Debra Kunce isn’t afraid to take chances. She worked her way up the ladder at Schmidt Associates from a graduate architect to licensed architect in charge of some of the most challenging building projects, including a $695 million capital improvement project for Indianapolis Public Schools from 2002 to 2012. She did this all while becoming a leader within the local and national American Institute of Architects (AIA).
Kunce isn’t afraid of change. In fact, she embodies it. It’s how she went from a program manager at one of Indianapolis’ largest architecture firms to starting her own business CORE Planning Strategies to focus on representing the interests of building owners and helping them navigate large-scale capital projects.
She started the business in 2012 working mostly out of her car. She quickly outgrew her first office, and in her second year, moved to a larger space in downtown Indianapolis and grew the business to more than $2 million in revenue and 10 employees. Then she captured the attention of an international consulting firm, J.S. Held, who purchased CORE in 2021. Kunce became vice president in charge of the Indianapolis office, which now has 12 employees, with support of over 1,500 employees worldwide. In this role, she continues to help Indianapolis Public Schools improve facilities for students.
AIA Indiana honored Kunce with the Gold Medal Award, the highest distinction the organization gives to a member for their contributions to the architecture profession and to their community.
A graduate of Ball State University, Kunce was on the first Ball State University College of Architecture & Planning Executive Advisory Board. She’s former chairwoman of the United Way of Central Indiana’s Facilities Maintenance Fund and is on the board of Second Helpings. She’s former president of AIA Indianapolis, AIA Indiana and vice president of national AIA, and was elevated to the prestigious AIA Fellows in 2011.
While Kunce received the highest individual honor during the annual awards presentations, three of her employees also were honored for their achievements.
Architect and Indianapolis City Councilor Jason Larrison, AIA, received the Juliet Peddle Award, named for the architect’s strong devotion and commitment to architecture, display of professionalism, perseverance and having a kind spirit. Larrison is assistant vice president at J.S. Held. He was elected to the city council in 2020, and is the former director of Indianapolis’ Department of Business and Neighborhood Services, is the former Indiana State Architect, and he is the vice president of AIA Indianapolis.
He has advocated for design excellence, the restoration of prominent landmarks and bringing contemporary design to unutilized and underutilized spaces. He has established policies and programs that allowed placemaking to flourish and has protected public safety in under-regulated areas, such as the construction of temporary structures.
Kate Warpool, AIA, received the Edward D. Pierre Award for the impact she’s made on the community through her work in the private and public sector. Warpool was the first Indianapolis City Architect, where she specialized in reviewing projects that receive city funding and the Regional Center of Indianapolis and developed policies to support best practices in urban design. Before being promoted to City Architect, she was administrator of construction services, where she oversaw more than 44,000 annual building inspections and was a member of the Emergency Response Leadership Team. Earlier this year, she became a director at J.S. Held.
She was involved in the development of Fall Creek Place, is a former board member of the King Park Redevelopment Corp., and she led a significant, award-winning affordable housing development in East Chicago. Warpool is on the board of the Athenaeum Foundation, a. and is secretary of AIA Indianapolis.
Desma Belsaas, AIA, received the Tony Costello Young Architect Award. Belsaas, assistant vice president at J.S Held, is also president of AIA Indianapolis and along with her husband is owner of Vault – It’s Not A Bank, a co-working space on the city’s eastside that was a former bank branch.
Belsaas is a former principal at Schmidt Associates, where she worked 15 years. Among her most notable projects include the fire station redevelopment project on Mass Ave., apartments called Penrose on Mass Ave., the Erskine Green Teaching Institute inside a Courtyard by Marriott, which offers training for people with disabilities to work in the hospitality industry. Belsaas has been a speaker, has taught at her alma mater Ball State University and has been a leader of several nonprofit organizations including IndyHub, Greater Indianapolis YMCA and has been an advocate for historic preservation and affordable housing.
Distinguished Firm of the Year Awarded to Blackline Studio – Alumni Craig Von Deylen, Scott Perkins, and Craig McCormick
Blackline Studio received the Distinguished Firm of the Year Award. The Indianapolis architecture, planning and interior design firm has created spaces for climbing gyms, municipal buildings, offices, restaurants, breweries and homes. The firm launched in 2000 when architects Scott Perkins, AIA, and Craig Von Deylen, AIA, founded Perkins Von Deylen & Associates to focus on residential design. In 2011, after designer Craig McCormick joined the team, they rebranded as Blackline Studio with a full-time staff of three. Their first mixed-use project – The Hinge – received design awards from AIA Indiana and an Indianapolis Chamber Monumental award in 2013. Blackline Studios now has a team of 17 in its offices in Fountain Square.
The firm has completed 17 projects, including 665 housing units, and made a $140 million financial impact in the neighborhood, including the design of North Mass Boulder a fitness studio and climbing gym on the city’s near eastside.
Blackline also donates to local non-profit organizations, such as Rebuilding Together Indianapolis, and artists collectives, such as PATTERN. The three principals also encourage employees to volunteer their time and talents to local organizations.
For more information about the awards, go to www.aiaindiana.org.
Article and photos by AIA Indiana