Architect leaves his imprint on community

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
He and the company he works for are becoming the architects of choice when it comes to major construction projects in Marion County.

David Riffel and his employer, Howard & Helmer Architects P.A., have compiled an impressive list of projects in Hillsboro alone over the last eight years:

the $3.25 million Solomon L. Loewen Natural Science Center at Tabor College, completed in 1998;

the $500,000 entrance and office renovation project at Hillsboro Community Medical Center, completed late last year;

a $5.2 million ministry center for the Hillsboro Mennonite Brethren Church, which should begin construction this week;

the $4 million student-housing project at Tabor that will result in six townhouses along Adams Street; it is slated to begin this summer and open in fall 2007.

Most recently, Howard & Helmer was hired by Unified School District 410 to develop a bond campaign for improvements at the elementary, middle and high schools, as well as a cooperative project with Tabor for major upgrades to the college’s football and track facilities.

Riffel will spearhead those projects, too, as the lead architect.

Add to that list four church additions around the Marion County-one several years ago at Durham Baptist Church and three in Marion: Marion Presbyterian, Emanuel Baptist and Eastmoor United Methodist.

A natural connection

How does one architect and one company make such a big impact in a relatively small market?

You might say it comes naturally.

Ken Helmer, one of the primary partners with the Wichita-based firm that also has an office in Overland Park, is a Marion native.

Riffel, meanwhile, has never called Marion County home, but he almost could. His grandparents, Dave and Inez Krispence, and mother, Carol, grew up near the Strassburg Baptist Church in rural Marion. His father, Ed Riffel, is from Herington, just over the border in Dickinson County.

Riffel currently has two sisters living in Marion County with their families: Karen Baliel near Marion, and Chris Herbel in Lehigh.

Not to mention a busload of uncles, aunts and cousins.

“I’ve been driving the 13-mile Road since 1964,” Riffel said with a smile.

That was the year he, his parents and sisters settled in Wichita after his father completed his tour of duty with the Air Force.

Professional path

Riffel started kindergarten that same year. In the eighth grade, he decided to be an architect after taking nine weeks of drafting and shop class.

“I asked my teacher what are some options I could do because I really liked it,” he said. “Obviously, one was to go into architecture.

“I made up my mind in the eighth grade and I’ve never changed my mind since,” Riffel added. “In some respects, that may have been a confirmation of the Lord just to get some direction in life.”

After graduating from high school, he attended Friends University for a year, then transferred to Kansas State to study architecture.

“When I got there, I had this idea it was just drafting all day-but it’s not,”Riffel said. “It’s much more the design, which I thoroughly enjoy. But it was kind of stretching to understand what architecture really is.”

After receiving his diploma in 1982, Riffel completed a three-month mission assignment at a Christian hotel and conference center in Austria that was housed in a castle built in the 15th century.

When he returned in September, he was hired by Howard & Helmer and has been there for almost 24 years.

“It’s kind of funny,” he said. “We now have employees who were born the year I started. I could be their father.”

Riffel and wife Sandy, who were first introduced by a Hillsboro pastor, do have two children: Karissa, who is ready for high school, and Justin, who will be going into grade five.

Point-man for a big team

Through the years, Riffel rose through the ranks of the firm and today is a managing architect, which means he is the point-man in a collaborative effort of myriad design and engineering teams within the company to complete a given project.

“It’s a big team,” Riffel said. “In some respects, I would say an architect is a mix between a composer and a conductor. He’s helping to create the music, and he’s helping direct the orchestra.

“But it’s not all about him. It’s about the whole team.”

A relational foundation

One thing Riffel discovered at K-State is that being a successful architect requires more than design and drawing skills.

“A lot of it is relationships,” he said. “In fact, you get to the point where it’s mostly relationships.”

That component didn’t necessarily come naturally.

“I consider myself more of an introvert than an extrovert, but you have to learn to be able to listen to what people’s hearts are saying and have some sensitivity in that area,” Riffel said.

Building trust is essential to transform a client’s perceived but abstract need into brick-and-mortar reality.

“They don’t know how to verbalize it, maybe,” Riffel said, “or they can’t picture it. I try to do my best to listen and try to understand what their desire really is.”

“Then you’ve got to play in the fact this is not a budget-free world. So now you have to start putting parameters of location, budget and time and schedule-all those have to fit to together.

“It’s kind of like a big puzzle you’re trying to fit together,” he added. “Hopefully, at the end, you have a creation that functions in a way that the client needs it- and, as we always say, it’s on time and in budget.”

“That’s your hope, at least. It doesn’t always happen.”

Because it usually does happen, Howard & Helmer customers keep coming back.

“Most of the work we do in our office is repeat work,” Riffel said. “It’s one of the reasons I’ve been at Via Christi (in Wichita) for over 20 years and why we’ve been at Hutchinson Hospital for 10 years.”

A rewarding profession

Riffel said the rewards of his work far surpass the paycheck.

“From an architectural side, there’s kind of a reward that you’ve taken something that’s an idea, put it down on paper and, through the team process of a contractor, it becomes reality,” he said.

“On the spiritual side, the Bible talks about how we’re made in God’s image,” he added. “And that is a reflection of how, frankly, we reflect his image-by creating. There’s a joy to it if you really like doing it.”

Riffel’s longevity in the profession and at Howard & Helmer provides a measure of satisfaction, too.

“It’s an affirmation that I’m probably in the place God wants me to be,” he said. “A lot of times, frankly, I give him the credit for it because what I am and what I can do is not me.”

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