Front & Center: Bernardo | Wills Architects, Founding Director of Bob Wills, Leaves a Lasting Footprint on Spokane

Bernardo | Wills Architects founding director Bob Wills has said he won’t change his 50-year career in architecture.

Wills and Gary Bernardo founded Bernardo | Wills Architects in 1991 in an 8ft by 10ft space in the James S. Black Building in downtown Spokane. Since then, the 42-member firm has grown into the Bissinger Building at 153 S. Jefferson St.

Bernardo | Wills has designed numerous projects, including the expansion of Hall C at Spokane International Airport; Davenport Tower; the Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office; Myrtle Woldson Performing Arts Center at Gonzaga University in association with Pfeiffer Architects; the redevelopment of McEuen Park in Coeur d’Alene; and the North Rim Playground at Riverfront Park.

Wills, who has focused on orders for the military, schools, aviation services, and businesses, has received several awards for his designs.

Much of Wills’ career has been designing eight to ten projects at Fairchild Air Force Base, including the Child Development Center, the Education Center and Library, and the US Armed Forces Reserve Center. The company recently completed the design of a Joint Base Personnel Recovery Agency command / control mission support facility.

Wills announced his retirement earlier this month from Bernardo | Wills Architects, which celebrated its 30th anniversary this month.

“We have been fortunate to be busy,” Wills said of the business. “This past year has probably been the best year we have ever had.”

Architecture and the Air Force

Wills’ journey in architecture began as a high school student in Virginia. Wills had an art teacher who asked him if he had considered this profession a career path.

“Oddly enough, there was a recruiter who came from (the University of Southern California) to our high school and I told him about architecture. Come and find out that USC was a premier school on the West Coast, ”said Wills.

While studying at USC, Wills had the opportunity to work with renowned architects in Los Angeles. USC had its own style of teaching, focusing on theoretical architecture rather than practical architecture, he said.

“There were schools on the west coast that taught practical architecture. That was basically you had a mission – we’re going to make a house and you’re going to do the floor plan, the elevation, the roof plan, and you’re going to write everything. Then somebody builds it, ”Wills said. “Theoretical architecture was where we studied shapes, shapes, how different things could go together in different combinations. One year we studied the effects of wind, sun and water forms and building forms.

Wills was hired at an architectural firm in Pasadena, California, where he was able to learn practical architectural skills, in addition to the curriculum he learned at college. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in architecture in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War.

After graduation, Wills took the US Air Force qualifying exam and achieved a high score in pilot proficiency. He completed officer training school in addition to primary and advanced flight training in Oklahoma.

Wills was assigned to the Boeing B-52 bomber at Fairchild Air Force Base and moved to Spokane in 1971.

“I kept my commitment, then I went back to work and started my career in architecture,” he said.

Warren C. Heylman and Associates

After his service, Wills was hired by Warren C. Heylman and Associates, a company he worked with for 19 years.

“My first project was Expo ’74 and the foreign exhibition buildings,” Wills said. “If you ever look at pictures of these, you’ll see that the foreign exhibition buildings were sort of a hexagonal shape, and I was lucky enough to be really downstairs to work on them. ”

Wills appoints prominent local architect Heylman as mentor.

Heylman has designed more than 20 homes, several apartment buildings, and a number of commercial buildings in Spokane throughout his career, including the Parkade, the Spokane Regional Health Building, and Spokane International Airport, all of which are iconic examples of mid-century modern architecture.

“Warren was very good. He built some beautiful buildings during his early years in Spokane, ”said Wills. “Warren was also a great businessman… I learned that from Warren and it really helped us when we started our business. “

Bernardo | Wills Architects

Wills met Bernardo, who also graduated from USC School of Architecture, while working at Warren C. Heylman and Associates. They worked together within the firm for 11 years before launching Bernardo | Wills Architects in 1991.

“After a while we figured we could do it on our own and off we went,” Wills said. “I was 45 and Gary was 31.”

Bernardo and Wills’ business plan included an equal focus on clients in the public and private sectors.

Clients Bernardo and Wills worked with at Warren C. Heylman and Associates knocked on their doors at the James S. Black Building.

A few months after its opening, Bernardo | Wills Architects carried out its first extension in the building. The business was debt free within three years of opening, Wills said.

The company’s expansion continued almost every year until it became the sole tenant on the fourth floor of the James S. Black Building in 1998.

By that time, the company had completed projects that included those for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; Safeway; Fairchild; Spokane public schools; Tomlinson Black as well as Spokane Falls and Big Bend Community Colleges.

That same year, construction began on a company-designed over $ 20 million project: the addition and renovation of Hall C at Spokane International Airport, which included a new waste collection area. luggage and ticketing. The company also designed the footbridge connecting the car park to the airport.

“I was thrilled when we were given the opportunity to do the C competition,” said Wills. “The airport had thought they just wanted to build on the second floor of this building, and we suggested in interviews that they take a step back, maybe take a look at a bigger picture, do kind of a mini master plan. And from there it really turned into Hall C.

Customer relationships ; shared philosophy

Developing long-term relationships with private and public sector clients has been the key to success for Bernardo | Wills Architects.

“I think we place a strong emphasis on customer service and responsiveness to the needs of our customers and less on our architectural ego,” said Bernardo. “I think this gives clients great confidence in us and our ability to meet deadlines and budgets.

Bernardo focuses on private development which includes retail, mixed-use medical / dental facilities, office buildings, industrial facilities and multi-family housing, while Wills focuses on public and government projects.

“One of the philosophies Gary and I had was that not all projects were going to be awarded,” Wills said. “We really wanted to do responsible work, and most clients are looking for exactly that. They want a responsible project. They want something that is sustainable and profitable.

Bernardo and Wills’ perspectives on the practice of architecture and design have been a driving force behind their successful business partnership. Bernardo said their shared values ​​and upbringing at USC made it easy for them to blend talents and personal design preferences.

“We worked really well together and had a lot of fun doing it,” said Bernardo. “He’s a partner, mentor and guy I would trust more than anyone I know other than my kids and my wife. This is important when you are in business with someone.

‘Kit of parts’

Wills said a rewarding part of his career has been working with students. He participated in an American Institute of Architects program in which he worked with elementary school students to create models of houses and buildings.

“I did this for three or four years, and it’s amazing how many of these young kids came back, five or six years later, and said, ‘You came to my class in college and I m ‘remembered it and I am in architecture.’ So it was very gratifying to see that it really meant something to these kids, ”said Wills.

Wills remembers as a kid taking things apart to see how they worked and putting them back together.

“A lot of times I couldn’t figure out how to put it back on. But I really enjoyed doing it, and I think that’s a lot of what an architect does, ”he said. “You really have to start thinking about a building with what we call ‘the kit of parts’ and how they fit together. And it’s amazing how many different ways you can put it together. One of the other fascinating things about architecture – you can struggle with a design and if it doesn’t work you’re going to keep struggling with it. But once you get the recipe and understand it, then it all seems to fall into place. “

A new chapter

Wills said he accepted the idea of ​​retirement almost five years ago, but made no decision until the pandemic took hold in the state last year, so that he worked about 20 hours a week from home.

“After I finished my four or five hours of work at home, I put everything away and went to sit on the deck and enjoy the lake,” he said. “Then I realized that it would be a lot easier if I didn’t work full time and could spend more time working on vintage cars and fish, and that sort of thing. I thought that at 75 you just had to step aside and let the younger ones take over.


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