How Buck Simpers designs for education

Buck Simpers was always drawn to the education arena. But it took a dry teaching market and a pivot to architecture to get him there.

Today, natural light, soaring two-story spaces and the absence of dark corridors are some of the hallmarks of Buck Simpers Architect + Associates, Inc. (BSA+A) designs, which include a growing portfolio
of the region’s K-12 spaces.

For a man who graduated from the University of Delaware with a teaching degree and an eye toward coaching, the alternative plan turned out to be better anyway.

“What’s beautiful is that the outside world is our lab,” said Simpers, who said he never stops designing; his son even refused to ride in the car with him long ago. “I would drive through red lights and stop at green lights, just looking at how buildings are put together.”

Now he can study his own buildings as BSA+A design projects dot the area’s landscape: New Castle Public Library, Artisans’ Bank headquarters in Wilmington, New Castle County Courthouse, YMCA Central Branch, just to name a few, and of course, schools like Middletown, Appoquinimink and Cape Henlopen high schools.

The latter was named to Architectural Digest’s list of The Most Beautiful Public High Schools in Every State in America in September.

“As a designer, are you out there trying to win awards?” said Simpers. “No, you’re trying to give the best product to the client.”

Eighty percent of those clients are school districts, from New York City to Baltimore. BSA+A also specializes in corporate office space, health care, institutional, mixed-use facilities and private residences.

But it was a strategic move by Simpers to focus on education spaces — specifically K-12 — an outgrowth of who he is is, he said.

“I had and still have a passion for schools and what a school is. We took our passion and design energy and focused it into education,” explained Simpers.

His great-uncle studied architecture under famed Philadelphia architect Louis Kahn. His father was a woodworker and his mother a “frustrated interiors person,” according to Simpers. “I grew up knowing a wall was not very sacred. Your living environment could and did change.”

When Simpers didn’t land a teaching job after graduation, he circled back to his uncle and apprenticed with a circle of architects and mentors who helped him gather experience and gave him responsibility early on.

He got his feet wet on projects like Kirkbride Lecture Hall and residential building and design projects like Barley Mill Courts, Limerick, Limestone Hills and the subdivision of Fairthorne, the first design award Simpers earned for subdivision layout and land planning.

Eventually, he earned a certificate in architecture and founded his own firm in 1979.

But it was his work on a little hotel downtown, now campus housing for the Delaware College of Art & Design, that caught the attention of Christina School District officials, who used the space for office retreats.

“They needed an eight-classroom addition on the East Side and we did that, and bam, we were doing more school work,” Simpers said.

Ironically, Delaware had seen no new high school construction for close to 30 years when BSA+A was contracted to build Middletown Senior High School on Del. 299.

The last full build? Cape Henlopen High School in 1969. Since then, an influx of students and aging infrastructure has kept BSA+A busy.

In 2004, the firm was contracted to design Cape Henlopen’s new high school, a $76 million Georgian complex linked by a central rotunda, the main entry to academic, administrative and community meeting space.

“Our vision for that high school, since it’s on Kings Highway, was that it would be the gateway into the town of Lewes,” explained Janis Hanwell, former Cape Henlopen assistant superintendent and project director during the build. “We wanted it to reflect the historical civic nature of the town of Lewes,” she said.

The high school opened in 2009.

“AIA Delaware is very proud that a longstanding member was able to have one of their buildings showcased in a very large publication,” said Philip Conte, president of AIA Delaware and a principal with Studio JAED.

“Buck is one of the best business-development-focused architects, and that’s often a challenge. We’re very creative but we don’t know how to sell our selves and he’s very good at that.”

BSA+A is working on their next school projects, like the new Fairview Campus for Appoquinimink School Disctrict. And commercial work includes the 40,000-square-foot Bank of America building at Little Falls and a 40,000-square-foot medical office building on Churchmans Road.

“I still like doing what I’m doing,” said Simpers. “And there’s an old adage that architects don’t really know what they’re doing until they reach the age of 50.”

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