The Aspen Analogy
Through The Three Aspens, Helene will apply the Aspen Analogy to nurture an organizational culture that is positive, constructive, and supportive within the firms and entities receiving her assistance.
Above the ground, aspens stand tall and sturdy as individual trees, but below grade, they are interlinked through their elaborate root system. Hence, an aspen tree never stands alone; they are always in groves. Similarly, organizations and firms need to be the web of nourishment and enrichment for their members or teams, helping them survive and thrive. Aspen trees are sometimes brilliant in a fabulous golden burst; at other times, they ‘quake’ under the force of a powerful wind. No matter what their environment imposes on them, aspens are always supported by their strong network of roots, depending on that connectivity for their well-being and vibrancy.
This new firm, The Three Aspens, will help design firms and small non-profits be that nurturing wellspring of support, especially in such turbulent times as these when the ‘winds’ of uncertainty and instability are so threatening. Every decision these entities make and every action they take should ensure the advancement of their constituents as valued contributors to community and commerce.
From my parents, John and Helen Combs, I inherited lots of common sense, a spatial way of thinking, and their heavy-duty work ethic. In watching how actively they contributed to our small community, I was inspired to become engaged in volunteer leadership. My father was my biggest cheerleader; he supported my every move.
Throughout my youth and early career, I had more ‘cheerleaders’ – kind mentors, teachers, supervisors, and coaches – who nurtured my creative, intellectual, social, and emotional well-being. To this day I remain grateful to these special individuals for the important role they played in my development.
My greatest blessing and proudest achievement in life is having three amazing children of my own. I often joke by saying that Marshall, Joanna, and Warren are my favorite ‘projects.’ In reality, they are truly my treasures, each with their uniquely creative and caring approach to life.
My core tenet is to treat people with dignity and respect, no matter their age, place, or station in life. Only by being involved, active, and engaged in pursuits that benefit others can we hope to help our fellow human beings thrive.
Helene manages three distinct business enterprises:
- The Plum Studio, Ltd. – Architecture + design + build practice concentrated within her favored mountain settings of the Shenandoah and Roanoke Valleys of Virginia, enriching the daily lives of residential clients through targeted, curated place & space making.
- The Three Aspens, Ltd. – Consultancy devoted to organizational transformation through change management, leadership development, strategic planning, and ownership transition … focused on the culture of groups and entities, specifically design-related firms and small non-profits.
- The Fine·Nest Line. – As an enduring maker – creating/selling her work – her business as an artisan is now an enhanced line of retail products as well as a lifestyle blog … all with the intention of imparting more joy, beauty, connection, balance, and warmth to life.
Formerly, Helene held interim roles to transition executive leadership and promote cultural transformation for three significant organizations:
- National Architectural Accrediting Board (Interim Executive Director) – Organization responsible for accrediting 160+ professional degree programs in architecture for 130+ American colleges and universities. The NAAB also offers credentialing for architecture graduates from international institutions and equivalency platforms for foreign schools.
- AIA Virginia (Interim Executive Vice President) – As chief executive of the professional society for architects in Virginia, the statewide chapter of the AIA, she led and managed delivery of service and support to over 2,500 AIA members and Associate members, as well as others in the architecture profession and the design and construction industry.
- The Branch Museum of Architecture and Design (Executive Director) – A Richmond, Virginia-based museum dedicated to revealing the inherent beauty of the created form and space, igniting a passion for design through exhibitions, public education, tours, special events, & publications.
Helene served for nearly ten years on the national AIA staff, having transitioned in 2000 from private architectural practice and national AIA volunteer leadership. In addition to having her own firm from 1989 to 2000, her professional experience includes work with several private architecture firms in Virginia, and she was employed early in her career by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
Helene received a Bachelor of Architecture degree from Virginia Tech in 1981 where she was named Woman of the Year for her academic excellence and exemplary student leadership.
Throughout her career, Helene has followed a career path largely beyond the bounds of traditional architectural practice. This unique experience and exposure, in addition to her volunteer leadership positions, makes Helene a recognized expert in organizational transformation for design-related firms and small non-profits.
An active volunteer in – and leader of – the AIA for more than 30 years, Helene had the honor of being elected by her colleagues to serve as President of the American Institute of Architects in 2014. She was the third Virginian as well as the third woman to hold this prestigious position. Also for the AIA, she was formerly Institute Secretary, Vice President, and Regional Director from The Virginias on the AIA national Board of Directors. She has also served on the boards of AIA Virginia and AIA Blue Ridge and was President of both chapters, among other positions.
Helene was elevated to the AIA College of Fellows in 2000 for her notable service to the profession, with an emphasis on nurturing emerging professionals.