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A New Kind of Architect

A New Kind of Architect

By Luke Carothers

Dena Prastos’ love and appreciation for the natural world is deep-rooted, having been born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska.  As an undergraduate, Prastos studied architecture before earning a Master’s degree in Civil Engineering.  Looking to gain a more practical understanding of how processes work together in the field, Prastos started her career with a self-perform contractor before working on high-end projects in the design-engineering world.  Afterwards, she moved to an architectural firm to become a licensed architect.  During her career, Dena has gained experience leading projects around the world conducting heavy civil construction, marine engineering, and waterfront infrastructure.

This experience made Prastos think differently about the AEC industry, particularly the way in which waterfront and waterfront-adjacent projects are designed and completed.  She was drawn to not only the unique technical challenges that come with building around water, but also saw opportunity on the regulatory side.  Waterfront projects, particularly in large cities such as New York, often include multiple levels of regulatory oversight from the local, state, and federal agencies having jurisdiction. From Prastos’ perspective, being the waterfront expert in these large coordination efforts was a beneficial position. In this climate, Prastos found a niche and carved out her position as the world’s first Waterfront Architect.  

The term “Waterfront Architect” came to Prastos while she was being interviewed for a position at an engineering firm nearly a decade ago.  The person interviewing her–who is now her partner, Shea Thorvaldsen –suggested the term after reviewing Prastos’ experience.  She was initially hesitant about the idea, but soon began to realize the term and framing fit with her experience and aspirations.  Unlike other disciplines in the AEC industry like engineering, architects haven’t categorized themselves into distinct specializations.  However, in an increasingly specialized world, Prastos saw an opportunity for growth and expansion, and embraced the concept of being a Waterfront Architect.   With her background in architecture and engineering combined with experience working on high profile design-build waterfront projects, Prastos found herself in a uniquely advantageous position.  This background gave Prastos the capacity to advocate for whoever wasn’t a part of the process–whether it be designers or architects, engineers, contractors, owners, stakeholders, or end users.

Seeking to capitalize on her passions at the intersection of architecture, engineering, construction, and nature, Prastos founded and launched Indigo River in 2018.  In technical terms, Indigo River is a Waterfront Solutions company, a certified Women Owned Business (“WBE”), but their own self description–as a “transdisciplinary tribe…focused on planning in both space and time, to create adaptive solutions that yield positive impacts now and into the future”–speaks to a more nuanced approach to affecting change in both the AEC industry and the built environment.  Expanding on their traditional waterfront services, growing areas of focus include climate adaptation, offshore wind development, and floating energy storage. Five years after Indigo River was founded, it has 15 team members from a wide swath of disciplines including traditionally trained architects, landscape architects, naval architects, urban planners, climate adaptation specialists, as well as civil, geotechnical, structural, marine, and coastal engineers.  What unites this group and makes them a tribe, according to Prastos, is an intrinsic desire to enhance the waterfront, its infrastructure, and recreational access while not doing any further harm to the environment or ecosystem.  Prastos believes that these uniting principles have created a strong culture that encourages these different disciplines to work together.

This unique combination of complementary disciplines has created a culture that is very much rooted in Prastos’ own unique journey.  For Prastos’ using the word “tribe” to describe Indigo River is apt because they are comprised of individuals drawn together by a common purpose–improving the waterfront.  Be it offshore wind, fishing, swimming, or boating, the team at Indigo River are all drawn to the water personally as well as professionally, which creates a unique atmosphere where different perspectives can exist for a meaningful exercise of their common goals.  This means approaching their projects from this holistic dedication to improving the waterfront, and the result has been resounding client, agency, and end user satisfaction.  Indigo River is committed to diversity and participation in all facets of the AEC industry, especially on the waterfront. Prastos sees Indigo River’s momentum as an opportunity to shape a network of M/W/DBEs that lead to joint ventures and partnerships to respond to waterfront design, construction and contracting opportunities.  One such example is the joint venture, TMI Waterfront Solutions, which launched in 2020, to establish the first GWO Certified Maritime and Offshore Wind Training School in New York City, with a particular focus on mentoring and training diverse populations.

For Prastos, establishing and nurturing good relationships with clients and teaming partners is a major component of building a better future in terms of sustainability and equity.  By leading clients to opportunities that provide a return on investment, firms can first establish trust.  In turn, this opens up the discussion to other professional service offerings.  Prastos believes that, by thinking creatively and developing this trust, firms can engage clients on a level of not only the bottom line, but more importantly about how the project can protect and improve the public’s health, safety, and welfare now and into the future.  These sorts of discussions put projects in the context of the larger picture and produce deliverables that reduce the bottom line as much as possible while still serving the larger needs of the public.

Indigo River’s unique approach to building an AEC firm is paying off with tangible results, leading to satisfied clients.  By building a team from a diverse set of disciplines around a common set of goals, Indigo River is providing more job satisfaction for their team members and improving relationships with clients and regulatory agencies.  As Prastos and her team continue to grow, their continued success is a testament to their commitment to making the built environment a better place.

Luke Carothers is the Editor for Civil + Structural Engineer Media. If you want us to cover your project or want to feature your own article, he can be reached at lcarothers@zweiggroup.com.