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A memoir from Michael Henning, Associate Principal & Senior Construction Administrator, on the 50th anniversary of his career in architecture and his 10th anniversary with Studio W Architects …

 I wake up every day knowing that all my interactions will be filled with beauty and joy for myself and everyone around me—as such, every day is a good one. Fifty years “in the mud” has been a wonderfully fulfilling experience.

May 2021 not only marks 10 years with Studio W Architects, but 50 years as an architect working in the field, overseeing the construction of a variety of building types, both large and small. I nearly always have boots on, and there is good reason for that … I find as much insight mucking out rainwater with the laborers in the trenches as I do at a school board meeting, sitting next to the district superintendent. I find solutions to the challenges that arise from these varied interactions, which elicits a great sense of ownership, pride and community for the entire design and construction team. Together, we share the pride and joy of our accomplishments with our clients, going well beyond design.

I love every aspect of what I do at Studio W Architects, but nothing more than the quality assurance reviews. As the firm’s Quality Control Manager, my team members may wonder where some of my comments come from (and sometimes I wonder too!), but it seems like the totality of my experience exists all around me. Like one of those sci-fi movie computer screens, with information scrolling down floating monitors, just waiting to be plucked out of the air and shared with those around me.

It was fun to reflect on my past five decades and how technology, procedures and the industry have evolved over that period of time. A handful of the impactful projects I’ve had the honor to be involved with at Studio W Architects are skittled throughout this memoir. Now, 50 years in the mud

Lincoln Elementary School
Anaheim Elementary School District
(completed in 2012)


1971: I was still in school and was working for a design-build architect building custom residential and commercial projects. We acted as the general contractor. One day on-site, I directed the excavation subcontractor to backfill a below-grade wall before it was braced. It collapsed before my eyes, imprinting in my soul the power and weight of soil against a wall or foundation.

Fast-forward 50 years … recently, I was reviewing a project on a sloping site. I had the nagging sense that the project as designed could not support the lateral soil pressure. Per my recommendation, our design team added retaining walls around the perimeter of the site, taking the load off the individual buildings.

Marshall Elementary School
Anaheim Elementary School District
(completed in 2014)


1971-1978: Working with the design-build architect immersed me in the design and construction world, where my boss only cared about two things during construction—1) shower pan waterproofing and 2) the springiness of wood-framed floors. He would stand in the center of a newly framed floor and jump up and down. If there was not much flex, then the floor framing passed inspection. Having experienced this with him many times, I got a good feel for the strength and span limitations of dimensional lumber.

When I review projects for Studio W Architects, I look closely at the structural drawings for structural element spans, and I examine mechanical, electrical and plumbing designs to make sure what is shown is buildable and coordinated with the other disciplines. I look closely at incoming utilities and their clearances with other building elements. I search for things that don’t feel right.

1978-1985: General Electric asked me to be their in-house architect in their facilities group. I was tasked with overseeing engineering and construction of heavy industrial facilities supporting industrial diamond production in the United States and Europe. These facilities required massive amounts of electrical power in huge duct banks.

Recently, I reviewed plans for the new Dwyer Middle School Gymnasium and STEM Lab project and noticed the clearance between an existing underground duct bank housing the main power line to the building ran adjacent to a new 12-foot-tall retaining wall. I worried that as designed, the existing SCE duct bank may be in jeopardy when the contractor began excavation to build the wall. The lease-leaseback contractor agreed with me and, although schedule and cost were impacted, we rerouted the existing duct bank a safe distance from the retaining wall excavation.

Dwyer Middle School Gymnasium & STEM Academy
Huntington Beach City School District
(completed in 2020)


1985-1989: I was given an opportunity to work for a commercial architectural firm designing high-end retail projects. While I was in the mud at what is now the Crystal Court at South Coast Plaza, I quickly learned the impact of rain on plaster wrapped parapets. Plaster is porous. Even if the top of wall is wrapped below the finish with a waterproof membrane, the nails that attach the metal lath rust and deteriorate the waterproof membrane, allowing water to penetrate the membrane and rust/rot the framing members, causing failure of the wall over time. We painted the top of all parapets with elastomeric paint, but this was only a band-aid solution that lasted a few years.

I recently reviewed a set of documents at Studio W Architects featuring a plaster accent wall. The plaster was to wrap over the top of the wall which was exposed to the weather. I had the sense something more needed to happen to damp-proof the wall. We added a sheet metal coping to the wall.

Pioneer Valley High School Performing Arts Center
Santa Maria Joint Union High School District
(completed in 2017)


1989-2010: For over 20 years, I have overseen building construction for a variety of building types throughout California for one of the largest architectural firms in Southern California. Often times, design intent was not evident in the construction documents. This experience made it abundantly clear that quality assurance reviews are critical in the process of document preparation.

Long Beach City College Nursing & Health Technology Center Modernization
Long Beach Community College District
(competed in 2016)


Studio W Architects’ primary focus is educational architecture for public and private K-12 and higher education clients. As I review projects, I am looking for a clear design intent that is cohesive and coordinated with the engineering drawings.

I am in awe of the talented staff I work and have fun with at Studio W Architects. Growing up in this field before computers, CAD and Revit, I am sure many of my younger team members laugh at my limited computer skills. I had no need to learn computer basics back when I was in the mud. Luckily, my talented coworkers have shown me how to cut and paste and restore project folders I inadvertently delete! I grin at myself as I skip along expecting tomorrow to hold as much beauty as today, and wonder whether or not cutting and pasting made it into my bag of tricks or not!

Notable recent projects with Huntington Beach City School District …

Top (left to right): Dwyer Middle School Phase 1 Modernization, Dwyer Middle School Phase 2 Modernization, Hawes Elementary School Modernization
Bottom (left to right): Moffett Elementary School Modernization, Seacliff Elementary School Modernization, Smith Elementary School New Classroom & Administration Building


Blog post authored by Michael Henning, Associate Principal & Senior Construction Administrator