Vanarsdale proud to be among the first female African American architects licensed in the state of Iowa
Friday, September 22, 2023

When life hits a crossroad, some people look for a spiritual sign. Others jump into a digital space and seek guidance from family and friends.

For Adele Vanarsdale, director of campus project planning at Iowa, the sign she needed was delivered on the side of an 18-wheeler.

In 2011, the Waterloo, Iowa, native, who is a licensed architect in Iowa, was living in California and working for the California State University system. On one morning commute, she was contemplating a job offer at the University of Iowa.

On her mother’s advice, Vanarsdale wrote down the pros and cons of staying in Southern California versus returning to Iowa. But on the morning a decision was due, the answer still wasn’t clear. At least not until fate stepped in and Vanarsdale was pointed east by a passing semitruck.

“I was driving to campus and stopped at a light. On the other side of the stoplight is the Cal State campus, and as I’m sitting there, a semi drives past,” says Vanarsdale. “Written on the side of the truck, as big as a billboard, it says, ‘Heartland Express, Iowa City, Iowa.’ Incredible. I called Rod and said, ‘I guess I'm taking this job.’”

That “job” was with UI Planning, Design and Construction. That “Rod” was Rod Lehnertz, UI's senior vice president for finance and operations and previous director of the department.

“I knew Adele was a talent we needed on campus immediately after we were first introduced, and I still recall being thrilled when she called me to say, ‘Yes,’” says Lehnertz. “She makes those around her better, professionally and personally. She has the unique skill of being both visionary and realistic, and her voice is respected at every turn in planning and development of our campus. It is a privilege to work with her and see her succeed. Her success has been our success.”

Things have changed in the 10-plus years Vanarsdale has been on campus, including her role at the university. On that day in 2011, she accepted the position of senior design project manager. Today, she is the director of campus project planning, in the Campus Planning and Development department, applying her Notre Dame education and professional architect experience to Iowa’s evolving campus landscape. 

As the university navigates its 10-year facilities master plan, Vanarsdale talks about her experience at Iowa, the holistic and purposeful vision for campus, and the pleasure of working for the university whose sports teams she grew up rooting for. 

How has the approach to development changed since your first day on campus?

Our vision today is much different than when I arrived. We utilized our external partners a lot and had one primary design professional who helped us with the campus master plan, which at that time planning was mostly focused on space management. We would look at who was in what space and determine who needed more space. Asset assignments/space management was the major focus of planning at the time.

Now, we have evolved to a more holistic view of planning, looking beyond space management. We look at master planning, what does the institution want to look like 50 years from now? And if this is what it looks like 50 years from now, what do we have to do five, 10, 15, 20 years from now to realize that? And then, are we building enough flexibility in that long-range plan to be nimble enough to change with the times if something changes in our master plan or the strategic priorities of the institution.

We need to be nimble enough to alter that thinking and keep moving the university forward. For instance, President Wilson has embedded a mental health component in the strategic plan. It's beautiful. And not just the students, but the staff and the faculty. She is looking at our entire university community and everyone’s total well-being. I never saw that emphasis in our strategic plan before.

What are some keys you consider when developing a long-term plan?

Part of master planning and something we always consider is: How do we make sure that we are meeting the strategic initiatives? Regardless of who the administrator is, we need to move the physical nature of the campus forward. We must provide the facilities that enable world-class research, world-class instruction, a place people desire to be, their first choice of education and employment. The first place that patients want to visit because they know they're getting world-class care. The specialists are here. We want to stay true to the vision and keep that going.

What is your role as director of campus project planning?

My specific specialty is providing the bridge between the early conceptual planning and the planning for a specific project. Once we start to know a project is going to be realized, that is when I get more involved. I will consider what has been done to date from my colleagues in planning, and transition into design and construction so that we're prepared to work with a design professional. We need to provide a clear message—what it is we want them to do for us. That is one of the key things that planning brings to the table.

When you talk about behind-the-scenes work, a lot of times when a group or entity on campus realizes they're going to be part of a renovation, or they are going to get a new building, they immediately start thinking about the architect and ask themselves, ‘When are we going to start designing?’ That's not the start of the project. The start of the project is the conceptual programming and planning that defines what it is that we're trying to accomplish.

After living in the Southwest and on West Coast, the work pulled you back to Iowa, but what keeps you here?

When I received my Bachelor of Architecture degree from the University of Notre Dame in 1986 and started as an architectural planner for the University of Northern Iowa in 1988, there were not many licensed female architects in the state of Iowa, and there were even fewer African American female architects licensed in the state. If I wasn’t the first, I was certainly among the first, and that historical significance is important to me.

Iowa is a special place. My family is here. I enjoy the people I work with here and the folks that I encounter here. There's a Midwest thing that rings true, the neighbor helping neighbor aspect, that intangible feeling of “home.” No matter how many years I lived in Southern California, or even when I lived in New Mexico, people would ask, ‘Where are you from?’ Well, where I'm living is the place that I'm at right now. Where I'm from is Iowa. It will always be Iowa. And for me, that is very heartfelt. When I was growing up in Waterloo, the University of Iowa was the team that I followed. When I was in junior high school watching sports, the highlight was watching Iowa athletics.

I have always had an affinity for the athletics part of the school, so coming here and being part of a tradition just felt at home.

What excites you as you forecast the next five, 10, or 50 years?

Planning can sometimes resemble a snow globe. When it’s sitting on the desk, there is this perfect vision of our aspirations (50-year master plan). At some point, though, this thing is shaken, and the picture is not always so clear. The challenge for planners is that nothing stays static; there are all sorts of variables to contend with at any given time. Everybody wants their turn to take a shake of the snow globe, and that’s when you understand the value of a nimble master plan.

We hope that when everything settles again, there is still this beautiful concept that can be realized. When you look at the 10-year master plan, you'll see some things being divested, and other things being reinvested or created. What’s exciting is seeing how this works to support the university’s academic and research mission. We want to recruit and retain talented people. We want to be a destination for higher education and health care. We want to train and educate so that our students and faculty can provide service and care to the state of Iowa. It is important we have the right facilities to make that happen.