The Blog

One-on-One with Architect Ralph Walden

Doing what he’d always dreamed of 

For the past 44 years, Ralph Walden has designed buildings, built them, and been deeply involved in architectural projects throughout South Carolina and beyond. 

And it all makes sense because it’s what he’s wanted to do since he was a kid. 

Ralph got his start in architecture before a four-year degree was required to become certified. 

“I’m what they call a dinosaur,” Ralph Walden said. 

During high school, while living in Alabama, Ralph got a head start on his career by drawing plans for a local draftsman. 

When he moved to Columbia in 1979, Ralph began a decade-long apprenticeship to become an architect.  

“I had to apprentice my way through,” he said. “It took me ten years to get licensed.” 

Ralph said those early years were influential because he worked closely with contractors. He went to job sites, managed subcontractors, and work schedules. 

“Early in my career, I was literally in the building business,” Ralph said. “I was working with contractors.” 

He said many architects have told him it’s the smartest thing he’s ever done.

Ralph’s experience working with builders has given him insight into how designers should draw plans so they’re helpful on the job site. And he has the experience to back it up. Ralph has specialized in church architecture, designing over 400 throughout his career. 

A perfect match 

Ralph and Phase One were introduced through industry colleagues. As Phase One began taking on more commercial projects and work requiring architectural review and approval, it was clear Ralph would be a good fit. 

From the beginning, Ralph said he saw Phase One was unique. 

“I think the approach they take is different than other architects and engineers,” he said.  

He explained that one of the critical differences in the Phase One experience is their approach to new projects. Phase One always discovers the right information by asking great questions. Then, the team offers straightforward advice to a client, even if it’s not the news they want to hear. 

“They’re not unwilling to tell a person that a project can’t be done,” he said. “I’ve never seen anybody as willing to tell a client, ‘this won’t work.’”  

Ralph said the level of teamwork and cooperation at Phase One has made a huge difference in the work. 

“There’s this real team spirit that everybody cooperates on everything,” he said.

Creating plans that work 

The Phase One design team and Ralph work closely together on plans. Ralph’s expertise comes into play to ensure drawings not only meet code but also are beneficial for contractors. 

Claire Guza, a designer at Phase One who works closely with Ralph, said he’s involved from the get-go. 

“Ralph usually comes in first and talks with CJ [Disharoon] or the sales side to see if the project’s even viable,” Claire said. “From there, we’ll work together as soon as the client signs the paperwork.” 

Ralph said the team focuses on creating “contractor-friendly designs,” and his experience lends itself well to doing just that. 

“I was a licensed general contractor for a season of my life. So I’ve actually built what I’ve designed, which makes me extremely sensitive over our construction detail.” 

He explained that most architects design plans from their perspective without taking the contractor’s needs into account. When designing with a builder in mind, the plans take the guesswork out of building and can save clients money. 

Claire said Ralph advises them on the smallest details, like the font size of a plan, so it’s easier for contractors to read when they’re working outside. 

“I’ve practiced for the last 40 years, leaning towards contractor-friendly design and construction,” Ralph said. “And I think all our clients benefit by that.”

For the client’s benefit 

The Phase One team, along with Ralph’s expertise, is taking on more commercial projects. Ralph said these can be complex because many times there’s a change in use, which means different building code applications. 

He said it’s very important to have experts like the Phase One team review a site early on before plans are drawn. 

“Probably one of the most important things is a time on the site to fully evaluate their expectations and the existing conditions.” 

He said Phase One’s team has the skills to give clients great insight into what’s feasible.

“Several of the staff are extremely good at in-building evaluations. They have some tools to their credit that I’ve never seen any other architect have.” 

Expanding commercial capabilities 

Ralph’s expertise has helped Phase One expand its capabilities into the commercial market. Along with a talented team of designers, another veteran commercial designer, Cole Garrison, has also joined the team

With designers, engineers, and contractors in place, Phase One is well-positioned to support commercial clients on a variety of projects. 

November 1, 2023