Michael Lejong (B.Arch. ’96) is LEED accredited and a licensed architect at MAHG Architecture in Fort Smith, where he has been a principal partner since 2001. Lejong, who will serve as the chair of the AIA Small Firm Exchange in 2020, shared why he stays involved in the American Institute of Architects.
How did you first become interested in architecture?
At a young age, I should have known being an architect was in my future. I spent hours playing Legos, following and modifying the plans to suit whatever object I was trying to construct. On my parents’ farm, my friends and I designed and built anything from bicycle ramps to wooden fortresses. My dad was one of my biggest role models. He was an Air Force C-130 flight engineer, and he imparted on me much of his wisdom on how to plan, fix or build anything. Many of the abilities and interests I acquired as a young kid, especially as those relate to “building things,” I have to credit to him. During my high school days, shop class is where I also learned many of life’s basic skills: welding, painting, using power tools, reading plans and managing a team. When I wasn’t in class, I worked part time for a local veterinarian. There, I was able to translate my experiences working on our farm, plus I obtained an appreciation for being a professional and serving the community.
Why did you decide to go to the Fay Jones School?
I started out my first two years of college as a pre-med major, but by the time I was finishing Organic Chemistry 2 at University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, I knew that a career in the medical field might not be the choice for me. My roommate was a landscape architecture student, and, besides talking about this mysterious place called “studio,” he kept bringing home these incredibly interesting projects that piqued my interest. So, after months of soul searching and a recommendation from the school of architecture academic advising department, I began the architecture program in summer studio of 1992 and never looked back.
What unique experiences or perspectives do you have that make you stand out as an architect?
I’ve been fortunate enough to obtain a great deal of experience related to the actual construction of projects. I helped part time on framing crews in the summers, worked at a local lumberyard and worked part time for a design-build firm in Fayetteville during architecture school. Besides working in an architecture firm right out of school, I worked a few years for a general contractor learning “the other side” of what we do as architects. Being able to understand the process of construction gives me a unique advantage when we discuss our projects with the contractors and clients. Translating sophisticated design drawings and specifications to a built object is a challenging process, and I’m able to communicate the intent of our designs more clearly.
How did you get started at MAHG Architecture?
The River Valley area has always been home for me, but it was never really my intent to end up moving back here. My wife graduated from Arkansas State University in 1999 and was offered a job in Fort Smith that, particularly as a young married couple just starting a family, we could not pass up. I started a job search in the area and knew that one of my closest life-long friends was already working at the firm. I was already aware of the firm’s reputation and knew about several of their more notable projects – such as Bud Walton Arena, renovations to Old Main and the Walton Arts Center – because of my time in Fayetteville. I began working for MAHG in December of 1999, and for me, it’s hard to believe that I’ve been here nearly 20 years. Working in a small firm, along with practicing architecture in the River Valley and beyond, has provided me with a tremendously rewarding career.
What are some of the benefits and challenges of working at a small firm?
Probably the biggest benefit to working in a small firm is you get to wear many hats. You’re never stuck doing the same thing for days on end. You experience a fast-paced day and have the opportunity to work on multiple projects in various stages throughout a typical week. The biggest challenge: you have to wear many hats! You are constantly bombarded by project, staff, consultant, contractor and client demands. Not to mention the not-so-glamorous business side of our jobs – payroll, billing and accounting.
These benefits and challenges of working in a small firm, along with many other small business issues, are what led me to the American Institute of Architects Small Firm Exchange. In 2015, I was appointed as the Gulf States Regional Representative on the AIA Small Firm Exchange. The AIA Small Firm Exchange advocates for small firms within AIA and other agencies, promotes leadership in small firm professional development and practice, and facilitates support of local small firm networks. Within the AIA Small Firm Exchange, I co-chair the Influence Work Group committee. I will be serving as chair of the Small Firm Exchange in 2020, and I’m hoping to bring our annual meeting to Northwest Arkansas.
How did you get involved in AIA?
I’ve been fortunate to work for firms that believed that investing in improving yourself as a leader and supporting your profession are fundamental parts of being an architect. I can remember being encouraged by fellow architects and mentors to be involved. I served on local boards of the Northeast Arkansas and Fort Smith sections. From there, I was involved on the AIA Arkansas Chapter Board of Directors, eventually taking the role of chapter president in 2012. Being involved led me to my connection with the AIA National Small Firm Exchange and working on their Influence and Leadership initiatives. In 2016, we developed a three-year AIA National Leadership pilot program as part of our leadership initiative. This pilot program was funded by the AIA National Strategic Council in 2019. I was asked to serve on a Leadership Development Program Steer Group formed by AIA to oversee the implementation of the program. The AIA National Leadership Development Program is set to launch in January of 2020, and AIA made an official announcement at the A’19 Conference on Architecture in Las Vegas this summer.
I can honestly say that being involved in AIA locally, statewide, regionally and nationally has carried me forward to better represent my profession and my community. AIA has given me the skills and knowledge necessary to become a better leader, and, more importantly, it has provided opportunities to give back in ways that continually utilize my design education and talents.
What are some of your interests and involvements outside of architecture?
In the community, I serve on several local boards and committees. This gives me another opportunity to utilize the problem-solving skills developed in architecture school along with the leadership skills gained as a professional.
I chair the Greenwood Economic Development Commission. Our city has more than 100 percent predicted growth over the next 20 years. We are projected to have a population near 25,000 by the year 2040. This gives me a chance to have input on the planning, growth, infrastructure and finances affecting our community. I
recently began serving on the Western Arkansas Workforce Development Board. As architects, without a properly trained and skilled labor force, we cannot see our designs through construction with the quality and care we desire for our clients. Talk with any construction company or project superintendent – this shortage is driving construction project budgets and durations. I’m hoping to provide the board perspective from the design and construction industry and help establish additional support and training for our industry’s workforce.
When I’m not working, I enjoy traveling, cooking and spending time with my family. I also spend countless hours riding my motorcycle and mountain bike throughout Northwest Arkansas and the River Valley area.
What has been your favorite project that you’ve worked on and why?
I have several favorites but one of my latest choices would be the University of Arkansas Basketball Performance Center. The 66,000-square-foot LEED Gold certified facility houses all operational components for the men’s and women’s basketball teams, including two full-court gymnasiums, men’s and women’s locker rooms, a weight room, an athletic training room, coaches’ offices, team meeting rooms, student-athlete lounge and study areas, and an equipment room.
Our firm teamed with the sports venue firm, Populous, out of Kansas City. During the project, I had the opportunity to directly work with one of my former Fay Jones School classmates who is now a principal and senior architect at the 500-plus person firm. MAHG Architecture has been fortunate enough to work on every basketball project at the U of A Fayetteville campus dating back to the original men’s gym. I was grateful to work on a project that continued this legacy for our firm.
What’s your favorite part of being an architect?
Besides witnessing something conceived on paper being physically created, my favorite part about being an architect is the relationships we create. During a typical project, we become close with our clients, and since we are a small region, we end up having repeat relationships with our general and specialty contractors. Because of professional organizations and community involvement, the relationships with our fellow architects and work colleagues are strengthened. You become invested in the project and the people who are fostering the design, constructing the project or ultimately using the building in the end. Architects are unique in the sense that, especially here in Arkansas, it’s like being part of an enormous family.