College of Architecture, Art and Construction; University Feature Stories

$1 million gift establishes a professorship for “evidence-based design” in architecture


A $1 million gift from Thompson Penney (’72, M ’74) and Gretchen McKellar Penney (’83) will establish a distinguished professorship in evidence-based design in the Clemson School of Architecture.

“This felt like the right thing to do for us, for Clemson and for the students,” Thom Penney said. “Evidence-based design is something that I feel in my heart is the key to the future and success of architecture.”    

The Penneys have well-established reputations in the city of Charleston as retired architects, community leaders, and dedicated alumni of Clemson University. Thom began his career working for Clemson alumnus Frank Lucas, eventually becoming a partner in the firm Lucas founded. For 31 years he served as President/CEO of LS3P ASSOCIATES LTD., and he continues to serve as Chairman Emeritus of the firm. He was elevated to Fellowship in the American Institute of Architects for Design in 1990 and served as the 79th National President of the American Institute of Architects. Gretchen co-led McKellar and Associates Architects with her father until she decided to retire from practice to partner with Thom on AIA, practice and community leadership activities.

From their collective experience, they developed a passion for architecture that balances the power of design to inspire and uplift with predictive knowledge of how design enriches the human condition, or what they refer to as “Design Matters: Poetry + Proof.”

“The School of Architecture is grateful to the Penneys for their generous gift, which will ensure our ability to continue to recruit and retain faculty of the highest quality,” said Jim Stevens, director of the Clemson University School of Architecture. “Our graduates’ careers depend on not only the ability to obtain design skills but the understanding of how to quantify the value of design to clients and communities. The Penney’s gift reflects their deep understanding of what our students need to succeed.”

Evidence-based design is something that I feel in my heart is the key to the future and success of architecture.

Thom Penney

Clemson dreams, Clemson Family

Both Penneys began their journey toward architecture at an early age, but their paths each took unexpected turns.

Thom’s first steps toward architecture followed a push from his 6th-grade teacher, Mrs. Day.

“I was paying attention, but I was always drawing,” he recalled. “She said, ‘Tommie, you like to draw and you’re good at math, you ought to be an architect.’”

When he was reluctant to perform a frog dissection, Day allowed him to complete a book report on Frank Lloyd Wright instead. In high school, he got a job as a low-level intern for architect Frank Lucas. When it was time for college, he applied at only one school: Clemson University.

He was accepted to Clemson and took an architectural aptitude test required for admission into the architecture program. He failed.

“I was just heartbroken,” he said. Thom told his boss about the disappointment. “Frank wrote a letter, put it in an envelope and sealed it, so I didn’t know what it said.” With the letter and a portfolio of drawings in hand, Thom requested a meeting with former College of Architecture Dean Harlan McClure. McClure opened the letter, picked up the phone, and asked the Dean of admissions to admit him to the program that semester.

“I was determined not to fail,” Thom said. He went on to win the highest design award as a student every year, but he kept the initial rejection letter as motivation. More than 55 years later, it hangs framed on his wall.

Clemson discontinued the architectural aptitude test.

A rejection letter from Clemson’s architecture program (left) and a job offer from architect Frank Lucas (right) hang on Thom Penney’s wall in his Charleston home.

Gretchen’s journey with architecture began in the cradle. Her father, Peter McKellar, was an architect and Clemson alumnus, and she recalls growing up around Lucas, McClure and legendary Clemson architecture professor Joe Young. But her passion was for the stage.

“I wanted to be an actor, but I developed nodes on my vocal cords in high school,” she said. “I thought, oh well, I might as well go to architecture school like my father!”

After graduating, she co-led McKellar and Associates Architects with her father until 1999 when her focus shifted to parenting, mentoring and philanthropy after she and Thom were married. She maintained her license to practice until 2021.               

“I was recruited to serve on local, state and national boards and committees where I used my architecture training and leadership skills to develop strategies to move things forward,” she said. She has been active in numerous organizations including the Clemson Board of Visitors, Trident United Way, the American Lung Association and Circular Congregational Church.

“We approached his leadership as a team,” she noted. Both Penneys note that when they married in 1998, LS3P had one office in Charleston. The firm now has 11 offices across three states and is ranked #9 of the top architecture firms in America by Engineering News-Record.

Legacy and leadership

Thom and Gretchen Penney smile for a portrait. Thom is seated and Gretchen is standing. They are in front of a large brick fireplace.
Thom and Gretchen Penney at their Charleston home.

The growth of LS3P is what Thom points to as his professional legacy. While the firm was designing buildings, he was building the firm, which now boasts 440 employees and projects across the globe.

“I believed in hiring good people and almost getting out of their way,” he said. “The most important things you can pass on to employees are the core values of the firm.”

When Thom and Gretchen talk about leadership, they start to finish each other’s sentences. They have spent decades trying to create a culture in their companies and communities, but they trace their values back to Clemson.

“The culture at Clemson we have carried through our lives,” Gretchen said. “Taking care of other people, being ‘All In,’ when you use that as a strategy for your life, means being loyal.”

In 2018, Thom began to suffer from a chronic auto-immune disease, which led to him stepping down as CEO of LS3P in 2020. The illness also changed their mindset toward how they would make an impact at Clemson.

“We thought, where could we make a gift that would be meaningful while we’re alive,” Gretchen said.

In addition to supporting Thom’s passion for evidence-based design—which was a major theme of his term as AIA national president—the Penneys also hope the gift helps demonstrate to students that architecture is a rewarding field, both financially and personally.

 “We didn’t want to give until it hurt, we gave until it felt good. This feels good,” Thom said.

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