Monica Gresser, principal and citizen architect at BrazenArchitecture, is passionate about helping the homeless population. “As a citizen and human being, I am in a position to help them in some way,” she says. Gresser is exploring how, through architecture, she can help direct service providers who do work for those in need of housing, food, jobs, veterans’ services, and health and mental wellness.
When did you discover your passion for architecture?
I thought I might want to be an architect as a junior in high school, when my drafting instructor suggested I consider it. I remember being the only girl in those classes. In college, I somehow persuaded my adviser to create a class focusing on design-build and energy efficiency for Houston Habitat for Humanity projects. We had support from Habitat for Humanity and local architects and engineers. We also had a Habitat family willing to endure having a bunch of college kids design and build their house. Working through the project was exciting and inspirational. That passion re-emerged when a volunteer coordinator for Aid for AIDS of Nevada asked me to help design garden spaces and social areas for its newly acquired residential complex.
What brought you to Southern Nevada?
We were living in Baltimore, and my husband was an opera stage manager in Washington, D.C. He was looking for a different theatrical scene. Being from the Texas Gulf Coast, the New York option was too cold for me and Las Vegas seemed the perfect choice. We’ve now been here for more than 16 years.
Describe your approach to building design.
How the spaces will be used is key to a successful design. If you’re the owner and you think you need an architect just to complete your drawings, I’m going to pull you into the design work. It is to the owner’s advantage to share how they work or will work in the space. Typically, we want to know the “why” and “how” about our clients’ work. I won’t be the one working in that building five years from now — the client or their staff will be. That’s why gathering and developing that information is so important.
What are some of the projects and buildings you’ve worked on in the city?
Our work includes the Las Vegas Valley Water District, Desert Regional Center, Clark County Building Department, UNLV colleges, Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth, Veterans Village, a penthouse at Veer Towers, Oasis Cannabis, Hard Hat Lounge, Hampton Inn, a senior living conversion and Vitacost. We are working on a master-planning project with Las Vegas and several service providers called the Corridor of Hope, which is a downtown area focused on providing services to homeless and near-homeless people.
What research do you do before beginning a new project?
Considering our projects have primarily been tenant improvement projects — renovating buildings’ interior and exterior areas — I like to know the location, what the previous architect did, what the owner’s intentions are, what the client’s budget is, who will use it and what they want from us. When we are pursuing specific work, we’ll talk to people working in that area, visit sites or buildings that were constructed for that task, and study. For instance, in working on a mental health services office, it was helpful to consult therapists and social workers on how color and lighting affect patients and how patients react to visiting their offices.
How has your profession evolved in the past decade?
Building integration software has come a long way in the past decade; the number of women in architecture and construction has increased; and design-build process is becoming more valued. For the most part, men and women in our field have become a lot more interested in a person’s ability to do the job versus whether or not that person is a man or woman. And, the design-build industry has become more accepted and seen for the benefit it is for owners, designers and builders.
What is the best business advice you’ve received?
Don’t compare yourself to other architects and follow your own path.
What’s your dream project?
Redeveloping a neglected neighborhood without gentrification would be incredible. Locally, a neglected neighborhood is loosely defined as a poverty-stricken neighborhood composed of people with and without jobs or income. They may or may not have access to groceries, jobs, schools or medical facilities close to their homes. There’s a lot of debate over how this can or cannot be done.
What’s your favorite place to have fun in Las Vegas?
I love being outdoors, hiking or biking, or being near the water. I enjoy the occasional, yet brief, isolation and being disconnected from the modern world. I can’t live that way, but sometimes, I need to get my brain and body into the mountains or Lake Mead for a mental reset.
If you could take a group of visitors around Las Vegas on an architectural tour, where would the first three stops be?
The Springs Preserve is an amazing example of sustainable desert architecture. I am fascinated by the indigenous qualities of the buildings — using mass and wind.
I love the entry for the old La Concha Motel, which is now the entry point for the Neon Museum. It has origins in Space Age whimsy Googie architecture style, with its seemingly weightless concrete-bending forms.
Also, although it’s not strict architecture, I usually point out that the Luxor and Stratosphere have an interesting relationship as physical landmarks that define the north-south central line of the Las Vegas Valley. If you’re lost in the valley at night and can see the Strip, look for the Stratosphere and the Luxor, and use them to orient yourself. Once you learn that the Strat is on the north end and the Luxor is on the south end, you can find your way to or from Henderson or North Las Vegas … or to the Strip.
Whom do you admire?
I am in awe of Merideth Spriggs and her work as leader (Chief Kindness Officer) of Caridad, an organization she created to humanize the homeless. I met her after reading an article about her in 2015. I told her I had a graduated-housing idea for transitioning people out of homelessness. We talked for more than an hour about ideas before I asked to shadow her on her downtown route. That day — July 3, 2015 — opened my eyes about how homeless people function downtown. We spoke to a newly homeless woman who said she was “OK and didn’t need help” (at least on that day) and a man who’d been homeless here for 10 years and wanted to go back home.