area and maybe there's a kitchenette next to it. It's taking any opportunity for students to come out of the rooms to engage.
What are some of your most memorable projects? The University of Oklahoma was a really interesting project, in fact, I'm giving a talk on it at a conference in Denver. Dr. David Boren, who's the president there and was the governor of Oklahoma, went to Yale and was trying to replicate a residential college at OU. We took a trip to Yale where we studied various colleges. Each of the two OU colleges we created have their own unique kind of Hogwarts-style dining room with a big fireplace. So it really had the feel of something that's been there for a hundred years. It was a fun project because of the uniqueness on campus and how this is the first design of a model that will continue.
How would you measure KWK’s success? I've gotten more profitable every year. I feel like we're very, very agile. We've done two $90 million projects simultaneously. Typically, the way we work is we team with other architects around the country. So, we'll be the design lead and bring the expertise of student housing design or dining design and then we'll team with a local architect who would do working drawings and construction administration.
What's your favorite hang out in Saint Louis? I love old Webster, where our office is located. The density of restaurants and bars is much greater here than other places. We've got probably eight or nine restaurants and bars immediately around us. I also love Forest Park and the Zoo. Forest Park is a gem. It's amazing when you think about other cities and what they have for parks. I really don't know many others like it.
Have you been watching anything good? I was huge into "Downton Abbey," I loved that. I’m also a "Game of Thrones" person. I’ve waited for so long now for the next season.
What’s your favorite restaurant? The Hofbräuhaus in Belleville. I grew up on German food and beer. I love it!