Designing woman guides building boom

January 22, 2004, vol. 29, no. 2
By Roberta Staley

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K.C. Jones was a preschooler when her veterinarian father commandeered her to assist at a particularly difficult calving.

“He had me stick my arm down a cow to grab the calf's hooves to get it turned around. My dad's arms were too big and he couldn't manage,” says Jones, shrugging nonchalantly at the thought that, as a four-year-old, she helped birth an animal that weighed more than she did.

“I also remember,” Jones reminisces, “pushing the garbage can into the surgery to stand on. I was then tall enough to help my dad during surgery. I would snip off the ends of the sutures.” (K.C., short for Kathryn Cheryl, has been Jones' moniker since childhood.)

It's no wonder that Jones, with her down-to-earth, prairie girl unflappability, is at ease overseeing several of the projects in the massive SFU construction boom, a responsibility that many still view as a male prerogative.

As one of the university's development managers, the 52-year-old mother of one, and stepmom to three, is overseeing the student residence expansion on Burnaby Mountain, as well as projects in downtown Vancouver and Surrey.

The Burnaby structures include three new residential towers - a fourth building will boast a dining room for 750 - and provide a new home for the student residence administrative staff. Jones is also overseeing the reincarnation of the Joe Segal-donated Bank of Montreal heritage building on West Hastings Street, which will house SFU's business faculty.

Overseeing such projects is not for the faint of heart - or the impatient. “It can take five years from beginning to end to construct a building,” says Jones. Acting as the “building owner,” she is responsible for managing the contractors, engineers and architects, and makes sure their work meshes with the university's vision for that structure.

Jones is hands-on, donning steel-toed boots and construction helmet to go on site during construction. She also orchestrates the grand finale - getting everyone into the building, ensuring minutiae such as lights, phone and data lines are humming along.

An alumnus of University of Manitoba's gruelling interior design program (only about 25 per cent of her 120-strong freshman class graduated), Jones honed her craft in Winnipeg, dreaming one day of creating embassies, but jumped a plane for Calgary when the 1970s oil boom exploded. Construction was frenetic as black gold buoyed the economy. Jones joined business giants such as Nova Corporation of Alberta, which were throwing up office towers as if the flow of oil dollars would never stop.

Jones was planning and designing sprawling new interiors at a time when women were not accepted in that male-dominated field. She endured condescending pats on the head, and the occasional unwelcome come-on from construction workers. “It took a bit of work at the beginning to be accepted,” says Jones.

Then came the après boom. With the oil bust went Jones' job. Virtually unemployable as the high-rolling economy plummeted, Jones dropped out, moved to Vancouver, and revelled in a three-year hiatus as mom to a baby son “who is now 18 and a computer geek.”

When Jones returned to the work force, she signed on as an interior designer with several colleagues from Winnipeg, including Peter Wreglesworth, now a senior principal at Vancouver's prestigious Stantec Architecture firm.

Jones' first assignment? Help design the proposed SFU downtown Vancouver campus at Harbour Centre.

Although Jones was part of an eight-person team, her signature is everywhere, bold or subtly displayed in nooks and crannies all over the 13-year-old downtown campus. She designed the millwork at the front reception as well as the study carrels and library. Jones is also responsible for the nifty little hats found on the bookshelves, which support a book, allowing quick and easy perusal.

Unpretentious elegance and clever functionality characterize the work of Jones, who ranks Chicago's Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as her favourite architect - the 20th-century icon who set a radical new standard for modern building design.

The influence of Mies van der Rohe can be detected in the Arthur Erikson-designed concrete structures on Burnaby Mountain. Jones plans to complement Erikson's “strong architectural inheritance” by bringing “colour and warm materials” into the new buildings under construction, helping create “wonderful, vibrant” inside spaces.

Jones' own space, perhaps not surprising, is a modest 1950s bungalow on the North Shore that remains untouched from the original state except for a coat of paint. “After I finish designing at work, that last thing I want to do is more when I get home,” says Jones.

The house is comfortable, in a natural North Shore wilderness setting, a place of welcome for friends and family, much like the environments she designs for SFU.

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