NDSU graduates team up to build successful architecture firm
Published October 2016
Rick Engebretson has spent the last 40 years building a national reputation as an architect and expert of architectural forensics, construction and property management.
Kim Manuel was an interior design student who had big dreams and worked quickly to accomplish her career goals.
Rich Wiemken went from helping his father design and build the family cabin in Minnesota as a teenager to helping design and build an award-winning retail store as an adult.
The three North Dakota State University graduates have teamed to build the RLE group into a successful architecture, interiors, forensics and marketing firm that does work all over the United States. Engebretson, Manuel and Wiemken spend much of their work day finding ways to solve problems and designing buildings that are both functional and eye catching. They each lean heavily on the education they received at NDSU.
“When it comes to the people in the workforce who are getting the work done, getting things right and getting the problem solved, that is where you see the heart of NDSU and its graduates,” said Wiemken, who graduated from NDSU in 1991 with bachelor’s degrees in architecture and environmental design.
Engebretson is always up for a new challenge. He’s tried and succeeded at many different jobs, including commercial leasing agent and construction manager. But his world always revolves around his desire to practice architecture. It’s been his true passion since he enrolled at NDSU in the late 1960s. For Engebretson, nothing is better than 4 a.m. at the office, pencil in hand, drawing plans for a building that meets all of his client’s needs.
He’s hands-on with company projects, visiting job sites and meeting with clients regularly about their projects. He also performs forensic analysis on construction litigation cases.
He started the firm in 1992 and was once an NDSU adjunct professor of architecture, teaching a course titled “Reality: The next step in your professional development,” as a way to mentor the next generation of NDSU-educated architects.
“The education I received at NDSU, coupled with the experience I got as an intern at a local firm when I was in school, was unbelievably helpful,” said Engebretson, the firm’s CEO and director of forensics.
The interior designer
Manuel’s career ambition and drive is legendary in the office. At age 13, she owned and operated a cleaning business that included a few of her friends as employees. Her career goal was to own a business when she grew up. Manuel accomplished that goal when she and Wiemken became partners at R.L. Engebretson in 2002.
As the firm’s director of interiors and director of marketing, she works with clients’ strategic goals to develop space planning, budgets, code compliance, finish details, furnishings and construction coordination on multiple commercial projects.
Manuel chose NDSU after her father, also an NDSU graduate, and praised the school’s affordability and focus on student success. It didn’t take long to figure out it was the perfect fit. She was initially interested in architecture before finding the interior design and business programs.
She remains close with the program, coming back to campus a few times a year to review student portfolios. Fast professional success has allowed Manuel to remain in Fargo throughout her career.
She joined R.L. Engebretson as a student and was hired full time in 1998. She said the experience she gained as an intern was very helpful when she hit the workforce.
“I have a lot of friends in Minneapolis – partners in firms – and they seek out NDSU graduates,” said Manuel, from Crookston, Minnesota. “They see NDSU resumes and put those guys to the top of the list. That’s the kind of student NDSU helps develop.”
Wiemken was always tinkering as a child. He built things with his hands. First towers made from toy logs, then eventually the cabin with his dad.
He excelled in architectural drafting classes in high school and enrolled at NDSU to become an architect. He graduated in 1991 with bachelor’s degrees in architecture and environmental design.
Wiemken began his career in western North Dakota, where he says he gained 25 years of experience in seven years at a small Mandan firm.
He was given a lot of responsibility at his first job, but he said his NDSU education helped him through the difficult times.
He was hired at R.L. Engebretson in 1998. He’s the firm’s director of architecture, who oversees several architects and project managers, and works with consultants, project owners and engineers to solve design problems on multiple projects at a time.
“When you get out in the industry you realize how good of a job NDSU does of teaching you the basics and fundamentals that you need,” Wiemken said. “I’ve seen a lot of people who graduated from the NDSU architecture program who move on to big companies that have nothing to do with architecture. They were hired because NDSU taught them how to solve big problems in their jobs.”
R.L. Engebretson typically hires about two interns each year from NDSU. Many have come back to take full-time positions.
“I’m not sure how many students coming into school realize how great NDSU is in the architecture department,” said Engebretson, whose firm has designed several new Scheels retail stores across the country. “But they’ll definitely realize it after they go out into the real world and see what they’ve learned.”