When Childers was fresh out of the University of Arkansas’ School of Architecture in the mid- 1970s, he landed an internship in St. Louis with the international architecture firm HOK. Today the largest architecture firm in the world, HOK was already sizable by then, with about 150 architects on staff. HOK occupied a building near the Gateway Arch, and it had three floors that were teeming with young, talented architects. But as Childers looked around, he realized not all of them were so young. Some of them had been there 15, maybe 18 years and were still working on narrow pieces of projects. That wasn’t for Childers.
“I wanted to work on it from beginning to end, to experience building,” he says. “Those architects in big firms didn’t get the full range of experience of designing, putting together the construction documents and then the satisfaction of seeing it built.”
Determined to tackle projects in their entirety, rather than handling mere slivers of them, Childers arranged to finish his three-year internship back home in Fort Smith. It was there that he had spent the second half of his childhood, and where he and several friends had been inspired to enter the world of architecture.
He started working as an architect in Fort Smith in 1980, working in several successful firms before launching the firm he currently heads in 1986, James R. Childers Architect, Inc. Since the mid-1990s, the firm has focused heavily on American Indian health-care facilities, to the point that Childers estimates it accounts for more than 90 percent of its business. In Arkansas, the firm is part of a project to renovate and add to the Epley Center for Health Professions at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.
From conception to completion, it can take years for Childers’ firm to build a new Indian health-care facility. The painstaking process starts with a concept and ends with a ribbon-cutting, and requires enormous attention to detail. For Childers, it’s the sort of work he dreamed of doing more than 30 years ago: all-encompassing.