Sue Knapp (MS ‘76, BA ’74) and Mark Ramsdell (PhD ’73)

Sue Knapp and Mark Ramsdell discuss the 70s, paratransit solutions and gingerbread

by Rebecca Rudell

Profile of Sue Knapp.

Sue Knapp brings a focus on user needs to her transportation planning practice, Bethesda-Md.- based KFH Group. For example, she works with doctors and dialyses centers to assess the mobility needs of dialysis patients. 

Sue Knapp (MS 76’ BA 74’) and Mark Ramsdell (PhD ’73) met at UB in the 1970s. She was an environmental design student who went on to get her master’s in civil engineering; he taught a program in urban policy while earning his PhD in policy studies. Both were captivated by the university’s new, holistic method of teaching, where the built environment was examined through a variety of lenses, from political to sociological to theoretical.

Ramsdell recalls the beginning of the multi-disciplinary effort at UB’s architecture school [then the School of Architecture and Environmental Design]: “John Eberhard [the first dean of the school] was sort of like a no-build architect. He’d say, ‘Let’s solve the problem. I have no idea what the solution is — and it may not be a building.’” Meaning, a government policy may need to change or a unique transportation strategy may be the answer to a planning predicament.

The couple has used this way of thinking, of looking at alternative solutions to real-world challenges, throughout their careers: Knapp as the managing owner of KFH Group, a transportation planning company that focuses on mobilizing the carless, including people with disabilities, and Ramsdell as a pastry chef. 

“Typically transportation planning is about making sure buses, railcars and vehicles on the street move," Knapp says.

But at the KFH Group, which she started in 1995, they focus on moving people. “We examine the social, cultural and political aspects of transportation and how it affects quality of life. The solutions we create address mobility needs, not just transportation needs.”

For example, Knapp works with doctors, dialysis centers and government officials to determine how best to serve the mobility needs of dialysis patients. By asking questions like — Do patients even need to travel for treatment? Or can they get treatment at home? — she develops strategies to efficiently and effectively meet the needs of this special population.

In addition to generating paratransit solutions, Knapp’s company provides consultation services on public transit planning, human service transportation and coordination, intercity bus analysis and transit-pedestrian accessibility. Today, Knapp is in the process
of developing a comprehensive alternative transit plan for Virginia’s I‐95/I‐395 corridor (the Commonwealth is converting HOV lanes to HOT (High Occupancy Toll) lanes) that will improve transit mode share and person throughput. And with a roster of 25-plus projects in the works, she’ll continue to transform the built environment for years to come. 

Former faculty member Mark Ramsdell transferred his architectural background into

a career in pastry art, which included 350-pound gingerbread houses commissioned by the White Houses of former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. 

A former faculty member who’s made an impact in his field, Mark Ramsdell also brings his knowledge of a variety of disciplines to his work. He explains that, while he enjoyed his time as an educator at UB and as a project manager/planner in Buffalo, and Bethesda, Md., he had royal icing in his veins since he was a child. Of course, growing up with a French mother and baking soufflés at age six will have that affect on a person.

So in 1982, he earned his Certificate of Excellence from the Professional Pastry Arts Program, L’Academie de Cuisine. A few years later, he was named as director and head instructor of the same program. During his time as director, 1990 to 2008, Ramsdell worked with White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier on the incredibly elaborate and enormous gingerbread houses — some weigh up to 350 pounds — constructed for former U.S. Presidents Clinton and Bush. 

But what can you transfer from policy making, urban planning and MBAs to pastry? Quite a bit actually. "The pastry world is very world is very disciplined," Ramsdell explains. "When I work on a gingerbread house, I do exactly what an architect does -- field research, photography, scale drawings, model making."

There are also events where 25,000 pastries are served, which definitely requires some background in management and analysis — and a lot of spreadsheets.

But it’s also about the baking. Every piece of every house Ramsdell makes is edible, even I-beams are made of gingerbread, and a thin layer of couverture chocolate coats each piece of the cookie to provide support.

Ramsdell also worked with Mesnier on The White House in Gingerbread: Memories & Recipes, which includes photos of the two men working with White House architectural plans
and developing 3d models to create the confectionary constructions. A second book, The Gingerbread White House: A Pop-up Book was just released. Most recently, Ramsdell created a showpiece cake for President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn for their 70th wedding anniversary.

Like most couples, Knapp and Ramsdell discuss their work at the dinner table. “Sue will
bring up a project she has in Idaho and we’ll come up with a policy management solution,” he says. “Or I’ll need her help engineering one of my showpieces.” So the exchange of ideas and multi-disciplinary knowledge continues even after business hours, making each solution they develop together more insightful and more successful.