When Paul Mankins and Tim Hickman created Substance Architecture in 2005, their goal was to build a truly collaborative firm. They wanted a business like the one legendary Des Moines architect Charles “Chick” Herbert had built in the 1970s and ‘80s, and where Mankins and Hickman had worked during the 1990s.

To foster collaboration, the pair created their own office space on the second floor of a 1920s car dealership at 1300 Walnut St. They opened up a 5,000-square-foot workspace and installed rows of counter-height desks with seating that put designers at eye level with passing colleagues. 

The firm also bought large computer display screens, allowing everyone to easily see what others were doing. And they encouraged all to comment on each other’s work.

Substance’s 22 employees collaborated on projects as large as the new $20 million Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority bus transfer station in downtown Des Moines and as small as the renovation of a professor’s house in Iowa City. They worked together on projects as unique as the Hub Spot kiosk, which is now a signature gathering point on the Principal Riverwalk, and their current effort to turn Iowa State University’s original engineering building, Marston Hall, which was built in 1903, into an archetype of energy efficiency. 

During the firm’s eight years, it has collected a cabinet full of awards, capped by a ceremony in September where Mankins received the Medal of Honor from the Iowa chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The award was particularly meaningful, because two earlier recipients, Herbert and Cal Lewis, had been mentors.  

Mankins insists that none of the awards would have happened without collaboration, the key ingredient that Substance took from Herbert’s firm. 

“There’s this myth that individual architects design buildings,” Mankins said. “I think this comes from Frank Lloyd Wright,” who personified the concept of the individual architect.

But that’s not accurate, he said. 

“Teams of architects design buildings,” he said. “There’s almost nothing small enough in today’s complicated world where a single architect designed it.”

“What firms are trying to do is to figure out how to harness the expertise that they have assembled,” he said. “The success of this firm is based on how these 22 people work together.”  

The same is true of the projects that mark downtown Des Moines as a 21st-century success story. 

The city’s most successful projects -- the Principal Riverwalk, the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park and Gray’s Lake -- can be traced back to the Vision Plan that New York architect Mario Gandelsonas helped develop in the early 1990s.

But it took collaboration between individuals and institutions working together on many levels over many years to make those visions real. 

“The last 20 years have been really good for Des Moines, and you’d like to see that continue,” Mankins said.

“We need to make sure the city continues to have a large vision,” like the goal of getting 20,000 people living downtown, he said. 

The area south of downtown between the Raccoon River and Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway is strategically located between Gray’s Lake and downtown, making it accessible to pedestrians and bicyclists, as well as urban commuters.  

“My worry has always been that someone will come in and plop down a suburban model of housing and retail, a big parking lot with a strip mall on the edge,” Mankins said.

But with the right collaboration between residential, commercial and recreational interests, Des Moines can achieve maximum density with minimum disruption. 

“We already have an art center that’s the envy of a city of 2 million,” Mankins said, and with just a little more collaboration, Des Moines can also have a downtown that’s the envy of the world.