Design Prodigy

The steel-toed boots architect Courtney Brett keeps in her car come in handy on work sites around South Alabama. But they also serve as a reminder of her first design client, a low-income family in Hale County.

It was there, as a student in the Auburn University School of Architecture Rural Studio, that Brett honed her problem-solving approach to design as one of several students working on the Willie Bell House in Mason’s Bend. Work at the Rural Studio was “very nuts and bolts, ” she says. Hence, the steel-toed boots she wore each day on the construction site.

Brett experienced one of the most powerful career moments when she returned about a year later to see how Willie Bell was doing. “She gave me a big hug and knew my name. She was the first real client I had. It changed my life.”

Brett is something of a wunderkind in the world of architectural design, becoming at age 24 the youngest licensed architect in the history of the American Institute of Architects. Her rapid ascent landed her at a renowned firm, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in New York at the age of 20.

She now owns her own firm, Casburn Brett in Daphne, just across the bay from Mobile.

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As fast as her career has taken off, her interest in design started far earlier. “I wanted to be an architect long before I truly knew what that meant, ” Brett says.

Growing up with a father in the U.S. Air Force, her family spent a lot of time in the car, traveling around the country before landing in San Angelo, Texas. On those road trips, Brett’s mother gave her paper to draw on. She sketched the schools, houses and other buildings she saw along the way. But she didn’t draw the outside. She drew the insides, the floor plans. 

“I was fascinated by buildings, how they worked. It was thinking with a pen, ” she says. “Someone was designing these buildings. I realized that I wanted to shape the environment around me.”

She laughs that her earliest inspirations were Mike Brady and Frank Lloyd Wright. “There were no architects in my family.” 

Her early introduction to college came about as a result of her parents’ concern about her anxiety. Because she was a nervous tester, they signed her up to take the SAT at age 13 and told her the results did not matter. Completely relaxed taking the test, she did well enough to qualify for two early enrollment programs, Duke University and Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia. 

“My first reaction was ‘Absolutely not, ’” she says. But when her dad was transferred to Florida, meaning a new high school for her, she enrolled at Mary Baldwin — two weeks before her 15th birthday.

Being at Mary Baldwin was a “phenomenal experience, ” Brett says, but the college does not have an architectural program. After two years, she started looking at schools that did. Virginia Tech and Rice University topped her list. Fortunately, Auburn University is located between the two, so, on a road trip to visit colleges, she made a stop in the Plains.

“It was the most amazing fit, ” she says. The Auburn University Rural Studio program falls in line with what Brett already believed — “Design is for everyone…. If a building went up, it was for the entire community, not just for those who paid for it.”

Her ethos philosophy is to take available materials, then use them in an efficient, aesthetically pleasing, yet cost-effective design.

The traditional dogtrot home created for Willie Bell, for example, used a passively heated and cooled space to make the home affordable for the family, an important element in the impoverished Black Belt of Alabama.

After graduating from Auburn’s five-year program, Brett was recruited by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in New York City and started working in its education lab.

“That is where I wanted to be. It is such an iconic firm. The Freedom Tower was being designed at the time I was there, ” she says. “They were shaping the entire world. It was humbling and empowering at the same time.”

In designing educational facilities, Brett came to understand how everything from lights to wall colors could affect a student’s focus and even test scores. She worked on a couple of schools in New York City, including the High School of Art & Design. 

Her experience at a large firm was different than what many young designers get.

“I had the great fortune to maintain a job when firms were operating very lean, ” she says. Projects became “all hands on deck, ” so she was exposed to an array of work sites. 

Working at the firm allowed her to work on large-scale projects in locations around the world. But she had her heart set on being a small business owner, so she started her own firm in 2012. 

She and husband, Daniel, chose to move to his hometown of Daphne, and she launched Casburn Brett Architects in 2012. Daniel, whom she met at Auburn, runs the Modern Ensemble Music School in Daphne. The Eastern Shore offered a great place to raise a family — their first child, a girl, was born in November — and it’s just a plane trip away from consulting jobs around the country. But she likes to focus on projects in Alabama, specifically the Gulf Coast.

Brett relishes taking on projects that have a unique need, in which a client wants to tell a particular story with the design. “We want to tell the client’s story instead of ours, ” she says. 

One of her first projects was the Gulf restaurant and bar in Orange Beach, made of storage containers with seating to the water’s edge — a unique dilemma, combining public and private property issues on a beachfront.

She also has an interest in lean urbanism, and has worked on The Fuse Project co-op building at 200 Government Street in Mobile. Construction on that shared office space for nonprofits began the first of December.

Casburn Brett has four employees but uses a lot of independent contractors. “We look for talent that complements our vision — those who have a certain expertise wherever they are in the country, ” she says.

And things have come full circle for Brett as she is now a member of the advisory council for Auburn’s School of Architecture. “Their program really shaped the way I practice, so it’s great to help shape the program, ” she says. 

Tammy Leytham and Matthew Coughlin are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. She is based in Fairhope and he in Pensacola.

Text by Tammy Leytham • Photo by Matthew Coughlin

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