Inside the World of an Architect Behind A Wilder Vision

Things get wild when you're designing the newest exhibits of the Fort Worth Zoo.

A Wilder Vision went from vision to reality in April when the Fort Worth Zoo opened the project’s first exhibit, African Savanna. The architecture firm working behind the scenes was Halbach-Dietz Architects.

Times are changing for the company’s namesakes. With E. Karl Dietz now retired and Joe Halbach phasing out of the company with plans to travel, interior designer Amy Scott Sorley is transitioning to principal of the firm, alongside Jeff VanCuren. Here, we step into Sorley’s world to see how wild it really gets.

Q. What do you personally think will be the coolest part of African Savanna?
A. The total immersion into the animals’ environments will make the experience seem as authentic as possible, short of actually traveling to Africa. The interaction with the animals, like feeding the giraffes and observing hippos underwater, is going to be a huge draw for people of all ages.

Q. Did you always picture yourself working on specialty projects like the zoo?
A. Not really. I am pretty much nuts and bolts, so to be pulled out of that world into the one in which the zoo exists exposes me to a completely different element of design. That exposure is always a win for the growth column.

Q. You’ve done quite a bit of work with the zoo already. What was it about Halbach-Dietz that first got the Fort Worth Zoo’s attention?
A. The relationship began in 1994 with the Small Mammal Exhibit. We have been involved with over a dozen various zoo projects, and the African Savanna is our sixth major project with the zoo and one of the most challenging.

Q. Just how challenging?
A. Extremely. For example, “typical” building wall sections are not used because the walls may not be built out of typical materials due to the fact that animals, not humans, inhabit the spaces. The sheer size of some of the animals, or inherent characteristics, dictates the design and materials used.

Q. What got you into the world of architecture and interior design?
A. I was born into it. My father was an architect and a founding partner of a large renowned architectural firm that he was very proud of. For many architects, it’s not just what you do, it’s who you are, and that was very much my father; and he shared that passion with me. I loved to visit his office and see all the architects bent over their drafting tables, the “onion skin” sketches hung on the walls, the energy of the place; I was fascinated and completely drawn into that world. When it came time to select a major for college, I was pretty certain the math aspect of an architecture degree would overwhelm me, but then realized that interior design would get me close to architecture without all the math. The whole of my career has been spent at architectural firms. I just wish my father had lived to see me become a part-owner of one.

Q. What’s the most fun part of your job?
A. I love to ask questions and really get to the core of the client’s vision and their needs. Architecture and design by and large are problem-solving professions, and I love a good challenge. It also tends to make you a good jigsaw puzzle finisher and a strategy-type game player — all pluses on game night.

Q. So, what’s on the horizon for Halbach-Dietz?
A. We recently completed the Game On Sports Complex on the west side of town, and we will continue to work on additional phases of A Wilder Vision at the zoo, as well as a project with the Fort Worth ISD bond package. As a result of myself and Jeff VanCuren coming on as part-owners of the firm, we’re contemplating a name change in the near future as well.


 

1. A hard hat for construction site visits.
2. A smartphone. “For documenting field conditions. There is nothing more valuable than having a photo to refer to, and thanks to smartphones, that is easier than it has ever been.”
3. An International Building Code book. “It just travels from desk to desk at our office.”
4. Tape measure. “An indispensable tool. I have one in my car, my purse, probably half a dozen at home. Even sent both of my kids off to college with a 25-footer.”
5. Construction documents. A role of plans for A Wilder Vision.
6. Rubber bands. Sorley says they are everywhere around the office.
7. Onion skin — that is, tracing paper. Since it’s used and thrown out so often, Amy says it’s also referred to as “crud paper” or “trash.”