‘Architect’s architect’ has keen eye for design

James Sink, chairman of Claremont’s Architectural Commission, has come a long way since constructing Lego structures. Though he admittedly hasn’t left behind the plastic blocks of his past, Mr. Sink now dedicates much of his time to edifices that are slightly larger and more subdued in color.

The lifelong Claremont resident has made a name for himself throughout Los Angeles County as a principal engineer for HMC Architects, most notable for designing residence halls and other structures for universities and colleges. His work includes 4 phases of student housing and a common area for his alma mater, Cal Poly Pomona, and the construction technology building for the Los Angeles Trade Technical College, for which he won the bid after an extensive 6-month design competition.

He has also made a name for himself locally as a dedicated commissioner, having served on Claremont’s Architectural Commission for the past 3 years and as a regular docent at Claremont Heritage’s annual Home Tour.

While Mr. Sink’s buildings may be familiar to those throughout LA County and among his fellow Claremonters, his face will now be a staple in homes across the country. Mr. Sink graces Building Design+Construction magazine’s latest edition as one of the Top 40 Architects Under 40. “Mr. Commissioner” is listed as number 2 on this year’s list. It came as no surprise to friend and colleague Mark Schoeman, also a former commissioner on Claremont’s Architectural Commission.

“He is an architect’s architect,” Mr. Schoeman said of Mr. Sink. “It’s his dedication to the space he creates. He’s concerned not only with the design but how it performs from an environment and energy use standpoint, and is concerned with making sure the clients’ needs are met. This honor is well-earned.”

Mr. Sink’s dedication to his craft dates back to his childhood. A boyhood friend insists that Mr. Sink informed him at the early age of 7 that he wanted to be an architect. The lauded local architect doesn’t really recall the conversation, but he does remember hours upon hours of playtime spread out on the living room floor building structures out of Legos and Lincoln Logs. His fascination for building paired with the influence of a neighborhood architect and relatives in the contracting business, he decided early on to make the realm of architecture his career of choice.

“I never wavered from that decision,” he insists. “It was in my blood, I guess.”

He put his hobby into professional application as a high schooler, enrolling in Maureen Wheeler’s architectural drafting class at Claremont High School. Around the same time, Mr. Sink and other members of Claremont Presbyterian’s youth group were asked to help renovate the youth group rooms at the church. During the renovation project, he was introduced to the office of Wheeler & Wheeler Architects.

When the project was complete, Mr. Sink stayed behind and buckled down in his studies with Ms. Wheeler as his guide. He set to work as an apprentice for Paul Wheeler, running errands wherever he could or helping out with blueprints. And before high school graduation, he was given his first paid gig. Mr. Sink hasn’t forgotten the gesture, which he says had a profound influence on him and his career successes. He still fondly remembers riding home on his bicycle after his first day of work as a paid architect.

“Before I had the real job, everything I would draw was hypothetical. As I bridged into drawing on the boards and knowing it was going to be built, it was a really cool feeling,” Mr. Sink related. “There’s still a magic about it that I love.”

Mr. Sink always displayed a characteristic talent for the trade, Mr. Wheeler recalled. Mr. Sink showed Mr. Wheeler the extent of his skills when tasked with figuring out the measurements pertaining to a house the company was moving. Moving a house is a particularly difficult task, as even a quarter of an inch off the base for the home’s new resting place can cause a “very unhappy customer,” Mr. Wheeler noted. He credits Mr. Sink’s leadership, precision and enthusiasm for the success of that project and many others.

“If you don’t have a real passion for architecture, you’re not going to make it,” Mr. Wheeler stated. “[James] had the passion at an early age. And you could tell he was a sharp kid.”

With his affinity for design further fueled at Wheeler & Wheeler, Mr. Sink continued his architectural pursuits with a Bachelor of Architecture at Cal Poly Pomona. Applying his studies in a real-world context at Wheeler & Wheeler and the ability to try different areas of work helped provide him with the diverse background that he sought.

“I was able to get a ton of exposure into a lot of different facets, proposal writing to drawing to building out in the field during construction,” Mr. Sink said. “That was really important to me, in order to see what I was really interested in.”

With his thirst for knowledge still unquenched, Mr. Sink and his wife Kim headed for Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Mr. Sink would earn a Masters in Architecture at Harvard, after 5 years under Mr. Wheeler’s tutelage. He returned to Claremont a year-and-a-half later and has been hard at work ever since, first with AC Martin and now with HMC Architects.

The lifelong learner enjoys that his job continues to teach him something new.

“Architecture is one of those professions you continue to learn from and only get better at with age and experience,” Mr. Sink said. “It’s never dull, there is always something different.”

Joining Claremont’s Architectural Commission has provided him with additional new territory to explore as well as the opportunity to give back to his hometown.

“You get better at learning how to present and how to think critically,” Mr. Sink said. “It’s not only been a great learning opportunity, but a great way to contribute back to the community.”

Commission work has given him the chance to work alongside one of his mentors again, as Ms. Wheeler is a fellow commissioner. Age and work aside, Mr. Sink always finds the time to get back to the basics. Now that his daughter Sophia, 5, and son, Dominic, 3, are old enough, the Legos of his past have made a strong comeback. He has also gotten the chance to further exercise his woodwork, crafting a toy box and kitchen set for the playroom.

“[Working as an architect] is such a wild card. You can do the same type of project and yet it’s never quite the same,” Mr. Sink said. “You create and recreate. Every day is an adventure.”

—Beth Hartnett



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