• Beyond the Blueprints: Architect Natalia Vladimirova

    Welcome to Beyond the Blueprints, where we get to know RTA staff beyond their work lives. Join us in discovering the passions and interests of our amazing team!

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    You have several unique interests from painting to physics – where did they start?

    It goes back to my childhood in Russia - my father was an architect, and when I was very small, I liked to look at his drawings and the models in his office.  I thought I saw how things fit together.  I don’t know how much I really understood, but it was fun.  My Grandfather was a math teacher, and whenever I was bored, I would ask him to give me a problem to solve. That’s where my passion for math comes from.

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    Natalia painting in college, photo by Michael Smetanin


    I hear you dabble in painting – tell me about your painting experience?

    Of course, I’ve been messing with crayons, like most of kids do, but it stuck, and I went to an afterschool art program for kids and teenagers where I did painting and drawing and a bit of sculpture.  Later, I was a member of and art club in Chicago. I loved it. If you went to a sketch session, it was both challenging and relaxing, the poses change quickly, first ones for 30 seconds, then one, five, twenty, minutes, all the way to an hour. The pace immerses you in the process of seeing and capturing what you see in same flow.  In high school I painted watercolor but later switched to oil.

    How would you describe your painting style?

    I would describe my arts style as something between abstract and realistic – like an impressionist. I like to express what I see, it’s not really an expression of my ideas as much as just a picture of what I see. I try to focus on painting from my feelings more, you know, but I like the problem solving it involves.

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    Some of Natalia's Paintings


    What degrees do you have?


    I was considering studying art in a community college, but physics and math were also interesting to me so I studied that instead. In Russia, I got my undergrad degree in physics and Master in Applied Mathematics, then I had a chance to study in the United States. In the United States I earned a PH.D. in Chemical Engineering - it’s a very broad field where you learn a lot about the theory behind the inner workings of engineering as opposed to the applications. Even though my degree was in engineering, all the work I did after graduation was in the applied and computational mathematics.  I worked in that field for a while but found that it was very hard to compete for tenure-track positions in math with a degree in engineering.  Eventually I found a way to combine my interest in art, design and mathematics when I got a master’s degree in Architecture – it was like coming back to my childhood, I guess.

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    City of Krasnoyarsk in Russia, where Natalia grew up


    Wow! That’s a lot of degrees! What did you do with the degrees now?

    I still help my friends with their research projects.   One project, with a friend in Moscow, explores the propagation of a laser light through the atmosphere. Essentially, there are lots of fluctuations in the atmosphere, and when you send a laser of light through it, the laser beam becomes scattered.  We are studying how it gets scattered and how to probe the atmosphere to see when it’s easiest to pass a signal through.  Another research project, with a friend in Israel, is quite theoretical – we are trying to analyze mathematical models for turbulence from the point of view of information theory. 

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    Presentation poster from one of Natalia's research projects.


    What does research look like for these topics? Are you conducting experiments?

    Mostly I work with equations that describe physical models.  I either write computer codes that solve the equations or adapt a specialized software, then I run computer simulations.  Even when you have a code ready, to use it you need to understand the parameters, how to select and adjust them, and how they affect the physics and the quality of solution.  This needs not only patience, but also experience, which I am trying to pass to younger folks who are going to replace me in these projects.

    Do you have any plans for another degree or continued learning?

    I would like to study more and do more different things - but I can’t afford another degree and another career in terms of lifespan.  The good thing is that I don’t have to go to school to study, that there are still plenty to learn at my current job, and that there are opportunities my current field.

    We have recipes for how to do things, and then there are solutions beyond the recipes.  I would love a chance to develop new techniques, tools and designs, and – if I am really lucky - to pull-in the ties from beyond. For instance, I am fascinated by the mystery or art. When and how, a functional design, like a building, becomes an art?  Some aesthetical principles have been understood and can be learned and used, some still to be discovered, but there will be something uncatchable, something that makes art art.  This is what I want to catch.

  • Beyond the Blueprints: Architect Eric Ward

    Welcome to Beyond the Blueprints, where we get to know RTA staff beyond their work lives. Join us in discovering the passions and interests of our amazing team!

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    How did you first get exposed to/become interested in doing home improvements yourself?

    My dad and uncles would all reel me in for extra help on different projects, so I was introduced to home improvements at an early age. My dad was more of a woodworker, and I helped my uncles with tiling, fence building, and all kinds of projects.

    BTB Kitchen BeforeAfter Resized

    Did you have a favorite project when renovating your home?

    My favorite projects are the ones I took on myself. My wife and daughter were visiting family for a couple weeks, and that gave me time to replace the front door and work on the master bathroom. By the time they got home it was basically all done; we just had to put in a new baseboard. By the way, we did replace every piece of baseboard in our house.

    Did you have a least favorite project?

    The kitchen displaced us heavily, so it was definitely one of our least favorite. The worst part by far, though, was the tile floor that we did. You're supposed to have a layer of plywood, cement board, a skim coat, and then you tile over that. We didn't want to replace that much subflooring so we decided to use this felt product you glue to the existing subfloor. You skim coat it, and then you tile over that. We didn't want to replace that much subflooring so we decided to use this felt product you glue to the existing subfloor. You skim coat it, and then you can tile directly on that. The offset is instead of adding two inches of subflooring we only added a quarter of an inch. It ended up taking us two nights to put the glue and felt down and the glue just got everywhere. The second day I did it, I just put on old clothes and eight layers of gloves so as soon as the glue touched it I could just peel off that layer. I'd rather buy a new subfloor one hundred times over than do that again.

    BTB Basement BeforeDuring Resized

    BTB Basement After Resized

    What advice would you give to someone who wants to start their own DIY home improvements but doesn't know where to start?

    For my house I had to do a lot of things I'd never done before, so I watched a lot of YouTube videos to learn how to do them. I made a lot of mistakes along the way, but I learned a lot fixing them all. My father-in-law taught me how to tile, but outside of that it was a process of trying and re-trying.

    I would also suggest you seek out people who know what they're doing. It's one thing to get a list of instructions, but it's something completely different to have tips and tricks. For instance, Greg (one of RTA's Interior Designers with a personal interest in woodworking) gave me some great tips for putting cabinets together, and Dave (RTA's Director of Construction Administration) gave me some good advice for plumbing issues. The other advice I would give is research, research, research. Don't just jump into something without thinking it through. You're always going to run into surprises, but having the tools and supplies on hand that prepare you for that go a long way. The only other piece of advice I would give is to have fun with it. You might not know exactly what to do or how to do it, but it's nice to "go for the gold" in the planning phase.

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    Where do you find your inspiration for design? Do you just envision it and create it?

    Whether it's home improvement, woodworking, or being an architect, you have to assess the situation and gather all the facts. You want to know which way the sun is coming up, how people are going to interact in this space, what looks good, etc. You can't buy a piece of art without knowing how big the wall is that you're going to put it on. You have to think big and then work small. You start with the parameters then you figure out what's possible and what will fit in your budget.

    BTB LivingRoom BeforeAfter Resized

    What should be the top priorities of renovations/improvements if you're trying to sell your house and can only choose a few projects based on budget?

    There are two avenues: 1. What looks good and will get people in the door? and 2. What will pass inspection? We wanted our house to look nice, but also be an enjoyable, livable, properly functioning space for the next family. Aesthetically, a new coat of paint and trim will go a LONG way. If you want to stretch your dollar, a new countertop, new sink, new faucet, and new mirror can transform a bathroom. Pay attention to lighting too; you want to be able to light up an area really well while still being soft and comfortable to live in.


  • Beyond the Blueprints: Architect Patrick Ward

    Welcome to Beyond the Blueprints, where we get to know RTA staff beyond their work lives. Join us in discovering the passions and interests of our amazing team!

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    How did you get involved in fly fishing?

    From a young age, my dad would take us on summer trips to the north woods in Minnesota and Canada. We'd stay in a cabin on a lake and go out to fish every morning and evening. There was a dusty old fly rod in the boat, and I discovered that it was the best way to drop a fly back in the lily pads where the biggest blue gills lived. Later, I learned about trout and bass, and now I fly fish for everything that swims.

    How old were you when you started making your own flies?

    My family has always been crafty. Around the age of 10, my dad gave me a kit that had a vice, feathers, and hooks, and I started making these big, ugly flies, but they worked! I tried them in all the little streams and ponds around where we lived - everywhere I could walk or ride my bike. I learned more about the insects, and continued to evolve, especially when I moved out west.

    How does fly fishing in Colorado differ from where you grew up?

    At this elevation and cold water, the rivers and lakes are mostly populated with trout. In Virginia, there are plenty of little brook trout streams in the Blue Ridge, but as soon as you get down in elevation to warmer water, you'll find more small mouth and striped bass. The stripers get really big, and are a handful on a fly rod!

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    How do you find a "good spot"?

    You have to go exploring and sniff it out, ask people, or spend money at a fly shop. It's a good idea to hire a guide. If I was going to Montana on a trip, for example, I'd hire a guide for the first two days and I'd ask him/her, "Where can I go on my own? Where can I take a boat? Where can I hike and fish?" There's a ton of information out there, and then there's a lot of information that's not out there. You just have to go and say, "I wonder what's up at the headwaters of this particular river" and follow the map. The fun is figuring it out.

    Why do you catch and release?

    Fly fishing has become so popular that the potential for overfishing is a real concern. Even early in the 20th century the native greenback cutthroat trout were nearly fished to extinction. Most of the places that I visit are regulated as catch and release waters. 

    Another cool thing about fly fishing is understanding the larger system. I learned the entomology of the streams so that I know what kind of flies to tie. Trout can be very selective in their feeding, especially the larger, older ones. If there's a Red Quill hatch, they usually won't bite on yellow flies because they key in on the most abundant prey species.

    Have you ever had a Moby Dick?

    Yes, once I spotted a huge trout swimming around in an eddy, eating tiny mayflies. It was cruising in a big loop, and I must have made twenty casts before the fly landed exactly in its path. It just came up and calmly ate the fly, and I jerked it right out of the fish's mouth and into a tree. You have to have patience and nerves!

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    What's your favorite part about fly fishing?

    The natural beauty. You're in an awesome setting and the insects themselves are beautiful. They're just these delicate little animals that only live for one day. The larva (nymphs) live under the water for a year or more and then in one day, they emerge, they molt, they mate, they lay their eggs, and they die. The fish are beautiful, the setting is beautiful; the whole thing just fits together. It's a great way to spend time outside.

    What local resources would you recommend?

    Angler's Covey.