The roof at McNamara Terminal at Detroit Metro Wayne County Airport was roll formed on the site. It was curved and moved up on a conveyer with many sheets well in excess of 100 feet long. (Justin Maconochie Photography/Courtesy of SmithGroup)

Paul Johnson, who is part of the SmithGroup’s Building Technology Studio in Detroit, was elevated this year to The College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects. (Courtesy of SmithGroup)

Paul Johnson, a principal with SmithGroup Inc., says striving for perfection while working for one of the nation’s largest architecture and engineering firms has always been his professional goal.

“I am 57; there’s a whole lot left to learn,” Johnson says. “Architecture is like the perfect storm: They all get built and they all have problems, but there are opportunities to be perfect. I haven’t done that perfect building yet, but I’ve got a long time left to work and a lot of opportunity.”

Johnson, who is part of the SmithGroup’s Building Technology Studio in Detroit, was elevated earlier this year to The College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects, the only AIA Detroit Chapter member to be so honored in 2007.

The College of Fellows (COF) is composed of members of the Institute who are elected to Fellowship by a jury of their peers. Fellowship is one of the highest honors the AIA can bestow upon a member. Elevation to Fellowship not only recognizes the achievements of the architect but also elevates before the public and the profession those architects who have made significant contributions to architecture and to society.

“It boils down to your contributions to the profession,” Johnson says of the COF designation. “It basically recognizes significant contributions to the practice; mine are in construction and technology.” Johnson says his professional search for perfection is tied to an emphasis on building evaluations, exterior enclosure systems, and roofs and waterproofing, which include evaluation, testing, failure analysis, and corrective concept development and implementation.

“My career just naturally got to this point,” Johnson says. “First, I was a project architect responsible for getting buildings constructed. Then I found that I was paying more attention to the exterior envelope, areas that present significant risk to owners, architects and contractors.”

Johnson’s extensive experience in architecture and construction includes all phases of project development, including preparation of contract documents, construction contract negotiations, and construction quality assurance programs. “I spent a whole lot of time in the field with these systems,” he says. “I’ve worked with some great mentors: Chuck Parise, who started our special work in building envelopes at SmithGroup, and Tom O’Connor, who brought us into full practice as consultants in our field.
They both are Fellows of AIA. They both taught me what this side of the business is about by seeing problems from all sides of the table. This Group gives us the opportunity to go further in our analysis of problems and find better solutions.”

The rooftop on the McNamara Terminal at Detroit Metro Wayne County Airport is nearly a mile long. (Ken Cobb, JJR/Courtesy of SmithGroup)

Notable Projects

Projects that highlight Johnson’s expertise in the area of exterior enclosure systems include U.S. General Services Administration Des Moines Federal Building, facade repair (a recent GSA Design Excellence Award winner), Des Moines, Iowa; Tower Plaza curtain wall, Ann Arbor, Mich.; Kennedy Federal Building, window and curtain wall replacement, Boston; and the Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit.

“My career has given me an opportunity to get involved with big projects,” Johnson says. “McNamara Terminal roof at Metro Airport and Ford Field roof, which is one of the biggest ones around town; Detroit Institute of Arts, very complicated.”

At Detroit Metro Wayne County Airport, Johnson says the rooftop on the McNamara Terminal is nearly one mile long. “We had problems to solve,” he says. “We were going to build a mile-long roof that would have to deal with jet fuel, snow slides. The question was: do we want to paint a metal roof or not? The recommendation was stainless steel to eliminate worry about maintenance.

The gutters were large enough to accept snow and ice. We came to a conclusion it would be a stainless steel gutter opposed to a lined gutter with a membrane. This caused a whole lot of discussion and soul searching before our recommendations were accepted and committed to.”

At McNamara Terminal, the roof was roll formed in what amounted to a trailer on the site. “It was curved and moved up on a conveyer with many sheets well in excess of 100 feet long,” Johnson says. “They only had seams along points where geometry changes. At the time we did that roof that was new technology. We designed three different roof systems for bids. Five years later and the new addition roof they put on is similar but with some minor differences.”

“With Ford Field, you have roofs on two different buildings there,” Johnson says. “A new field with a thermo plastic roof about 6½ acres. Gutters on each side - you could put a Volkswagen in there. Roof technology can be really tricky. That building - just sheer size - made for a lot of interesting questions.”

“The other half is office type construction (flat roofing). Rich Gagnon at Schreiber in Detroit said we should place this roof in two phases. It ended up as a modified bitumen roof. Perfect example of how working together with roof contractor, the owner and architect works. You really don’t know what’s going to happen sometimes. Key is everyone knowing what the rules of business and physics, technology of roofing systems are.”

Ford Field in Detroit has a thermo plastic roof about 6 1/2 acres in size with gutters on each side so large they could hold a Volkswagen. (Justin Maconochie Photography/Courtesy of SmithGroup)

Background and Affiliations

In addition to his work at Smith- Group, Johnson has contributed to technical journals, has presented to the Federal Facilities Council and American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), and participates in the development of construction standards through ASTM committees, including experience as an editor for an ASTM publication.

“I’m pedantic, a person who has to tell other people what they know,” Johnson confides. “My wife says I’m a teacher. What happens when you publish things? It makes you think real hard about what the real answers are before we put them out in front of the profession: a good tool at educating yourself. Other reasons - good for business. The real value is what you learn yourself. Evaluate what you think you know.”

Johnson grew up in Taylor, Mich., after he was born in Kentucky. “My parents came here for work. In 1950 the opportunities were better in Michigan,” Johnson says. “Most everyone came to Michigan looking for the same opportunities.”

He received his Bachelor of Science degree in Architecture from Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Mich. He is a Registered Architect in three states including Michigan, New York and Iowa. He is also NCARB certified and a Certified Construction Specifier (CCS) by the Construction Specifications Institute.

While Johnson is an active member of ASTM, he is also a member of the Michigan Society of Architects, American Institute of Architects, International Code Council, The Masonry Society, National Roofing Contractors Association, and the Great Lakes Chapter of the Roof Consultants Institute. He is also involved with the Masonry Institute of Michigan.

The company he works for, SmithGroup (www.smithgroup. com); is comprised of client industry-focused practices serving the health care, learning, workplace and science and technology markets. It has offices in Detroit, Ann Arbor, Mich.; Chicago; Los Angeles; Madison, Wis.; Minneapolis; Phoenix; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; San Francisco; and Washington, with 800 employees nationwide. Established in 1853, SmithGroup is the longest continually operating architecture and engineering firm in the United States.

“We get a lot of opportunities to look at jobs,” Johnson says. “One of the most exciting things in my profession is peer review work of the exterior envelope for contractors and owners.”

Perfection is a pursuit, but getting there is the fun part. “I’m striving to get that perfect building,” Johnson says. “I hope to have great success here doing that.”