story by HEIDI HODGES
Temme and her husband, a former military pilot, found their way to Door County in 1997. “Brett’s from Manitowoc. He was concerned about being closer to family. So we drew a two-hour driving radius from Manitowoc.”
As they were searching, “We came up to Door County just for a weekend. No other reason other than to just enjoy Door County. I had never been here before. I was out of the car 15 minutes and knew, ‘This is where we are going to live.’”
“That night, we stayed at the White Birch Inn. We told the owner that Brett was looking at various firms in Wisconsin,” said Temme. Through connections, the inn’s owner got an interview opportunity for Brett Temme with a local engineering firm. He was offered the job, and within two weeks, Virge had two offers from firms in Green Bay.
Today, Brett works as building inspector throughout Door County. “We have interesting conversations,” said Temme, laughing. “He educates me.”
“Memorial Day of 1997 was the first time I was in Door County. And by August 3 we had moved up. We rented at first and eventually built a home in Sturgeon Bay,” she said.
While working on the home Temme had designed, “We had just finishing the staining, and this couple from California drove up and asked when we started the renovation,” Temme said, validating that the new home she designed fit well into the local landscape.
In 1998, Temme struck out on her own and hung her shingle in Door County, and Virge Temme Architecture was born.
Recently Temme’s business has evolved into a design-build firm that focuses on sustainable building, with several LEED structures (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, as determined and certified by the U.S. Green Building Council) under her belt, including three platinum-rated homes—the highest rating—in Door County.
And, at this point in her career, she’s able to pursue personal interests in her field, like her current project of researching housing in Door County.
Working with the Door County Economic Development Council, Temme is taking a look at “how we create the most affordable, most energy-efficient housing,” she explained. She’s looking at co-housing for intergenerational and mixed-income households and specifically at the concept of “micro-units” that larger communities like Washington, D.C., utilize.
This style of housing can be year-round, or for transient residents like younger people who need housing to work in the county during the tourist season.
While lots of different organizations have talked about the need for affordable housing options, no one has looked at how it could be done holistically, she explained.
It’s something she is passionate about and is doing the research pro bono “because it needs to be done.”
“I want to look at ‘how’ from the actual construction, design and zoning standpoints,” she said.
And, she’s emphatic about “changing the mindset that ‘quality of life’ needs to be a factor in choosing a home. We, in general, need to start educating homeowners. They need to look at lifestyle first—what can you afford? You don’t need to live hand to mouth to pay a mortgage.”
She’s also currently working with Gustavo Gallardo on a LEED-certified commercial hotel and café building in Sister Bay called Goose & Twigs Inn and Market. The café and five hotel rooms will open for the 2018 holiday season, and the next four rooms are expected to open the following Spring (See sidebar.)
And, significantly, her firm will observe its 20th anniversary this February with plans for a celebration in the summer.
Reflecting on her work, she said, “The most important thing I have done—and I hope this would be my legacy if there is any legacy to be had—is my work in sustainable design,” said Temme. It was yet another obstacle she had to overcome.
“One of my professors, Robert Selby at the U of I, was one of the early promoters of passive solar. When I came up here to Door County, I tried to persuade people to build that way, but the feedback I got was ‘We don’t need that hippie s@$#...;” she laughed.
So, she took a different tack. “I told clients, ‘You’ll be so much more comfortable. No drafts; energy bills will be not as much.’”
It didn’t take long. Clients not only responded, they began to seek her out.
Virge Temme wasn’t setting out to make waves when she became an architect. She was just following a path that seemed almost rooted in her DNA.
Looking back, Temme, 66, recalls that in high school she would buy house plan books and analyze what worked and what didn’t...and fix the plans.
But it wasn’t until she was 35 that she finally made the leap and began her studies in earnest, leading to her life in Door County.
That leap was met with incredible opportunity and, quite often, resistance because she didn’t fit the mold of a stereotypical architect.
“My first internship (in Decatur, Illinois)—there were three of us women in an office of 35 men. It was my last year in school, and I entered a competition in resort design. All the Midwestern schools were invited. I won first prize. There were big write ups in Chicago papers,” Temme remembered.
“I walked in the firm’s studio Monday morning. Nobody said, ‘Hello.’ Nobody talked. It was so quiet, I thought maybe there had been a big fight before I walked in. An associate finally said, ‘I saw about the prize. I hope you don’t get any ideas to be a designer for this firm. You don’t have the right equipment.’”
To ensure his point was made, “The man actually pointed to my crotch and said that.”
That was 1996.
Since then, “Things have gotten better (for women.) But still, women comprise only 11 percent of professional architects,” said Temme. “In construction, only 7 percent.”
Being a woman in architecture and in the trades has been quite a journey for Temme. But it was not a straight path from Point A to Point B.
“I was going to be a musician. And artist,” she said. “I was on the 25-year plan for undergrad! I wanted to learn it all.” She studied writing, philosophy and psychology, too, at Illinois State University. “I went (to college) for two and a half years, then hitchhiked around the country for a year and a half.”
She returned, “fell in love, got married, had a child and then…became a single mom.”
Her son Jake, now a musician and a medical researcher, was born in 1979.
With the new responsibilities of single motherhood, Temme needed an income. “I took secretarial training and landed a job as a liaison between our plant manager and the architect and interior designer who were doing the company’s big remodeling project,” she said. All the while, she continued taking college courses when she could.
“The architect working on the project was also a teacher at Illinois State, and he persuaded me to take his classes. He started sending me some of his overflow residential design projects,” said Temme. “That was unprecedented, for someone with no training.
“It hooked me. The only thing I needed to do was—I needed to know how to draft.”
Temme then sought out an old mentor. “I was the first girl allowed since 1943 to take a class in shop in my high school.” Her shop teacher was an early believer in Temme’s talents.
So Temme told that teacher, Ralph Arduini, about her need to learn drafting, “He said, ‘It’s about damn time.’”
Arduini offered Temme several four-hour-long drafting classes. After the fast-track education, she got a job with a design-build firm, Kaisner Construction in Bloomington, Illinois, where she worked for two years.
“Finally, at the age of 35, I realized I should become an architect,” said Temme. “So, that’s when I went back to school and got my degree.”
Her first class in this new push for an undergrad degree was History of Architecture. And the first concepts taught were that “an architect needs to be trained in music, literature, psychology and art...so, all these things were helping me become an architect,” said Temme, reflecting on her early interests.
She finished her final 30 hours of course work at Illinois State University at Normal and received her degree in art.
With that step finally completed, she left for grad school at the University of Illinois in Champaign. While there, she began work with the Department of Defense’s Legacy Resource Management Program.
The program team was tasked with “writing the history of the build environment of the Cold War,” Temme explained. “Radar sites, missile sites, daycare centers...everything that was created for the military during the Cold War.”
Interestingly, the work team was primarily female, said Temme. “Historians, landscape architects...they were amazing. Our managers removed all the roadblocks for us.”
It gave Temme great experience in her field and expanded her horizons in other ways. “I was, frankly, kind of shy up to that point. But when you have monthly meetings with generals, you have to get over that.”
Those meetings became a necessity when Temme unexpectedly became the program’s team leader.
She was picked from the crowd by Becky Cameron, the national director of the Legacy project. “Of the 30-some experts sitting in the room, that I should be in charge of the creation of the history program? Why she picked me...” Temme mused. “Maybe because I’m very impatient,” she joked.
Temme explained that Congress had allocated $10 million a year to document building history in the
country—primarily recent history. The question was what to do with buildings that were significant, but less than 50 years old.
A group of 32 historians were brought to the Pentagon to decide how the money would be allocated. They met and culled their ideas down, but ended up at an impasse, Temme explained.
“I only wanted to be a little mouse in the corner. But I spoke up,” she remembered. “I was sitting next to Becky Cameron, who I thought was only facilitating the meeting. I didn’t realize she was the national director.” During the meeting, Temme turned to Cameron and said, “There are too many people in the room to make a decision. Maybe get just five or six people to review what’s being discussed.”
“Becky said, ‘Great, Virge, why don’t you do this?’ So, I suddenly was heading up this multimillion dollar research project.”
That moment of clarity and outspokenness led to three years of leadership work with the program. “It was an amazing adventure. The stories I heard while working on that job were just mind-blowing,” Temme said. “That led to my decision of what my master’s thesis would be.”
Initially Temme planned to research the psychological impact of underground dwellings, but instead did her thesis on Capehart and Wherry military housing—housing that went up shortly after WWII, with a second effort that began in 1955, to accommodate the huge surge in returning military members and their families near bases. “It was such an important time in history. I ended up writing a book about it—it’s still available, but only available within the Army right now.”
After her work with the Legacy program, and after receiving her Master of Architecture degree in 1997, and, in the process, meeting her husband-to-be Brett Temme, Virge Temme needed to become a licensed architect—something she couldn’t complete while working on the Legacy program. To get the license, she needed design credits, so she worked for two firms, one in Decatur, Ill., and the other in Green Bay.
“The second firm I worked for, in Green Bay, Tom Cruise—that was really his name—was very supportive. He did everything he could to move me up the ladder,” said Temme. “But, unfortunately, I was the token female in the firm and the principals and associates weren’t on board with the idea. They said I was on a treadmill, and they would move me when they felt like it.
“But I wasn’t on anyone’s treadmill. I wanted to be free to learn. I’m not good working under anyone’s thumb,” said Temme.