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Shaping Communities and Defying Odds: Meet Damon Hewlin

by: Jack Quigley
Damon Hewlin
Damon Hewlin
Positively impacting humanity and improving the quality of life for as many people as possible is the primary focus for Damon Hewlin, AIA, LEED AP, NOMA, who makes it his career goal for every community on the planet to be equitable, and for the built environment to be an asset to lives which are lived purposefully and inspirationally.

With 25 years of international and stateside experience in design, construction, and management, Hewlin has worked on cutting-edge large scale and high-profile projects, where he has created and co-created award-winning designs.

As a founding partner and CEO of METICULOUS, Hewlin’s vision, leadership, and relentless work ethic help to shape the firm’s culture and presence on the international design stage. He helps clients and communities dream bigger and helps turn their visions into reality. His passion and energy for assisting as many people as possible to fulfill their potential permeates throughout the creative process, from initial ideas to the cutting of the ribbon. Hewlin is passionate about inspiring the youth to pursue the architecture profession, mentoring, sharing his global experiences to help broaden perspectives and improve interaction amongst all people, and inspiring people to live well-rounded holistic lives.

Where did you grow up?
Damon Hewlin
I was born and raised in Paterson, New Jersey in the underserved, underprivileged projects called the Riverview Towers. I didn't know we were a low-income family as a kid. We had a great time growing up. My mother worked hard to give us everything she possibly could for our life, which was excellent for me and my sister.

Growing up in North Jersey, where I lived and the school I attended was majority of minority demographic. The projects consisted of four 16-story brick buildings, and I literally can't recall seeing any white people in the community. My classmates were either Latino or Black American.

When did you realize you might be interested in design?
When we relocated to South Jersey for my last three years of high school, my carpentry teacher mentioned drafting. I was always interested in drawing. I drew comic strips when I was younger. So, I decided my sophomore year to switch to drafting for the rest of high school.

Ball State was one of the schools I applied to. The architecture program was known as one of the best in the country when I applied, so I decided to go to Muncie to study.

What was your early career like as an architect after graduation?
I worked for Schmidt Associates in Indianapolis. Wayne Schmidt was an adjunct professor at Ball State. I was in one of the classes he taught. During the semester, Wayne liked what he saw me doing and offered me a job before I graduated.

There were great opportunities for me at Schmidt to cut my teeth on larger scale projects and gain the exposure to begin developing my professional practice. Wayne also allowed me to participate in business development activities, so I was able to work with Dean Illingworth and some of the other team members on putting together proposals and learning that process.
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After Schmidt, I had the opportunity to go to A2SO4 with Vop Osili and Sanford Garner. That was a phenomenal opportunity for me. Right from the start, I was able to take on designing and managing smaller projects. It put me right into the fire with clients, developing the technical understanding and being able to manage a project.

The next firm was a hybrid. A2SO4 partnered with RW Armstrong, a local engineering firm. And that relationship evolved to where we went overseas to the United Arab Emirates.

The work schedule was crazy. 80–90-hour work weeks. Massive projects. However, [that experience] allowed my career to grow substantially as far as gaining exposure to working with world class firms – some of the firms we admired in college that had famous starchitects.

I was supposed to stay overseas for six months, but our family ended up living and working there for 14 years before we moved back to the U.S.

After coming back to the United States, why did you decide to start a design firm here in Indiana? How did that come about?
One of the other founding partners of METICULOUS, Brian Robinson, he and I were classmates. We discussed it and dreamed about it while we were in Muncie at Ball State. We didn't know what it meant at the time. We saw great work being done by starchitects who were famous and frequently published. And we said, “We could do that. We can have our practice where we create great work.”

We took the dream and put it on the shelf. We wanted to gain experience instead of just going right into practice after graduating. Eventually, Brian founded Meticulous Design Build in 2007. He was wearing both hats – working on the architecture side and the construction side on affordable housing projects, senior housing projects, and some McDonald's and Panda Express projects.

Over the next several years, we started looking toward the future. The question became: when are we going to do what we dreamed about? After praying and discussing launching METICULOUS Design Architecture with my wife Erica, I resigned from RW Armstrong International in the UAE in 2016.

We opened our office in Abu Dhabi, which is still an active office, and we began doing work globally in the first year of our existence.

As an accomplished Black American architect thriving in the design industry in Indiana where the leadership is predominantly comprised of white men, how do you reflect on your professional journey in relation to your peers who are in the majority?
First, I would strike out Black American before architect, because I'm an architect. Whenever I travel outside of the United States, I'm Damon Hewlin, the architect. It's only when I land back on the soil of my own home country that we begin to be labeled. In the U.S., I'm Damon Hewlin, the Black or African American architect. That's not something I adhere to.

One of my life goals is to help society eliminate labels. There are realities to society we must face, which is why there are a lot of diversity, equity, and inclusion movements taking place. And I'm extremely grateful for all those efforts and for the pioneers who have worked for civil rights throughout history. But as a professional, the most important elements I've found whether working globally, in Indiana or in any other state where METICULOUS is established, is excellence, being qualified, and having the capacity and relationships to create opportunities. It's not the demographic of the firm owners.

Could you share any projects that come to mind which you take pride in?
Communities which are underserved, underprivileged, and which lack resources have dreams and aspirations of something that can be transformational for the community. We just had a ribbon cutting in Elkhart, Indiana for the Tolson Center for Community Excellence where the community went from a former carwash building into a world-class community center. We were able to work with the people from the community and design an inspirational building that breathed fresh life into the city.

We're doing another project in Indianapolis with Indy Parks Department called the Frederick Douglass Family Center. This project is similar in that the community had an old facility and was desperate for something to be uplifting. We allowed the voices of the community to shape the design for their community.

Another project is the Dr. Martin Luther King Dream Center in South Bend. They had an old, brutalist, concrete building with no natural daylight. And similarly: the design is a transformational project that ignites hope and a sense of pride in the community and will impact generations to come.

Who have you looked up to as a mentor during your career?
At Ball State, there were a lot of starchitects displayed on the walls of the architecture building library. A lot of what we learned was about them. We did not have exposure to minority architects, and there weren't a lot of minority professors.

One of my mentors during that time was Olon Dotson. He's now the chair of the architecture department at Ball State. Now, several Black alumni are either adjunct professors or teachers at the university…I believe we have the most now in the history of the department.

Vop Osili and Sanford Garner were my mentors, and I still reach out to them.

Daniel Render, he's one of my fraternity brothers who graduated before me in the architecture program. He's the one who invited me to come join A2SO4 when he joined.

Wayne Schmidt was a mentor to me when I was at Schmidt Associates. And I still have a relationship with Wayne.

You have different types of mentors in different seasons. In my current role as a business owner, there are different aspects to what I do as an architect from a leadership perspective, so I've developed more mentors. Bill Browne from RATIO, I reach out to him. Curt Moody of Moody Nolan, which is currently the largest black owned firm in the country. A gentleman named Jim Wade is the past owner of R.W. Armstrong. When it comes to business experience, I'll always reach out to him.

I've had the privilege of working with Adrian Smith, Gordon Gill, Foster + Partners, and Zaha Hadid Architects…. Even though I may not have direct access to them, I was able to glean experience by working on projects with them. I consider that a type of mentorship.

Are there specific lessons you've learned during your journey that you've carried with you?
Coming from the background I had growing up in the low-income projects of North Jersey, to have the opportunity to go to college was a blessing. To have the opportunity to graduate from college was a blessing. Me sitting here today as an architect is a miracle because I almost did not graduate because of a lack of finances.

Ball State requires architecture students to do an internship after their third year. Students then come back from the internship and finish up their last two years. When I came back from my internship, I didn't have any more money to attend classes, but I was figuring out if I could get loans or aid. I exhausted loans, FASFA, everything, and I didn't have any more money. So, I couldn't enroll. But I went to class anyway.

Every day, the professor would call me to the front of the class and say, “I don't see your name on the roster.” Every day this would happen. I went for a week, then a couple of weeks, then a couple of months. It ended up being two years that I was going to class without being enrolled. Nobody knew about it. My parents, my peers, my fraternity brothers, my best friends – nobody knew. I was just going to class and doing everything as if I was enrolled.

I got to my senior year, and I didn't know what else to do. I was working at AT&T doing call service and living in an apartment off campus because I couldn't stay on campus anymore. I can't even tell you how I ate. It was just wherever, however I could eat.

I got home from class on a Friday, and I broke down. I fell on the couch crying. I didn't want to go back home because it felt like giving up.

I called up Dean Mikesell – I'll never forget him – and I said, "Dean, I'm looking at this book and it says there's a scholarship (for out-of-state minority students). Is this new?" He said, "No, this has been here for decades. You should have this one, right?" I said, "No, I didn't get this." He said, "What do you mean, you didn't get? You have all the criteria." I said, "Yeah, I know." He said, "I don't know what happened. Give me a couple of days and come to my office next week."

So, he calls me into his office the next week. I'm scared now because I've been going to school for two years unenrolled. He says, "I don't know what happened. But you were supposed to have this scholarship." Then he asked me, "What have you been doing?" So, I told him the whole story.

He said, "This is what we can do: We can back pay all of your semesters . . . We can pay your rent. We can pay for your books, your supplies – we can cover everything.” Then, each and every [professor] agreed to submit my grades from the past semesters. And I'm here today as a global architect with a world class firm.

So, when I say I am committed and give my very best, it's because I appreciate the blessing that I have to be here today as an architect, and I will always give 100 percent of my best to help humanity to have the very best.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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