Wheeler Kearns Architects’ Selected Projects

History of Wheeler Kearns Architects

Wheeler Kearns Architects is a collective practice of architects who seek to improve their quality of life in environments that reflect their passion, purpose, and vision. The firm was founded in 1987 by Dan Wheeler. The idea came to him after winning a design competition where the challenge was to build a large residential project in southwestern Michigan. He decided to open his studio named Daniel Wheeler Architects. Larry Kearns joined the studio as a principal in 1988 and in 1990 joined Dan Wheeler as a founding partner, thus the company becoming Wheeler Kearns Architects. 

Due to starting small, to handle the firm’s consistent flow of residential work, Wheeler hired one architect every year for the first ten years. WKarch specializes in the development of sustainable structures for the institutional and residential markets. In its’ current form, leadership is provided by 6 owners: the founding partners Dan Wheeler and Larry Kearns, Mark Weber (principal since 2001), Joy Meek and Jon Heinert (both principals since 2006), and Chris-Annmarie Spencer (principal since 2019).

In its’ years, Wheeler Kearns won a plethora of awards for their incredible projects. Including but not limited to 5 Design Excellence awards from the Chicago chapter of the AIA in one year: a Distinguished Building Award for the Bernard Zell Day School; two Interior Architecture awards, for Lakeview Penthouse and Our Lady of Guadeloupe Sanctuary, and 2 Divine Detail awards.

Dan Wheeler, Founding Principal of WKarch

Dan Wheeler is an architecture professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and one of the founding principals of Wheeler Kearns Architects. He studied for two years in Rome as part of his education at the Rhode Island School of Design. He worked as an Associate and Studio head at Skidmore Owings and Merrill in Chicago from 1981 to 1987 before starting his practice.

Dan is the recipient of a NEA Traveling Fellowship (1979), the CCAIA Young Architect Award (1984), the AIA Fellowship (1998), the Chicago Tribune’s “Chicagoan of the Year” in Architecture along with Lawrence Kearns (2008), and the AIA Illinois Nathan Ricker Clifford Award for Architectural Education (2017). Out of the many design awards the firm has received, he is most proud of the two CCAIA Firm Awards WKA has won (1996, 2016) for the overall significance and legacy of the practice.

Larry Kearns, Founding Principal of WKarch

Lawrence Kearns (Larry) regularly gives talks on culture, education, and community-building topics to professional and academic audiences. Among many other lectures, Larry presented at the “Building Museums Symposium” hosted by the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums in 2022; he also presented for a Northeastern University lecture series on “Building Community with Food» in 2021. One of his many spectacular accomplishments is that he gave a talk on the greening of US Embassies in Paris in 2010 to eight current US Ambassadors.

He has won thirteen InnoCentive Challenges across a variety of disciplines. He was a finalist in the third round of the DOE’s Solar Prize for TrackerSled, which aims to stimulate rural economies with locally produced renewable energy, and he is currently a grantee of the Department of Energy.

Mark Weber, Principal at WKarch

After working for Wheeler Kearns since 1989, Mark was promoted to principal in 2001. He has finished a wide range of projects, from multiple single-family homes to small custom furniture pieces. The Beverly Art Center, which Mark completed in 2002, was honored with the Richard Driehaus Foundation Award for Architectural Excellence.

In 1982, he received his Bachelor of Science degree from Southern Illinois University, and in 1989, he earned his Master of Architecture degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago. In 1987 and 1988, Mark was given departmental awards for Excellence in Design while he was at UIC. His varied professional background includes work on low-income housing, co-ownership of a construction/development company, furniture design and construction, and carpentry.

Joy Meek, Principal at WKarch

Joy joined Wheeler Kearns Architects in 1998, and in 2006, she was promoted to principal. She has experience working on both residential and institutional projects, such as the expansion and adaptive reuse project for Marwen – a nonprofit arts organization that offers free art classes to Chicago’s students. A National SEED Award for Excellence in Public Interest Design and an AIA Chicago Interior Architecture Award are just two of the honors bestowed upon the project.

After earning a Bachelor of Science in Architectural Studies with Honors from the University of Illinois in 1995, Joy went on to study at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. In 1998, she earned her Master of Architecture degree. Joy worked with the University of Toronto and architect Brigitte Shim while she was employed at the GSD to set up an exhibition of waterfront projects at Toronto’s Queens Quay Terminal. Before graduating, she interned at several architecture firms and worked on a variety of projects, such as interior office spaces, private residences, and elementary schools.

Jon Heinert, Principal at WKarch

Jon Heinert joined Wheeler Kearns in 1999 and became a principal in 2006. He received a Master of Architecture from the University of Virginia and was awarded the Design Excellence Award and AIA Certificate of Merit at graduation. He won several student design competitions during his academic career, including the ACSA wood competition. During his graduate studies, Jon worked for the University Architect for the University of Virginia.  His main responsibility was to initiate programming and masterplan studies for the further development of the Arts Campus on Carr’s Hill. After graduation, Jon stayed temporarily in Charlottesville and worked for William Sherman and Associates.

He has been a visiting juror at Illinois Institute of Technology and University of Illinois at Chicago on multiple occasions and has given guest lectures at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, the Cliff Dwellers Club, and the University of Illinois at Chicago. Jon is a member of the American Institute of Architects and an architect registered in the state of Illinois. In addition, he holds self-certification as an architect and is a Registered Energy Professional with the City of Chicago.

Chris Annmarie Spencer, Principal at WKarch

Chris-Annmarie, who was born and raised in Manchester, Jamaica, earned a Bachelor of Arts in Architectural Studies from the Caribbean School of Architecture at the University of Technology in Kingston, Jamaica. Following graduation, Chris-Annmarie and her family moved to the US, where she pursued further education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and where she graduated with a Master of Architecture. After joining Wheeler Kearns Architects in 2004, Chris-Annmarie rose to the position of firm principal in 2019.

Chris-Annmarie’s outstanding work and leadership in the profession have earned her numerous prestigious awards, including the 2015 AIA Chicago Dubin Family Young Architect Award and the 2017 AIA National Young Architect Award. As part of a legacy of creating and bolstering the pipeline of civic leaders who will shape Chicago’s future, Chris-Annmarie was one of 40 accomplished and diverse individuals nominated as a 2019 Leadership Greater Chicago Fellow.

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Company Culture at Wheeler Kearns Architects

At WKarch they are proud that their clients refer to them as «partners» as often as «architects». It represents their conviction that, occasionally, you also need someone who isn’t afraid to take on the ordinary in addition to having a grand vision. As a «collective practice of architects,» they leverage their unique structure to get several ideas from the team early on in the design process. That provides you with a more expansive range of options which might result in surprising solutions.

When a space we design resonates with your deepest intention, it has a lasting and powerful impact. As we work with you, we devote all our energies to understanding your core purpose, the transformation you seek, your mission. We want to see your challenge through your eyes.

By going with this philosophy, WKarch believes they are guided to what they call an «emotional centre» which represents the heart of the project. As they develop concepts, assist you in making decisions, and hone their responses to those decisions, they constantly refer back to that main idea. Everything flows from that emotional core, from the overarching perspective to the style of a door handle. As a result, you have a place that responds specifically to your life and mission.

Architect-US is proud to work in close contact with Wheeler Kearns Architects and to be able to ensure the firm gets to know and work with amazing young architects like Cristina Asla Ortiz, whom we helped process her Visa and get a position at Wheeler Kearns Architects through our Job+J1 Visa Program! Cristina also took full advantage of our Portfolio Report Plan to improve her portfolio and as a result improve her chances of getting a job as an architect!

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Cristina Asla Ortiz de Latierro

She is a Spanish architect who joined Wheeler Kearns Architecs through our Job+J1 Visa Program as a Trainee. As a junior architect, Cristina is enthusiastic about taking on novel and daring projects that integrate design, technique, construction, and ethics throughout the process. She has always had a strong connection to history and art, which inspired her to pursue a diploma in Curatorial Studies.

She pursued her Bachelor’s Degree at The University of Navarre Pamplona in Spain and graduated in 2019. Cristina has gained many achievements throughout her career in architecture such as getting her work selected for the COABU Exhibition in the Official Architects Association located in Burgos, Spain.

She has a vast working experience despite her young career including but not limited to an internship with Mono.Office in Beijing, China. Cristina describes her experience being able to work in a city so different from her birthplace as a life-changing adventure. She had the pleasure to collaborate with the Chinese artist Cao Fei in the project «Blueprints» that was an exhibit on the White Chapel Gallery of London, where she found a way to blend in her knowledge as an architect and her interest in art.

Wheeler Kearns Architects Selected Projects

The Momentary – Bentonville, Arkansas

It is a satellite of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. The project uses steel and glass interventions to create transparency and set itself apart from the existing structures –  transforming a patchwork of masonry and concrete buildings into a fluid arts experience. To honor the site’s past as Osage hunting territory, a frit pattern created by a local Osage artist is superimposed onto the new glass elements. The pattern is inspired by ceremonial weaving. As it encircles the new additions, the woven pattern playfully shifts in size and transparency to offer views and privacy.

Inside, the Momentary goes against traditional museums of white walls and neutrality. Instead, here visitors can enjoy puzzling out the building’s former life through the physical remnants. In every room, this cutting-edge contemporary museum allows the building’s relics to disrupt narratives with curiosity and stories.

Photos by WKarch

Ravine House – Illinois

The Ravine house is a new single-family home developed for two empty nesters who want to live in a way that connects them to their land. The couple, who are artists, cyclists, and nature lovers, set out to build a single-story, modestly scaled home that would blend in with the ravine while accommodating their active lifestyle and interests.

While the exterior volume is wrapped in black square-edged vertical metal siding, the courtyard is lined with an American Black Locust vertical rain screen. This courtyard’s local stones, clustered plants, and swaying birch trees all work together to win in favor of nature. A solitary, sleek Black Locust column provides support for the low entry canopy. It is «just so» positioned, begging to be touched as one passes by. The home’s heart is a central volume of American Walnut. Every room revolves around the coziness of the material, drawing and feeding off of it. The couple looks out from their painting/spinning studio at the courtyard birches rising through crushed stone to the raised beds of their own vegetable garden.

Photos by WKarch

1611 W Division – Chicago

Situated 300 feet from Polonia Triangle and the Blue Line train entrance, 1611 West Division is Chicago’s first Transit Oriented Development (TOD). Its outreach to mass transit users, cyclists, and pedestrians is focused on reducing air pollution and traffic congestion. The 11-story, 125,000-square-foot structure houses 99 mixed-income apartments, second-floor offices, ground-floor retail, and no parking for building residents.

Every apartment is distinct from the others thanks to the façade’s fusion of glass and metal, which also has a significant sustainable purpose. The careful placement of wall materials and windows increases insulation within bedrooms and increases natural light in living areas. Thus, residents save energy and enjoy the best views of the city.

As part of the project, a large public art installation measuring 92 by 27 feet was created and placed on the building’s west-facing wall to demonstrate the development’s support of the local arts community. First up, Antonia Contro’s «Scorza,» which translates to «skin» in Italian, transforms into a new skin on the structure and uses its exposure to reveal depth and texture to viewers as they get closer.

Photos by WKarch

We will be posting more projects by Wheeler Kearns Architects in the upcoming weeks and months, so keep an eye out for more of their incredible work! Every Friday we will be posting a new Featured Company, so join us again next week!

Wheeler Kearns Architects

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