On the Retirement of Mike Miller

In “Digging,” Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney contrasts his vocation with that of his father’s vocation and, before him, his father’s father. The elder Heaneys were farmers, diggers of potatoes and peat. Yet, while those men tore into the soil with spades, Heaney would do his own digging, with a pen, to compose poetry that would unearth meaning from Ireland’s collective memory. While the generations and tools may be different, all three men dedicated their lives to acts of uncovering.

This month architect Mike Miller, Principal and owner at Rice Fergus Miller, will retire. Mike joined the firm in 2002 after several years with NBBJ. He dedicated his career to bring about design that makes lives better, notably those of patients who receive treatment in healthcare facilities, and the lives of seniors housed in retirement communities. Mike adopts an approach of people-first, with innovation stemming from how to best serve those who occupy design rather than design as its own end. This perspective traces several projects through his tenure at the firm and will continue to imbue RFM’s ethos and methods.

Mike’s strategic thinking resulted in many insights through the years, including the integration of senior housing, healthcare and hospitality into one firm practice, H3. He believes in witnessing others—their behavior and movements—to create design that succeeds by revealing, for them and their communities, a greater relevance. It’s a method of observation the firm and its next generation of leaders have honed under the guidance of Mike and fellow owners and Principals Steve Rice, Dave Fergus, Greg Belding, and Jennifer Fleming. From a Catholic family and the son of an undertaker, Mike’s vocation, like Heaney’s, is in contrast to his forebear, and yet has likewise been at work deriving meaning and significance for the benefit of others.

Here, Mike responds to a few questions about the firm’s 34 years, his own experiences in the last 19 of those, and the firm’s future as a perennial community-builder and advocate for its clients and their communities:

What do you most want the firm’s clients to know? I want them to know I have cherished all of my relationships and the opportunities that those presented to me and the firm. Also, that we have incredibly strong leadership in place. If anything, people smarter and more talented than I am will be in those positions.

What are you thankful for? I’m thankful for the chance to make design contributions to healthcare and senior living environments. In terms of senior living, I want to be sure the space we design for people gives them back some of their human dignity and control. The people we’re designing for are confronted with mortality, and we should be doing whatever we can to make the last chapter of their lives the best that we can with those things we can control, which is design.

What’s a key to responsive, relevant design? At RFM, we practice something called A Day in the Life. An example: I had the opportunity to create a master plan for the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. It’s a convent. The first thing I did to prepare was A Day in the Life: They have a yearly retreat where all the nuns come back from missions. I attended such a retreat as their guest. I was the only male among 200 religious women for three days and two nights. I immersed myself in their culture as much as I could, as a guy and as a Catholic as well. And it was eye-opening—a spiritual experience and a good programming experience because I was thinking about their space based on how they moved through the facility. I also came to an understanding—as a kid who had nuns as educators—that they are people, just like us.

In healthcare, I have served on hospital boards and observed healthcare from the inside out, making patient rounds with doctors and gowning to be in surgery for several operations, including open heart, cranial, and joint replacement surgeries. I believe—and we believe—this is the only way we can understand who and what we’re designing for. Indeed, others in our firm use A Day in the Life regularly, too. Our employees dedicated to fire and emergency facility design have gone on ride-alongs in fire trucks and medevacs, for instance. So, while I may be asking questions of clients in meetings to uncover what they need, I don’t think you can design for someone really well unless you truly understand their daily experiences in a space and their culture.”

If you could wave a magic wand and change something, what might it be? A shift in what a hospital means for our society. One thing would be to transition hospitals from being the places where people are sick and go to get better, to places focused on whole body wellness. You’d have surgery, ICU, and an ED, but if hospitals could be community wellness centers, your whole community would be better. You could co-locate a YMCA and have athletic fields and nutrition education and all of that in one location. Along this line, I often ask, “What would healthcare be like if it were funded and run by, say, Nike?” It’s a company whose whole rationale for being is fitness and health. Healthcare would be different, I think.

What are your plans for retirement besides, as you’ve already mentioned, eventual travel post-Covid and drinking some amazing wine? I’d like to follow in George W. Bush’s footsteps and take up painting. I’m pretty convinced I’m a lousy painter, but I’ll take some classes and see how I do. And, importantly, I’m looking for some volunteer opportunities. I served on boards and enjoyed the meaningfulness of providing talent and time to help organizations become better. So my goals are, one, to have some fun and, two, to continue to give back.

Congratulations, Mike! We all thank you for a kind heart, a strategic mind, and your insightful service to our clients during your two decades of leadership at Rice Fergus Miller.