Matt Byers

Class of 2002, Physics major

Principal, PLAAD Architecture and Design Office

Q & A

I like problem-solving on a daily basis. My job involves a lot of spatial and other kinds of problem-solving. My day consists of both spatial problem-solving with design, but also a lot of governmental problem-solving. We present to cities and general authorities to make sure we have the "ok" to build. Before founding this firm, I worked at a variety of other firms, some small, some very large, and in this role now, in a very small firm, I feel like my job is the most varied and interesting. I'm a big proponent of liberal arts preparation. On a day-to-day basis, I wear six or seven hats.

I have a couple of memories that really stand out from my time in the department. One is the quantum mechanics trip to Baca with Dick Hilt. Another is having dinner at Stephanie's beautiful house near Garden of the Gods. One more thing I did that was really fun, was testing my senior project. I worked with Steve Burt in the shop to build a liquid propellant rocket engine. I had pressurized nitrogen, pressurized fuel, pressurized oxygen. I brought it down to the soccer field and parked the van in front of it so the Fire Marshals couldn't see it. We had an explosion or two, and I had a lot of fun working on it. I used the design process from that project as part of my portfolio to get into grad school.

I took a year off after graduating because I didn't know what I wanted to do, but eventually went to grad school for architecture. After grad school, I moved back to Minneapolis because my wife got into grad school for her MFA. It was going to be a two-year stint, but 2009 happened, I was laid off, and my wife had just graduated. I got a call that a firm in Minneapolis was hiring, I got a job there, my wife was putting together teaching gigs in town. And she applied and got a tenure-track job at a college in Minneapolis, and then we knew we were lifers. I had worked at a couple of bigger firms in those years and didn't like the feeling of being a cog. One of my colleagues from my first job called me up and said he had a job out in Wyoming and thought we could start a firm together as we had talked about wanting to, So, we started this firm back in 2014 a couple of years after my wife had taken her current job.

It's always touch-and-go. We have hired others here and there. It feels like we finally are getting our feet under us now and having people call us. We recently published as a top up-and-coming firm in the Mountain West. A bigger firm has bigger fees, but also a huge payroll. It's a challenging but fun challenge to grow a business.

I think the biggest benefit is problem-solving. Physics encourages that creativity because some of the most elegant solutions come from non-obvious places. Physics also allows me to see the complexity and the beauty of the world around me. It feels like my physics background informs the way I understand the world, and I think that informs my design process. Also, my experience on the block plan has prepared me extremely well for my current work. We are a deadline-oriented profession where we have to go head down for a while and come up for air and take a break. That rigorous schedule prepared me well for the profession.

I was a Barnes scholar so I had to major in certain sciences, and I loved physics. I wanted to do Geology and Physics, but with those two majors, there would have been no room for extra-curriculars, and I was a swimmer, so I had to pick physics. I wanted to be an astrophysicist, but then I realized that I didn't have the capacity that my colleagues had and didn't feel like I was cut out for grad school in astrophysics. In my junior year, I was physics-ed out, so I took a break and studied abroad in the ACM London-Florence program learning theatre, art history, and architectural history. That rekindled another love of mine which was architecture. After graduation, I reflected on that experience and decided to check out architecture. I went to the St. Paul public library and got a book on what a portfolio is and put together my entry portfolio for grad school and for some reason I got accepted into two places and went to Yale for my masters.

Everybody thinks that when you go into architecture you are going to be designing all day. I would say designing is about 15% of my day. Most of the work is invoicing, working with governmental agencies, permitting, budget, and everything else that goes into keeping a project on track. I really enjoy it, though, and like how it keeps every day new and interesting.

My high-school science teacher had been really impactful on me, and after my first course in physics, I realized that the CC physics community was going to be my home. I had a class with Stephanie and her way of teaching was just magical, she had an enormous impact on my desire to pursue physics.

My career gives me space to incorporate my passions. Architecture historically has been a profession that allows the blending and pulling from different disciplines. When we start a project, we will do a deep dive into what elements the client wants to inform the design process. For example, if a client is interested in biophilia, and we figure out how to make a façade of a building that breathes and figure out how to make it emulate a skin. We are able to do all this research in disparate fields that will inform our design. The beauty of that is that we get to dip our toes into a bunch of different disciplines, and we get to combine and synthesize that into a built form. I read a great book about art and physics that looked at how when particle-wave duality was discovered, Seurat was developing pointillism. When relativity was discovered, Duchamp painted nude descending a staircase which was someone from multiple vantage points at the same time. It is exciting to tune in to the undercurrents of thought that affect all disciplines.

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