Stuart has been working as an intern architect with Ellerbe Becket in Minneapolis since April 1999. As a job captain, he assists the project architect by getting sets of drawings together and producing construction documents. "Most of my attention has been directed to health care design (hospitals and clinics), but I also have worked on educational and commercial projects (mostly banks). I do some designing and a lot of production work with the development of construction drawings. Iím on the computer all day long doing drawings and coordinating with colleagues in other disciplines: structural, mechanical, electrical, and interior design."
"I've always been lucky enough to see the things that need to get done clearly, beforehand, in my mind. When I was given an assignment, I could readily establish a strategy or approach that allowed me to organize the various steps required to execute the plan...To think and plan ahead is my secret."
- Stuart Soneson
By junior high school Stuart knew that he wanted to be an architect. He was constantly stockpiling blank pieces of paper to draw on. He was also fascinated with science and the "way things were put together." His parents had friends who were architects; Stuart was attracted to them, and they encouraged him to work hard at his studies and drawing.
Stuart uses a wheelchair due to muscular dystrophy that was diagnosed when he was three years old. He met with some resistance to his career goals, especially from guidance counselors. Some suggested that even though he had demonstrated strong interest and capability in math, science, art, and drafting, he should focus on something he could "do at home." One junior high school adviser told Stuart to try accounting, and a high school counselor gave him similar advice "about something that he could handle," but he was not dissuaded. Stuart feels the counselors were "misinformed, thinking archaically, wanting me to do things they thought I could handle instead of helping me to pursue the things I wanted to do."
Vocational rehabilitation services of New York helped with his college tuition, but they, too, were initially hesitant about architecture. "I had to plead my case."
Although heíd never been out on his own, Stuart drove the eighteen hours from his home in New York to Bethel College, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Luckily, his best friend growing up, Ben Dill, also chose Bethel College, and the two became roommates. "Ben was my roommate for my first two years at Bethel and also my PCA (personal care assistant). He was invaluable to me. Not only did he help me get up in the morning, he also helped do things like load materials too heavy for me to transport to the sculpture studio. He helped with everyday things like cooking and laundry and getting from point A to point B. I donít know what I would have done without him."
Stuart knew art would be a good steppingstone to architecture, so he took a B. A. in Studio Art from Bethel, matriculating in 1982. For his undergraduate senior thesis, he designed a house. "I have always been a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright, so I took this inspiration and designed a dwelling based on his ĎUsonianí or Prairie-style ideals. I drew up a floor plan and elevations and a perspective and had them framed and presented the construction drawings as pieces of art." Both professors and students were intrigued by his union of architecture and art, of architectural drawings displayed as art.
He went on to a second undergraduate degree, in architecture, at the University of Minnesota. For Stuart, the studio environment was a lot of hard work. "Looking back Iím amazed I got through it as well as I did."
Because of muscle weakness, Stuart had to plan his energy expenditure precisely. He learned to adapt as he went along, anticipating obstacles as much as possible. "Iíve always been lucky enough to see the things that need to get done clearly, beforehand, in my mind. When I was given an assignment, I could readily establish a strategy or approach that allowed me to organize the various steps required to execute the plan. If heavy lifting was needed, then I knew how to arrange for help well in advance. If I needed to be at the studio very early, I made sure someone was there to help me get out of bed in plenty of time. Studio desks and drawing board had to be laid out so they fit my particular needs. To think and plan ahead is my secret."
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Stuart took on the responsibility for his own adaptations. There was a disabled students services program on campus, but services were "pretty rudimentary, and the adaptations they could offer didnít applyto the architectural program or design studios." He felt that he had pretty equal opportunities in his department. "I was treated fairly all along. Not singled out, no special treatment. I got hammered by juries like everyone else."
Working diligently, within the constraints imposed by his disability, Stuart graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture in June of 1990. After nine years of undergraduate study, he was ready to go to work. He received little practical help from his school in getting a job. "There werenít any real placement programs. People seemed to find work more by who they knew, by word of mouth." Because he didnít work during his school years, finding work after finishing was more difficult than it otherwise might have been. But even here Stuart discovered a positive interpretation.
"It was hard for me to find a summer job, which was maybe a blessing because I ended up using the time off as my recharging time. I "work hard, I play hard, and I rest hard!"
When the time came to find work, Stuart did a lot of cold calling and dropping in on potential employers. Usually, he let them discover his disability at the first meeting. Stuart plugged the fact that heíd finished school to speak for his ability to set and reach his goals. Promoting hispersistence helped land Stuart his first job as an intern with Boarman, Kroos, Pfister, Rudin and Associates in 1991.
His disability presented him with only what he describes as "run-of-the-mill-type obstacles" in the workplace. Ellerbe Becket put automatic door openers on the menís room for him. Stuart had not asked for this accommodation but he was ďvery grateful for it."
Because of his disability, Stuart is mindful of the principles of universal design, something he wishes his peers would pay more attention to. "It wasnít until later in my undergraduate years that I became cognizant of the Ďscienceí of universal design, but Iíve always designed with the thought of the people who will use my building firmly in mind. Of course, potential users include me."
Being part of a network of designers with disabilities "would help shatter the feeling that weíre all alone out here."
"My family has always been helpful and encouraging to me. In particular, my father is a very positive person who helped me see that there is always some kind of solution to lifeís problems, that one way or another things tend to work out. My faith is also an integral part of my life. I say unashamedly that I am who I am today because God has given me the strength and ability to meet the challenges of my life."
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