Meet Dixie Tech’s Student of the Year: Heather Johnson


verything happens for a reason, right? Heather Johnson would repeat this phrase often on her path to a career in architecture.

“Ever since I was a kid, I loved buildings,” Johnson said. “ I could walk into a house and be able to memorize and picture the floorplan in my head.”

In high school, Heather excelled academically and continued to develop her love of architecture in her drafting classes, where she designed a house plan for a neighbor. But school wasn’t the only thing she excelled at; Heather dominated on the basketball court.

“I have loved sports for as long as I can remember,” Johnson said. “I played varsity volleyball and basketball since I was a freshman in high school.”

Her athletic and academic talents were set to take her far from her home in Wyoming. By her senior year, Heather had secured a basketball scholarship to Harvard. Yes, that Harvard. Her hard work, dedication, and determination had paid off; until an unfortunate ACL tear changed Heather’s plans.

“It kind of derailed me mentally,” Johnson said. It’s not like Harvard went away, but I couldn’t fathom how I was going to do that with my torn ACL.”

But everything happens for a reason, right?

As she recovered and came to terms with her injury, Heather decided she needed a change of scenery and figured the student exchange program would be a great fit. Heather applied and got her change of scenery a few weeks later in Finland.

When Heather arrived, she quickly got a crash course in the Finnish education system.

After middle school, students can choose what secondary education track best aligns with their strengths and interests. There is an academic track called ‘lukio’ and a polytechnic track called ‘ammattikorkeakoulu.’ In the United States, this would look like students either going to a traditional high school to pursue higher education or going to a technical school to join the workforce.

Heather was placed in a sports-based lukio and immediately added basketball as an extracurricular class.

“I was one of three girls in the class,” Heather said. “My instructor happened to be Bill Gillis, an American playing on the Finnish pro basketball team. After a few classes, he encouraged me to try out for the women’s pro team, so I did, and I made it.”

After that, she spent a year in Finland studying, playing, and getting paid to play pro basketball, traveling around Europe, gaining new perspectives, learning more about European architecture, and becoming fluent in French and Finnish. As her time in Finland came to a close, Heather made plans to attend Utah State University and pursue architecture but was surprised when she got home and realized she had missed the enrollment deadline.

But everything happens for a reason, right?

Call it fate or a full-tuition scholarship, Heather ended up at Dixie State College, where she met her soon-to-be husband, Thad. After the two were married, they attended Southern Utah University. Even though there was no architecture program, Heather wanted to pursue an education and obtained a bachelor’s of psychology with a minor in French.

Heather Johnson Studying

Photo of Heather working on her final class project.

When we start something new,
there is always an adjustment period.

Over the next 20 years, Heather’s focus shifted to another dream she had long had for herself; raising kids, five of them, to be exact!

“Once my youngest, Kanyon, was in preschool, I decided to go back to school,” Heather said. “When I first started looking for programs, I couldn’t find any,  the nearest program was in Las Vegas, and there was no way I could make that commute work.”

Call it fate or a great renters application; Heather learned that Dixie Tech had a Drafting and Design program from the man renting an apartment from the Johnson family. Heather was familiar with Dixie Tech because her daughter had enrolled in its CNA program while in high school but had no idea there was a Drafting and Design program. Elated, she applied and was accepted into the program a few months later.

When we start something new, there is always an adjustment period. For Heather, her most significant adjustment wasn’t going back to school at the young age of 45 or balancing being a mom and student; it was the new technology and complex computer programs.  Up until this point, Heather’s computer experience and knowledge consisted of what her children had taught her.

“Things like how to properly save a document or how to file things in folders came second nature to the other students in my cohort,” Heather said. “I felt out of my league.”

But between the help of her instructors, fellow students, the discovery of YouTube tutorials, and her apt ability to learn things quickly, Heather hit her stride.

“It was a steep learning curve,” Heather said. “But then I felt like I got a handle on it, and everything opened up to me.”

After that, Heather became the person students came to with their questions. In turn, she began asking her instructors more in-depth questions and thinking beyond class material.

“Heather has shown a most uncommon interest in studying how communities are planned and how thoughtful design can create more livable spaces,” Bill McMurrin, lead instructor of the Drafting and Design Program, said. “ She has often explored ideas beyond the typical solutions we live with every day.”

This interest and passion for improvement led Heather to enter the  American Institute of Architects Tiny Home and ADU design competition. After reading about Utah’s homelessness issue, Heather came across the competition. It piqued her interest, and with some encouragement from McMurrin, she decided to enter the contest along with a hundred other students and established architects from around the globe.

As she started her research, Heather came across hundreds of innovative designs for tiny homes and realized what was more important than the home’s design was how she would implement it in a community.

“On a  socioeconomic level, I thought it was important that we spread these tiny homes throughout a community instead of putting them all in one place, creating an overwhelming need for resources, “ Heather said. “This way, each neighborhood can lend support to a small number of people.”

Although she didn’t win the competition, McMurrin noted that Heather’s project compared exceptionally well to the winning designs.

But everything happens for a reason, right?

“There is no way we could afford to get a home here now, let alone a starter home,” Heather said. “ I think of my children and wonder how they afford to stay in St. George? How can they break into this market?”

This question, along with her competition project, inspired Heather’s final project idea of creating an affordable housing development for her community.

Heather decided to create her mock development based on the specs of an empty lot in Santa Clara. The first problem she had to solve was how to create an affordable housing development that would lend itself to being just as profitable as any other development in the area. Standard subdivisions usually have about four lots per acre. The area Heather chose was 19 acres, so she would need to fit as many lots as possible without sacrificing open space for potential residents to enjoy.

“I managed to fit 72 lots on the 19 acres,” Heather said. “Profitability is an important factor, developers put in a lot of work, but it doesn’t mean attainable housing and profit have to be mutually exclusive.”

After drawing inspiration from the architecture, she’d observed in Europe; Heather began to solve one problem after another.  From creating a development with an extremely high walkability score to designing duplexes that could be lived in and rented out to produce residual income, she created an incredible affordable living community.

As she wraps up and prepares to present her final project, Heather is excited about what the future holds. Whether she ends up working at an architectural firm or starting her own drafting business, she knows better than most that everything happens for a reason.

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