Design for Innovation


Interview with Tom Schnell

“Did you want a little background on the early days at the firm?” Tom Schnell asked me, rhetorically, I learned, and he followed up quickly. “We had one snow day back then and there was so much snow, probably 8 inches, and we went outside and built a giant snowman.” He let out a loud laugh like he does and told me that these early projects were so big and important. Wandel & Schnell, Architects started with three clients who encouraged them to go out on their own and promised to work with them. Within a month of opening the doors, they declined to work with the firm because it wasn’t established. He laughed about all of this and told me they had some small projects to keep afloat… and they played a lot of tennis.
“Okay, Erie County Care Facility,” he said to get us back on track. He told me they got the job through a recommendation by a landscape architect they had previously worked with. They competed with a few other guys, but they had a leg up on the competition because they were working with a small group of what Tom called “computer whizzes” who worked with computers “as big as this room.” In the end, the computers made them uncomfortable. They “freaked out and did everything by hand” because they didn’t want to have to factor in unpredictability. The hiring committee was impressed that they had the edge and alongside the recommendation, they won the project, which started as a feasibility study and expanded from that.

“It was hard to get people to work on nursing homes because they’re usually pretty boring,” Tom explained, “but our sense about it was to make sure anyone knew where they were in the building.” The design featured a three pod layout where each pod had a living room with 25 beds (one single bedroom and the rest were double). There was a central dining area off of a big courtyard. The plan was to have this center area with wings attached. “We discovered people watching people in the dining area, and so we added skylights to increase the amount of daylight, you know, so they could enjoy it.” This design was so unlike typical nursing homes because they were predictably two stories, which was inconvenient for a lot of people. Their intent was to eliminate the idea of dark and dreary nursing homes.

“Do you know what a Sphygmomanometer is?” he asked me.

“Excuse me?” I implored.

“It’s a blood pressure cuff,” he said “and I know that because we did all the specs for that project. I’ll never do that again.” They chose the beds, the dining trays, the utensils… everything.

“This project won a state award too, ya know,” he casually proclaimed.

“Yea, tell me about that,” I said.

“Back then, we didn’t have a photography budget or fancy graphic equipment, but it was crazy because the ceremony was like the Academy Awards. You didn’t know if you won until your name was called. People were visibly angry, so they didn’t do the ceremony like that anymore.”

1973 Pop Culture Facts

Cell phones weren’t always a thing? Weird. The first mobile phone call was made in Manhattan and it probably went something like this: “Did you hear that Nixon is a crook? I know he said he wasn’t, but with that Watergate scandal… I don’t know if I believe him.” “Well, yea, but also have you seen that new film, The Exorcist? Spooky. Watching that makes me want to sit with my kids and watch Schoolhouse Rock because that just premiered and we could all learn something from that.” 

Meanwhile, the US launched its first space station and called it Skylab.