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Front & Center: Bernardo|Wills Architects founding principal Bob Wills leaves lasting mark on Spokane

Bernardo|Wills Architects co-founder Bob Wills announced his retirement from the firm this month, ending a 50-year career in architecture. His designs have received numerous awards.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
Bernardo|Wills Architects co-founder Bob Wills announced his retirement from the firm this month, ending a 50-year career in architecture. His designs have received numerous awards. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

Bernardo|Wills Architects founding principal Bob Wills says he wouldn’t change anything about his 50-year career in architecture.

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

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

Wills, who focused on commissions for the armed forces, schools, aviation services and businesses, has received several awards for his designs.

A large part of Wills’ career involved designing eight to 10 projects at Fairchild Air Force Base that included the award-winning Child Development Center, Education Center and Library and the U.S. Armed Forces Reserve Center. The firm recently completed design of a Joint Personnel Recovery Agency Command/Control Mission Support Facility at the base.

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

“We’ve been fortunate to be busy,” Wills said of the firm. “This last year was probably the best year we’ve ever had.”

Architecture and the Air Force

Wills’ journey into architecture began as a high school senior in Virginia. Wills had an art teacher who asked if he’d considered that profession as a career path.

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

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

“There were some schools on the West Coast that taught practical architecture. That was basically you had an assignment – we’re going to do a house and you’re going to do the floor plan, the elevation, the roof plan, and you’re going to draft it all up. Then someone builds it,” Wills said. “Theoretical architecture was where we studied forms, shapes, how different things might 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 obtain practical architecture skills, in addition to curriculum learned in college. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in architecture in 1969, around the height of the Vietnam War.

After graduation, Wills took the U.S. Air Force aptitude exam and scored high on 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 served my commitment and then went back to work, beginning my career in architecture,” he said.

Warren C. Heylman and Associates

Following his service, Wills was hired by Warren C. Heylman and Associates, a firm he was employed with for 19 years.

“My first project was Expo ’74 and the foreign exhibit buildings,” Wills said. “If you ever look at photographs of those, you’ll see the foreign exhibit buildings were kind of a hexagonal shape, and I was lucky enough to really been kind of on the ground floor working on that.”

Wills names prominent local architect Heylman as a mentor.

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

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

Bernardo|Wills Architects

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

“After a while, we thought 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 concentration on public and private sector clients.

Clients with whom Bernardo and Wills worked with at Warren C. Heylman and Associates came knocking on their door at the James S. Black Building.

Within a few months of opening, Bernardo|Wills Architects underwent its first expansion in the building. The firm was debt-free within three years of opening, Wills said.

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

By then, the firm 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 more than $20 million project designed by the firm – the Spokane International Airport’s Concourse C addition and remodel, which included a new baggage claim and ticketing area. The firm also designed the skybridge connecting the parking garage to the airport.

“I was delighted when we were given the opportunity to do the C concourse,” Wills said. “The airport had thought they simply wanted to build up on the second story of that building, and we suggested in the interviews that they step back, take a look at maybe a broader picture, do kind of a mini master plan. And from that, it really morphed into the C concourse.”

Client relationships; shared philosophy

Development of both long-term private and public sector client relationships has been a key to success for Bernardo|Wills Architects.

“I think we put strong emphasis on client service and being responsive to our client needs and less about our architectural ego,” Bernardo said. “I think that gives clients a lot of confidence in us, and our ability to stay on schedule and meet budgets.”

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

“One of the philosophies that Gary and I had was that not every project was going to be an award winner,” Wills said. “We really wanted to do responsible work, and most clients are looking for just that. They want a responsible project. They want something that’s sustainable and cost-effective.”

Bernardo and Wills’ outlook on the practice of architecture and design has been a driving force behind their successful business partnership. Bernardo said their shared values and education at USC allowed them to blend talents and personal design preferences easily.

“We worked together very well and we had a lot of fun doing it,” Bernardo said. “He’s a partner, a mentor and a guy I would trust beyond anybody else I know outside of my kids and wife. That’s important when you are in business with somebody.”

‘Kit of parts’

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

“I did that for three or four years, and it’s amazing how many of those young kids came back, five or six years later, and said, ‘You came to my classroom back in middle school and I remembered that and I’m in architecture.’ So that was very fulfilling to see that it actually meant something to those kids,” Wills said.

Wills recalls as a child he would take items apart to see how they worked and put them back together.

“Oftentimes, I couldn’t figure out how to put it back together again. But I really enjoyed doing that, and I think a lot of that is what an architect does,” he said. “You have to really start thinking about a building with just what we call ‘the kit of parts’ and how they go 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’s not working, you’re going to continue to struggle with it. But once you get the recipe and you figure it out, then everything seems to fall in place.”

A new chapter

Wills said he eased into the idea of retirement nearly five years ago, but didn’t make a decision until the pandemic took hold in the state last year, when he was working about 20 hours a week from home.

“After I was done with my four or five hours of work at home, I put it all away and I’d go sit out on the deck and just enjoyed the lake,” he said. “Then I realized it would be a lot easier if I just didn’t work full time and I could spend more time working on antique cars and fish, and those things. I figured at 75 you need to just move aside and let the younger people take over.”

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