A Unique Eye for Design

“I look at design differently than most because of my injuries,” he says. “I incorporate little things that people don’t think about, like the weight of doors and the positions of ramps.”
November 21, 2011

Brian Kolfage, a third year student in the UA’s College of Architecture + Landscape Architecture, looks at buildings differently than most. From the seat of a wheelchair and with only one hand, he experiences built spaces in ways that vary from the average person, and he incorporates that perspective into his designs.

“I look at design differently than most because of my injuries,” he says. “I incorporate little things that people don’t think about, like the weight of doors and the positions of ramps.”

While Kolfage didn’t realize he was headed for the world of architecture, he displayed the elemental drive toward the profession early on. As a kid, he drew anything and everything. In elementary school and junior high, he loved to draw boats. He thought he might go on someday to be a naval architect.

“I was born in Michigan on the lakes, and spent a lot of time with my mom in Hawaii where I went to high school,” he says. “I was always on the water with the boats. They were just fun to be around.”

Rebuilding and Building

Kolfage began a career with the military in February 2001, when he was deployed to Iraq. He sustained his injuries on September 11, 2004 when a mortar attack left him without his legs and his dominant right hand. His recovery began with a full year in Washington, D.C. at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, after which he spent a few months in Florida to recover and get his prosthetics.

From that point on, it was time to reconstruct his life anew.

He finally was able to return to Tucson in September of 2005, where he worked at Davis Monthan Air Force Base as a base security manager, working on background investigations for security clearances. Two years later, he began classes at Pima Community College.

“At that point, I knew I wanted to go into architecture, so I took the prerequisites at Pima,” he remembers. “I thought about naval architecture, but I didn’t want to move. This is my home.”

Finally, in 2009, he applied to the UA College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture and got in. In support of his academic pursuits, he has secured a number of scholarships, including:

  • The Military Order of the Purple Heart Scholarship, given to students injured in combat or those with a parent injured in combat.

  • The Lt. Michael Murphy Scholarship, given to one Purple Heart recipient each year and created in honor of the Navy Seal and Medal of Honor recipient who was killed in Afghanistan in 2005.

  • The Pat Tillman Scholarship given by the Pat Tillman Foundation. This year, Kolfage was one of only 60 men and women selected to receive this scholarship from a pool of 1200 applicants nationwide.

  • Fellow UA students who received the Tillman scholarship this year include: Matthew Randle, doctoral student of law; April Ellsworth, doctoral student of law and the first female Tillman Military Scholar at the UA; and Christopher Piercecchi, doctoral student of medicine.

Into the Future

This past summer of 2011, Kolfage did two things that he had been planning on for quite a while. First, he went back and spent two weeks visiting fellow soldiers at Walter Reed.

“It was different being back,” he remembers. “There were a lot of people who are a lot worse off than me,” he says, recalling one 18-year old he visited with who had lost all four limbs.

The other big event of his summer was getting married to his girlfriend of five years, Ashley Goetz, right here at home in Tucson. During their honeymoon in Hawaii, Brian and Ashley enjoyed the quiet of the beach sand and went sailing on a catamaran. On that day out on the water, he recalls, they turned the boat into the wind, stopped in the middle of nowhere, and took a swim with the fish, dolphins and sea turtles.

“I don’t know how they learned to like animal crackers,” he laughs, “but the fish and the turtles love them.”

Even though Kolfage is happy in his desert home these days, he still relishes getting back to boats when he visits his mom in Florida. It takes him back to his days growing up in Hawaii and that early love of naval architecture.

Building on all his great memories as a foundation, Kolfage keeps his eyes skyward, constantly looking toward all that tomorrow has in store. And with his talent, adaptability and unique perspective, he is sure to be successful.

Michael Kothke, lecturer in the College of Architecture + Landscape Architecture and an award-winning architect himself, sees in Kolfage one who is willing to take chances, to lead and to grow.

“Our profession requires you to be open to exposing yourself to risk and challenge and failure,” he says. “We speculate with ideas that might not work out, and you need to be ready to be critiqued by your colleagues and professors. Brian is always willing to lay his cards on the table. He’s a leader in that regard. He puts himself out there.”

That willingness to take a risk will take Brian far. “My dream project would be to do something really creative, that could revolutionize the way buildings are designed or made,” he says. “I want to do something cutting edge.”

Check out the http://cala.arizona.edu/UA College of Architecture + Landscape Architecture.