DWL Architects president goes from building planes to building airports

Real Estate | 22 May |

Sandra Kukla is many things: an architect, a devoted wife and mother and, most recently, the firm president of DWL Architects + Planners, Inc.

Kukla has been with DWL Architects for 20 years and succeeded Steve Rao as president in January 2020. She has worked on projects such as the terminals at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, among others.

“Architects are always so driven by their projects,” Kukla said. “They’re like my other children.”

Kukla said her first real exposure to both architecture and aviation occurred during childhood, when she assisted her father, a retired Japan Airlines pilot, with constructing an aerobatic biplane in the family’s three-car garage.

Additionally, Kukla has spent a lot of time on planes and in airports. She and her sister traveled alone to Japan to visit family when Kukla was as young as six years old, and the girls’ mother, a flight attendant and pilot, worked for Air France for several years.

By the time she reached college, Kukla decided she wanted to learn to fly, and spent one summer break studying and training to get her private pilot’s license. Despite her upbringing, Kukla did not realize that she wanted to specialize in aviation-focused architecture until she completed her Master’s thesis at the University of New Mexico.

“I figured out I know a lot more about aviation than the average architect, and it’s really a great building type,” Kukla said. “I decided from that point that I really wanted to do aviation architecture, probably right around when I was doing my thesis for my Master’s degree.”

Kukla said she sought out DWL Architects because she had heard about their work with architecture at airports and knew that the company would allow her to combine her two passions for architecture and aviation.

“Airports are mostly happy places where people are starting a journey or ending a journey,” Kukla said. “They’re meeting somebody that they haven’t seen in a long time, and that’s really amazing to think about as you’re designing these spaces, is that it’s an important place for our community to gather, to send off or to welcome home.”

Before she became the firm’s new president in January, Kukla was Vice President of DWL Architects since 2005, the first woman to hold the position. She said the enormous amount of support from the firm’s previous presidents was crucial in her success.

“Maybe sometimes it’s hard for people to recognize leadership in a person that’s much different than themselves. A male may not always recognize or see themselves in a young female working towards a goal in her own career, but (at DWL) they did. I think that that’s encouraging. It was very encouraging for me,” Kukla said.

When she is not leading the company and designing airports, Kukla has a second full-time job as a mother to her 14-year-old son, which she noted is not uncommon for a professional woman. “People don’t talk about it but that’s the reality. As a mom, my family is sort of my outside of work focus. But I absolutely love it,” Kukla said.

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