It’s Dr. Reuben E. Amamilo’s last day before retirement (at time of speaking). The former capital projects director at the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries will now focus on winemaking, hobby landscaping, and cooking meals for his wife, a still-practicing judge. While there are many moments that could have derailed his path, the Nigerian-born Amamilo forged forward, free of ego or disheartenment.
For instance, there was a time when Amamilo—who had already earned his doctor of architecture (dottore in architettura) degree from University Institute of Architecture and Urban Planning in Venice, Italy, and master’s of city and regional planning from Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT)—was driving a bus in Seattle.
“I had a family and I needed to put food on the table,” he says. “I went through six months of training to earn my commercial driver’s license and then spent three months driving a bus while I continued to apply for jobs in my area.”
Amamilo isn’t one to shy away from making a practical decision, or for that matter, a challenging one. Years earlier, he attended university in Italy for one reason: he didn’t speak Italian. Amamilo spoke his native language of Igbo, English, and had studied French in high school. But he wanted to attend university in a different language. He bought a one-way ticket to “Bel Paese” (a cheesy nickname for Italy) and enrolled in an Italian language school to prepare, finishing the six-month course in three. Years later, he would complete his architecture doctoral program in Italian.
His career returned Amamilo to the States, where he attended IIT and where he most recently executed huge builds for the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries. Before that, he worked in facilities management programs for four different educational institutions, and even spent early 2007 through 2010 running his own design and construction company. There he oversaw the complete refurbishment of St. John Baptist Church in downtown Tacoma, Washington.
Amamilo has demolished and renovated math and arts classrooms buildings; built new arts gallery and chemistry and biology science labs classroom buildings; created educational campus master plans for future development; expanded student centers; and was involved in creating new governmental department of Enterprise Services (DES) for the State of Washington. But the most intriguing project Amamilo helped bring to life might be the one that went online just months before his retirement.
Prior to 2017, Amamilo and the project team applied for funds for a new public safety and health laboratory to be built on behalf of Washington’s division of occupational safety and health (DOSH), a statewide federal OSHA equivalent, essentially. The Industrial Hygienic lab in downtown Olympia, Washington (in which the DOSH division was working), was a former office building that had been retrofitted to conduct delicate hazardous materials research, and the space just wasn’t conducive to the work.
“Unfortunately, we weren’t successful in getting that first budget approved by the Washington State Legislature,” Amamilo says. “We went back to the drawing board with Washington State Labor & Industries (L&I) agency executive management team to see how we could secure the funds in a more economical way. It turned out we needed a partner.”
Amamilo and the L&I team approached the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA), which already had four functioning labs in the state. The idea would be to combine the DOSH and WSDA labs at one site, saving the state money in the process. The lab might be larger, but the spending would ultimately be lower.
“You reduce the budget, reduce environmental pollution, and reduce the land resources required,” Amamilo explains. “I thought it was a very smart plan, and, fortunately, the legislature agreed.”
The $53 million project took years to finish. The complex nature of the agencies involved, the stringent requirements of the highly complex laboratories, and the overall scope of the project actually drove out the person Amamilo had hired to manage the project.
“It was just too complex and cumbersome,” Amamilo says. “So, it became my main focus. It took three years, but we got it done.”
The lab which includes geothermal energy, net-zero capable building and efficiencies, and highly technological environmental sensitivities, went online in summer 2023, a capstone of sorts for Amamilo’s career.
The man behind the builds says the leadership required for such a position is rooted in collective calmness, honesty, integrity, and self-reflection that can give way to innovation. Whether they are a stakeholder, a colleague, or a client, Amamilo says good leaders are the ones that build teams, form partnerships, and are willing to listen to their people.
“You have to value creativity and new ideas,” Amamilo says. “And you have to be ready to hear the stakeholders, manage their expectations, [and] project scope creep and sentiments. That drives continuous improvement, budget monitoring, and makes you a better leader in the process.”
Those lessons are important for those coming after him. His shoes will be difficult ones to fill. He’s built all over Washington for its betterment, but now, Amamilo has some time to build whatever he wants with his wife and seven children.
ZGF Architects and Korsmo Construction proudly delivered the new high-performance, zero net energy-capable L&I/WSDA Safety & Health Lab and Training Center in Tumwater, Washington. The project provides state-of-the-art laboratory, training, and administrative space for the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) and Department of Agriculture (WSDA) as they do critical work protecting the safety of Washington’s workers and food supply. ZGF is an award-winning architecture and interior design firm with seven offices throughout North America. Korsmo Construction is an innovative commercial general contracting company delivering projects throughout the Pacific Northwest. Learn more at zgf.com and korsmo.com.