Architect Returns to Alma Mater to Design a New Home for His Fraternity

When Tom Wasmoen studied architecture at the University of Minnesota in the late 70’s and early 80’s, far more students were “townies,” as Wasmoen called himself, commuter students who traveled to the U. every day as they worked on their degrees.

That put Wasmoen in pursuit of two vital treasures—a dependable parking spot, and place to build personal and professional relationships on the vast campus.

He found them both at the Theta Tau house, the home base of the engineering fraternity. The organization was founded at the U. in 1904 and today Theta Tau the nation’s oldest and largest professional engineering fraternity, with chapters on more than 40 campuses.

“Although I never lived in the house, I attended chapter meetings there and spent a lot of time studying and hanging out. I made valued friendships and business connections that have lasted,” says Wasmoen, 56, an architect, principal and founder of Firm Ground Architects & Engineers, Inc.

As an alum, Wasmoen has continued to be involved on the house board of the fraternity, an advisory role that supports the fledgling engineers and architects who are current members.

Still located a short walk from campus at 515 10th Avenue SE, the midcentury modern house is showing its age, and Wasmoen is spearheading an effort to transform the property.

“We’re doing the preliminary concept design on our nickel to get project moving forward,” he says.

Today, Theta Tau is a coed organization, but when the house was built in 1950, it was an all male organization, consistent with the gender dominance in the university’s engineering and architecture programs.

“The house is undersized and doesn't suit the lifestyle of students of today. There’s not enough privacy; there’s a big men’s shared bathroom and a tiny one for women,” Wasmoen says. “And, as you can imagine, with a bunch of engineers, there have been a lot of jury-rigged repairs over the years and it’s time to do it right.”

Wasmoen’s design will replace the two-story building with three stories; it will include one bathroom for every two bedrooms, a larger meeting room to accommodate the expanded number of active members and underground parking.

With engineering emerging as a high-demand career, Theta Tau has seen growing interest from students seeking membership.

“We want to make room for more students who want to live in the house,” he adds. “They’re looking for the same things that I wanted.”

Wasmoen founded Firm Ground firm eight and a half years ago out of necessity; the developer he’d previously worked for went out of business, hit hard in the construction slowdown of the recession.

“I say that architects are the canary in the coal mine; work dries up first for us,” he says.

Today, his architecture, design, engineering and development firm employs 11 in an office in International Market Square and is on track to put a million dollars in gross revenues on the books this year.

Firm Ground has its name on a wide variety of projects, from the eye popping Betty Danger’s Country Club restaurant along the Mississippi to an apartment complex in Coon Rapids; the firm is currently doing work for several hotels, including a renovation of the downtown Holiday Inn Express, on deadline to be completed before Super Bowl visitors arrive.

“Right now the business climate is very good. We have new opportunities every week and a solid book of work that will keep us busy through the year,” he adds.

One of the projects on the docket is at the Hennepin Ave. United Methodist church, where Firm Ground is working on a commercial kitchen, the renovation of two floors of the church’s education building and the renovation of stone work of the landmark.

Wasmoen sees that project as a positive indicator.

“When the churches start building again, it means that money in a community is flowing,” he says.