In literature, character is indelibly shaped by setting. This adage revealed itself to be true for Husain Alam, owner and president of Alam Design Group and Family Builders, as he recounted the many environments, cultures and people that have influenced his personal life and professional career.
A certified architect and master builder, Alam has 27 years’ experience in design and construction. An active member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the Home Builders Association, he currently is licensed in Virginia, North Carolina, New York, Washington and Maryland. He grew up in Pakistan near the foothills of the Himalayas and attended college at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey, where he graduated first in his class in the School of Architecture & Engineering. While completing his undergraduate studies, he interned four months in Poland during the late 1980s when the country was still dominated by communist rule. Ambition and intellect propelled him to the United States where he earned his master’s degree in architecture at Pennsylvania State University. His first job after graduate school was for SSP Architects, a northern New Jersey firm where he became a manager within his first year. He met and married a woman from Virginia and the couple eventually settled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, his wife’s home. The Alams have four daughters who are now in various stages of their own college and career choices.
Husain Alam is a man of the world shaped by his family, his passions, interests and the settings in which he has lived. His chiseled jaw and slim frame, the result of his devotion to endurance sports, reflect an outward desire to be physically and mentally challenged. But his commitment to his family and staff, as a business owner and to the community – he’s the past president of the AIA Blue Ridge chapter and current vice chair at large for the Roanoke Regional Chamber of Commerce – demonstrate Alam’s inward desire to be a servant leader.
“This is a great county,” he exclaimed. “The freedom we have to explore, achieve and create is tremendous. It’s only limited by what we put in.” Now middle-aged, Alam says he feels an increased desire to do even more to give back and help the next generation advance.
The first trait one experiences after meeting Alam in person is his kinetic energy. He moves swiftly and talks fast, perhaps without realizing it. He is as interested in expounding on the topic at hand as he is eager to ensure visitors to his Northwest Roanoke office (his other location is in Botetourt) feel comfortable and at ease. During a two-hour interview, various aspects of his background and design aesthetic were explored before reviewing one of his latest projects in Roanoke.
“I had an aunt and uncle who were architects. My father was a civil engineer. While he was with the Army Corps of Engineers in Pakistan, my dad worked on what is best described as the Silk Road. After he left the Corps, my father worked for a private firm. Sometimes I would accompany him. There I saw him involved on a huge steel mill project and one that focused on concrete, another involved glass. I became fascinated by the materials and how to work with them, as well as intrigued by the complexities of design.”
“Before the time came for me to apply to school, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. There was a lot of unrest in the streets in certain parts of Pakistan. My parents – my dad is of Persian and Arab descent and my mum is Afghan – were concerned about me staying in the region. Though we were a middle-class family, they couldn’t afford to send me to the U.S. for college, so I applied for school in Turkey because they were an allay of Pakistan. I had some cousins who had taken this route. I had to take an entrance exam to qualify. Once accepted, I was assigned to my college based on a list of preferences for my field of study.”
“No. I had to learn it.”
“I fell in love with life in Ankara. The student body at that time was roughly 95 percent Turkish, but the five or six percent of students that were foreigners were from all over the Mediterranean and beyond. The experience of my classmates, like our training, was rich and diverse. We would take field trips every month to different sites to study examples of historical and contemporary architecture.”
Alam leaned across the conference room table to share photos on his phone of a trip he and his classmates took to Aphrodisias, a Greek Hellenistic city in now western Anatolia, Turkey. As he swiped the screen, a picture of giant, free-standing columns, the remains of a temple, flew past. Another showed his classmates dwarfed by the huge amphitheater they trekked through. The last snap captured the Tetrapylon in the background, the monumental gateway of four portals that marked entrance to the ancient city – a place Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome, declared would be “the one city from all of Asia [Minor] that would be his own.”
Alam added, “Every summer I would get a Eurail pass and spend as much time as I could afford traveling through Europe.”
The photographs which blanket the walls of the Alam Design Group’s conference room showcase the breadth of their projects and design aesthetic. The light, color and angles of the images are an effective presentation of the residential, commercial and institutional structures they have built or renovated. Residences with multiple gabled façades, doorways with arched surrounds, corners with stone or concrete quoins, dramatic windows with fanlights and transoms; an institutional building with a front undulating wall of glass to let sunlight stream in for clients seeking respite and calm. Any of the properties displayed would be a buyer’s dream.
“Architecture is a profession where, to be good, you have to live. You have to experience and be open to life, culture, people. You have to understand their needs. My first boss in the U.S., a sharp Italian executive architect who became my mentor for several years, helped me see that the essence of architecture – how to work with materials, light, dark, function, form – was to find the music in the design. For me, it’s the Mediterranean way of life, to love what you do. To love people, to experience and connect with them. To work really hard and give your all without bias or grudge. The ability an architect has to capture those facets can change someone’s life by helping them embrace the beauty and possibilities in their own lives.”
“Every day – from regulators, financers, contractors, even sometimes from clients. Hitting walls happens every day to every person. Though the first impulse is to blame, I try to remember that as humans, we all fail yet we are called to love. So, I embrace the roadblocks and try not to get lost in the chaos. I want to help people become the best they can be.”
Alam fulfills this mandate by extending his involvement in design all the way through execution of the build, providing clients with continuity. “It is our duty as architects, as maestros, to guide the technicians, not just tell them, but show them,” he concluded.
One of Husain Alam’s new projects in Roanoke, approved in April 2019, is Herberger Meadows, an apartment complex of approximately 200 units designed to look like individual row homes to be built in the interior block bound by Williamson and Hershberger Roads. As reported by WSLS News, Alam’s goal was to bring a taste of downtown adjacent to a commercial area, while also making it affordable. Future residents will have units with designer touches, like granite countertops and custom cabinets, green space, a pool, and a community clubhouse. The two-bedroom units, approximately 1,000-square- feet in size, will be marketed at the lower end of the rental spectrum, around $800 a month. When completed, businesses and residents alike anticipate Hershberger Meadows will have a positive impact on the Williamson Road corridor.
Husain Alam is an architect who possesses the mind of a fine artist, the heart of a philosopher, the discipline of a civil engineer and the stamina of a long-distance runner. We are glad he chose the Roanoke Valley to exercise his talents.