Marnie Lahtinen
Architect Katie Vasbinder shows off several of her residential design sketches. (Marnie Lahtinen)

KBV LLC is a Bismarck-based architecture and visual arts firm dedicated to "smart" design. (Marnie Lahtinen)

After five minutes of sitting down with Bismarck-based architect Katie Vasbinder I know that, to her, good design is not about square footage, number of rooms or even a zip code. As she discusses her aesthetic and style, I hear words like "sustainable," "smart," "contemporary" and "transitional." Her passion for her profession is evident -- palpable, even.

"Everyone deserves high-end design, no matter what they can afford," says Vasbinder, her blue eyes sparkling with energy and enthusiasm. "It gives you the opportunity to express who you are through your home.

"I've known that I wanted to be an architect ever since I could put two blocks together," she says, laughing, and mimics the motion with her hands. "I looooved Legos."

A native of Sartell, Minnesota, Vasbinder says she was fortunate to have had the opportunity to try architectural drafting in high school. She enrolled at NDSU's architecture program in Fargo. A master's degree, thousands of internship hours and seven examinations later, Vasbinder earned her license to practice architecture in North Dakota in 2012.

When Vasbinder moved to her husband's native Bismarck seven years ago, she joined a local architecture firm and worked primarily on larger commercial projects. There, she developed relationships with contractors and builders and was introduced into creative circles around the Bismarck-Mandan area.

"I founded KBV Architecture because I want to guide design in the residential realm, and I really want to focus on implementing sustainable -- or what I refer to as 'smart' -- design. Architecture should reflect the region you live in," she says.

And in North Dakota, that can present some unique, well, er ... challenges.

"On the plains of the northern prairie, we have to think about our prevailing winds from the northwest, about the type of vegetation we have, and about maximizing southern solar exposure," Vasbinder says. Using her arms, she illustrates different angles of sunlight at different times of the year, explaining how roof overhangs and sunshades can help "orchestrate" solar exposure.

While there is a recent trend toward green building, Vasbinder points out that sustainable design concepts are by no means new.

"People hear 'sustainable' and they think 'fad'," explains Vasbinder. But she's adamant that North Dakotans have, perhaps unknowingly, been embracing these concepts for years.

"We are not reinventing the wheel here. This has been researched and practiced: look at old farmsteads around the state," says Vasbinder. "Homesteaders integrated prevailing winds and utilized solar energy on their properties with their building placements and tree rows. There was no waste."

Vasbinder feels that what she is attempting to do is "reintroduce sustainability as a design concept" to North Dakota. When designing or remodeling a home, she says, it's important to keep in mind that the house needs to be able to grow with its occupants.

"I am not just designing a home for the immediate owners, or even for resale," she says. "It's important that my clients and I keep flexible design in mind. We should always keep in mind the future generations and possibilities."

Speaking of future generations, it was the birth of her own daughter 18 months ago that inspired her to step out on her own. Vasbinder says that after becoming a mother, she started to think more about that proverbial "bucket list."

"Having my daughter, I started thinking more about my own mortality," she says.

"I've always wanted to own my own business and I seriously started thinking about making a change."

Inspired by a friend who had what she called a "lifestyle career," Vasbinder struck out on her own, founding KBV, LLC eight months ago.

Her entrepreneurship is paying off: Vasbinder has several local projects underway, and says that her client list continues to grow. When I ask her how clients find her among this unprecedented North Dakota building boom, she credits the relationships she established while working at Ubl Designs.

"There's an existing trust with builders, and they're really willing to partner with me," she says.

She's also selective about the projects she takes on. "I will turn down projects that are too demanding for my work load," Vasbinder states unequivocally. "Sometimes, when businesses are starting out, the temptation is to grow, grow, grow. I would rather do two quality small projects versus two big ones."

With all her focus on forward-thinking design, Vasbinder is less forthcoming when I ask her about her own future. She just smiles and holds her hands up in a gesture of "who knows?" This young architect seems content with where she's at for now.

To learn more about KBV Architecture, visit

Marnie Lahtinen is the mother of five children and a Mandan-based freelance writer. In addition to her family, she loves travel, hiking, skiing, food, knitting, red wine and music.

Marnie Lahtinen is the mother of five children and a Mandan-based freelance writer. In addition to her family, she loves travel, hiking, skiing, food, knitting, red wine and music.