HER MAGAZINE

Architect loves to design and build, bringing projects to life

Katie Harms, architect at OPN Architects, photographed at the downtown Cedar Rapids office on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020. (Li
Katie Harms, architect at OPN Architects, photographed at the downtown Cedar Rapids office on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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Some people are born to create — like Katie Harms.

Harms always knew she would become an architect. From the time she was young, she was creating — building, designing and dreaming big.

“I can remember looking through architectural magazines and drawing house plans when I was young,” she said. “I loved Legos and laying out designs for houses.

“I truly can’t imagine doing anything else. I set my mind on my goals very young and didn’t let anything stand in the way of reaching them.”

Harms has been a licensed architect for the past 12 years and was promoted to an associate with OPN Architects in Cedar Rapids last year.

In that role, she brings projects to life. And she wears many hats doing it.

“No one day is the same,” she said. “We manage our clients’ needs, budget and schedule for their projects, as well as coordinate with our consultants to provide design and construction documents.”

The creative aspect of her job is just as rewarding as she envisioned when she was young.

“We work across many mediums — good old trace paper and sketches, 3D modeling on the computer and BIM (Building Integrated Modeling) programs to produce our designs and documentation,” she said.

“Once the design and documentation are complete, we work with contractors to complete the construction. My days can be spent in the studio, out on a job site or at a client’s office meeting to review design.”

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Harms, who graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in architecture, has taken on projects at OPN that have been particularly close to her heart.

As a graduate of Monticello High School, she was honored to design the new middle school that will be connected to the high school. It’s a bittersweet project, she said, since the new building will replace the one she attended two decades ago.

“A new building will provide better learning environments and space for the district’s needs — collaboration areas, large open windows to harvest the natural daylight, views to the exterior and some fun design elements,” Harms said.

“It’s been so great to work with old classmates and teachers, and it does hold a special place in my heart to be able to come back and be a part of the district’s history. They have been an amazing group of people to work with.”

Other highlights of Harms’ work include the current OPN building, the federal courthouse and First Federal Credit Union’s new branch at Westdale — all projects in Cedar Rapids.

“My favorite part is the end, when you see your sketches and design become a reality and your client is ecstatic about being in the space you created for them.”

- Katie Harms, architect at OPN Architects

The credit union project, she said, allowed her to think outside the box.

“The leaders sought to rebrand and build a credit union that promotes the future of their industry,” she said. “It was a fun, unique design that explored new technologies and design, which I love, and ended with an office showcase for their other branches we will be remodeling.”

That kind of innovation and creativity is one of the things Harms loves about her career.

“My favorite part is the end, when you see your sketches and design become a reality and your client is ecstatic about being in the space you created for them,” Harms said. “I also enjoy the beginning of the project where I’m able to plan, program and design the project.”

Her passion for learning keeps her motivated and inspires her to expand her horizons. And the industry has taken notice of her work.

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In 2012, the American Institute of Architects awarded Harms the National Young Architect’s Award. She was the first woman from Iowa to receive the award, which honors individuals who have demonstrated exceptional leadership and made significant contributions to the architecture profession early in their careers.

In addition, Harms is a LEED accredited professional — indicating knowledge of environmentally responsible design — and has served on national architecture committees and helped start the AIA Central States Emerging Professionals Committee.

“I’ve also been involved with the Cedar Rapids Junior League and Leadership for Five Seasons programs, just rolling off as the advisory board chair,” Harms said.

Her involvement fuels her desire to make a difference.

“I want to continue to make an impact on people’s lives — whether it’s with clients and their projects or within the studio mentoring peers,” Harms said. “Learning in our profession is never-ending, and I will continue to pursue and push design for a better future.”

It’s a future where, she hopes, more women have a seat at the drafting table.

“More and more women are entering architecture, and it’s great to see,” she said. “I’m grateful to be in this profession and help promote and teach women around me how to succeed. … You have to be confident in what you do and what you know, and the rest will fall into place.”

Harms also is thankful to have a career that allows her to thrive in Eastern Iowa.

“I’ve been fortunate to find a home at OPN, where equality in the profession is real,” she said. “In the past few years, we’ve had four women promoted within the firm to associate principals and associates.”

As for the young girls out there dreaming of building and creating someday, Harms has a message that she hopes will resonate.

“Go for it! If that’s your passion, follow it and never give up,” Harms said. “Keep following your heart and pursue avenues that will help you learn and grow.”

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