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Architecture Special Coverage

Professional Development — by Design

Clockwise from top: CFO Tina Gloster and Principals Kevin Riordon, Lee Morrissette, and Jason Newman

Clockwise from top: CFO Tina Gloster and Principals Kevin Riordon, Lee Morrissette, and Jason Newman (Photo by Paul Schnaittacher)

To explain what it means to be named an Emerging Professional Friendly Firm, Jason Newman offered some background on what it’s like to be an aspiring architect.

‘Aspiring,’ because simply earning a degree and going to work at an architecture firm doesn’t make one an architect; other requirements are experience — a certain number of hours worked in the field — and a series of examinations.

“Part of the experience piece is the hours worked in this office, and those hours are not just a lump-sum number of hours worked — it’s a number of hours worked in specific categories of the profession, like drawings, construction administration, and practice management,” said Newman, a principal at Dietz & Company Architects in Springfield.

“One of the things we pay attention to, very thoughtfully for every employee, is that, if you’ve got all your drawing hours satisfied, we’re not going to make you do drawing for another two years,” he went on. “That’s not going to move you forward to your license. So you won’t come to the end of the road here at Dietz and feel, ‘I’m just getting drawing. I have to go somewhere else where I can get construction-management experience.’

“If you’ve got all your drawing hours satisfied, we’re not going to make you do drawing for another two years. That’s not going to move you forward to your license.”

“This is not Boston, where 100 qualified architect candidates are at our door. We have to take care of the people here because we want them to stay,” he went on. “We want to make sure that they feel growth opportunities are here.”

That’s precisely the philosophy behind the Emerging Professional Friendly Firm program overseen by the New England components of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). A handful of firms in each New England state are so recognized each year — Dietz among them for several years running — for promoting the advancement of young team members through professional development and personal growth opportunities.

“A few years back, AIA New England came out with programs to encourage companies to adopt policies and procedures and training and internal education programs that would further develop the younger generation of architects fresh out of school, to take them in and help them grow professionally toward architecture licensure, which is what everyone refers to as the ‘stamp.’ That’s when you officially call yourself an architect,” Newman explained.

“This is a program to encourage firms to get away from the old methods of pigeonholing, where, in many cases, your first experience on an architecture job was drawing bathrooms for three years, being tucked into one thing because you’re brand new,” he went on. “The goal of this program was to incentivize firms to be more supportive, to promote emerging professional development.”

Lee Morrissette, another principal, spent more than a decade in Boston before coming to Dietz, and said he has always appreciated its emphasis on mentorship, continuing education, and lifelong investigation of the profession. “It’s a much more transparent firm, in the way the business goes on, than anywhere I’ve been.”

Jason Newman

Jason Newman

“A lot of the junior staff see when we get praise for our designs — or criticized for our designs. It gives them a fuller perspective on what’s happening beyond the drawings.”

It certainly made an impression on Newman, who came to Dietz as a student intern 13 years ago and “never found a reason to leave,” as he put it. “So I’m an example of someone to wants to stay with this firm because they feel this is a good, long-term place for them.”


Drawing Up a Strategy

According to AIA New England, the Emerging Professional Friendly Firm program “has an ability to attract and retain employees by sending a message to current employees, future employees, and other regional firms that the firm has evaluated their policies from an emerging professional lens, the firm recognizes emerging professionals at their firm, and the firm values emerging professionals’ development to sustain the future growth of their practice.”

That resonates with Newman, who noted that the aim is for young professionals to think, “that’s a great place for me to be. That’s a great place for me to grow. I know, when I go to other firms, my development will be of value not only to me, but to the company and the people I’m working with.”

To earn that designation year after year has involved a series of proactive steps, Morrissette said, including that emphasis on diverse experiences that move staff toward licensure more quickly.

“Many larger firms get a bad reputation for being the kind of firm where you get stuck in a position, doing that function for a long time, falling between the cracks,” he noted. “We call ourselves a mid-sized firm — at 25 people, we’re the largest in Western Mass., but still a mid-sized firm for the country — so we get a lot of face time with the staff. It’s hard for someone to fall through the cracks here.”

In addition, Newman said, “we make sure entry-level people are getting the whole experience. We include the whole team in project meetings. I’ve been in the industry 13 years, and back then, the architect and the project manager went to the meeting, and they came back and told you what happened.”

Lee Morrissette

Lee Morrissette

“Over the past two years, we’ve spent more time doing creative designs. That’s what makes us happy as professionals — being able to stretch our creative muscles and push ourselves.”

But the rise of remote meetings made it more common to include everyone, and now it’s simply firm policy at Dietz.

“A lot of the junior staff see when we get praise for our designs — or criticized for our designs. It gives them a fuller perspective on what’s happening beyond the drawings,” Newman explained. “Twenty to 30% of what we do as architects is management of expectations, helping people pull their own creativity into the designs, helping them express ideas that they don’t know quite how to express. Well, this gives the junior staff exposure to that earlier than what they have been given traditionally.”

All staff members are also given a stipend each year, called an educational allowance, which can be used for anything they feel will better their professional development.

“Architecture is a mixture of art and science, and we want to create buildings that are beautiful and people want to look at, but also stand up and are good, strong structures,” Newman noted. “So we allow a very broad interpretation of what is an activity or class or training someone might feel would better their professional growth. It might be as simple as a painting class, targeting the artistic side, or a business of architecture class, or project management class, or they might want to buy books because they’re studying for an exam. People use it in very creative and interesting ways.”

Morrissette and Newman also value the culture of mentorship they’ve seen — and helped cultivate — at Dietz & Company.

“We both love teaching. We both participated in university reviews of student works in a volunteer way,” Morrissette said, adding that he has taught at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston as adjunct faculty. “I loved being involved. But we’ve found, with this focus on teaching and mentoring in the office, we can do that teaching here. For me, it satisfies the reward I get from teaching and mentoring professional staff, and I get to do it as part of my job.”


Something to Build On

That job has expanded since Newman, Morrissette, Principal Kevin Riordon, and Chief Financial Officer Tina Gloster began easing into leadership roles last year as part of the firm’s transition from a single owner — President and Trustee Kerry Dietz — to one with an employee stock-ownership plan, or ESOP. Meanwhile, the firm has continued to expand its footprint, including more work outside the 413.

“It’s been a really great year. We’ve had a tremendous amount of work,” Newman said, adding that, while not every project is exciting from a creative perspective, he’s gratified to work on anything that benefits a community or a client. But some of this past year’s work has, indeed, been on the “cool” side. “We’ve shown we can get in with the Boston guys and compete. It’s really encouraging. It shows our model is working and we’re getting better and better every day.”

Morrissette agreed. “As an architecture firm, we’re always looking for more work. You want to do everything; the company wants to pay the bills. But over the past two years, we’ve spent more time doing creative designs. That’s what makes us happy as professionals — being able to stretch our creative muscles and push ourselves.

“You know, we feel creative success at the end of a project that no one knows about for a year or two until it’s built. Then they say, ‘that’s a great project.’ We have projects we’re proud of, and we can’t wait for the public to see them.”


Architecture Firms

Ranked by the Number of Registered Architects



Registered Architects

Total Employees

Year Formed

Top Local Executive

Type of work performed



Dietz & Company architects Inc.

55 Frank B. Murray St., Suite 201, Springfield, MA 01103

(413) 733-6798; www.dietzarch.com




Kerry Dietz

Commercial; institutional; housing; education; healthcare; government offices; historic preservation; LEED design services; high-performance buildings; senior centers; senior housing


Kuhn Riddle Architects inc.

28 Amity St., Suite 2B, Amherst, MA 01002

(413) 259-1630; www.kuhnriddle.com




Aelan Tierney

Jonathan Salvon

Charles Roberts

Commercial; educational; historical; institutional; interior design; religious; residential (single-family, multi-family, affordable, market-rate, high-end); retail; sustainable design


Hill-Engineers Architects Planners Inc.

50 Depot St., Dalton, MA 01226; (413) 684-0925

44 Spring St., Adams, MA 01220; (413) 0743-0013





Jeffrey Noble

New construction and renovation projects for institutional, industrial, commercial, educational, civic, recreational, and residential markets


Caolo & Bieniek Associates Inc.

521 East St., Chicopee, MA 01020

(413) 594-2800; www.cbaarchitects.net




Curtis Edgin

James Hanifan

Bertram Gardner

Educational; commercial; public facilities (police and fire facilities, libraries, senior centers); historic preservation; sustainable design; interior design; healthcare; housing


Jones Whitsett Architects Inc.

308 Main St., Greenfield, MA 01301

(413) 773-5551; www.joneswhitsett.com




Dorie Brooks

Kristian Whitsett

Educational; commercial; public municipal buildings (town halls, libraries, senior centers); historic preservation; religious facilities; energy-efficient buildings; residential


Burr and McCallum Architects

720 Main St., Williamstown, MA 01267

(413) 458-2121; www.burrandmccallum.com




Franklin Andrus Burr

Ann Kidston McCallum

Residential; institutional; commercial


C&H Architects

49 South Pleasant St., 301, Amherst, MA 01002

(413) 549-3616; www.candharchitects.com




Tom Hartman

Serves residential and institutional clients with architecture designed for resilience and renewability


Juster Pope Frazier Architects

82 North St., Northampton, MA 01060

(413) 586-1600; www.justerpopefrazier.com




Kevin Chrobak

Residential; corporate; educational; retail; healthcare; religious; cultural


Timothy Murphy Architects

380 High St., Holyoke, MA 01040

(413) 532-7464; www.murphyarch.com




Timothy Murphy

Commercial; educational; public/municipal buildings; residential; historical


Architectural Insights

3 Converse St., Suite 201, Palmer, MA 01069

(413) 283-2553; www.architectural-insights.com




Lawrence Tuttle

Robert Haveles

Public- and private-sector work; continued and repeat client work in professional office design, medical-office, hospital, and laboratory work; multi-family housing and private residential; light industrial and warehouse construction; retail and hospitality development


Clark & Green Inc.

113 Bridge St., Great Barrington, MA 01230

(413) 528-5180; www.clarkandgreen.com




Stephan Green

Residential; cultural; commercial; retail; educational


Gillen Collaborative Architects

409 Main St., Amherst, MA 01002

(413) 253-2529; www.gillencollaborativearchitects.com




John Krifka

Carol Vincze

Commercial; residential; institutional; planning; studies


HAI Architecture

64 Gothic St., Suite 1, Northampton, MA 01060

(413) 585-1512; www.haiarchitecture.com




Richard Katsanos

Don Hafner

Healthcare; educational; commercial; planning; interior design; residential


Studio One Inc.

38 Elm St., Westfield, MA 01085

(413) 733-7332; www.studioonearchitects.com




Peter Zorzi

Greg Zorzi

Educational; healthcare; multi-family housing; assisted-living facilities; renovations; historic preservation; senior housing


Architecture EL Inc.

264 North Main St., Suite 2

East Longmeadow, MA 01028

(413) 525-9700; www.architectureel.com






ADA standards for accessible design; commercial; industrial; historic; multi-family residential; single-family residential; religious; child care; historic preservation and renovations; interior design


Jablonski DeVriese Architects

22 Green Lane, Springfield, MA 01107

(413) 747-5285; www.jdarchitects.com




Stephen Jablonski

Brian DeVriese

Historical renovations and additions; colleges; museums; libraries; interior design


Fitch Architecture & Community Design Inc.

110 Pulpit Hill Road, Amherst, MA 01002

(413) 549-5799; www.facdarchitects.com




Laura Fitch

Sustainable and socially responsible design, including zero-net-energy homes; educational facilities; commercial buildings; institutional; deep-energy retrofits; co-housing communities


Mount Vernon Group Architects

35 Center St., Suite 210, Chicopee, MA 01013

(413) 592-9700; www.mvgarchitects.com




Chris LeBlanc

Wide range of public and private work, including commercial and education; three offices statewide with 15 total architects and 35 total employees


Tessier Associates Inc.

48 Ridgecrest Dr., Westfield, MA 01085

(413) 736-5857; www.tessierarchitects.com




Robert Stevens

Colleges; banks; churches; schools; industrial buildings; assisted-living facilities; medical facilities


‘A Labor of Love’

River Valley Co-op in Easthampton

River Valley Co-op in Easthampton demonstrates that on-site solar power can reach net-zero for a grocery store.


River Valley Co-op and Co-op Power recently announced a significant achievement: 65 families with low incomes or who are situated within Eversource’s environmental-justice neighborhoods have signed up for low-cost solar power, marking a local step toward mitigating the environmental impact of global warming while promoting community well-being.

In 2014, River Valley Co-op set a sustainability goal to generate 50% of the electricity used annually for its then-future second store through on-site green energy. Upon engaging in real-estate negotiations in 2017 for the second store, on the site of a former Oldsmobile dealership in Easthampton, the co-op simultaneously engaged Co-op Power for support with feasibility of solar power at the store.

Working with the engineering team of Solar Design Associates, a solar canopy over the rooftop and parking lot was proposed. The result was a preliminary, groundbreaking grocery-store design that could achieve River Valley Co-op’s net-zero goal, offsetting 100% of the new store’s electricity.

“The journey has been filled with challenges, but after six years of relentless effort in partnership with our solar developer, Co-op Power — a labor of love for and with our community — we successfully energized the rooftop system,” said Rochelle Prunty, general manager of River Valley Co-op, adding that “we finalized the subscription of 65 community solar shares that were essential to the project, and within a month, we anticipate energizing the solar canopy.”

The success of this project demonstrates that on-site solar electricity can reach net-zero for a grocery store. Moreover, it brings significant relief to 65 community households with low incomes or those situated within Eversource’s environmental-justice neighborhoods, collectively saving them $20,000 on their annual electric bills through the community solar aspect of this project. The economic relief to these community families, including some co-op employees, is timely as many people are struggling with especially high inflation in electric costs over the past year.

“River Valley Co-op remains committed to our mission of creating a just marketplace that nurtures the community through our community-owned retail grocery business operations,” Prunty said. “We leverage our business for addressing the pressing issues of fostering sustainable local food-system development, fighting global warming, and working for overall environmental and social justice.”

The hope, she added, is that this grocery-store solar project inspires others and drives systemic changes that support more widespread community ownership of solar- and green-energy innovations to democratize sustainable energy production. Partners on the project include Co-op Power, PV Squared, EOS Energy Systems, Sunwealth, Solar Design Associates, Wright Builders, Thomas Douglas Architects, and Berkshire Design Group.

Prunty also credited support from U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle, and Eversource in making the project a reality.

“It feels great to have been able to exceed our 2014 stretch goal of 50% for site-generated solar power to net-zero,” she added. “It took years of work to get here, navigating a system that was not designed for short-term profits for corporations, but instead for net-zero, local, community-owned solar production for either individuals or businesses. But with steadfast support from Co-op Power and so many others in our community, we are about the reach the finish line.”



The Road Ahead


Last year, trucks moved 73% — 11.5 billion tons — of the freight in the U.S., making trucks, and truckers, crucial to the U.S. economy. With automation in trucking projected to grow 22% over the next 10 years, a team of UMass Amherst researchers has received a grant to explore how automation will affect the role of American long-haul truckers.

An interdisciplinary group of researchers led by Shannon Roberts, associate professor of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, has been awarded nearly $2 million over four years by the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Future of Work Program.

“We know that, when automation is introduced into trucks, it changes the role of a trucker,” Roberts said. “The question we are asking is, how do we examine and improve upon the future of work in long-haul trucking not by focusing on technology development, but rather by focusing on the trucker?”

Laurel Smith-Doerr, professor of Sociology and co-principal investigator on the study, noted that, “unlike other research projects on the future of work in long-haul trucking that assume driverless automation, our interdisciplinary, NSF-funded project centers the driver in the process of imagining the future of work in trucking.”

Roberts added that the role technology plays and the needs of truckers have to be carefully balanced. “Let’s focus on taking the best of both worlds to make sure they work together seamlessly. In the end, that will reap the greatest benefit.”

“Technology is good at handling consistent situations with predictable, rational people, but humans are not predictable, rational beings. Because of this, technology will not be able to react to everything that might happen on the road. It’s impossible. We will need a person in the truck.”

Automation has many benefits, like fewer crashes and better efficiency, but that doesn’t mean the human should be removed from the equation entirely, she added. “Technology is good at handling consistent situations with predictable, rational people, but humans are not predictable, rational beings. Because of this, technology will not be able to react to everything that might happen on the road. It’s impossible. We will need a person in the truck.”

At the same time, automation can’t make workers feel expendable, she said. “People take pride in what they do. We don’t want to take everything out of that job such that people are unsatisfied and unhappy. Many people get into trucking as a means to move into the middle-class lifestyle with a high-school diploma or a GED. It’s a means of betterment for a large chunk of the population.”

Roberts added that there’s a significant equity factor to consider as well. She sees how automation can also help relieve the ongoing trucker shortage by making the field more accessible to people who are underrepresented in the field — veterans, women, and minorities.

Ultimately, these questions converge on a topic she calls the human-truck symbiosis. “How do we take advantage of all the things that people are good at doing, and all the things that technology is good at doing, to make sure we have a system that works really well?”

Such a complex landscape requires an interdisciplinary team to evaluate it from all angles. Other principal investigators include Henry Renski, professor of Regional Planning; Shlomo Zilberstein, professor of Computer Science; Michael Knodler, professor of Civil Engineering; and Robin Riessman of the UMass Transportation Center as senior personnel.

Some of the methods the team plans to use to collect the information include ride-alongs with truckers, participatory design with truckers, and workforce-development analysis.

“We’re working with this workforce — that is, truckers,” Roberts said. “One of the things that will make this project successful is our stakeholders.”


Architecture Special Coverage

Something to Build On

Vice President Vinny Magnano (left) and President Jeff Noble.

Vice President Vinny Magnano (left) and President Jeff Noble.

Western Mass. is home to dozens of architecture firms. And engineering firms. And land-surveying companies.

Not too many can say they’re all three.

But over its 75 years in business — it celebrates that milestone early in 2024 — Hill-Engineers, Architects, Planners Inc. has evolved into a entity that can manage all those aspects of a project. And President Jeff Noble says that broad expertise sets Hill apart in its field — or, more accurately, fields. It’s also a strong buffer against shifting economic tides.

“We’re organized in three departments — architecture, engineering, and civil surveying — and it’s seldom that you get all three of those going gangbusters all at once,” Noble explained. “Sometimes we’re very fortunate, but other times, one might wane a little bit, while the other two are going well. That diversity of services has carried us along, so we’re able to sustain the level of employment and the types of services we offer. That’s been a big benefit.”

The company’s roughly 40 employees reflect that range: architects; structural, mechanical, and electrical engineers; civil engineers, land surveyors, and survey technicians; and project managers, designers, and drafters in all three niches.

For instance, “we did a brand-new facility for Standard Uniform Services. We started with the permitting, the site development, the architecture, the engineering, and designed that whole facility for them,” Noble explained, adding that it contracted with Forish Construction on the build. “That range of services has allowed us to provide all that, though it’s not always necessary that you need all those services together.”

“A lot of architectural firms are just architectural firms, and they have to go to get an engineer for structural, mechanical, electrical, civil … that’s not part of their company. In Western Mass., very few of those have combined engineering and architecture — and certainly not land surveying besides.”

Hill-Engineers, Architects, Planners was established by William T. Hill in 1949 to provide mechanical-engineering design services to the robust paper industry of the Berkshires. It has called Dalton, a small town just east of Pittsfield, its home since its opening.

“Mr. Hill was a paper-mill engineer for Crane & Co. here in town, and he evolved from there,” Noble said of the company’s founding. “He grew little by little and did structural engineering, electrical, and mechanical engineering, strictly for the pulp and paper business.”

Vice President Vin Magnano came on board in 1975, and the company’s work and client base started to expand beyond paper into a wide range of commercial and industrial clients — still primarily engineering, but moving gradually into some design work.

“Then it just started to evolve organically to include more architectural work,” Noble added. “And we had engineering here to offer as backup for an architectural project, so it made a lot of sense.”

This Berkshire Family YMCA project

This Berkshire Family YMCA project includes a pool, court, elevated track, and fitness room.

Magnano recalled that “when I came here — I was just a kid, in my 20s — the only architecture we did was to put up a building that covered the machinery; that’s all they cared about. But we started changing after I was here a few years.”

In 1980, a group of five employees purchased the fixed assets of the founder and changed the company’s name to Hill Engineering Inc., and the company began to expand its footprint further in the fields of architecture, engineering, and surveying. In 1986, the company’s leadership contacted Noble, who had worked there before, to head up the growing architectural group. He was intrigued by Hill’s new model.

“I said, ‘yeah, that sounds like a good opportunity,’ and it turned out it was,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, as an architect, “I always appreciated having engineering in-house. A lot of architectural firms are just architectural firms, and they have to go to get an engineer for structural, mechanical, electrical, civil … that’s not part of their company. In Western Mass., very few of those have combined engineering and architecture — and certainly not land surveying besides.”

The company name was changed again in 1987 to Hill-Engineers, Architects, Planners, Inc. to better reflect these expanded areas of service.

“We still do an awful lot just like we always have: we listen to our clients and respond to their needs. They come to us with a problem to solve, and we solve the problem, and move on to the next one.”

“We just started growing the architectural side of the business, doing more commercial work and some residential, institutional, recreational … lots of different types of projects that weren’t industrial. We added staff, and the company has grown over the years.”


Industrial Evolution

Over the decades, Hill-Engineers, Architects, Planners has performed work for dozens of the most recognizable names in Western Mass., including General Dynamics, General Electric, Berkshire Health Systems, Union Carbide, Solutia, Kanzaki, and Smith & Wesson, as well as numerous colleges and universities; several Berkshire County municipalities; recreational, religious, and commercial entities; cultural institutions like Berkshire Museum, MASS MoCA, the Clark, and Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center; and land subdivisions throughout the region.

“When the architecture started to evolve from the paper mills, it was still industrial-based, no commercial; we hardly ever did banks or colleges or any of that,” Magnano said. “It was really driven in the industrial.”

Today, the firm boasts many long-time clients in all those sectors above, some for 40 years or more, he added.

Its acquisition of West Stockbridge Enterprises became an opportunity to get into the land-surveying and civil-engineering aspect, Noble added. “It, again, broadened our range of services that we can provide to our clients, whether it was strictly a subdivision survey or supported an architectural project. Clients say, ‘hey, I want to build something,’ and they’ve got to go through all the permitting aspects, site design, maybe find a site, do site analysis. All that started to become services we could provide for our clients.”

Meanwhile, in the engineering group, Magnano said, “we still do pretty much every discipline except fire protection; we partner with a company in Albany for all our fire-protection work.”

The Weidmann Electrical Technology facility in St. Johnsbury, Vt.

The Weidmann Electrical Technology facility in St. Johnsbury, Vt. is among the firm’s largest projects.

The firm’s radius of work is typically about 50 miles, though it has done major projects outside that, including a major expansion of Weidmann Electrical Technology’s paper mill in St. Johnsbury, Vt., one of that region’s largest employers, a little over a decade ago — about 35 years after Hill first worked on a project for Weidmann.

“They were losing their edge in the market, in the industry; Germany and other places were building new, high-tech stuff. So they spent $40 million doing a new addition on the old addition. We did everything, right from the site work,” Magnano said. “That was probably one of the most unique jobs we’ve done, and we were literally in there from day one — about four years. That was a big one.”

Over the decades, Hill has seen a number of changes, from technology to the way projects are bid. For one thing, there are fewer long-term, local relationships with clients because of consolidation, with clients being purchased by larger entities all the time. “So your companies that used to be local are now owned by a company that’s out of Springfield, Illinois or something,” Noble said. “You don’t have the same relationship, unfortunately.”

Meanwhile, codes and regulations have become more challenging, and an emphasis on energy efficiency and sustainability has impacted how projects are designed, he added. “But we still do an awful lot just like we always have: we listen to our clients and respond to their needs. They come to us with a problem to solve, and we solve the problem, and move on to the next one.”


Welcome Mat

One negative trend that has impacted businesses of all kinds has been recruiting and retaining talent, and Noble said Hill has been able to maintain a steady staff, but it’s not always easy, especially with engineers.

“You don’t see people applying. It used to be people would come in, knock on the door, send a résumé pretty routinely. Now we can’t even solicit them. We go out and try to get them, and no responses,” he told BusinessWest, adding that Hill’s headquarters in the Berkshires can be a problem for some. “Our location just doesn’t seem to have the attraction for younger people. They’d rather go to the cities where there’s potential for maybe more glamorous or high-profile types of work.

“Students are still enlisting in engineering and architecture schools, but they don’t tend to come back here,” he added. “They go to UMass or Boston for college, but then they won’t come back to the Berkshires to work. That’s what we see as the issue.”

Still, the firm has managed to attract employees from the Pioneer Valley and the Albany, N.Y. areas, and it has also maintained relationships with trade schools to bring young people in for co-op experiences, some of which have resulted in hires over the years.

“You don’t have to necessarily get a master’s in such-and-such; you know you can come out of trade school and go to work as a computer operator here, and we’ll put you to work,” Noble explained. “You can learn on the fly, but under the tutelage of professional engineers.”

Magnano added that “we’ve been fortunate enough to get some individuals whose roots are in Dalton, or close by, and wanted to come back to Dalton. Over the last five to 10 years, we’ve really brought in another whole generation that hopefully will keep it going.”

NUPRO plastic-fabrication factory in South Deerfield

Here, the envelope and siding go up on the NUPRO plastic-fabrication factory in South Deerfield.

Hill-Engineers, Architects, Planners has been community-minded in other ways as well, Noble said, by supporting local nonprofits, social organizations, churches, and other causes in a number of ways.

“The [Dalton] Community Recreation Association is one, whether we do our work at a reduced fee or we support them through ads in their programs, or we sponsor a basketball team or baseball team.”

The firm also supports the Pittsfield YMCA, for which it just completed a major $12 million renovation, including a pool, court, elevated track, fitness facilities, and more. Often, Hill is able to provide services to nonprofit clients at a lower cost, or in an in-kind way, he said. “It works both ways. We get good experience out of it, and the client gets the service at a more affordable level.”

The firm’s leadership and employees also sit on boards and are encouraged to volunteer in the community, Noble added.


Shovels Out

As part of its 75th-anniversary year, the team at Hill is planning to bury a time capsule that includes, among other artifacts, some tools of the trade in 2023, and then unearth it 25 years from now, at the company’s centennial, to see how much their industry — sorry, industries — have changed.

Things have certainly changed plenty since 1949.

“I think we’re just very proud of having carried on Mr. Hill’s legacy here for 75 years,” Noble said. “I think he’d be really happy to see where we’re at. And who knows? Maybe we’ll keep it going for another 75.”

Architecture Environment and Engineering

Thinking Outside the Bridge

By Daniel Holmes and Andrea Lacasse

The new modular, prefabricated truss bridge

The new modular, prefabricated truss bridge rests on the existing abutments and is secured to the reconstructed bridge seat.
Photo by Tighe & Bond

The Town of Great Barrington was faced with a substantial challenge: one of its main bridges, the Division Street bridge, connecting two state routes, had to be shut down due to deterioration and safety concerns. This created a significant detour for local traffic as well as upsetting an important truck route, causing congestion in the downtown area. The town acted quickly to find a solution that would not only be cost-effective and work within an expedited schedule, but would benefit the local communities and all who use the bridge.

The town engaged Tighe & Bond to review the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s (MassDOT) inspection reports for all town-owned bridges crossing the Housatonic River. It soon became clear that the bridge on Division Street over the Housatonic River needed rehabilitation and potentially a complete structure replacement.

The original, 138-foot, single-span, through-truss bridge was constructed in 1950 and carried two 10-foot traffic lanes with no sidewalks or breakdown lanes. The bridge has always been a popular area for hiking, biking, walking, and fishing, as well as an important truck route connecting Route 7 to Route 41, keeping truck traffic out of downtown Great Barrington. In addition, Division Street is an important artery for local traffic and the agricultural community.

With the potential for the bridge to be closed entirely, Tighe & Bond got to work developing cost estimates for varying levels of rehabilitation and/or complete replacement of the bridge to provide the town with the most cost-effective design solutions for the bridge.

In 2019, a town meeting voted to appropriate funding to replace the bridge. Soon after, Tighe & Bond began data collection and preliminary engineering as well as a bridge-replacement alternatives analysis. However, while the replacement bridge was being designed, the due diligence of a MassDOT special member inspection and subsequent load rating report found that three structural elements were rated at zero capacity, and the bridge was closed immediately. This created a five-mile detour, causing additional congestion for Great Barrington’s downtown area.

With the bridge closed, the town requested Tighe & Bond refocus on emergency repairs to reopen the bridge as quickly as possible. Tighe & Bond and the town reached out to MassDOT to switch gears and begin the design of emergency repairs for the three zero-rated elements to reopen the bridge to local traffic as quickly and safely as possible.

“To avoid a prolonged closure of the Division Street bridge, Tighe & Bond proposed to the town a temporary superstructure replacement, which would allow the critical crossing to reopen until the permanent bridge replacement was installed.”

Through further examination of the inspection and load rating results, MassDOT indicated that the bridge deterioration had advanced to a point where rehabilitation would not be possible, and a complete replacement would be required. MassDOT then informed the town it would be able to get the bridge on the State Transportation Improvement Plan and the state would replace the bridge, but it would effectively delay the reopening of the new bridge for several years until the necessary funds could be allocated, design completed, and construction executed. The estimated reopening date was sometime in 2027.

To avoid a prolonged closure of the Division Street bridge, Tighe & Bond proposed to the town a temporary superstructure replacement, which would allow the critical crossing to reopen until the permanent bridge replacement was installed.

The town reallocated funds from the town-funded bridge replacement into an accelerated reopening of the bridge with a temporary superstructure replacement. Tighe & Bond evaluated the existing abutments for reuse to determine if they were sufficient to continue to support the same load. The team of engineers determined that the existing abutments could support the same load and could be reused for the project.

aerial view

This aerial view shows the old truss being removed by cranes.
Photo by Tighe & Bond

To accommodate the town’s request of eliminating the previous load restriction while reusing the existing abutments, Tighe & Bond engineers proposed a single-lane modular truss with a cantilevered pedestrian walkway. The single-lane traffic could be controlled with new traffic signals, effectively reopening traffic flow along this important corridor while the town awaited the permanent bridge replacement.


Logistical and Environmental Challenges

With consensus on the design approach, time was of the essence, and the design team put the agreed-upon plan into action immediately. While Tighe & Bond mobilized the design team, the town continued its public outreach effort, keeping the local community informed through Select Board meetings, social-media posts, and press releases. Tighe & Bond participated in several town meetings to provide answers to technical questions and support the town’s effort.

There were a few unique challenges the team had to work around in order to make this project a success. For one thing, the permits would need to consider the potential impacts the superstructure replacement would have on rare and endangered species. The permitting process included a proactive conversation with the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program to discuss the potential impacts construction methods could have on three identified endangered species — creeper mussels, brook snaketail dragonflies, and longnose suckers — as well as potential actions that could be taken to minimize impacts.

Tighe & Bond adapted the solution of keeping all construction work out of the limits of the Housatonic riverbank, removing potential impacts to the river habitat below. Although this approach created challenges during construction, it reduced the overall project schedule by one year.

Another design challenge included working around energized overhead power lines encroaching onto the job site. Tighe & Bond coordinated with National Grid to relocate the power lines to provide contractors with space to execute their demolition and erection plans while adhering to OSHA guidelines, providing at least 10 feet of clearance.

“They were able to quickly pivot design plans to meet the needs of our community in a way that allowed us to ensure safe traffic flow, save the town money, and not disrupt habitats around the Housatonic River.”

Once the design phase was complete, the demolition and construction of the replacement bridge required all hands on deck in order to reopen the bridge before the winter of 2022. Every member of the project team was integral to the success of this project. This included the town of Great Barrington, Tighe & Bond (engineer of record), and Rifenburg Contracting Corp. (contractor), along with subcontractors Seifert Associates (construction engineer), Atlantic Coast Dismantling (demolition), Acrow (truss manufacturer), and Lapinski Electric (traffic signal).

Innovative demolition techniques were put into action to avoid work within the riverbank and the energized power lines encroaching on the job site. Using cranes on either approach, Seifert worked with Atlantic Dismantling to split the truss into two pieces using thermal lancing rods, then lifting the two halves and swinging them to a temporary location outside the riverbank for disassembly before being trucked off-site. This method resulted in the removal of the bridge without impacting the endangered species’ habitats in any way.

With the existing bridge removed, it was time to install the new modular, prefabricated truss bridge. Reuse of the existing abutments not only reduced cost and time, but also kept to the team’s commitment to protect the local endangered-species habitat. The abutments were modified to receive the new truss.

The new modular bridge was then constructed on the east side of the project area and ‘launched’ toward the west abutment as it was counterweighted to allow the bridge to extend approximately halfway across the span. Once safely at rest, the crane positioned behind the west abutment connected to the end of the bridge and lifted it while an excavator on the east aided in the remaining launch by pushing the bridge the remainder of the span, where it finally rested on both abutments and was secured to the reconstructed bridge seat.

With substantial efforts by all parties, the construction project was completed on time and on budget with no change orders issued.


Future Opportunities

The collaborative partnership between the project team resulted in Division Street being open to traffic once again. In addition, the new modular, prefabricated truss bridge will remain a resource to Great Barrington going forward. Not only can the town use the new truss bridge for Division Street, once the bridge is permanently replaced by MassDOT, the town can either sell the truss bridge to help fund future projects or reuse the bridge for any future needs that may arise, saving time and money.

“Tighe & Bond and the entire team did a great job with this project. They were able to quickly pivot design plans to meet the needs of our community in a way that allowed us to ensure safe traffic flow, save the town money, and not disrupt habitats around the Housatonic River,” Great Barrington Town Manager Mark Pruhenski said. “We look forward to driving over the bridge every day.”


Daniel Holmes is a senior project manager, and Andrea Lacasse is a structural engineer, at Tighe & Bond. Contributing to this article are Emily White, proposal and content management specialist, and Regina Sibilia, marketing and communications specialist.

Architecture Environment and Engineering Special Coverage

What Goes Around…


Frank Antonacci, left, and Jonathan Murray

Frank Antonacci, left, and Jonathan Murray have been leading many different constituencies on tours of the MRF in Berlin, Conn.

Frank Antonacci says he’s lost track of how many tours he’s led of the All American Material Recovery Facility (MRF) in Berlin, Conn., which handles material from across the Nutmeg State and Western Mass.

“Suffice it to say, it’s a big number,” said Antonacci, a principal with Murphy Road Recycling, an operator of several recycling facilities, which, in partnership with Van Dyk Recycling Solutions, suppliers of the system’s equipment, opened the state-of-the-art facility in early 2022.

Since then, in addition to overseeing this intriguing operation, which processes more than 50 tons of recyclable material an hour, Antonacci and Jonathan Murray, director of Operations for Murphy Road Recycling, have been leading individuals and groups through the massive facility to show them what goes on there and why this operation is among the most advanced of its kind in the country — and the world, for that matter.

And there have been many different constituencies donning the bright orange vests, hardhats, and audio systems needed to hear and be heard over the din of countless conveyer belts and sorting machinery. These include elected officials, business leaders, public-works crews, press members (including BusinessWest), and, perhaps most importantly, representatives of the companies that buy the recyclables — and many of them have made the trip to Berlin.

What they take in is a facility that was built with three primary goals in mind: to increase the quantity, quality, and purity of recyclables; to provide an innovative and safe working environment; and to have the flexibility to adapt to ever-evolving consumer habits (more on that later) and recycling market conditions.

And more than a year after it opened to considerable fanfare, this MRF is accomplishing all three, especially with regard to the purity of recyclables, said both Antonacci and Murray, noting that this is something that communities, states, and those buying the recovered products are demanding.

“Today’s curbside material isn’t what it was 10 or 15 years ago. Then, it was heavy on newspaper and relatively clean. Today, everyone reads news online and orders everything from the internet. Today’s stream is full of small cardboard boxes and shipping envelopes and requires that we, as recyclers, innovate and change our thinking around the sorting of recyclables.”

The fully integrated system, replete with artificial intelligence and high-tech scanners, is dedicated to the maximum recovery of all recyclable material, with several second-chance mechanisms in place to make sure valuable material doesn’t slip through the cracks, said Murray, adding that the design includes state-of-the-art equipment to target paper, cardboard, boxboard, glass, and five types of plastic.

Elaborating, he said the system first separates paper from aluminum and other metals and plastic and then digs deeper to identify and sort different types of plastic, such as the PET (polyethylene terephthalate) used to make water and soda bottles, and HDPE (high-density polyethylene) used to make food and beverage containers, shampoo bottles, cleaning-product bottles, and similar products.

“The optical scanners are trained; they’re learning all the time to know what the makeup of a PET bottle is,” Murray explained. “If a scanner’s job is to pick PET bottles, it knows it by reading the makeup of the bottle. Everything else travels on to the next optical scanner, which may be looking for HDPE or milk jugs or laundry detergent bottles; it scans for those and shoots those out.

Murray Road Recycling’s MRF

Frank Antonacci says Murray Road Recycling’s MRF has “moved the industry forward a generation” with its design.
Staff Photo

“The scanners are actually looking for the makeup of what’s in that material,” he went on. “It shoots a blast of air to kick it out or leave it in, and they’re trained at the factory and adjusted, so if we’re seeing a higher level of PET in the mix than HDPE, we can make adjustments so it will recognize that quicker and make sure we’re getting it all out.”

For this issue, BusinessWest toured the massive facility in Berlin and talked with Antonacci and Murphy about this operation, the evolving recycling market, and how the Berlin MRF redefines what would be considered state-of-the-art in this industry.


Leaving Little to Waste

Murray calls it the “Amazon effect.”

That’s a term he and others in this industry use to describe the influence of that giant corporation on life in general — and especially the world, and business, of recycling.

“Today’s curbside material isn’t what it was 10 or 15 years ago,” he noted. “Then, it was heavy on newspaper and relatively clean. Today, everyone reads news online and orders everything from the internet. Today’s stream is full of small cardboard boxes and shipping envelopes and requires that we, as recyclers, innovate and change our thinking around the sorting of recyclables.”

And these sentiments effectively and concisely explain what the All American Material Recovery Facility is all about — innovation and changing how people think about recycling and waste-disposal diversion.

“We took a significant amount of risk and leveraged our expertise, as well as a very strong team, to develop what we have here.”

The facility, and the roughly $40 million invested in it, represent another entrepreneurial venture, and gambit, undertaken by the Antonacci family, which was recognized by BusinessWest as its Top Entrepreneurs in 2018 for their creation of an eclectic and highly successful stable of businesses, with ‘stable’ being one of the operative words.

Indeed, this large and impressive portfolio includes a horse farm, Lindy Farm in Somers, which has bred and trained a string of champion trotters; Sonny’s Place in Somers (named after the patriarch of the family, Frank’s grandfather, Guy ‘Sonny’ Antonacci), a huge and continually growing family-entertainment venue; GreatHorse, the high-end, horseracing-themed private golf club created on the site of the former Hampden Country Club; and Murphy Road Recycling.

All of these ventures represented considerable investments and risks, Antonacci said, adding that the MRF in Berlin is no different.

“You’ll see many of the same themes throughout this facility as you would at our other operations,” he explained. “We took a significant amount of risk and leveraged our expertise, as well as a very strong team, to develop what we have here.”

The company looked at a number of recycling facilities starting in 2018 and made the decision to buy the Berlin facility in 2020, at the height of COVID.

“It was a considerable risk and investment at that point,” he went on. “But we knew that there would be life after COVID, and we believed that the region really needed a reliable, scalable solution to handling the growing amount of single-stream material.”

the primary goals for the new MRF

One of the primary goals for the new MRF is to increase the quantity, quality, and purity of recyclables for sale to companies that will use them to make new products.

By single-stream, he noted that recyclables from businesses and consumers come with various materials mixed together, often with materials that shouldn’t be placed in recycling bins but are anyway — from batteries to electronic devices.

This venture represents the expansion and modernization of an existing recycling facility, Antonacci said, adding that everything about the facility is state-of-the-art, a phrase he used early and often in this conversation, because it’s certainly warranted.

“We integrated tried-and-true mechanical separation though screens with optical technology,” he noted as he talked about what is really the heart of this operation. “We have machines that are optically looking at the material to polish any contamination or any mixture of different grades of recycling, and that’s done through highly advanced camera systems with artificial intelligence.”


Reading Material

The facility handles recyclables from roughly 100 communities in Connecticut and Western Mass., Antonacci explained, noting that materials from many communities in the 413 are aggregated and then brought to Berlin for processing. Overall, it handles upwards of 1,000 tons of material per day, a huge jump from the 350 tons a day handled by the largest facilities in the area prior to the opening of the MRF in Berlin.

Beyond size and scope, this facility stands out for many other reasons.

Indeed, the operation employs a dozen optical scanners that can identify and separate materials based on their chemical composition, and utilizes robotics and AI to perform additional quality control.

“The quality of the material that we’re able to glean from the blue-bin mix is really remarkable,” Antonacci said. “Leveraging our expertise and that of Van Dyk Recycling Solutions, we’ve moved the industry forward a generation with the design of this plant, based not only on the scale, but on the quality of the materials coming out of here.”

As they were developing the Berlin facility, those at Murphy Road toured a number of recycling operations in this region and other parts of the country, Murray said, with an eye toward adopting best practices and technologies. But there are some things being done here that would be considered unique and groundbreaking, he went on.

This includes a dual-feed system set in parallel lines, Antonacci said, adding that this is a different approach to preparing materials for final processing. Other innovations include the picking stations, where employees handle quality control, which are enclosed in dust-controlled, climate-controlled boxes which place a premium on worker comfort and safety.

“We went through a painstaking effort of keeping people away from places that could harm them,” he told BusinessWest. “We invested heavily in automation to further increase the safety and productivity of the facility.”

Beyond these safety features, the facility was designed to effectively handle ongoing evolution in consumer habits and thus the recycling stream. As he talked about this and pointed to the streams of paper moving along conveyer belts, Murray noted that, despite declines in readership, a large amount of newsprint still winds up in recycling bins.

“We took a significant amount of risk and leveraged our expertise, as well as a very strong team, to develop what we have here.”

But these same bins are being increasingly dominated by both cardboard packaging — that aforementioned ‘Amazon effect’ — as well as myriad kinds of plastic, aluminum, and tin cans.

Overall, the bins are cleaner than they were years ago, he went on, adding that the overall quality of the end product — what is ultimately sold to companies to make new products — is a function of how effectively the different materials, especially the many types of plastics, are separated.

And this is where the All American MRF stands out from other facilities.

Elaborating, Antonacci said this facility’s sorting capabilities extend to polypropylene, used to make everything from yogurt containers to margarine tubs; from Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cups to the packaging for to-go food products.

“This is something that has historically been hard to separate,” he explained. “But we have both the optical technology to look for polypropylene number 5, which those containers are made out of, and there’s also a laser on our optical machine that enables us to see those black plastics — the to-go containers — which most facilities can’t.”


Bottom Line

There are ever-larger amounts of polypropylene #5 winding up recycling bins, and the ability to separate it from everything else is becoming increasingly important, said Antonacci, adding that this is just one of the reasons why he and Murray are giving so many tours these days.

People want to see what separates this facility from most others — with the emphasis on separates. It not only represents state-of-the-art in this industry, it defines it.


Instilling an Entrepreneurial Mindset


Western New England University College of Engineering Professor Vedang Chauhan has been named an Engineering Unleashed fellow, a designation that recognizes leadership in undergraduate engineering education by the Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network (KEEN), a 50-partner collaborative whose mission is to instill an entrepreneurial mindset within undergraduate engineering students.

Chauhan is part of a select group of 21 individuals from colleges and universities across the country — and only two from New England — who have been named Engineering Unleashed fellows for 2022. Engineering Unleashed is a community of 4,000 faculty members from more than 350 institutions.

“KEEN supports teaching undergraduate students with an entrepreneurial mindset (EM) so they can create personal, economic, and societal value through their work,” Chauhan said. “I believe in KEEN’s mission and incorporate EM through my teaching. I design project activities for my students that help them develop an entrepreneurial mindset.”

“KEEN supports teaching undergraduate students with an entrepreneurial mindset (EM) so they can create personal, economic, and societal value through their work.”

Vedang Chauhan

Vedang Chauhan

Chauhan is a mechanical engineering professor with a wealth of experience in the field. He received his PhD in mechanical engineering from Queen’s University and has published numerou papers in prestigious journals, demonstrating his expertise in the field. He has also received several awards and grants for his research, which focuses on areas such as mechanics, materials, and manufacturing.

The nomination and fellowship naming process began with Chauhan’s initiative to participate in the Engineering Unleashed Faculty Development National Workshop Program. These workshops are designed and delivered by a collaborative group of subject-matter experts who serve as faculty members within the national network of partner institutions. The workshops attract faculty participants from across the country focusing on the development and application of an entrepreneurial mindset, whether it be in teaching, learning, research, industry, or academic leadership. Chauhan participated in the Integrating Curriculum with Entrepreneurial Mindset (ICE) 1.0 workshop, which connects problem-based active and collaborative learning to the development of entrepreneurial mindset.

“Students enjoy working on the projects and provide positive feedback on how EM activities foster curiosity, connections, and add value to their work,” Chauhan added. “I am thankful to KEEN ICE 1.0 workshop coaches, my fellow faculty members, and my university for all their support. I am happy to be a part of a Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network of like-minded educators.”

Working with the facilitators and then the coaches for up to a year, Chauhan completed the work and contributed to the Engineering Unleashed community through an online publication-sharing platform known as engineeringunleashed.com. The workshop coaches nominated a number of candidates, and an independent review committee from the KEEN partner institutions made the final selections.

To amplify the work of these fellows and advance the shared mission, awards are provided to the awardee’s home institutions through the Kern Family Foundation. As an ambassador for entrepreneurial mindset, each fellow will work on a project through their institution with a grant award of $10,000. In total, the colleges received $210,000 in support to recognize efforts in engineering education by their faculty.

The other 2022 Engineering Unleased fellow from a New England institution is Gbetonmasse Somasse, associate professor of Teaching at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Architecture Special Coverage

Surveying the Landscape

Robert Ryan

Robert Ryan stands on the green roof of the John W. Olver Design Building.


It’s called Valley on Board.

The effort is part of a federally funded project by the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority (PVTA) that involves a comprehensive assessment and strategic planning of transportation routes, services, and facilities throughout the region, one that aims to inform the design of a sustainable transit system to support economic vitality across the Pioneer Valley into the future.

One goal of Valley on Board (VoB) is to develop a route redesign that will serve the PVTA and the Pioneer Valley for at least 20 years into the future while achieving goals such as increased ridership, improved efficiency, and enhanced accessibility and equity of the system.

Since the summer of 2021, graduate students under the guidance of Camille Barchers, assistant professor of Regional Planning at UMass Amherst, have been working with the PVTA on the VoB initiative.

“They did many, many public participation activities to get people’s feedback across the region about what they wanted, what’s working, what’s not working. And they also did mapping of routes to find what areas are served and what areas can be served better,” said Robert Ryan, professor and chair of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning (LARP), the innovative, cross-disciplinary department at UMass whose graduates — and, often, current students — are impacting communities everywhere in disciplines like urban planning, sustainable living, climate resilience, transportation planning, and others.

“Landscape architects are licensed by the state to do work on designing landscapes — it could be with a building, without a building, campus-planning work, stormwater management, schoolyard design, streetscapes, large-scale open-space planning, that sort of thing,” Ryan explained. “Regional planning is for students who may want to work as municipal planners in the Commonwealth or with a regional planning agency or as a planning consultant; it’s similar to an urban planning degree.”

The Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning department provides professionally accredited degrees (MRP, MLA, BSLA); a sustainable community development degree that UMass touts as one of the most innovative sustainability-focused undergraduate degrees in the country; a skills-based, two-year associate of landscape contracting degree; and a PhD in regional planning. The department’s website claims that “we research, design, teach, and do community outreach to create sustainable solutions to complex problems.”

To that end, students have worked on greenway rail-trail projects in the region, new park and plaza design and redevelopment, residential design, office-plaza design, and public work for cities and towns, Ryan said, through entities like the UMass Design Center in Springfield, which engages in research and projects to create healthier, more sustainable, more walkable cities.

“That’s the landscape-architecture side,” he went on. “On the planning side, they might work on transportation planning, economic development, or land-use planning for a municipality. Certainly in this region, you often find you’re working in places that are built, so it might be a redevelopment project within a larger town or city.”

Students work on climate-change adaptation planning as well, Ryan said. “With the impact climate change is having everywhere, how can we adapt to that changing climate? And how do we sort of mitigate climate impacts by the development we’re doing?”

He said a combined Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning department may be uncommon in secondary education, but the projects and issues students and graduates tackle lend credence to the model. And those issues are only becoming more prominent.

“The way that municipalities approach this sort of thing has created an evolution of the program as well,” he told BusinessWest. “When you look at city planning these days, the importance of sustainability and some of the environmental focus have shifted in just the time I’ve been here. There are so many sustainability officers doing hazard-vulnerability plans for municipalities, doing climate-change vulnerability plans. I think cities are more attuned to that impact and how they should plan for it.”

Cities are particularly interested in alternative transportation, he noted, from bike lanes and enhanced train and bus service to creating more pedestrian access and walkable downtowns.

“The master planning for many cities is to make them more walkable and use more public transportation to make it more habitable. That’s an equity issue and a safety issue as well, because if you don’t own a car, or you can’t afford a car, and you need to take the bus and then walk to work or school, then you need a safe place to do that. There are a lot of federal funds and state funds to help cities do that.”


Evolving Picture

Graduates of LARP work in a number of intriguing fields, some of them centered on climate resilience.

“That’s what I’m most involved in,” Ryan said. “Green infrastructure is using natural systems to clean stormwater to provide climate-change adaptation to cool urban cities, to deal with water cleansing, that sort of thing. That’s a big issue in a lot of our cities that have EPA declarations; we have to clean the water up in the city, to kind of capture stormwater and treat it — instead of a catchbasin, using natural systems like ponds and pools to collect it, allowing sediment to drain out and cleaning the water before it goes into natural water bodies.”

The John W. Olver Design Building, which houses LARP (more on that later), is a good example, he explained. “There’s water that comes off our roof and adjacent parking lots, and then it’s treated in these rain gardens, these sort of swales around the building.”

Some cities are also making an effort toward urban greening, he added, planting more trees along streets to cool the city and make it more aesthetically pleasing for pedestrians.

Another specialized focus for LARP students is preservation of cultural landscapes, such as cemeteries, historic homes, and state parks. Students have been able to work with the National Park Service, the National Forest Service, and state historical groups on such issues.

“As landscapes change, trees grow, things fall down outside, so can you restore that landscape to something that might have been historically?” Ryan asked, pointing to recent efforts in Franklin Park in Boston as one example. “It was designed over 140 years ago. So there’s parts of that park that have changed over time. So which part do you preserve, and which part can you redevelop? Which parts do you change?”

Many students also develop a passion for biodiversity, he added.

“Can we change the design aesthetic of what’s been planted around our buildings and landscapes to plant more native plants and species that will then promote the biodiversity that’s native to the region? You can have your lawn, which is nice and beautiful, but doesn’t have a lot of biodiversity associated with it, or you can replace it with something that’s native plants and trees, and you can increase the biodiversity associated with that.”

The Olver Design Building reflects that priority as well; it’s a former parking lot that how boasts a green roof featuring native plants. But it’s much more than that.

Touted by UMass as the most technologically advanced cross-laminated timber (CLT) building in the country, the structure opened in 2017 to house three academic units: the department of Architecture, the Building and Construction Technology Program, and LARP.

Built of CLT timber and glue-laminated columns, the 87,000-square-foot facility saves the equivalent of over 2,300 metric tons of carbon when compared to a traditional energy-intensive steel and concrete building. It is one of just two buildings in North America using CLT for wind and seismic resistance.

The building has won numerous awards since its opening, from the WoodWorks Wood Design Awards, where it won Jury’s Choice for Wood Innovation, to the American Institute for Architecture’s (AIA) Committee on the Environment Top Ten Awards. Most recently, the AIA cited the building again with one of its 2023 AIA Awards for Architecture.

“The LEED Gold-certified building was constructed with a cutting-edge composite cross-laminated timber system, taking its cues from the Building and Construction Technology department’s research on mass timber,” the AIA noted. “It is the largest such building in the United States, demonstrating the university’s commitment to sustainability and innovation. The building’s envelope functions as a protective weather jacket that shields its wood structure. A durable rain screen enclosure composed of copper anodized aluminum panels and vertical windows suggest the patterns of historic tobacco barns and the region’s forests.”


Passion for Preservation

That language, again, reflects the balance of preservation, development, and sustainability at the heart of LARP studies — and the hearts of its students, who often see this work as mission-driven.

“Especially in our graduate programs, people are sometimes changing careers to come back to school via Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning,” Ryan said. “They’re really devoted to making the world a better place, which might include making cities healthier and greener, or dealing with degraded landscapes and healing them and bringing natural systems back. They could be promoting equity in our cities via more affordable housing or transportation. So there are definitely folks who have that passion to come in and do this sort of work.”

They’re also encountering a strong market for job seekers; Ryan says he posts job openings he comes across every day.

“All the firms I talk to are growing, and they can’t find the employees, so graduates are very sought after,” he added. “We do innovation here, but it’s also practical — when you graduate, you can work as a professional in a public or private office and do this work. And we have a lot of examples in our classes where you’re doing work with real clients, not just as an internship, but as a regular class.”

Like those graduate students working to improve transportation — and quality of life — close to home.


Blueprinting a Succession Plan

new leadership team at Dietz & Co.

From left, the new leadership team at Dietz & Co.: Kevin Riordan, Tina Gloster, Jason Newman, and Lee Morrissette.

As he talked about the transition in ownership, and leadership, taking place at Springfield-based Dietz & Co. Architects, Jason Newman used the phrase ‘ease-in, ease-out mentality’ to describe the process.

By that he meant that Kerry Dietz, founder of the firm and its principal, has been easing out of the many responsibilities involved with leading this company of nearly 30 employees and its many projects, while a team of four leaders — architects (and principals) Jason Newman, Lee Morrissette, and Kevin Riordan, and CFO Tina Gloster — have been easing into them.

That’s a simple yet efficient way of describing what’s been happening at the Dietz firm for roughly the past two years now as it transitions from a single owner to one with an employee stock-ownership plan, or ESOP, which is a form of employee benefit plan, similar in many ways to a profit-sharing plan.

“Kerry didn’t want to just hand us the keys and walk away, and we didn’t want her to do that either,” said Newman, who studied under her while earning his degree in architecture at UMass Amherst. “We’ve been in our new roles and taking on new responsibilities as principals in the firm, but we also have the comfort, and benefit, of Kerry being here on a limited basis to help guide us and mentor us and still bring all the positive energy she brings to the office, which will sorely be missed when she finally steps away.”

And with Dietz, who is now working just a day or two a week, set to fully retire at the end of this year, the transition process is now pretty much complete, said Newman, adding quickly that those involved are still easing in or out in many respects, but settling into their new roles.

For Dietz, that means the next stage of her life after a more than 40-year career in architecture that saw her make her mark not only in her field, but in the city of Springfield, where she moved her firm into the renovated Union Station; and in the community, where she has been active and philanthropic, and made sure her company and its employees were as well. For this strong combination of business success and involvement in the community, Dietz became a member of BusinessWest’s inaugural Women of Impact class in 2017.

For those succeeding her in leadership positions, it’s a time to write the next chapter for a company that has changed the landscape in the region, literally, designing buildings across many different sectors, from housing to education; office to gaming (it designed many of the spaces at MGM Springfield).


Transparent Approach

As they start writing those new chapters, those we spoke with said the ESOP model, one in which ownership of the firm is essentially shared by all employees, will work well at Dietz, and for a number of reasons.

“It’s a very interesting way to look at a business, especially in the design industry, where so much of what we do is teamwork,” said Newman, adding that the ESOP model dovetails nicely with the company’s operating structure in ways that were not really anticipated, or fully understood, when the concept was first proposed in late 2020.

“The ultimate authority at the company is the employee. If we’re not running the company in a way that is benefiting, or for the benefit of, the employees, then we’re not doing our jobs.”

Another factor is the high level of transparency that has defined Kerry Dietz’s management style and now characterizes the company, said Morrissette, an experienced architect who came to Dietz in 2019 after working at firms in the Boston area.

“One of the things that is most remarkable to me, coming from other firms in the Boston area and elsewhere before that, is the level of business transparency that the Dietz company has offered from the very first meeting I came into,” he explained. “The quarterly performance of the company and our business initiatives are clear to all the employees, and we have an open-book policy when it comes to everything but salaries, and that’s very uncommon in our industry.

“There has been a very consistent approach to sharing the business of architecture with the entire staff,” he went on. “It’s an education for everyone; it was for me when I first came here — I learned a lot about the business of architecture, and it’s made it a lot easier to do this transition, because we were included the whole time so we could take on more and more understanding and more and more responsibility.”

Riordan, who has been with Dietz for nearly 20 years, agreed.

“Kerry was one person running the firm, and that was a huge responsibility, with a lot of tasks and pieces attached to that,” he said. “It’s been really great to see everyone step into those roles in their own way and actually make a better process for running the firm, because there’s no one person trying to manage it all, plus run projects. There are four of us that are actually taking on the tasks and developing our own initiatives for how we make those tasks better.”

Still, there has been a sharp learning curve with this transition, said Newman, adding that it’s still ongoing.

“It’s definitely a completely different way to run a business,” he said. “Many of the aspects of being an ESOP are quite positive; we have a lot more opportunities for our employees to engage and reap the benefits of being a company owner, from the financial side as well as the cultural side. It’s not one person at the top who has full authority on decision making and the strategic direction of the company.”

Elaborating, he said that, in addition to the four in the four leadership positions, there is also a board of directors charged, in essence, with making sure the company is being run fairly and that all voices are heard.

“The ultimate authority at the company is the employee,” Newman went on. “If we’re not running the company in a way that is benefiting, or for the benefit of, the employees, then we’re not doing our jobs.”

With the transition in leadership, the three principals have taken on new responsibilities. Morrissette said he will be working on marketing, alongside Marketing Coordinator Ashley Solomon, while also directing the many housing projects the firm takes on, as well as municipal projects. Meanwhile, Newman said he will be working closely with Gloster and focusing on the business side of the company — “talking with our lawyers, corporate governance, contracts, insurance, all this stuff you love to do as an architect.”

Riordan, meanwhile, said he will be focused on “quality control” and developing systems to enable the firm to operate better and more efficiently, adding that all three principals will be involved in several aspects of management, including the recruitment and hiring of talent and building the book of business.


Branching Out

Moving forward, those we spoke with expect some changes at Dietz. One of them involves a broadening of the firm’s reach and getting closer to clients — quite literally, said Morrissette, adding that, with the firm doing consistently larger amounts of work in the Boston area, it will open an office in that city in the near future.

With the pandemic and the manner in which it allowed firms to connect with and work for clients remotely, he explained, the firm has taken on more projects outside the 413 and in areas like Boston, a trend that will continue into the future.

“We’re reaching out, geographically, more than we have in the past, and that’s very exciting,” he said. “This [remote] interaction is something we’re getting very comfortable and familiar with, and it has allowed us to reach much farther than we have before … that’s a big step forward, and it’s something we definitely gained from the pandemic.”

What won’t change, though, is the high level of commitment to the community, and giving back, that Kerry Dietz made part of its fabric of doing business.

“We have a long and strong history in affordable housing and in serving the organizations and the nonprofits that serve our communities,” Newman said. “And our passion to continue to fill that role has not wavered in the slightest. When Kerry was running the company herself, she had a very generous charitable-giving strategy, which we have looked at, revisited, and ramped up.

“We pride ourselves on being an architecture firm that supports the people who support us,” he went on. “And that won’t change.”


George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Architecture Special Coverage

Food for Thought

Dennis Group project

This aerial photo is of a large Dennis Group project under construction in Ohio.


At any given time, the Dennis Group is working on 400 to 500 projects around the world. But you wouldn’t know it by looking around New England.

Sure, it’s worked with Agri-Mark in West Springfield, Pepperidge Farm in Bloomfield, Conn., and a host of other companies locally over the years, but food-production plants — and that’s exclusively what this design-build engineering firm works on — tend to be bunched in certain pockets of the country, and for good reason, said Mike Damiano, head of the company’s process engineering group.

For example, “Pennsylvania supplies the Northeast. That’s a big distribution corridor. All the major players like to be within a stone’s throw of each other,” he noted, adding that other clusters are located in Ohio (serving the Midwest), Georgia (the Southeast), Texas (the South), and California (the West Coast). “We have a lot of work local to our Utah office, which seems abnormal, but it’s a growing area. A lot of it is about logistics, and where they can get to as many places in the U.S. as economically as possible.”

In addition, food-production companies find labor, taxes, and utilities less expensive outside New England, said Chris Siart, head of the firm’s civil, structural, and architectural group.

“We basically design and build food and beverage facilities. We started off doing food and beverage, and we’re still doing food and beverage, for a wide range of products and clients,” he told BusinessWest. “We work with small startup companies all the way up to top-100 companies — Nestlé, Kraft, Pillsbury, and all those other big guys.”

Damiano said the Dennis Group performs full-service engineering for the facility side of the production systems. That involves detailed design work, procurement of equipment and workforce, and management of the construction of the plant. “We don’t self-perform any construction activities, so we’re design-build in the sense that we do construction management.”


Up from the Attic

The Dennis Group has witnessed explosive growth since it was launched by founder — and still president — Tom Dennis in his attic in 1987. It now boasts about 200 employees in its headquarters in the Fuller Block building in downtown Springfield, and another 400 in seven satellite offices: in California, Georgia, Michigan, Utah, Brazil, and two in Canada.

Some of this success can be traced to timing — specifically, an explosion in the popularity of convenience-based foods and the recession-proof (and, as it turns out, pandemic-proof) nature of the food industry.

“A lot of it is about logistics, and where they can get to as many places in the U.S. as economically as possible.”

Each project begins with a concept, Siart said — a new product a company wants to develop or an existing product for which it wants to ramp up production. After a definition study, which is a report defining project scope, scale, cost, and schedule, the study is handed off to the food manufacturer for approval, with projects ranging anywhere from $1 million to $1 billion in cost.

“Then we set the engineering — we have all disciplines in house. We have civil engineers, architects, structural engineers … we have everything to do with the building, but also all the internal engineers as well — mechanical engineers, chemical engineers, control engineers, electrical engineers, basically designing all the equipment inside.”

One reason for the Dennis Group’s sustained success — it has topped Engineering News Record’s annual rankings of the top food and beverage engineering firms by revenue in numerous years — is due to its ability to tackle new industry trends, which constantly drive the design and construction of new plants.

For example, Damiano said, “we’ve been doing a lot of vertical farming, which is kind of new — it’s like a warehouse with an indoor greenhouse.”

That has helped stores keep ever-popular bagged salads on shelves longer because they’re arriving in stores sooner, particularly in the Northeast, said Nathan Marcucci, a process engineer and head of the firm’s project management group.

Mike Damiano and Chris Siart

Mike Damiano and Chris Siart say continual innovation in food trends drives robust production of manufacturing facilities.

“Bagged salads were always field harvested, and you had only a few days to get that salad from the field to somebody’s house,” he explained. “Now, with an indoor vertical grow facility in the Northeast in the wintertime, you can get that bagged salad to the consumer in the Northeast quicker, so it lasts longer. So it’s a combination of new technologies that invigorate some of these older products.”

The Dennis Group has also worked with the Impossible brand on alternative meats, ridden a wave of Greek yogurt and alternative milk production when those products became popular, and worked with Ocean Spray on Craisins.

“That used to be a byproduct; they used to pay to have it hauled away,” Damiano said. “Then they turned it into a product that was more profitable than the juice. The juice became a byproduct on the Craisins line. They basically flipped the table.”

Much of the product innovation in supermarkets begins with smaller companies and gets picked up by larger ones when products become popular. Larger companies are often hesitant to step out of their comfort zone, like J.M. Smucker, a repeat client that has long focused on peanut butter and jelly — and premade Uncrustables sandwiches — as well as a line of pet food. The Dennis Group is currently working on its third Smucker factory; a recently opened facility in Colorado was named Food Engineering’s Plant of the Year for 2020.

Sometimes innovation in the way food is packaged drives plant production as well, Marcucci noted, such as a move toward squeezable containers some years back for everything from peanut butter to yogurt.


No Slowdown

When the pandemic hit in 2020, Marcucci said, some jobs got put on hold, but the Dennis Group experienced no real downturn. In fact, demand soared for certain food products, like those aforementioned Uncrustables when kids were largely stuck at home.

“When the economy gets tough, people have less money to buy food at restaurants, so they want pre-made grocery food,” Siart said. “That’s when our clients’ orders go through the roof; they can’t keep up with the orders.”

And that’s when they call on the Dennis Group, which has developed a worldwide reputation in its engineering niche.

“There’s nobody with the title ‘salesperson’ in the company,” he added. “The way we look at it here is that everybody’s a salesperson. You’ve got to do good work to bring in repeat customers, and 80% to 90% of our work is repeat customers; basically, large food manufacturers come back to us and do multiple projects.

“A smaller percentage is new clients that are finding us through different ways — people moving from one company to another,” he went on. “Someone might have been working for Nestlé and is now working for another food company, and work comes to us through word of mouth from former clients. Some of it’s cold calling. Some of it’s someone doing a Google search and finding Dennis Group that way. That’s how our sales work: repeat business and word of mouth.”

It’s business the company’s leaders don’t expect to slow any time soon, if the way people shop — and the convenient products they desire — is any indication.

“Food is essential,” Damiano said. “If you go to the grocery store, you have that one section of fresh produce; everything else is processed. The minute people stop buying processed food, we’re in trouble.”


Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]


People with Plans


The big story in the construction and renovation world is the high cost of … well, everything. But Kerry Bartini says that isn’t deterring people from pursuing her architectural services.

“Business has been super strong, especially in the Berkshires. During the pandemic, we had people calling from all over the U.S. wanting to relocate to the Berkshires. That was a big trend for us,” said Bartini, principal with Berkshire Design Inc. in Pittsfield.

She typically works on a range of single-family residences, commercial sites, and cultural institutions, but as people retreated indoors starting in 2020, specific residential trends were in play. “Second homeowners wanted new homes; we had families who had been here 30 years and wanted to renovate; a lot of locals were homebound, who were working from home and had kids attending school from home, so they did a lot of renovations — not necessarily making the space bigger, though we had that, too, but adapting the space to fit their new needs.”

Once the initial surge of that trend began to recede and inflation and supply-chain issues hit the construction world hard, one would expect architecture work to slow as well, but that hasn’t been the case, Bartini said.

“Business is still the same — we have tons and tons or work. We have a wait list: ‘yes, we can take on that job, but we can’t start for two or three months.’ But contractors are scheduling two years out, so people understand we’re really, really busy, and they’re trying to be patient.

“Even though building prices are volatile,” she added, “people are still moving toward spending more time at home. Even with the high prices, building is still moving forward, even if they have to cut a little bit of square footage in exchange for custom floors and windows, or make other changes to fit the budget.”

Curtis Edgin, a principal at Caolo & Bieniek in Chicopee, said the scale of the firm’s projects — which include a wide range of commercial projects in addition to public work like schools, colleges, libraries, senior centers, public safety, and municipal buildings — may be a bit more modest right now, but the pipeline is still strong, in some cases buoyed by federal and state stimulus money to communities.

“We’re working with several school districts, some in relation to COVID money they received, and are making improvements to facilities based on that,” he said. “We’re fairly diversified in our projects, which is good. We also have some private clients. Though, with interest rates going up now, we’ll see how that shakes out.”

Architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) executives are generally optimistic about where the market is headed as 2022 progresses. The Engineering News-Record’s Construction Industry Confidence Index, which measures AEC executive sentiment about the market outlook, held steady in the first quarter after rising slightly from the fourth quarter of 2021. In contrast, the index declined in the middle two quarters of 2021, so optimism is definitely up this year.

Meanwhile, the latest Construction Financial Management Assoc. Confindex is up more than 19% over last year. The federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act certainly gave it a boost, with states and communities receiving a new surge of funding to invest in infrastructure and building projects. That, combined with movement on a glut of backlogged projects from 2021, is raising optimism, as the first-quarter Confindex survey showed 64% of respondent firms reported a greater backlog of revenue relative to a year ago.


From the Ground Up

Jim Hanifan, another principal at Caolo & Bieniek, said the firm’s diversity of projects has been a hedge against economic cycles, but so has its expanding geographic diversity, with recent projects spanning the entire state, from Richmond to Marshfield. “It’s nice — we do quality work in our immediate area, and it starts to grow, and people further out appreciate it.”

The past couple years saw a slight slowdown in the pace of projects, he added, but things have picked up since.

“We definitely saw some supply-chain issues; lead times for a lot of equipment, especially electrical and metal, mechanical units, things like that, used to be one or two months, and now it’s six months and even a year on some components.

“That’s forced everyone to look at schedules,” he went on. “The public schools now have to think way ahead. They’re not planning for this summer; they’re planning for the following one. You can’t get the product this summer, so you have to push it off to the following year. With questions about budgeting and cost estimates, where will it be 12 months from now? That’s a challenge.”

There’s no good answer to when — or whether — the more complicated equipment needed to build projects once architectural designs are complete will start to become more accessible, Hanifan added, and keep projects from being pushed off too far. “No one knows whether this will be the new normal.”

While the pace of business can cycle, so do design trends, said Bartini, whose firm collaborates with Bradley Architects Inc., led by principal Robert Harrison, under the combined name of Berkshire Bradley.

For example, in the residential realm, “it used to be that, in the primary bathroom, everyone wanted a tub and shower separate. Now, nobody wants the bathtub — as long as there’s a bathtub somewhere in the house, nobody wants a bathtub in the primary bathroom, which gives us greater flexibility of space.”

In kitchens, walk-in pantries and oversized working islands are in, while waterfall countertops are on the wane. Task lighting is popular throughout the home as well. On the exterior of the home, black windows are in, black and white color schemes dominate, and modern farmhouse design continues to be hugely popular in the region.

“For siding, for a lot of people, board and batten is back, and people are mixing up horizontal and vertical siding on the same house,” Bartini said, “which is a really smart thing to do as it gives the house a little character without breaking the budget.”

And, of course, “more clients are coming to us looking for their homes to be green. Unfortunately, though, that’s usually the first thing that gets cut when you start talking numbers. When building prices are through the roof, they might not do the $40,000 solar panels. They’re getting savvy thinking about sustainability, but we’re not at a place in the market where those items always make it through to construction.”

Edgin agreed, reporting the same conflict between growing interest in sustainability in commercial and public properties and the realities of budgeting.

“The sustainable aspect is a given these days. The question is, how far do they want to go with that? How much are they willing to invest?”

Clients should consider the long-term cost savings of sustainable systems, he added, but they don’t always act on that.

“There are a number of things people can do that are more expensive initially, but over the life cycle, the cost savings are great,” Edgin said. “But if they’re only budgeting based on bid day and the construction period, they want to keep it as low as possible. That’s not a long-term view, and it’s not as good for the environment. So they have to decide: are they committed to spending a little more money now to go all in? Or do they just want to talk that way?”

Maintenance budget is another factor when considering sustainable building and systems, Hanifan added.

“These are very elaborate and energy-efficient systems, but if you’re a small town and don’t have a large maintance staff, you’re not going to be able to keep up with the systems, where a larger city has a facilities department that can expand and keep up with more numerous and complex systems,” he noted. “It may show great payback and be worth the capital investment, but if you have to bring in outside people every time for general maintenance and repair, the savings can get depleted really fast.”


Through the Roof

Despite the uncertainty about project scheduling these days, Edgin said, clients still want the design work done now. But fluctuating material costs over the life of a project remain a daunting factor.

“If you talked about something a year ago and you’re now bidding it, and you haven’t updated your budget, there is risk there unless there is sufficient contingency money,” he added. “Some materials went through the roof and then tapered back closer to their original norms, but are not quite there yet. Lumber went through the roof but came back down — but not all the way down. Better than it was six months ago, but certainly not what it was two years ago. Steel, same thing.”

Despite the economic challenges, Bartini said, it’s full speed ahead at Berkshire Design, particularly on the residential side.

“We’re always pretty busy, and we still have the same kind of mix — maybe three new houses go up a year, and the rest is additions, renovations, or a combination of both. We’ve had a lot of new construction despite the fact that building prices are through the roof.”


Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Architecture Special Coverage

Growth by Design

Tighe & Bond President and CEO Robert Belitz

Tighe & Bond President and CEO Robert Belitz

To say Tighe & Bond is a growing company would be an understatement.

From 2006 to 2016, the Westfield-based engineering firm increased its workforce from 170 to 270, but since then, the tally has expanded to 450, due to a combination of geographic expansion across the Northeast, enhancements to specialized services, and organic growth.

“We like to say it’s still manageable growth — robust, but manageable for us,” said Robert Belitz, who was hired by Tighe & Bond as chief financial officer in 2014 and took the reins as president and CEO three years later. “Our strategic planning process, which we go through every year, says it would be nice to grow between 5% and 10%. So you can see we’re on the higher end of that range.”

Among the recent footprint-expanding additions include an office in Portland, Maine, and two strategic acquisitions. One is a landscape-architecture and urban-planning firm in Boston called Halvorson Design (now Halvorson | Tighe & Bond Studio), which is part of the firm’s continuing strategy in Eastern Mass. and its first office presence in the Hub.

“The work they do is a terrific complement to our existing sites and brings more capabilities to our clients; they also did a lot of coastal-resiliency work as well, and that will continue to be in high demand for us.”

“We like to say it’s still manageable growth — robust, but manageable for us.”

The other recent acquisition was joining forces with RT Group, which expanded the firm’s waterfront and coastal-engineering capabilities in Rhode Island.

“Given where our offices are, there is a tremendous amount of coastline where we have opportunities to support our clients,” Belitz said. “There’s an awful lot of funding that’s being directed toward seawall construction, which is part of our coastal practice. The RT Group does a lot of work around port areas.”

River Valley Co-op in Easthampton

River Valley Co-op in Easthampton is one of the first net-zero-energy grocery stores in Massachusetts.
(Photo by Tighe & Bond)

With offices in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, it’s a natural fit for Tighe & Bond to tackle more coastline work, he added. “There have been a number of natural-disaster events that have raised the awareness of the need for coastal resilience.”

Clippership Wharf in East Boston is a good example. The waterfront residential complex was developed by Lendlease with landscape design by Tighe & Bond and Halvorson, and building design by the Architectural Team. The tiered site includes a harbor walk at the lower level, public access and open spaces at mid-level, and residences and a courtyard above. A ‘living shoreline,’ the first in Boston’s urban harbor, recreates the coastal habitat through the introduction of native plantings and wave-dissipating features to accommodate future sea-level rise, creating a natural flood barrier protecting tenants and other inland properties.

“Our challenge is prioritizing how we can capitalize on all these opportunities in the market.”

Tighe & Bond has also significantly expanded its capabilities in the MEP — mechanical, electrical, and plumbing — area, Belitz said. “We’ve added a significant number of resources there. That’s to serve our existing client base, but it’s also in response to the pandemic, when we were asked to do a fair amount of air-quality work.”

Other growth areas have included traffic and roadway projects as well as asset management, he added. Meanwhile, the firm’s traditional niches in water, wastewater, and other types of projects remain strong.

“We’re still really well-diversified in terms of the services that we can provide to our clients,” he went on. “We’ve trademarked a terminology we call the whole-asset approach, which says we can support a client’s needs on whatever their assets are, from the outset of a project all the way to completion, and that’s because we provide such a broad array of services to our clients.”

At the same time, “I think the stimulus money that’s coming from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act aligns really well with the services that we provide as an organization, including our core water and wastewater services and our environmental work related to brownfield remediation. Our challenge is prioritizing how we can capitalize on all these opportunities in the market.”


System Expansion

Founded in 1911 to consult on broad-based civil-engineering projects, Tighe & Bond eventually came to specialize in environmental engineering, focusing on water, wastewater, solid-waste, and hazardous-waste issues, and its growing diversity of expertise has been a buffer against economic downturns in any one area.

Currently, 60% to 65% of its projects are public contracts with municipalities and state government agencies throughout New England and New York, and 35% to 40% are private work for a diverse group of industries.

Clippership Wharf in East Boston

Clippership Wharf in East Boston is an example of a project that includes elements of coastal resiliency.
(Photo by Ed Wonsek)

“It’s a great thing to be diversified during an economic slowdown,” Belitz said. “The diversity of the services we provide has always been beneficial for us.”

That’s particularly important during times of unusual economic disruption, like the current environment.

“We’re always trying to keep an eye on the economic conditions,” he told BusinessWest. “We are partnering very closely with our clients on any supply-chain issues that might cause delays in their projects or extensions of their projects. We’ve been trying to keep a very close eye on that and work closely internally to make sure our people understand how best to communicate with a client. That’s what it comes down to; it’s primarily communication around schedule and timing and making sure that all of that is coordinated.”

The firm has expanded its presence in renewable-energy projects over the past 15 years or so. For example, River Valley Co-op in Easthampton is one of the first net-zero-energy grocery stores in Massachusetts. Tighe’s engineers provided energy-modeling services to evaluate various design alternatives, including HVAC systems, building envelope, and lighting systems. In addition, it designed an array of electric-vehicle charging stations in the co-op parking lot.

Tighe & Bond, like all such firms, has faced an increasingly complex regulatory and permitting landscape, one where environmental concerns once considered minor are now paramount. But Belitz considers these issues not hurdles, but opportunities.

For example, “nitrogen and phosphorous removal for wastewater treatment plants has been a pretty big driver of some of our growth over the last few years,” he explained.

In that vein, the firm recently worked with the town of Southington, Conn. to upgrade its water-pollution control facility. Tighe & Bond developed a phased plan for addressing the town’s wastewater infrastructure needs over the next 20 years. Recent improvements included phosphorus removal, odor control, and UV disinfection.

The upgrades helped the town meet new phosphorus discharge limits that protect the Quinnipiac River, and odor-control measures have helped residents in nearby neighborhoods and those using abutting sports fields. The American Council of Engineering Companies of Connecticut honored the project team’s designs with the 2022 Grand Award for Engineering Excellence.

“We are partnering very closely with our clients on any supply-chain issues that might cause delays in their projects or extensions of their projects.”

Meanwhile, Belitz said, “one of the emerging regulatory drivers is what’s called lead service line replacements, which are requirements for communities to do inventories and replacement plans for the lead service lines. We also do a lot of brownfields cleanup, and that’s been a very significant piece of our growth over the past two to three years, and another example of our well-rounded services.”


Working on the Pipeline

Asked how Tighe & Bond continues to grow its workforce at a time when companies of all kinds are struggling with finding and retaining talent, Belitz said it’s a multi-layered strategy.

“I’m not sure a day goes by when we don’t talk about our hiring and attraction of talent. We’ve beefed up our talent-acquisition function here at the firm to continue to identify and attract candidates to the firm. And once we get candidates to join us, we’ve always done a really good job of investing in their development, in order to retain our latest employees.”

He said the firm’s “very robust” onboarding and training program consists of not only leadership training, but anything people need to do their jobs: project management, quality management, safety and health principles, and more. “We’ve made a very big investment in that area just because we’ve had to, given our growth. We’ve kind of branded it internally as Tighe & Bond University, where new folks come in and meet with their supervisor and figure out what sorts of training they need to be effective in their jobs, and we think that’s key to a successful onboarding.”

Tighe & Bond has purposefully cultivated a culture of mentorship and teamwork as well, particularly between the older and younger generations of engineers.

“One of the nice things that we hear all the time from people in our organization is they get to work on all different kinds of projects,” Belitz said. “The other thing we’ve always done, but have made further investments in, is the ability to work seamlessly across all of our offices. All our offices are fitted with collaboration tools and the technology that people need to work together, and to complement that, we assign new hires to current employees when they join the firm so they can get that initial mentoring and that on-the-job training that is so important to their success.”

The firm adopted a hybrid work model during the pandemic that has continued to be effective, he added. “We think that allows our people not only to have some of the work-life balance and work-life integration objectives they’ve always had, but it still affords us ample opportunities to collaborate on projects and have that on-the-job mentoring and training. That’s how we’ve approached the pandemic, with a pretty big investment in technology to make sure that happens.

“From the outset of the pandemic, we were very intentional about saying our main goals are to look after the safety and health of our people, to protect the jobs of our people, and also to maintain our employee benefits,” he went on. “There was a lot of uncertainty at the time. We had some sectors that slowed down for a short period of time, but we had others that ramped up, and now I think some of those sectors that have slowed down have come out of the pandemic ready to work with Tighe & Bond on even more projects.”


Building a Culture

Belitz said Tighe & Bond’s leadership is proud of the firm’s culture, which includes elements like the Make a Difference program, which affords employees time to give back to their communities through service projects with local nonprofits.

“Even during the pandemic, though we couldn’t do some of those things because of the restrictions, we had a number of our people volunteer in places like food banks and hospitals and places that had the most need during that period of time,” he explained.

Meanwhile, the company’s employee-benefit program has seen additions like a paid-time-off donation program, by which employees can donate hours of unused vacation to co-workers for certain personal needs; and a student-loan repayment benefit through which the company makes a principal payment to an employee’s student loan. “It shows our commitment to importance of education and our commitment to employees,” Belitz said.

Meanwhile, he added, the firm has made further investments in technology, both internally and with tools like drone technology, 3D laser scanning, and enhanced use of GIS. “We think those are things that enhance the client and employee experience.”

The firm has also increased its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion through efforts like the Supporting Women at Tighe & Bond Employee Resource Group and a partnership with the National Society for Black Engineers, which includes two scholarships for students in the engineering field; both efforts aim to increase the diversity of the firm’s talent pipeline.

All these efforts create an environment where people want to work, Belitz said.

“One area that’s super important for us is our employee ownership and the fact that, even in a climate today where there’s a lot of consolidation and a lot of influence of equity investment in engineering and architecture firms, we’re remaining committed to our employee ownership model,” he added.

“That, combined with the fact that we have all our offices within the Northeast, is a very good model for us to keep growing, but to grow in a manageable way. Growth creates opportunity for our people, and I think we’ve got a nice growth model in place.”


Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]



Architecture Construction Daily News Real Estate

SPRINGFIELD — Developer Peter A Picknelly, along with Springfield city officials, on Thursday unveiled a proposal to build a new Hampden County courthouse on a 14.5-acre site along the Connecticut River north of the Memorial Bridge. The proposal, which also includes housing and a marina, comes with a pricetag of $475 million.

The plans, unveiled at a press conference, call for a four-story, 210,000-260,000-square-foot courthouse; an 11-story residential apartment building with 120-180 units; and a 50-slip marina on the waterfront and a space for an outdoor restaurant.

The proposal hinges on whether the state decides to replace the troubled Roderick L. Ireland Courthouse on State Street. The state is exploring potential new sites and the cost of building a new courthouse; the existing facility has been plagued by health concerns.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno said that if the state decides to build a new courthouse, the proposed riverfront site would be the ideal location.

Sarno, Picknelly, and Tim Sheehan, Springfield’s chief development officer, all said that a development of this size and with its various components could be a catalyst for growth along the river and in the North End of the city, similar to what the Basketball Hall of Fame has done for the area south of the Memorial Bridge.

Architecture Special Coverage

Building Momentum

By Mark Morris

River Valley Co-op

The outdoor seating area at River Valley Co-op before it opened last spring.

Curtis Edgin says his business is all about flexibility and constantly making adjustments. This is the case when times are ‘normal,’ he noting, adding that the pandemic and its many side-effects have only added new dimensions to this equation.

Edgin is a principal at Caolo & Bieniek Associates architecture firm in Springfield, and he appreciates that his firm has stayed busy for the last two years, a time when adjusting and remaining flexible became the norm for everyone, not just architects.

“We were fortunate to have a backlog going into the pandemic; because projects were at different phases, we’ve continued to stay busy throughout,” said Edgin said, noting that municipal projects such as schools, libraries and public safety facilities make up more than two-thirds of Caolo & Bieniek’s portfolio.

Much of the design work handled by Kuhn Riddle Architects in Amherst involves colleges and universities. When campuses switched to online learning during the height of the pandemic, they also put many of their building projects on pause, said Aelan Tierney, president of Kuhn Riddle, adding that this began to change this past fall and her firm has been extremely busy since then.

“Colleges felt more confident about the future in terms of bringing students back to campus, so all the on-hold projects came back to life,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s been a complete turnaround from where we were in 2020.”

Meanwhile, it was two years ago that daily headlines generated speculation about if and how area restaurants, pummeled by the pandemic and draconian restrictions, would survive. They have survived — and many are thriving — by adapting to changing times, said Thomas Douglas, principal of Thomas Douglas Architects in Northampton, a firm that specializes in the restaurant and hospitality sectors.

Kuhn Riddle Architects President Aelan Tierney

Kuhn Riddle Architects President Aelan Tierney

“Our restaurateur clients put their focus on refiguring their spaces with less seating and shifted to a different type of service model geared more toward takeout,” said Douglas, adding that these adjustments kept this sector — and his firm — busy at a time when such vibrancy seemed unlikely.

Together these stories convey a time of challenge and opportunity for area architecture firms — a time when some projects were scrapped or delayed, but when others came onto and then off the drawing board as different types of clients adjusted to what the pandemic brought to their doorsteps.

And for many, what it brought was a pressing need to improve the air circulation.

Indeed, design plans for the River Valley Co-op in Easthampton were drawn up long before COVID was on anyone’s radar, said Douglas. From its inception, the plan was for the co-op to run nearly net zero, with most of its heating and air conditioning provided by an array of solar panels covering a large portion of the parking lot. With much of the actual construction of River Valley occurring during the height of the pandemic, he noted that the firm made several changes on the fly. The original plan called for a grab-and-go food area that was nixed after contemplating the idea of people touching food in an open area. At the same time, air quality, took on a new urgency.

“In the middle of the project we needed to shift gears and upgrade the HVAC system with more-robust filtering capacities,” Douglas said. “We made these changes to better address the effects of the pandemic.”

The pandemic has brought other changes and adjustments, especially when it comes to needed materials, said those we spoke with, adding that supply chain shortages combined with steady price hikes for building materials and mechanical equipment have become a constant challenge.

Because architects plan projects that won’t break ground until months later, figuring out what materials will be available and what they will cost has become a big ongoing concern. Tierney said right now mechanical equipment such as generators are delayed up to 12 months before they are available.

“It’s very unsettling for clients and contractors to not know how long it will take to do a project,” Tierney said. “No one feels confident about cost estimates that are put together today because you don’t know if they will be relevant in three to six months when you actually start construction.”

“Any new project plan has to evaluate how it will impact the environment.”

For this issue and its focus on architecture and engineering, BusinessWest talked with several area architects about the many ways the pandemic has impacted business — and how this sector has responded as it always has, by making adjustments and positioning itself effectively for the day when the storm clouds move out.


Blueprint for Success

It’s called a ‘Zoom booth’ — by some people, anyway.

Like the name suggests, it’s a small space, like a phone booth, only instead of phone calls, it’s for the Zoom meetings that have now become part of day-today life in the modern workplace.

“It’s a place where someone in an open office setting can pop into a quieter space to take part in a remote online meeting,” said Tierney, adding that while her firm has included such spaces in many of its plans, it has also converted several conference rooms to accommodate meetings where some people attend in-person while others take part virtually.

Curtis Edgin (left) and James Hanifan

Curtis Edgin (left) and James Hanifan say the pandemic has thrown extra layers of complexity into renovations, particularly with HVAC.

Zoom booths and altered conference rooms would be among the more subtle changes to the landscape resulting from the pandemic, said those we spoke with, adding that the more dramatic adjustments, as noted, involve air flow and a recognized need to improve it.

And the amount of work — and redesign — needed generally depends on the age and condition of the building.

Indeed, unlike making a design change in new construction, planning a retrofit with existing buildings brings another level of challenge, said Edgin, citing, as one example, a school client looking to replace its old rooftop heating unit with an upgraded unit that would add cooling to the system.

“First we look at structural considerations, such as whether the building support the new unit if it weighs more than the old one,” Edgin said.

The next step according to James Hanifan, also a principal at Caolo & Bieniek, concerns the duct work in the building.

“Many older facilities don’t have the ventilation systems that are required by today’s building codes,” he explained, adding that older buildings often depend on operational windows for ventilation which cannot be relied on in cold weather and can invite mold into the building during rainy times of the year.

Schools may opt to purchase stand-alone air filtering units to install in every classroom but that can be complicated, too.

“Sometimes they find out the electrical system can’t support all that additional equipment,” said Hanifan. “Now they’ve got a different issue.”

Recent funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) has certainly helped municipalities in budgeting for these projects. Edgin anticipated that many will use their ARPA funds for improved HVAC and energy projects in their schools and other public buildings.

Overall, energy efficiency and sustainability are built into architecture plans. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification is one standard that has provided what Tierney called a great baseline for architects when considering sustainability standards.

Last year Gov. Charlie Baker signed Executive Order 594 which requires all state buildings to meet strict energy efficiency and emission standards going forward.

“Any new project plan has to evaluate how it will impact the environment,” Tierney said. “The goal is to reach carbon-neutral and net-zero emissions by 2050.” Independently, organizations are increasingly focused on reducing energy consumption and on the types of materials they use when constructing their buildings.

“It’s great to see Massachusetts as one of the strongest states in terms of energy code,” Tierney said. “They are aggressively increasing energy requirements every three years when they update state building codes, which is fantastic.”

Thomas Douglas

Thomas Douglas says River Valley Co-op had a strong emphasis on sustainability from the start.

While the River Valley Co-op had a strong emphasis on sustainability from its inception, Douglas suggested a creative addition to the plan that maintained the spirit of the project.

“My first college degree was in landscape architecture, so I worked with the coop to create a large outdoor patio that has a view of Mt. Tom,” Douglas said. With easy access from inside the building as well as outside, the layout can also accommodate a food truck next to the patio.

“We wanted to create a vibrant, exciting, and yet cozy outdoor atmosphere for the patio.”


Drawing on Experience

Meanwhile, both public and private spaces are being adjusted to provide employees and visitors with larger and, in many ways, different spaces.

Indeed, a few years ago, companies had begun planning office layouts that were open and airy to encourage more collaborative workspaces. The arrival of COVID caused a change to some of those plans.

“After designing for an open-office concept, the pandemic came along, and we had clients who wanted to go back to individual cubicles,” Edgin said.

Kuhn Riddle is still creating collaborative areas, while at the same time staying conscious about air exchange and filtration.

“As we begin opening back up and taking off our masks people remain concerned about air quality,” Tierney said. “The last two years have definitely influenced how we think about design.”

When the Westfield Boys and Girls Club was planning a childcare wing, it increased the size of the project from 11,000 to 15,000 square feet because the state had increased minimum space standards per child from 35 to 42 square feet after COVID hit, said Tierney, adding that her firm was brought in as the schematic design architect to work on this part of the project with Chris Carey, the architect of record on the building expansion.

“We don’t know if the state will ever go back to a smaller square-foot-per-child standard, but we wanted to be ready in the future for another pandemic or other event that requires keeping children spaced apart,” she explained.

Add to these challenges and adjustments the ongoing supply-chain issues and escalating prices of materials, which together bring new levels of complexity — and stress — to designing projects and seeing them to completion

As part of a dormitory renovation at Elms College, Hanifan was planning for a certain type of carpet only to be told that, if it even gets produced (and that’s a big if), there will be a 16-24 week lead time. He has already begun adjusting the plan because the project must be completed before the fall semester in September.

“We will look at other colors and if we can’t get those, we will have to look at other manufacturers.”

This constant uncertainty often puts his municipal clients in a tough spot.

“No one wants to hear that prices have spiked and everyone knows prices don’t tend to go down,” Hanifan said. “So, there is a lot of indecision on whether to go ahead with the project or wait to see if prices come back down at some point.”

While supply chain delays and rising costs are still part of daily life, a sense of optimism creeps in as the weather becomes warmer and COVID mandates get relaxed.

“It’s been a tough couple of years, but I think we’ve turned the corner,” Tierney said.

Hanifan acknowledged that in the immediate short-term, supply chain issues will continue because manufacturers are under pressure to get materials out as fast as they can.

“Eventually they will be able to re-stock and fill their warehouses once again,” Hanifan said. “It may be a few years out but I’m optimistic it will happen.”

All it takes is remaining flexible and making adjustments when necessary.

Architecture Special Coverage

A New Environment

The world of development — and all the stakeholders who interact within in, from contractors to engineers; from regulators to municipal officials — have certainly been impacted by COVID-19, mainly because they weren’t able to meet in person anymore. But they adjusted to this new reality, and even learned from it — and continue to grapple with other changes as well, most notably in environmental compliance. To hash out some of these developments (pun intended), five leaders from several interconnected fields spoke with BusinessWest about the lingering effects of the pandemic and how they anticipate pivoting to the next set of changes.


When COVID-19 forced a shutdown of the economy 13 months ago, Jeff Daley said, the impact on development was immediate.

“Everything came to a grinding halt,” the president and CEO of Westmass Area Development Corp. told BusinessWest. “The first few days, watching the economy tank, people were scared — they didn’t know where this was going to go.”

It became clear over the next several weeks, however, that projects would continue, and Westmass ramped back up fairly quickly, even as the health implications of the pandemic remained daunting (and, of course, still linger, despite the availability of vaccines).

“It changed the way we did business, though,” Daley added. “Zoom calls with state agencies and local agencies increased from zero to 100% in the first few months. We had to adjust quickly to having meetings and approvals and denials with a different form of communication.

Jeff Daley

Jeff Daley

“We saw some hiccups at the beginning of the pandemic, but when things started ticking up again, it appeared state agencies really had their stuff together, as well as cities and towns.”

“I give credit to towns and cities across the Commonwealth; everyone adapted really quickly,” he went on. “We saw some hiccups at the beginning of the pandemic, but when things started ticking up again, it appeared state agencies really had their stuff together, as well as cities and towns.”

Daley recently took part in a wide-ranging roundtable discussion with BusinessWest about the impact of the pandemic on development and environmental regulation. Also taking part, each bringing a different perspective to the discussion, were David Peter, principal with Site Redevelopment Technologies; Ashley Sullivan, president of O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun Associates (OTO); Mike Gorski, regional director of the Western Regional Office of MassDEP; and environmental attorney Christopher Myhrum.

Peter, whose company cleans up contaminated sites for redevelopment — including, recently, the Games and Lanes brownfields site in Agawam — said the new paradigm of communicating has been a challenge.

“It’s difficult to move forward,” he said. “We rehab sites that have been dormant for many years due to contamination, and it’s very difficult for us right now because a lot of it is interpersonal relationships — meeting with regulators around a table with big maps — and we can’t do that anymore. We’re at a real slowdown for any project still in the planning stages.”

Projects in active development are a different story and, in some cases, have benefited from the pandemic, he added. As one example, last spring, the firm was hauling lightly contaminated soil from Beth Israel Hospital in Boston to a site in Rhode Island, and was able to conduct about twice as many trips as normal due to the lack of traffic on the road during the economic shutdown.

“If you owned, say, a restaurant when this happened, you were severely hit. But many essential businesses benefited, like our trucking situation,” Peter said. “But the biggest impact was not being able to sit down with regulators, politicians, and neighbors. It really slowed us down.”

Sullivan agreed. “In general, we did see a slowdown, and some of the logistics became difficult; there was definitely an adjustment period. But I’ll say we adapted pretty quickly, which was amazing to see,” she said, noting that the company had recently made some investments in technology that eased the transition into a different way of conducting business.

David Peter

David Peter

“It’s very difficult for us right now because a lot of it is interpersonal relationships — meeting with regulators around a table with big maps — and we can’t do that anymore.”

And that transition was happening whether or not everyone was ready for it.

“If you had asked me two years ago if we could our job remotely, I’d have said, ‘absolutely not,’” Gorski said. “But we’ve been remote since St. Patrick’s Day 2020. It took a few weeks to figure things out, with staff working at home, and we made some long-term improvements in technology for certain staff.”

Since then, he added, the process has been smooth, if not ideal. For example, early on, “we were very, very lenient in terms of inspections,” but the office was able to conduct limited risk-based determinations and emergency-response actions. “Staff still needed to visit spills on the highway and other releases.”

MassDEP complemented any necessary in-person visits with virtual inspections through FaceTime video and submitted photos, Gorski added. And after the initial slowdown, the pace of activity has been relatively stable.

“We’ve been on par with past years with the number of inspections in the Western Region, with enforcement numbers being a little bit down,” he said. “I think we’ve done pretty well keeping a presence out there and, more importantly, keeping our staff safe and meeting COVID protocols.”

Myhrum knew any leniency wouldn’t last. “I think clients recognized the likelihood of reductions in inspections at the start of the shutdown order, but they were cautioned, at least by me, that inspections were likely to come back,” he said.

Myhrum, who also serves on the Westmass board, agreed with the other roundtable participants that various stakeholders in the development process, from developers to inspectors to municipal officials, handled the transition to remote operations remarkably well. And he believes the construction and development sector is on the rise after an unusual year.

“Yes, construction was deemed essential, but behind that are a lot of support organizations, and things necessarily slowed down,” he said. “And that has created a lot of potential energy for when things return to some semblance of normal. Beyond that, it has been something of a brave new world, but the adaptability to remote work has been striking.”


Holding Pattern

The most distressing pandemic-driven change in Gorski’s job is “the inability to collaborate on certain projects, to sit around a table and push those plans back and forth,” he said, adding that his agency and others have come up with some innovative ways to collaborate remotely. “We’ve become more productive in some ways. And there are some efficiencies with working from home. But we do miss out on the ability to build off collaborative ideas.”

Myhrum agreed. “Screen sharing cannot substitute for a 24-by-36, or larger, exhibit in terms of communicating ideas and demonstrating evidence of what one wants to do. It’s essential to not only understanding what a project is, but also building the trust that’s necessary among the parties to reach a goal together. I believe collaborative efforts within the office are very, very important.”

Some ways business was done in the past won’t completely return, he added, like the idea of people flying to and from California to attend a 15-minute pre-trial conference. “That’s gone; everything is done remotely, through Zoom or Teams or other platforms.”

But to undertake truly effective negotiations and other business, he went on, in-person meetings need to remain an important component.

Ashley Sullivan

Ashley Sullivan

“They were backing off enforcement a little bit, but it was unofficial. Some of it wasn’t clearly communicated.”

Everyone figured out the new normal together, Gorski said, and that included the DEP. “We were very lenient during the first couple months, recognizing that companies were under a tremendous burden in terms of staffing. Once they figured out how to do things remotely, we started getting back into a normal program.

“Now, while we’re certainly not normalized, our inspection numbers here in the Western Region are on par with past years,” he added. “Some of the enforcement penalty numbers were down as well — we were careful how we adjusted penalties because of COVID — but that’s getting back to normal, too.”

Daley noted that any slowdown in regulatory activity was matched by a curtailment of development. “Everyone was trying to figure things out in the first month or two; I don’t think anyone was trying to move projects forward at a rapid pace. It all played in concert; environmental programs were moving forward at the same pace developments were with COVID.”

Sullivan said it was natural for the pace of activity to slow down as the logistics became difficult. She noted that her firm performs many environmental site assessments, doing due diligence about what a project’s environmental concerns may be, which requires communication with fire departments, boards of health, and other municipal departments. “A lot of those were closed for a while, the process would get delayed, and that would, in essence, delay the whole project.”

Reviews on the regulatory side slowed down locally as well, she said, but grace periods became the norm. “They were backing off enforcement a little bit, but it was unofficial. Some of it wasn’t clearly communicated, particularly in the first eight to 12 weeks, and we wondered when things would start up again.”

No one was surprised when it did, Myhrum said. “Massachusetts certainly has a reputation for sound and aggressive environmental enforcement, as well as rigorous regulation, which has gone hand in glove with statutory and regulatory requirements.

“I know, during the pandemic, we had two different cases involving air permits, which can be among the most complicated DEP issues,” he went on. “Those two permit applications were turned around faster than any we’ve worked on. I’d like to think we did a good job on the applications, but the turnaround times were most satisfactory to our clients.”

It’s difficult to gauge how the pandemic has affected regulation on the national level, Myhrum said, adding that a change in presidential administration will likely have a greater impact.

Christopher Myhrum

Christopher Myhrum

“I think one would be in error to believe the EPA’s priorities and activities are going to continue the way they did under the previous administration.”

“The EPA under Trump was not known for being particularly aggressive, having a former coal lobbyist as its administrator. So I think one would be in error to believe the EPA’s priorities and activities are going to continue the way they did under the previous administration. I think it will be interesting to see how the situation plays out.”

Another issue impacting developers during the pandemic is the shift by so many companies to remote work, Peter said, noting that he does a lot of work in the seaport district of Boston, and commercial real estate there is worth about 50% of its pre-pandemic value, while suburban locations with plenty of fresh air and space have risen in value.

That trend may not last forever, Daley said, for some of the communication-related factors mentioned earlier.

“Once the pandemic subsides a little bit, I think people will go back to the office, if for nothing more than partnership and collaboration efforts,” he noted. “I know we do a lot of work on 24-by-36 paper and laying things out, and it’s hard to do that in a Zoom meeting, to look at plans and assess the true value of what you’re going to do.

“Not everyone will go back to work — I agree with that — but I do think, as time goes on and the pandemic hopefully subsides and we pass through this, people have to go back to the office, at least on a hybrid basis,” he went on. “I’m a firm believer in working together and collaborating, and Zoom doesn’t really produce that.”


Issues of Justice

Last month, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a new climate-change law that codifies a commitment to achieve net-zero emissions in 2050; authorizes the administration to implement a new, voluntary, energy-efficient building code for municipalities; allows the Commonwealth to procure additional offshore wind energy, and — most notably for urban developers — significantly increases protections for ‘environmental justice communities’ across Massachusetts.

EJ communities, as they’re known, are those which have, historically, been overburdened by poor air quality and disproportionately high levels of pollution; they are often low-income. The new law requires an environmental-impact report for all projects that affect air quality within one mile of an EJ neighborhood, and requires the DEP to conduct a stakeholder process to develop a cumulative-impact analysis as a condition of permitting certain projects.

“That’s needed, I think,” Daley said, noting that he hopes the environmental council the law calls for has adequate representation from EJ communities in Western Mass. “It’s important that we have representation on that council. Far too often, Western Mass. has one token person on a committee, and 17 from the Boston area. This is a great start, but our people need to have a say.”

Gorski said the emphasis on environmental justice is positive because people have a right to a meaningful say in what goes on in their neighborhoods.

“The DEP has had an EJ policy for some time, and we’ve had public involvement in the planning process, but the climate bill now makes that law, and we’re going to be proactively reaching out to various community groups to involve them and educate them, so when we have these public hearings for complicated permits and things of that nature, people understand what we’re talking about, and can come at it from a knowledgable viewpoint, rather than just ‘we don’t want that in our neighborhood.’ It’s important to give people a voice.”

Myhrum agreed. “EJ has evolved from policy to statutory law in Massachusetts,” he said. “People will have the opportunity to participate in an interactive way to discuss the impact and specific ways people are affected.”

It’s important to remember, Sullivan noted, that development projects in urban areas often have a positive impact on the environment, especially those that remediate brownfields and other contamination.

“I’d love to see more mixed-use revitalization and really cleaning up some of these issues,” she said. “At OTO, we love working on these projects, and we’re happy when there’s more funding and regulations pointing that way — if a development can be done in a way that could be responsible, with some thought behind it.”

While he believes there’s significant pent-up energy in the development community, Daley understands plenty of changes are coming related to energy and other aspects of doing business. In the short term, though, the way the pandemic has altered business as usual may have a broader effect.

“Is COVID going to be a transitional time for business, or is it transformational? It’s going to be both,” he said, answering his own question. “It’s going to be transitional in the way we do business, whether it’s the regulatory process or the actual development, lease, and sale of properties and the way they go to market. But it’s also transformational — an opportunity to rethink the way we do business, shifting us more into the digital age.

“I don’t think the office space will ever go away,” he went on, “but [technology] allows people to be more creative with their time and productivity and the way they do business.”


Moving Forward

Even though MassDEP is still working largely remotely, Gorski said, “we look forward to getting back to hybrid, or something approaching normal operations. We’re still available for technical assistance, and we still want to collaborate to move projects forward.”

Depending on the project, Sullivan said, OTO works with developers, property owners, other civil engineers, structural engineers, attorneys, regulators … the list goes on, and speaks to the importance of communication, and the ways in which it has been altered by COVID.

“Each of those has been impacted similarly during the past year,” she noted. “We did adjust to not being face to face, but there’s so much that can be accomplished face to face, meeting on site. When that goes away, things slow down, and your meetings aren’t as effective.”

But her firm, like everyone else in the broad, complex, cross-disciplinary business of development managed to adjust, and even learned a few lessons about pivoting and melding traditional and remote ways of doing business.

“This is the new way,” she said. “We’ll take the best of both worlds and hopefully move forward.”


Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]


Living with the Land

Environmentally friendly ideas are nothing new in the architecture and design world, but advances have come at a rapid pace — not just in how green a project can be, but how effectively the long-term cost savings justify the upfront expense. Clients want to do the right thing, design professionals say, but they’re much more willing if they can see an economic justification. Increasingly, they’re able to achieve both goals.

Sometimes design decisions bring unexpected benefits, Rachel Loeffler says.

Take a project her firm, Berkshire Design Group, designed for East Meadow School in Granby.

“Cost was a big factor, so we looked at using a meadow feed mix instead of traditional bluegrass, which saves the school 100 gallons of gasoline in mowing, as well as the labor,” said Loeffler, a principal and landscape architect with the firm.

“But then, what happened was, some birds moved in almost instantly, including some orioles.”

Orioles, by the way, are among the hundreds of bird species most at risk from climate change and destruction of meadow lands due to development, so creating a healthy habitat for them is significant, she said. “Sometimes, delightful surprises happen.”

When Northampton-based Berkshire Design Group, one of the region’s leading firms in the realm of sustainable design, opened its doors in 1984, its founders might have been equally surprised to see how common green ideas would become a few decades later.

“Back then, we were experimenting with stormwater standards, alternatives that then became state standards,” Loeffler said. “That creative approach is something that was part of us from the beginning.”

C&H Architects, headquartered in Amherst, can track a similar trajectory, emphasizing green and sustainable architecture since its launch in 1989.

“Nobody was trying to do that 30 years ago — it wasn’t even part of the lexicon,” said Thomas Hartman, partner and principal architect. “Over the years, it’s really been interesting to see how what might have been an odd-duck type of client become the norm.”

In those early years, he said, forward-thinking clients would seek out C&H specifically for this expertise, while today, green design isn’t surprising at all. “It’s gone from the occasional project to where, if this isn’t part of the conversation, you’re not really practicing in the mainstream anymore.”

In fact, he noted, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) has basically shifted its organizational philosophy to suggest that, if a project isn’t environmentally conscious, if it’s not sustainable, then it’s just not good design.

“Climate change requires a holistic approach, addressing the interdependencies among people, buildings, infrastructure, and the environment,” AIA President William Bates said recently. “Our training allows us to look for solutions and ways to mitigate climate change comprehensively and creatively, which we do every day.”

At their most basic level, Hartman explained, buildings protect individuals from the elements and provide texture to people’s lives. Buildings, however, are also one of the largest contributors to global warming, accounting for nearly 40% of all greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide — a statistic expected to double by 2050. In an effort to mitigate these impacts, there has been a steady increase in sustainable architecture — the design of buildings that work in harmony with the environment.

Installing a meadow instead of grass at East Meadow School in Granby reduces gasoline use and provides a habitat for endangered birds.

C&H Architects has been at the forefront of this effort for three decades. For example, it designed the fifth-ever certified Living Building Challenge project in the world (and the first in New England) for Smith College’s MacLeish Field Station, the most rigorous performance standard for buildings available.

“It’s the most difficult standard — net-zero water, net-zero energy, avoiding certain materials and chemicals,” he said, noting that net zero means producing as much of that resource as one takes from the environment.

The firm has followed similar standards with other commercial and academic projects, and has designed more than 10 homes that boast net-zero energy, the most recent of which won the top honor at AIA Rhode Island in 2018, and includes a solar array that powers both the house and the car of its occupants.

That’s an especially cutting-edge standard, Hartman said, but it may become mainstream as well in the coming years, just as many sustainable practices in building and landscape design have become the norm, not the exception.

Holistic Approach

Loeffler said there are two ways to craft a sustainable philosophy for a project. One is to simply create a checklist of energy-saving or environmentally conscious features.

The other way of thinking actually takes cues from ecological thinking and the way all organisms are interrelated. On the simplest level, she cited the example of humans and trees — plants give off oxygen, while we breathe it in and give off carbon dioxide.

“There’s an understanding that each entity has a need for resources to consume, and has a waste product,” she said. “What sustainable thinking allows us to do is look at a project and look at ways to tie resources and waste together in a project or adjacent use somewhere else.”

Tom Hartman takes meter readings at a mill renovation in Lawrence — part of his goal to make sure energy-saving projects are performing as they are designed to.

One example is a dog park she recently worked on, during which time she approached a company that specializes in taking dog waste and turning it into energy. “Farms are taking waste from grocery stores, and any sort of organic waste products, and generating electricity. These are waste products that are being taken out of the waste stream instead of being shifted to a landfill somewhere.”

Hartman said architects, including those at his firm, are also starting to think about reductions in embodied carbon, which are the emissions associated with building construction, including extracting, transporting, and manufacturing materials.

“What that means is that we’ll be making low-carbon buildings, so we’re not adding to the carbon issue,” he said, adding quickly that this, like all new initiatives, comes with a learning curve. “In the evolution of our practice over 30 years, as soon as we get competent in one thing, we’re going to the next thing.”

Clients in the education sector have been particularly receptive to innovative ideas around sustainability, he noted, but those projects often come with time barriers.

“When you’re doing academic work, doing renovations on an existing building, they’re occupied, so you may have just a couple of weeks to do your job and have a limited budget, so how do you address environmental design and sustainable design on these types of projects?” he asked. “It comes down to the materials you’re choosing and what opportunities are available. For example, if you’re renovating a dormitory, you may only have 12 weeks, so you probably won’t renovate the exterior envelope of the building.”

“Nobody was trying to do that 30 years ago — it wasn’t even part of the lexicon. Over the years, it’s really been interesting to see how what might have been an odd-duck type of client become the norm.”

But all projects must consider their long-term impact on users, said Leon Drachmann, a principal at Payette Associates in Boston, who recently talked about sustainability on the U.S. Green Building Council website.

“The green-building initiative will have a deeper impact by expanding its scope — by shifting its focus to areas outside of building design, such as real-estate economics, zoning regulations and land use, while concentrating on the human experience and societal well-being,” he noted, adding that “sustainability should be considered not as an independent, separate process, but as an integral part of design itself.”

Dollars and Sense

One impact that can never be overlooked is the financial one, Hartman said. After all, while clients want to do the right thing, they’re still focused on the bottom line.

“I’ve never met a client where, if we could provide the economic case for doing good in sustainable design, they wouldn’t do it,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s rarer to find a client who will do the feel-good of sustainable design if it doesn’t pass the economic test.”

So part of his service to clients is actually visiting the site after completion, monitoring elements like energy use, waste production, and the overall costs to make sure the promised efficiencies have come to fruition.

“It has been really important for us to do that,” he said. “Most of the time, we want to maintain a relationship with the client in the future anyway. We will ask for energy bills. We’ve never met a client who doesn’t want us to follow up. That’s probably the most important thing for the profession — to make sure it all works, and if it doesn’t work, figure out why. Otherwise, you’re just waving your arms.”

Loeffler noted that clients that have a long-term vision are much easier to convince of the benefits of green design.

“If an organization’s economic-benefit analysis focuses on a one-year plan, they’re going to make a decision based on that — and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that,” she said. “But if their vision centers around a 20- or 50-year plan, they might be inclined to make different decisions.

“In a homeowner’s situation, with solar panels, there are upfront costs in that initial year. Over a certain amount of time, you’ll recoup those costs, but if you’re only looking at one year, you’re not going to budget for solar panels. If you’re looking at the long term, the cost makes more sense.”

The tipping point for much sustainable design and technology will come when those costs approach those of traditional methods across the board — and many in the industry say those days are getting closer. “When green materials become cheaper to acquire than previous materials, we project there will be a huge increase in the desire for this type of technology,” Loeffler said.

Until then, “we try not to push the issue too hard. We engage every client in the discussion, but they have different comfort levels. At the end of the day, we’re there to meet their needs and goals, and we work with them.”

Hartman is happy he works in a state which saw the value of renewable-energy credits and green standards well before most other states did.

“Massachusetts has been progressive, and they did those things so we wouldn’t be so reliant on fossil fuels from other countries,” he said. “It’s really exciting nowadays.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]


History Lessons

At right: from left, project partners Chris Orszulak, Henry Clement, and Andrew Lam.

In its heyday, the Brewer-Young mansion was the center of Longmeadow’s social scene. Those who don’t remember those days know it more as an eyesore alongside the town green, after a string of owners over the past 30 years were unable to maintain the decaying structure. Enter a trio of investors with a commercial vision for the property, one that would pump economic vitality into the building while restoring its original architecture — and historic importance.

Andrew Lam says he’s “very invested in Longmeadow’s history,” and not just because he lives next door to it.

Specifically, his home abuts the Brewer-Young mansion, a sprawling, Colonial Revival estate built in 1885 that has, to put it charitably, seen better days.

Restoration work aims to return the mansion to its former glory (top photo, courtesy of the Longmeadow Historical Society).

“I’m very interested in making sure we preserve this property and turn it into a positive on our green — not to have it torn down or turned into something negative,” said Lam, an eye surgeon, author of three history books, and co-owner, along with financial-services professional Chris Orszulak and contractor Henry Clement of Innovative Building and Design, of the mansion that will soon begin the next phase of its intriguing story — as a professional office complex for small businesses.

The 10,900-square-foot house, at 734 Longmeadow St., has undergone a slow decline since it left the Young family — of Absorbine fame — in 1989, and has fallen into significant disrepair over the past decade, especially after its last owner, Shahkar Fatemni, was foreclosed on in 2013 and evicted in 2015.

The problem is that — as a string of owners since 1989 have learned — with its massive size and the restoration work it requires, it’s just not viable as a residence anymore; when the front columns collapsed several years ago, it cost Chase Bank $120,000 just to repair the porch. Even if the town got lucky and a wealthy investor stepped in to buy it, Lam noted, what would happen when he moved out? Longmeadow would be in the same situation all over again.

Orszulak also lives in town — in fact, with kids at Center Elementary School, right across the street, and a commute to work that takes him right past the mansion, he’s had a good view of it for a long time. He discussed some sort of commercial development at the site with Lam several years ago, when Lam still believed a residential use was possible.

Jason Pananos in 734 Workspace, the co-working center he’s developing on the third floor.

“I basically said to him, ‘listen, if it ever gets to a point where it comes on the market and you agree it’s not a viable single-family residence, why don’t we talk about partnering on repurposing it and putting it back on the path to sustainability?” Orszulak told BusinessWest. “I’ve always felt like the property was a key part of the town center, and there was a way to sustain and repurpose it.”

Fast-forward a few years — and a massive restoration effort — and the three owners will welcome a nearly full house of commercial tenants in September. The Youngs’ ballroom is now the home of financial advisers Shawn Torres and Alecka Kress of Vitae Wealth Management. The minister’s parlor is occupied by event planner Lindsay Maloni. Setting up shop in the formal dining room are Melissa Buscemi and Maria Arsenieva, program director and financial advisor, respectively, for Reboot, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting Jewish heritage. Psychologist Bonnie Connell will practice in the mansion’s former kitchen.

Meanwhile, Dr. Melissa Johnson, a surgeon at Baystate Medical Center, will operate a practice on the entire second floor, and the third floor is given over to a large co-working space.

The public will have an opportunity to tour the restored mansion as part of the Friends of Storrs Library Tour of Homes fundraiser on Oct. 5. What they’ll find is a lot of history — and, for the first time in many years, hope that a new, vibrant chapter is being written within what was, very recently, only an eyesore alongside the town green.

Singing the Praises

The mansion’s first resident was Rev. Samuel Wolcott, known for writing more than 200 Christian hymns. It was built for him by his two sons, who made their fortune in silver mining in Colorado. Ownership passed to State Sen. Edward Brewer in 1901, but the mansion’s third owner, Mary Ida Young, truly put it on the map.

The matriarch of a family that had made its fortune from Absorbine, a horse liniment popular in the days before automobiles, Young lived there from 1921 to 1960, and during this time it was truly a Gilded Age mansion, with extensive grounds and many servants and gardeners, serving as the site of important social gatherings.

A worker from Blackburn Building Conservation engages in the painstaking work of repairing the original wallpaper.

The Young family retained it until the 1980s, over the years selling off parts of the estate toward the Connecticut River — some was given up for I-91, more to enable development of the Ely Road neighborhood in the rear. A series of residential owners owned the home it in the 1990s and 2000s, each with plans to restore it and put it to use (among the plans were an event space and a bed and breakfast) — but each kept running into the high cost of repair and maintenance.

As it decayed further, Fatemni, five years before his eviction, sought a residential buyer, but found none. And once the property was abandoned, it went downhill quickly.

“Over these eight years, it really started decaying rapidly,” Lam said. “The front portico columns collapsed. The porches were rotting and threatened to fall. The inside had water damage from roof leaks. It was a terrible eyesore for the town because it is located prominently at the center of the historic green.”

Lam, who served for years on the Longmeadow Historical Commission, wanted to preserve it, but every historical preservation society or benefactor he approached realized it was too expensive to maintain — “it was a true money pit” — and declined to help. One society said taking the project on would have bankrupted it.

Finally, he came around to the idea that a commercial use would make sense, and teamed with Orszulak and Clement to purchase the property for $470,200. But not just any commercial use, like a bank or chain store that would be out of character for the town center. Instead, they envisioned a professional office complex that would require renovating and restoring, not tearing down, this piece of history.

“It is probably the best example of Colonial Revival architecture in the Pioneer Valley,” Lam told BusinessWest. “All three of us cared deeply about preserving the mansion in the best possible way.”

That use, however, required a zone change — and a two-thirds vote at a special town meeting. “We had a strong case it was in such terrible condition that it was quite obvious something needed to be done, but any time there’s a change, there are always going to be people for and against it.”

Their effort was buoyed by an informational campaign — and the support of Todd and Tyler Young, the last of the Young family to reside in the mansion.

The striking conservatory at the mansion was restored with new tempered, shatter-proof glass.

“When considering the various use cases (bed and breakfast, condominiums, etc.) and related market and financial analysis the current owners have undertaken, our family honestly believes that the proposal of re-zoning this property for professional office space is the most realistic and best use of this uncommon structure,” they wrote to Longmeadow Buzz, an online forum, in January 2018. “Outside of a viable repurposing and renovation, we sincerely believe demolition of this prominent building is a certainty once it is officially deemed uninhabitable or a catastrophic event such as a partial structural collapse or fire occurs — whichever comes next.”

The vote that month was close, as 69% approved the zone change from a residence to professional offices. “That’s different from commercial zoning,” Lam said. “We didn’t want it to be a McDonald’s or a gas station or any building that didn’t look historic.”

Since then, he, Orszulak, and Clement have poured $1.3 million into renovations, with more to come — the original budget was $2 million, and Lam thinks it will wind up in that ballpark.

Melding Old and New

It has been a delicate dance. On one hand, Lam said, “everything needed to be modernized — HVAC, plumbing, electrical. There was no central air, and the roof was collapsing. Every day brought a new challenge. ‘Oh, we need handrails.’ ‘Oh, we need an elevator.’ ‘Oh, we need a fire escape.’ But we didn’t want to take away from the historic look.”

Original features include marble floors and a grand staircase, lined by stained-glass windows, in the front foyer; a glassed-in conservatory based on the Crystal Palace from London’s Great Exhibition of 1851; and embossed leather wallpaper on the first floor designed by Zuber & Cie, an 18th-century French manufacturer that also designed wallpaper for the Diplomatic Reception Room in the White House.

“The wallpaper was literally falling apart, full of cracks and peeling,” Lam said, noting that the team commissioned Middleborough-based Blackburn Building Conservation return it to its original glory, a painstaking process involving tiny scalpels and other equipment — and plenty of patience.

“The whole staircase is priceless,” Lam said. “The goal when you walk into the building is for it to appear as it did in 1885 when it was first built — exactly the same. The staircase and stained glass are all the same.”

But today’s Brewer-Young mansion reflects the 21st century in many ways, too, such as 734 Workspace, the co-working complex Jason Pananos has developed on the third floor, featuring 10 small offices — already mostly rented — a large shared workspace, and amenities including a kitchen and office equipment.

The mansion’s grand staircase is highlighted by large panels of stained glass.

“It’s very exciting. It’s going to be a vibrant place — a place where entrepreneurs and professionals come together and cross-pollinate ideas,” Lam said. “It’ll be a wonderful environment to work in. All our tenants are local; they all believe in our goal to save this mansion, and they’re willing to join us in doing just that.”

Saving the 134-year-old house means modernizing it in other ways, too, many of which require significant funds.

“Frankly, it was not clear how much it would truly cost,” Lam said. “Asbestos was discovered that would have to be removed. We needed to install a giant sprinkler system that includes the exterior porches to comply with codes. The conservatory serves no purpose from a profit standpoint, but it’s beautiful, so we replaced the old glass with tempered, shatter-proof glass.”

Even more beautiful, the partners said, was the speed at which the building was rented.

“It was a stronger response than I anticipated,” Orszulak said, noting that the tenants on board are virtually all from Longmeadow — impressive in a town that has a lower density of commercial properties than any other in the region, by far. “For us to be almost occupied before completion was really reassuring to me personally. This level of support, I think, speaks to the broad community interest in repurposing this property.”

Lam never assumed that kind success, although he was hopeful.

“That was one of the major risks we were taking — that no one would want to be there,” he told BusinessWest. “But the town strongly believes in our goals to preserve it in an aesthetically beautiful way, and that’s reflected in the people who want to be there. They’ve trusted us and agreed to rent before the building was beautiful. That’s telling, and very fulfilling to us.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Architecture Construction

Designs on Growth

As one local architect noted, we’re far enough away from the last recession to start worrying about the next one — and recessions tend to hit this sector particularly hard. Still, despite mixed signals in the long-term economic picture nationally, work remains steady locally, with municipalities, colleges, and businesses of all kinds continuing to invest in capital projects. Even if storm clouds do appear down the road, the 2019 outlook in architecture seems bright.

Curtis Edgin put it in simple terms when asked how 2019 is shaping up in the architecture sector.

“We’re busy; I can’t complain,” he told BusinessWest. Those five words sum up a strong outlook in an industry that tends to be a leading indicator for the economy as a whole — when things slow down, construction, finance, and other areas tend to follow — and is currently trending up, or at least holding steady.

“We’re far from the last recession — maybe far enough to worry about the next one,” said Edgin, a principal with Caolo & Bieniek Associates (CBA) in Chicopee. “But I don’t see that coming yet, looking at our workload.”

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) reports a similar outlook, with architecture firm billings nationally strengthening to a level not seen in the previous 12 months. Indicators of work in the pipeline, including inquiries into new projects and the value of new design contracts, also improved in January.

“The government shutdown affected architecture firms but doesn’t appear to have created a slowdown in the profession,” AIA Chief Economist Kermit Baker noted. “While AIA did hear from a few firms that were experiencing significant cash-flow issues due to the shutdown, the data suggests that the majority of firms had no long-term impact.”

Broken down by region, the Northeast is performing better than the West, but slightly trailing the South (which continues to rebuild from a rough 2018 hurricane season) and the Midwest. Nationally, billings softened slightly in February from the January pace, but remain strong in the big-picture sense, Baker said. “Overall, business conditions at architecture firms across the country have remained generally healthy.”

Curtis Edgin says specializing in a range of diverse niches is a plus for any firm

Curtis Edgin says specializing in a range of diverse niches is a plus for any firm, serving as a buffer against a downturn in any one area.

Jonathan Salvon, a principal with Kuhn Riddle Architects in Amherst, reports strong business as well, especially in the education realm, traditionally a strength for the firm, with projects for UMass and a historic-renovation conversion project for Elms College.

“Then there’s a mix of multi-family housing and commercial projects,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ve got a new office building for Way Finders going up on the old Peter Pan site in Springfield, which is our biggest commercial project at the moment. And there’s a 36-unit, multi-family housing project going up on University Drive in Amherst.”

Caolo & Bieniek, known for its wide range of public projects, from schools to fire and police stations, has expanded its base of private projects since merging with Reinhardt Associates in 2017.

“It’s been kind of a good synergy. We’ve blended our strengths and their strengths,” Edgin said, noting that one example is the recently completed Baystate Health & Wellness Center on the Longmeadow-East Longmeadow line, as Reinhardt has a solid history in medical office buildings.

“E-commerce has been growing at about three times the rate of traditional brick-and-mortar sales. The slowdown in housing hasn’t helped, as new residential development often spurs new retail construction activity. Instead, larger shares of investment in these facilities is going to the renovation of existing buildings.”

Other recent CBA projects recently started or well underway include a senior center in West Boylston, a police station in Williamstown, a public-safety complex in Lenox, a renovation of Chicopee’s public-safety facility, a pre-K to grade-8 school in Easthampton, and some work with UMass Amherst, Westfield State University, and other colleges.

“There’s a good mix of private and public, and we seem to be doing a fair amount of work with human-services agencies,” Edgin added, noting that the firm just did a project for Guidewire in Chicopee, and Sunshine Village in the city has also been a consistent client. “We seem to have a bit going in that sector right now. We’re busy, and it’s a good mix all around.”

Strong Pace, but Red Flags

The AIA suggests that growth in architecture should continue at least through 2020, but a number of emerging red flags suggest a cautious outlook.

Spending on non-residential buildings nationally is projected to grow by 4.4% this year, paced by healthy gains in the industrial and institutional building sectors, it notes. For 2020, growth is projected to slow to 2.4%, with essentially no increase in spending on commercial facilities, but gains in the 3% range in the industrial and institutional categories.

“Still,” Baker said, “there is growing concern inside and outside of the industry that a broader economic downturn may be materializing over the next 12 to 24 months.”

Nationally, growth in gross domestic product is estimated to be close to 3% in 2019, while the job market continues to be healthy, with more than 2.6 million net new payroll jobs added in 2018, an improvement over 2017’s figure of just under 2.2 million. In fact, the national unemployment rate was below 4% for most of 2018. Consumer-sentiment levels remained strong, and the nation’s factories also were busy, with industrial output achieving its strongest growth in almost a decade.

Jonathan Salvon says one of his firm’s three ‘legs,’ residential work, has been impacted by a slowdown in single-family construction

Jonathan Salvon says one of his firm’s three ‘legs,’ residential work, has been impacted by a slowdown in single-family construction over the past decade, but a rising portfolio of multi-family projects has picked up the slack.

However, there are several signals that point to an emerging slowdown in the broader economy, and therefore in the construction sector, Baker noted. These include declines in leading economic indicators, weakness in some key sectors of the economy, and softness in the markets of major U.S. trading partners. “These signals may be temporary responses to negative short-term conditions, but historically they have preceded a more widespread downturn.”

Meanwhile, since dropping sharply during the Great Recession, housing starts have had a very slow recovery, the AIA notes, and Salvon can attest to that reality locally. But Kuhn Riddle has adjusted in other ways.

“We’ve always been a stool with three legs,” he said. “One-third is work for various colleges, charter schools, prep schools, secondary schools, and even some day cares — we run the whole gamut in education. The second third is residential work; in the past, before the 2009 recession, that was often single-family residences. That market has never really come back, at least for us. But we’ve been lucky to develop a new market in multi-family projects.”

The third leg is a variety of commercial projects, including office buildings, restaurants, and bank renovations, to name a few, Salvon said.

“Hopefully we all stay busy. But we do know it goes in cycles; we’ve been through plenty of slower times and a lot of boom times. But we’ve been very blessed. We’re pretty busy and hope to stay that way.”

Nationally, Baker sees design work on the commercial front as a bit of a mixed bag at the moment.

“Business investments often reflect what corporate leaders feel is the growth potential for their companies. Investment nationally in new plants and equipment saw healthy growth in 2017 and through the first half of 2018, but slowed significantly beginning in the third quarter of last year,” he noted. “Given the recent trends in business-confidence scores, investment is unlikely to accelerate anytime soon. Business confidence fell sharply through 2018, with the fourth quarter showing the lowest levels in six years.”

In the Bay State, the picture is equally muddy. The Business Confidence Index issued monthly by Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) reported a gain in February after dropping in January to its lowest level in more than two years.

“Employers remain generally optimistic about a state economy that continues to run at full-employment levels and a U.S. economy that is projected to grow by 2.2% this year,” said Raymond Torto, Chair of AIM’s Board of Economic Advisors and a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. “At the same time, the erosion of confidence among Massachusetts manufacturers during the past 12 months raises some concern about the long-term sustainability of the recovery.”

On a sector-by-sector basis, Baker reported, design work for retail facilities continues to suffer from the growth on online shopping.

“E-commerce has been growing at about three times the rate of traditional brick-and-mortar sales. The slowdown in housing hasn’t helped, as new residential development often spurs new retail construction activity,” he noted. “Instead, larger shares of investment in these facilities is going to the renovation of existing buildings.”

On the other hand, office projects represent the strongest commercial sector in construction right now, with 5% growth projected for this year and 1% in 2020. “This sector has benefited from strong job growth and the apparent bottoming out of the years-long decline in office space per employee,” Baker said. “Much of the increase has come from the booming technology sector, so the outlook is dependent on continued growth in this industry sector.”

Meanwhile, eds and meds — or education and healthcare, two pillars of the Western Mass. economy — represent very healthy sectors nationally for architects and general contractors. AIA projects 5.5% in the education sector this year and an additional 4% in 2020, and 4% growth in healthcare in 2019 followed by 3.6% in 2020. 

“We’re pretty diversified and active in a lot of different environments,” Edgin said. “It’s not just schools, not just police stations, not just fire stations, but a little bit of everything.” He cited the recent renovation of Polish National Credit Union’s Front Street branch in Chicopee, as well as a new Arrha Credit Union branch in West Springfield and a project with the Boys and Girls Club of West Springfield. “A lot of things take a while, so it’s that advance planning that keeps you busy a year or two from now.”

Leading Indicator

Baker reported that business conditions at U.S. architecture firms in 2018, as measured by AIA’s Architecture Billings Index (ABI), were essentially unchanged from 2017.

“Since the ABI has been shown to lead construction spending by an average of nine to 12 months, this would suggest that the growth in spending on non-residential buildings in 2019 should be close to the growth rate of 2018,” he noted. “Additionally, new design contracts coming into architecture firms grew at a healthy pace in 2018, underscoring the robust level of backlogs currently enjoyed by most firms.”

Meanwhile, Dodge Data & Analytics recently released its 2019 Dodge Construction Outlook, which predicted that total U.S. construction starts for 2019 will be $808 billion, staying essentially even with the $807 billion estimated for 2018.

“There are, of course, mounting headwinds affecting construction, namely rising interest rates and higher material costs, but for now these have been balanced by the stronger growth for the U.S. economy, some easing of bank lending standards, still-healthy market fundamentals for commercial real estate, and greater state financing for school construction and enhanced federal funding for public works,” said Robert Murray, chief economist for Dodge Data & Analytics.

Locally, both architects and builders are maintaining the same sort of cautious optimism, at least in the short term.

“Right now, it’s strong,” Edgin said. “We’ve increased our staffing.”

Finding talented staff remains a challenge, he said, because strong growth among architecture firms in general means stiff competition, and Greater Springfield isn’t always a top destination for young professionals in the field compared to, say, Boston or New York, where pay scales are higher (but, of course, so is the cost of living).

Salvon understands that reality as well, but said Kuhn Riddle has benefited from its location in downtown Amherst, where it has easy access to the UMass architecture program. “We’ve been a little spoiled — we’ve been privileged to get some employees out of that program over the last decade or so, and we’ve tried to make a nice work environment, so people been staying here.”

All things considered, he told BusinessWest, the outlook seems strong in architecture locally, and others agree.

“We’ve been able to build some good staff and a good team, so we’re happy about that,” Edgin said. “Hopefully we all stay busy. But we do know it goes in cycles; we’ve been through plenty of slower times and a lot of boom times. But we’ve been very blessed. We’re pretty busy and hope to stay that way.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]


Decade of Design

Kevin Shea (left, with Richard Morse)

Kevin Shea (left, with Richard Morse) says Architecture EL built its extensive portfolio of projects largely on direct-design work.

When Kevin Shea launched his own architecture firm after almost two decades working for someone else, it wasn’t exactly a great time to start a business — particularly one in a construction-related field.

It was 2008, actually, right at the start of the Great Recession, which would significantly dry up building activity for the next few years.

“We started at the bottom, but we got lucky, and we worked hard and delivered good client service — the things you want to build on as a new business,” said Shea, who has grown his firm, Architecture EL, from a solo practice to a six-person operation. “Now were seeing some of the firms that survived and hung on — some older, respected firms — start to close up or retire, which puts us in a good spot; we’re well-established at this point, and we can take on the work and fill in the gaps.”

As the East Longmeadow-based firm celebrates its 10-year anniversary in October, Shea can look back at an eclectic blend of projects, ranging from affordable housing to municipal work; from a children’s museum to a country club.

“We started at the bottom, but we got lucky, and we worked hard and delivered good client service — the things you want to build on as a new business.”

“We have a good, diverse mix of work,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ve done some restaurant work locally; we’re looking at significant renovations to Elmcrest Country Club, which had a couple of fires last year; and we’re looking at more affordable housing and some private residential.”

For example, the E. Henry Twiggs Estates, a 75-unit affordable-housing project in the Mason Square neighborhood of Springfield, is being developed by Home City Housing. “We’ve worked through phase 1 with Home City on Twiggs, and now phase 2 is almost slated to begin at the end of the year, so that’s represented a lot of our office time lately,” he said.

Two of the residences in the E. Henry Twiggs Estates, an affordable-housing development in Springfield.

Two of the residences in the E. Henry Twiggs Estates, an affordable-housing development in Springfield.

“We’ve gotten to grow with some good work in housing, especially the affordable-housing sector,” he went on, citing other upcoming work, such as a project with Community Builders, a nonprofit that has become a significant force in the affordable-housing market from Boston to New York. “We’re in the early throes of conversations to do a 70-unit multi-family renovation in Western Mass. — it’s not contracted yet, but well along in the talks. That’ll be nice.”

While developing a strong base in multi-family housing, Shea said his firm has built a diverse portfolio in other areas as well, with recent and upcoming projects including a childcare center in Monson, a fire-station addition in Hampden, and an accessibility project at Hatfield Town Hall, following more extensive design work several years ago on that town’s municipal offices.

“You never know what we’ll be up to,” said Richard Morse, a consultant at the firm — and sometimes, the work can be very outside the box. Take, for instance, a planned project to design a veterans’ memorial on North Main Street in East Longmeadow, in front of the Pleasant View Senior Center, a stone’s throw Route 83 from Architecture EL’s office.

“That’s a relatively modest commission in terms of dollars, but it’s important to us here in East Longmeadow,” Shea said. “A veterans group came to us; they have an agreement for a piece of land in the front yard of the senior center, so we’re in the early stages of a design project for a memorial.”

Morse noted that the project is in the fund-raising stages, but there have already been conversations about what it will look like.

“They came to us with a shopping list, and we’re bringing to it a sense of space and respect and contemplation — and we have to do that in front of a building along a busy street,” Shea said. “We don’t just want to build a chunk of stone; we want to create a space where people come and reflect. That’s one that we’re really honored to have a chance to with these veterans. It’s a nice project, and we’re happy to be doing it close to home, right here in town.”

Unrolling the Future

Shea has always wanted to be an architect, having told the story on occasion of seeing old blueprints lying around his house as a child and being fascinated by what they represented. Architecture ended up fitting his personality, with its blend of hands-on and creative work, mechanical and artistic skills.

So after graduating from Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, he took a job with a small architecture firm for 18 years before deciding in 2008 to strike out on his own.

Architecture EL — the acronym stands for Environment Life — was built on the idea of direct design. It’s more common than ever, in fact, to partner with owners and contractors in the design and construction of a building, whereas, decades ago, those elements were far more often bid separately.

The firm’s recent projects

The firm’s recent projects include restaurants, affordable housing, municipal facilities, and many others.

“I think the trend is toward more hands-on work, more design-build, more working with the trades in the field,” he said. “We see a little of the traditional drawing on spec and bidding to three or five contractors. But we see more of the construction-management side of things, where a developer wants to partner with us and a favorite contractor or builder and basically pull together architects, engineers, and contractors to get an efficient, affordable team.”

That has always been his preferred model, he added. “The nice thing is, you usually get to the point pretty quickly. The contractor is at the table, and you can move from design to construction pretty efficiently.”

With friendly cooperation among all parties, Morse said, “we can be the bridge between the client and the contractor because that gets kind of lopsided without our involvement. We’re able to have dialogue with the builder and come up with ways to control cost and schedule.”

The ‘EL’ in the company’s name doesn’t stand for East Longmeadow, as some may assume, but, as noted earlier, for Environment Life, concepts reflected in the types of work Shea takes on. Green building was on the rise when Architecture EL was born, but it’s become in many ways standard practice, reflected in both customer demands and Massachusetts building codes.

But Shea said he’s not interested in the bare minimum. “On the environmental side, we keep digging further into energy and good design, to deliver not just code compliance but a healthy, safe, well-constructed building. That piece never goes away.”

The ‘life’ piece is a more general idea, but it gets into the whole experience of a space and the specific ways it will benefit the lives of those who live in and use it, whether it’s residents benefiting from affordable housing; the kids who will benefit from an accessibility-improvement project at the Wilbraham Children’s Museum; or the employees of Marcotte Ford who work in that company’s commercial truck center, built in 2015, or its new headquarters, which opens this month.

“We don’t specialize in custom, single-family residential, but it seems that those who end up here need someone to help solve a problem. A lot of times, they have a house, a budget, a program, and can’t figure out how to put it all together.”

“Even a private residential project, that’s very intimate for the client,” Morse said. “You’re designing space where they’ll spend a good portion of their lives, so that always makes our work interesting and impactful.”

Shea agreed. “We don’t specialize in custom, single-family residential, but it seems that those who end up here need someone to help solve a problem. A lot of times, they have a house, a budget, a program, and can’t figure out how to put it all together. It’s nice to work with those people. Those projects can be fun.”

Answer Man

Whether designing a municipal project, a place of business, or a home — or a multi-home development — Shea has never stopped seeing his role as focusing on a client’s environment and life, and coming up with solutions that enhance both.

“We’ve been busy for quite a while, and we seem to be staying busy. Clearly the economy is moving along,” he noted. “We’ve seen a lot of smaller single-family projects creeping up, three or four at a time. These are people who aren’t just hiring a contractor, they want to make sure they get to a good solution. People are looking to invest in the design time up front.”

Morse said the team is cautiously optimistic that the good times will persist.

“We’ve been lucky, and we’ve been busy,” Shea added. “We’ve been growing steadily, though we’re not looking to grow too much. We just want to keep working hard for our clients. That’s what keeps them coming back.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Architecture Sections

Home Makers

KithcenInteriorThe ideas home buyers — and those looking to renovate — bring to the table can morph over time, and a few trends, including an emphasis on open floor plans and sustainable living, not to mention natural surfaces and unobtrusive, smart technology, have come to dominate today’s residential-design world. And when the end result matches the initial vision, well, that’s when a house truly becomes a home.

Something old, something new.

That’s not just the first four words of the ritual brides seek to incorporate on their wedding day — it’s at the heart of another long-time commitment people make: Building a home.

“People in this area are definitely more focused on recognizable regional architecture that draws on arts-and-crafts tradition, farmhouse tradition, or Victorian tradition; they like forms that are familiar to them,” said Charles Roberts, a principal with Kuhn Riddle Architects in Amherst.

“People bring to the process their preconceived notions about architecture, from their research and what they’re comfortable with,” he added. “Most people are drawn to a house that’s recognizable in terms of form, something they can relate to.”

The homes on these pages, designed by Kuhn Riddle Architects, are examples of how today’s houses blend traditional ideas with modern space plans.

The homes on these pages, designed by Kuhn Riddle Architects, are examples of how today’s houses blend traditional ideas with modern space plans.

However, he said, when they step inside, they’re definitely not looking for a traditional Victorian layout with many small rooms. “They want more modern, open plans — more light, open space, an integrated way of living with their house. A compartmentalized dining room is one of those components that’s falling more out of favor. They want a kitchen space that opens to living area and the dining area.”

Chris Jacobs, president of Barron & Jacobs Associates in Northampton, a design-build firm with a large residential-renovation portfolio, has witnessed the same trend over the past decade, with many projects focused on creating a more open feel.

“In most of our jobs, we’re opening up living space,” he said. “The traditional dining room is going away; we’re always knocking down walls to open up space.”

It’s a trend the national home-design media has pegged as well; flexible living space ranks among Architect magazine’s top three trends for 2018, driven in part by changing lifestyles and the way families want to interact today. In short, it’s all about flow and compatibility between spaces.

“Dedicated kitchen, living, and dining rooms have largely been replaced by large multi-purpose spaces that can be customized to meet families’ needs,” the magazine noted. “Architects can work with builders to ensure designs offer flexibility in living arrangements by including sliding doors, pocket doors, and other movable dividers in homes to ensure a seamless transition between rooms in the home, as well as between indoor and outdoor living spaces.”

That’s just one way modern home design has shifted in recent years. For this issue’s focus on architecture, BusinessWest takes a look at a few other ways architects and builders are creating spaces that reflect 21st-century tastes.

Lean and Green

Architect’s second big trend in home design is sustainability, and that’s no surprise; ‘green’ building, once a costly outlier in home design, still often comes with a steep cost, but is no longer uncommon.

“Consumers know the importance of reducing their carbon footprints, and want to make sustainable choices that fit with their lifestyles,” the publication noted. “Architects can meet these needs by ensuring the building envelope is well-sealed and insulated and by including sustainable options such as solar panels or energy-efficient appliances.”

That may be even more true in Western Mass., with its reputation as an environmentally-conscious region.

“People are definitely interested in the energy efficiency of building and design right now, moreso than they were as recently as 10 years ago,” Roberts said. “A number of projects I’ve been working on for builders include zero design, really paying attention to the envelope of the building, heat recovery, and ventilation. All the renewable-energy components are in demand.”

Jacobs pointed out that communities in Massachusetts, with its stricter-than-average stretch codes mandating sustainable building elements, already require certain elements, and beyond that, each option comes with a budget hit. “You can definitely surpass [the codes], but most people, when they see the price difference, don’t, for example, use spray-foam insulation through their whole house.”

Beyond energy efficiency, Roberts said, homeowners are trending toward natural materials in the home, like wood floors and stone countertops, and away from plastics and formica. Meanwhile, wall-to-wall carpeting is becoming much less popular as people want to showcase their natural flooring.

They’re also more focused on the kitchen than other areas of the home, he said, not just with natural surfaces, but with high-end appliances. “Kitchen is a place people still focus on, and they want nice refrigerators and ranges and cabinets. The kitchen is still the heart and core of almost every house. Every conversation seems to end up in the kitchen.”

Jacobs said kitchens are probably the number-one target of home renovation projects he’s involved with.

“Everyone wants to go to stone countertops, good appliances, quality cabinets,” he noted, adding that there’s wide range of outcomes depending on the budget. “You can build a kitchen that can last 100 years, or build one that lasts 10.”

Bathrooms are another area where higher-end options like custom shower tile, frameless glass, and heated floors are extremely popular — when the budget allows. Of course, there’s a good reason kitchens and bathrooms get so much attention: they’re important for quality of life.

“The majority of people in Massachusetts live in an older home, so we renovate a lot of bathrooms and kitchens,” he told BusinessWest. “Everyone would love a screen porch, but they don’t necessarily need it. But if your bathroom is leaking, it can’t wait.”

Chris Jacobs

Chris Jacobs says today’s building codes mandate plenty of sustainable and energy-efficient aspects, but some home buyers and remodelers choose to go beyond them.

As for exterior trends, Roberts said, many builders are moving toward fiber cement, a durable, paintable product that replicates many traditional sidings. “It’s nice, because it holds paint forever, and it’s a little less expensive than natural wood, so a lot of housing we’re seeing going up now has that material in the exterior.”

The final top trend on Architect’s list for 2018 is hidden technology, which is becoming more integrated and extensive than ever before. Homeowners enjoy being able to adjust heat and lights, preheat the oven, and perform other tasks from a mobile device.

“Architects,” it noted, “should work with builders to ensure customization is part of the plan from the beginning, and also that new homes are optimized for wi-fi connectivity based on the size and layout of the home.”

Arch2O, an organization that promotes innovative ideas in architecture, also foresees this technology becoming more prevalent. “Smart houses which are entirely automated by an Internet application will prevail,” it notes. “You will be able to heat up the food you left in the oven on your way home and even turn on your coffee machine. This will also apply to lighting, air conditioning, heating, fridges, dishwashers, and windows.”

Home for Life

Bells and whistles are fun, and definitely something 21st-century homeowners crave, but Roberts said the most resonant ideas still revolve around the way people connect. A home can facilitate that in different ways, from an open living plan complemented by a ‘get-away’ room — an office, TV, or game room — in another area of the house, to a move toward moving master suites downstairs.

“As people get up there in life, they’re saying, ‘I want to be here for the rest of my life; I want to age in place.’ With primary suites downstairs, they can live on first floor, with second-floor bedrooms for kids and grandkids, expanded family, and visitors,” he explained. “People are looking for houses that are flexible, that have the ability to absorb extended family.”

In downtown areas, where there aren’t as many buildable lots for single-family homes, other people prefer the community aspects and neighborhood walkability of condominiums and even co-housing projects, he added. “That’s about a lifestyle as much as a style of architecture.”

For those who aren’t in the market for a new home, the past few years, with the recession well in the distance, have proven a fertile time for renovations, Jacobs said.

“People had put a hold on home improvements, and now that the recession is over, we’re seeing more of them scheduling projects. We do a lot of kitchens, and some are adding a level and doubling the size of the house. It’s still cheaper to buy a house and fix it than build it from scratch.”

In all, architects and builders see a positive landscape for turning trendy ideas into something new — often working from something old.

“In this area,” Roberts said, “I’ve have the experience of working with all the various subcontractors putting these elements together, and I really enjoy working with all the great builders on these projects” — in other words, bringing ever-changing visions to life.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Architecture Home Builders Sections

Surface Appeal

President Mitch Salomon (center) and some of his team at Salomon Flooring.

President Mitch Salomon (center) and some of his team at Salomon Flooring.

The flooring business has changed in many ways since Mitch Salamon Sr. opened his shop 75 years ago, with an array of products he couldn’t have envisioned. But other elements haven’t changed at all, say today’s second- and third-generation leaders of the company, from the importance of punctuality to helping customers work within their budget, all of which has helped Salamon build a roster of repeat customers in some of the area’s most important industries.

Visit Sarat Ford Lincoln in Agawam, Ford of Greenfield, or Balise Hyundai of Springfield, and chances are you’re walking on a surface installed by Salamon Flooring.

Since 2014, in fact, the West Springfield-based company has completed six-figure jobs at those dealerships, plus Curry Honda in Chicopee, Balise Ford in Wilbraham, Prime Hyundai in Rockland … the list goes on.

“Car dealerships are building now; there’s a lot of growth and consolidation,” said Mark Salamon, a third-generation vice president at the family-owned flooring business, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. “We have a lot of projects going on with car dealerships; the opportunities are enormous.”

Assisted-living centers — which are also seeing a building and renovating boom, thanks to the largest population over age 65 in the nation’s history — are another strong niche for Salamon, with recent flooring jobs including Linda Manor in Leeds and Stonebrook Village in South Windsor, Conn., and several others now underway.

“We’re local contractors from Western Mass., but we do work all the way into Boston and New York and Connecticut,” Salamon said. “We do a lot of school work, assisted-living centers, car dealerships, government work, VAs, Navy work — small to large — as well as residential projects.”

Company President Mitch Salamon told BusinessWest that his father, also named Mitch, launched the company in 1943 in Holyoke, later moving it to West Springfield, where it has been based for more than a half-century. “It just evolved through the years, and when I was old enough to assist, we eventually broadened our scope of work and expanded our operations.”

Today, with 36 installers in the field and an office staff of nine, Salamon Flooring continues to build on its name, and its key niches. Major school projects in the past five years include a half-million dollars worth of work at UMass Amherst, plus jobs at Pioneer Valley Christian School, Baystate Academy, Bay Path College, Chapin School, West Springfield public schools, Wilbraham & Monson Academy, and Springfield Technical Community College.

Then there are the medical facilities — including Riverbend Medical Group, Baystate Medical Center, Mercy Medical Center, MedExpress, AFC Urgent Care, and other large practices. Meanwhile, recent government projects have included four naval bases around New England and Veterans Administration facilities in Northampton and Bedford.

A Vietnam veteran decorated with the Bronze Star, Mitch Salomon says being a vet qualifies his company for a competitive edge in the bidding process for government work, but added quickly that its track record provides a greater edge. “Our credibility and reputation are so strong that, once we affiliate ourselves with a contractor, we’re invited over and over for anything else they bid.”

Laying It Down

Mark Salamon noted that the company cut its teeth on residential projects, and started to shift more toward commercial work when his father took over. “As the third generation goes on, we do mostly commercial work, with some light residential.”

Popular products these days include broadloom carpet, carpet tile, luxury vinyl tile (LVT), vinyl composite tile (VCT), hardwood flooring, granite, ceramic tile, and sheet vinyls. Products like LVT, VCT, and sheet vinyls, he explained, offer more durability than traditional vinyl products while providing a realistic wood or tile appearance.

The majority of customers today are looking for long-term durability, he added, whether to protect a floor from dog claws and heavy use by kids, or due to a high-traffic location in, say, a retail store or car showroom.

From left, Carol Salomon, Mitch Salomon, Mark Salomon, and Karen Salomon Shouse

From left, Carol Salomon, Mitch Salomon, Mark Salomon, and Karen Salomon Shouse represent the second and third generations of company leadership.

“LVT is becoming very popular and replacing hardwood in a lot of homes,” Salamon went on. “The way they’re constructed these days is a very realistic look that mimics wood, with beveled edges, graining on the surface, and it’s about half the cost of hardwood. Some have lifetime warranties, and some are waterproof.”

Commercial clients are increasingly choosing LVT as well, Mitch said, particularly high-traffic facilities like hospitals, healthcare practices, and assisted-living centers, for its blend of durability and a more pleasing appearance than traditional vinyl tile.

Part of a product’s durability stems from the surface preparation and moisture mitigation Salamon offers. Mark added that ever-expanding options in materials makes it easy to “value engineer” a job that meets the client’s needs within his or her budget.

“A lot of products start with the architect specifying something,” he noted, “but once budgets are set, sometimes value engineering comes into play, and we can make the projects fit their budget. We certainly have some clients with tight budgets, but we can find products that fit their needs and still give them quality and durability.”

Repeat business has been an important element of Salamon’s success, he went on. “Once we jump into a market and complete successful projects, we’re asked to bid a lot of similar projects again. We pride ourselves on giving 100%, doing the project on time, on schedule, and handling whatever obstacles are in the way, which creates repeat business. General contractors like us and trust us on projects.”

That’s partly because of the legwork Salamon completes well before it shows up on a job site, from the products to be used to a list of workers preapproved to work in certain settings — including background checks for military bases and CORI checks for school settings.

“We make sure the paperwork needed is done, so when the project starts, there are no delays,” he said. “General contractors like to see that set up in the system; it makes it very easy for them, which makes the process of completing the job that much quicker.”

Another important element of working with general contractors is making sure punchlist items are resolved immediately, thus preventing delays in the schedule. And he appreciates contractors with a similar emphasis on punctuality.

“We enjoy working with good general contractors that have their jobs well-organized, well-financed, and on schedule,” he said. “It makes our job easier, makes the projects come out nicer, and increases the chance for additional work with them.”

Carol Salamon, Mitch’s wife and the company treasurer, agreed. “The general contractors we work with have pride in their work; they’re not sloppy.”

Stepping Forward

Mark Salamon noted that the company has grown substantially over the past six years, emerging from the post-recession years with a substantial surge in business. “Every year has had strong, positive growth.”

The company has been a community fixture in more ways than installing floors throughout the region. Among its charitable efforts, Salamon Flooring and Salamon Realty, another family business, donated funds last year to the West Springfield Fire Department to purchase a utility task vehicle from Springfield Auto and Truck.

The emergency vehicle was put into use at the Big E in September and made 63 runs there. With its smaller size, it’s able to navigate through large crowds and access areas of the fair that would be challenging to reach with an ambulance. It is also used to reach emergency situations in Mittineague Park, the Bear Hole Watershed, and other places.

As for its flooring business, the Salamon family plans to be a local fixture for the foreseeable future. While Mark and his sister, Vice President Karen Salamon Shouse, represent the third generation of company leadership, they won’t be the last; Mark’s son, Beau Salomon, is a student at UMass Business School, but comes to work during summer vacations and other breaks, and sometimes on the weekend when needed, with every intention of coming on board full-time after graduation.

“He has the leadership ability that my father and grandfather had, that a lot of the guys here look for, Mark said, “and he’s a hard worker — something you don’t see in a lot of kids nowadays.”

He’ll be coming on board at a time when those niches that have driven so many sales, from auto dealerships to schools to assisted living, continue to experience a wave of construction. “The market is strong. We have some quality competition, but we strive every day to be better.”

“We’re not going anywhere,” Salamon Shouse added. “With the competition in the area, we have to bring our best to every job.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Architecture Sections

Blueprint for Success

Jonathan Salvon says Kuhn Riddle continues to make its mark on area colleges.

Jonathan Salvon says Kuhn Riddle continues to make its mark on area colleges.

While national forecasters are predicting a slight slowdown in the construction industry, area architects report a healthy flow of projects in the pipeline, and they see that trend continuing for the foreseeable future.

Even during tougher economic times than these, Jim Hanifan says, communities still have to maintain — and often rebuild — their schools, libraries, police stations, and municipal offices.

“The beauty of public work is they’re always putting money in one sector or another,” said Hanifan, a principal with Caolo & Bieniek Associates. “Right now, public safety may be at the forefront — and that goes back to 9/11 — but now more senior centers are being built for the aging population, and they’re not just places to hang out and play bingo; it’s an active place, a community gathering spot. Senior centers have become important.”

Curtis Edgin, another principal at the Chicopee-based architectural firm agreed. “We’ve been very busy — a lot of public-sector work, a lot of education work, from pre-K to university levels,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ve done a lot of public-safety work. These projects — public safety, police, fire, things of that nature — are important to communities. They recognize the need to provide those services.”

Colleges and universities keep building too, said Jonathan Salvon, a principal with Kuhn Riddle Architects, and his firm has certainly reaped the benefits.

“We’re lucky to be located right here in Amherst, so we’re conveniently located near the Five Colleges. We’ve always had a certain percentage of our work at the colleges; it’s probably one-third now.”

For instance, the firm is in the planning stages on two UMass Amherst projects, and has also performed a variety of work at Smith College, most recently an intriguing conversion of an historic boathouse into studio space for students of dance.

“That’s an interesting site,” Salvon said, and makes creative reuse of an existing space — a hallmark of New England, where there’s plenty of existing building stock but not as much land and opportunity to design and build new structures.

“We do a certain amount of new construction,” he said, “but a good bit of our work is turning one thing into something new.”

The architects BusinessWest spoke with for this issue uniformly reported a healthy pipeline of projects this year, which belies a cloudy national forecast for the construction industry. After projecting 6% growth in construction spending in 2017, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) adjusted that to 4% at midyear, and expects that slower pace to continue into 2018.

“However, a somewhat more optimistic view is coming from architecture firms,” Kermit Baker, the AIA’s chief economist, reported in July. “While this could be viewed as architecture firms merely working down their backlog from a few stronger years, that doesn’t appear to be the case … New project inquiries and new design contracts were stronger on average in the first half of 2017 than in 2015 and 2016, and as a result firm backlogs have been growing, not shrinking.”

That’s certainly true at Architecture EL in East Longmeadow, which is so busy, principal Kevin Rothschild-Shea called the pace of projects a double-edged sword — but one he’s happy to face.

“We’re busy with multi-family housing, a bunch of new commercial work, and we’re seeing some new consrtruction, finally, not just renovations,” he noted. “The commercial market is moving along pretty strong. We’ve got more phone calls coming in than we can get to.”

For this issue’s focus on architecture, these regional players explain why they’re optimistic, not just for this year, but beyond.

Rising Tide

One of Caolo & Bieniek’s projects, the South End Community Center in Springfield, just opened last week, Hanifan said. “It’s a nice project because they were displaced from the tornado and finally have a permanent home again.”

Other projects the firm has recently tackled include Easthampton High School, Dupont Middle School in Chicopee, and, at the university level, academic and residential buildings at UMass Amherst. The company has also worked on the Little River fire station in Westfield, recreational fields in Agawam, the Chicopee public-safety complex, new branches of Polish National Credit Union and Arrha Credit Union, and a new senior center and police station in West Boylston.

Edgin said the more the firm works in one niche — senior centers, for instance — the more its reputation grows in that area, and it becomes easier to kand similar jobs.

“We’re diversified — we don’t focus on one project type,” he added. “The problem is, a lot of these communities recognize the need to replace outdated facilities or build new ones; they recognize the need to bring them in line with the current trends, but the costs are often an obstacle.”

Caolo & Bieniek Principals, from left, Curtis Edgin, Jim Hanifan, and Bertram Gardner.

Caolo & Bieniek Principals, from left, Curtis Edgin, Jim Hanifan, and Bertram Gardner.

Still, he added, municipal work never really dries up. “It goes in cycles, up and down. But we’ve been fortunate, and we hope it continues.”

Beyond its healthy niche in higher education, Kuhn Riddle is currently tackling two early-education facilities — Belchertown Day School is moving and Children’s First Enterprises in Granby is expanding — while taking advantage of a rebounding housing market, moving from multi-family projects into more high-end, single-family homes, a niche that dried up during the Great Recession.

“Before 2009, about third of our work was college, a third was general commercial, and a third was residential,” Salvon said. “That single-family home, we’ve had a little bit of that, not like it used to be.”

Rothschild-Shea agreed. “It really tanked after 2008. Multi-family has been starting to move the past few years — we’ve been doing a lot of rehab on multi-family, affordable housing — but we’re starting to see some new construction coming through, which is nice. We are just literally swamped, in best possible way, and we’re happy to see an uptick; it’s good for the whole industry.”

Salvon is equally gratified by what seems like a healthy outlook ahead.

“We feel better off than we were right after the recession, a lot more stable. I don’t feel like we’re getting close to anything like a bubble; it doesn’t seem like the market is too hot,” he said, before emphasizing the importance of repeat business, especially in the higher-ed sector. “What we try to do with the colleges is do good work and keep them happy with our services. Of course, we try to do that with all our clients. It really is about long-term relationships.”

Lean and Green

Caolo & Bieniek has seen a different sort of growth this year, forming a union with Agawam-based Reinhart Associates, which also has a strong track record in municipal work.

“We’ve both been around long enough — 60-plus years now — that we’ve built a loyal clientele that appreciates the services we provide,” Edgin told BusinessWest. “By drawing those resources together, we can compete with some larger firms from outside the area. There are more opportunities to draw on each other’s strengths.”

That said, he and his partners also keep an eye on industry trends, aiming to ensure they remain on the cutting edge at a time when bank branches, senior centers, medical offices, and police stations are designed a lot differently than they were a 20 years ago.

“We put a lot of effort into watching those trends, not just in Massachusetts, but across the country,” he said. “We’re not just looking at our projects, but all projects, seeing what the best practices are for that particular project type.”

Sustainable design is a good example, he went on, noting that ‘green’ was a buzzword a decade ago, but sustainability is here to stay. “The code revisions that continue to roll out keep setting the bar higher and higher, and complying with and exceeding those goals in Massachusetts touches on energy efficiency, quality of space, natural lighting, storm-water runoff on the exterior, and reuse of water.”

Hanifan agreed. “Clients are much more educated and in tune with green building and energy-efficiency standards, but the codes have caught up, and these things are mandated now. Three or four years ago, it was considered advanced building; today it’s all pretty much energy-efficient.”

Edgin isn’t about to rest on the firm’s laurels, but said its local roots are a plus, especially when it comes to developing long-term relationships and earning repeat business “It all comes down to the level of service you offer.”

“That’s probably our strongest marketing tool,” Hanifan added. “If you do a good job on a project, you’re more likely to get selected for the next one.”

And those projects keep on coming. After all, there will always be a need for the next school, library, or senior center.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Architecture Sections

Come Together

By Joanna Smiley

The homes at the Pioneer Valley Cohousing community

The homes at the Pioneer Valley Cohousing community are tightly clustered around a pedestrian loop, fostering informal social interactions and preserving open space on the rest of the site.

It’s no understatement to say Laura Fitch has dedicated her life to the philosophy of cohousing — not only through her architecture career, but because she has lived in a cohousing community for nearly 20 years. The model, which encourages togetherness and elements of both private and communal living, is becoming more popular among young families, retirees, and students, making it an ideal opportunity for intergenerational connection.

It’s hard to miss Fitch Architecture & Community Design’s Amherst office.

The space is nestled inside a sun-drenched building at the entrance of Pioneer Valley Cohousing, a 22-acre stretch of private homes clustered around a communal space.

Laura Fitch, a principal with the company, helped design the community, which has garnered attention as the East Coast’s first cohousing development. Fitch herself has lived in Pioneer Valley Cohousing for nearly 20 years.

“I grew up in Concord, Mass.,” she explained. “We had Thoreau and Walden, and I lived in a sort of cluster subdivision where we shared green space and community land and resources. It left an impact on me.”

A past board member of the Cohousing Assoc. of the U.S., Fitch first learned about cohousing during a trip to Denmark in 1980, the country where the concept was first developed.

List of Architecture Firms in the region

That knowledge was followed by a stint with Peace Corps in Mali, West Africa in 1984, an experience that built in her a desire to seek out socially and ecologically responsible projects — and which partly explains why cohousing has become the heart and soul of her firm.

Laura Fitch (right, with intern architect Aviva Galaski)

Laura Fitch (right, with intern architect Aviva Galaski) says cohousing builds community ties that can enhance the health and well-being of residents.

Houses in most cohousing communities range anywhere from 600-1,400 square feet. A complex typically includes a shared community room, where group meals are served several times a month, prepared by community members on a rotating basis. At Pioneer Valley Cohousing, members are encouraged to eat together twice a week. A 4,200-square-foot common house includes a communal multi-purpose room, commercial kitchen, children’s playroom, two guest rooms, and additional recreational space.

Cohousing members are expected to participate in the work that needs to be done to keep the community running smoothly, and Fitch relies on what is called an ‘affinity work system.’ That means she ensures every member pitches in by giving them the option to choose a task they’d like to complete that will benefit the community as a whole. Fitch’s husband, for example, helps with the members’ plowing each winter.

For this issue and its focus on architecture, BusinessWest talks to Fitch about why the cohousing model is an ideal choice for certain people, and how she has crafted a career around her long-time passion for community.

Welcoming Environment

Since the first cohousing community was completed in the U.S. — Muir Commons in Davis, Calif., which recently celebrated 25 years — more than 160 such communities have been established in 25 states plus the District of Columbia, with more than 120 in process. Most cohousing communities are intergenerational, with both children and elders; in recent years, senior cohousing focused on older adult needs have grown. Small and large, urban and rural, newly built and retrofits, these communities have consistently been at the forefront of environmental and socially sustainable neighborhoods, according to the Cohousing Assoc. of the United States.

Cohousing units are intentionally designed to feel welcoming and comfortable to surrounding neighbors, so they may freely stop by each other’s homes to converse, share resources, or help watch young children. That said, families living in such proximity also have the potential to conflict. Fitch preemptively mitigates potential arguments by encouraging open lines of communication with fellow neighbors and peaceful negotiation. The complex also designates a ‘community life issue member’ who can facilitate classes for non-violent conflict resolution.

Fitch calls her cohousing community, and others like it across the country, “community at your doorstep, with privacy at your home.”

Young families, single working parents, retirees, professionals, and even students are among the demographics typically attracted to cohousing. Fitch believes cohousing offers a desirable model, one that is universal for people from all walks of life who, simply put, seek togetherness.

“If you went to summer camps, enjoyed undergrad time in dorms, if those were things you liked when you were younger, then I always tell people, you can naturally understand what it’s like to live in cohousing,” Fitch said.

She sees the senior cohousing movement exploding across the U.S. and believes that this trend will continue to grow in the coming years as a better alternative to costly assisted-living facilities or elderly people living in isolation.

“There are studies that show community is healthy for you,” she told BusinessWest. “People age faster and have more problems when they’re aging alone. Senior cohousing is becoming a real phenomenon.”

In addition to the social issues central to the design of a cohousing community, the ecological concerns of sustainability are a primary focus for cohousing groups. Many groups include sustainability as part of their vision statement, and Fitch’s firm has helped them to reflect these goals in the built community.

In general, she explained, site design is sensitive to land use. The buildings have solar access, and energy-efficient construction practices are employed. Materials and systems are specifically selected to minimize ecological impact and maximize indoor air quality. Units have front porches, which provide a bridge between public and private spaces in a cohousing community. Meanwhile, the houses are scaled to ensure they’re friendly to pedestrians.

Earth Friendly

Fitch’s specialized focus on sustainable design has earned the firm a spot in Natural Home & Garden magazine as one of the top 10 green-architecture firms in North America.

“People are recognizing now that it makes business sense … if you invest enough to reduce mechanical costs, that’s where you get to the sweet spot,” she said.

The new theater studio at Smith College

The new theater studio at Smith College was created by capturing space from a large and underutilized lobby at the Mendenhall Center for Performing Arts.

Fitch and her team have led hundreds of residential, commercial, and institutional projects, including net-zero-energy homes, educational facilities, and deep-energy retrofits.

In 2013, the firm received a Historic Preservation Award from the Northampton Historical Commission for its work at Smith College’s Dewey House. The 1827 building needed significant upgrades, so, after completing an initial feasibility study, Fitch’s firm was asked to complete full services for energy improvements and a new exterior lift. Working with energy consultants, it ultimately achieved a 65% reduction in air infiltration.

Meanwhile, the Hartsbrook School, a Waldorf educational facility in Hadley, chose to work with Fitch and her team for a project focused on creating a new early-education building.

The new classroom building at the Hartsbrook School.

The new classroom building at the Hartsbrook School.

But cohousing remains Fitch’s calling card, and she has earned national accolades for her work in this field. Alice Alexander, executive director of the Cohousing Assoc. of the U.S., calls Fitch a “real pioneer” in getting the nationwide cohousing movement off the ground.

“Laura Fitch is one of our outstanding cohousing professionals,” Alexander said. “Not only is she an outstanding architect, but also she is adept at group process — at working collaboratively with large numbers of folks who can come to the table with diverse views. That takes talent. Laura is also committed to environmental sustainability and nurturing community for health and resilience.”

Fitch’s fusion of professional and personal interest in cohousing has proved to be an asset to her firm’s clients. “It enables me to understand what early cohousing groups are going through when it comes to making tough decisions about their money and the future,” she noted. “I can answer questions on the architecture, process, and what its like to live there as a resident.”

One of Fitch’s best ideas so far? An outdoor ping-pong table at the cohousing development she calls home.

“It reinvigorated our community life,” she said with a smile. “We all sit around the courtyard after meals egging each other on in ping-pong matches.”

It’s just one more way she has made a career — and a life — out of creating connections and community.

Architecture Sections

Living Spaces

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Nearly three quarters of U.S. architects say the health impacts of buildings are influencing their design decisions. That finding parallels a strong market demand by building owners, with a solid two-thirds surveyed also reporting that health considerations affect how they design and construct buildings.

These findings and others were featured in a new report, “The Drive Toward Healthier Buildings 2016” by Dodge Data & Analytics, in partnership with Delos and the Canada Green Building Council, and with the participation of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) as a critical research advisor and partner.

The report documents the value and need for more of the research, education, collaboration, and outreach efforts that are hallmarks of the AIA’s Design and Health initiative. Since 2013, AIA has invested in expanding the body of knowledge on the connection between design and health, including professional continuing education and the 17-university Design & Health Research Consortium.

“As a society, we spend nearly 87% of our time indoors,” said AIA Chief Executive Officer Robert Ivy. “Designing and constructing healthy buildings is crucial to our own well-being.

“Working with architects, we can accelerate this need for healthier buildings and improve quality of life across the country,” he continued. “This report documents how architects can help clients have a positive effect on human health, through the built environment.”

That positive result includes increasing employee participation and fulfillment, the report found. Sixty-nine percent of owners who measure employee satisfaction and engagement reported improvement in both attributes due to their healthier building investments.

According to the report, the top five healthier building features implemented by architects include better lighting and daylight exposure, products that enhance thermal comfort, spaces that enhance social interaction, enhanced air quality, and products that enhance acoustical comfort. Use of nearly all of these is expected to grow considerably along with further pioneering approaches like the use of biophilic design features, spaces that enhance tenant mood, and opportunities for physical activity, the report found.

“The increased attention to building health impacts is just beginning,” said Stephen Jones, senior director of Industry Insights at Dodge Data & Analytics. “In a similar way several years ago, companies engaged in green construction because of the demonstrable business and financial benefits they were able to achieve. The findings of this report demonstrate that the focus on buildings that enhance the health and well-being of their occupants is likely to follow a similar trajectory, boosted by those who have committed to sustainability in their organizations.”

Additional highlights from the report include:

• Most owners are not aware how healthy building investments result in business benefits like leasing rates (52%) and asset values (58%). However, among those that report an effect, 73% report faster rates, and 62% report higher values.
• According to architects and interior designers, the top driver for greater investment in healthier buildings is improved public awareness of the health impacts of buildings.
• Public-health professionals report that the most common policies currently in place to support healthier building practices are requirements to avoid the use of hazardous materials in buildings (65%). The key policy areas that are currently being considered include incentives that encourage physical activity (47%) and requirements for ongoing building air-quality measurement (46%).
• Ninety-two percent of public-health professionals also report that their institutions are actively conducting research on the influence buildings have on occupant health and well-being.
• Architects are most aligned with their clients (owners) when it comes to understanding the goals of healthy-building investments, as compared to other industry players, recognizing that improved tenant/employee satisfaction and happier and healthier occupants is the primary focus for owners related to their investments.
• The largest percentage of owners, at 42%, identify that they are very interested in partnering with architects to help increase their ability to implement healthy-building practices. While low, it is notably more than the next two highest potential partners — facility managers and educational institutions, both at 31%.

The report also received key support from CBRE, Dewberry, and the U.S. Green Building Council, with additional support from Armstrong Ceiling Solutions and the Regenerative Network. Other organizations that participated in the research process include the American Society of Interior Designers, the National Assoc. of Real Estate Investment Managers, and the World Green Building Council.

This article was prepared by the American Institute of Architects, which works to create more valuable, healthy, secure, and sustainable buildings, neighborhoods, and communities.

Architecture Sections

Blueprinting a Growth Pattern

Robert Stevens

Robert Stevens

Tessier Associates has been in business since Warren Harding was in the White House and Prohibition was the law of the land. No architecture firm can survive that long — and through all those twists and turns in the economy — without being resilient and resourceful, and the Tessier firm has been both. In recent years, for example, it has been diversifying its portfolio, complementing a dwindling amount of public-school work with projects in higher education and other sectors, and now has a steady supply of work in the pipeline.

The photos, sketches, and blueprints adorning the front entranceways and conference rooms at architecture firms usually tell a story — or, to be more precise, a big part of the story.

Indeed, collectively, these images become a highly visible, although not always organized, chronicling of a company’s history, examination of its portfolio, and window into its past, present, and, in some ways, its future.

This is definitely true at Tessier Associates, the nearly-century-old firm that has long been doing business out of a large storefront on the second floor at Tower Square in downtown Springfield. The photos in the front lobby and hallway leading to the production areas speak to the company’s proud history, which has included everything from dozens of school projects to a number of new churches and a host of commercial buildings, including bank branches, which became a prolific niche for a number of years (more on that later).

The main conference room offers more of the same, but specifically a look at more recent history — and a very necessary diversification of the portfolio to reflect changing times when it comes to designing new public schools, additions, and renovations.

“It’s much more difficult to get school projects today. There are fewer of them out there, and the selection process is now out of Boston — the rules have changed,” said Robert Stevens Jr., long-time principal with the company, noting that, while local school systems once did the hiring of an architect for a project, now those decisions are the purview of the Mass. School Building Authority.

Go HERE for a list of Architecture Firms in the region

This explains why the conference room still features photos and drawings of some of the firm’s school projects — including Lenox Middle/High School, which actually dates back to the late ’90s, and Hampshire Regional High School, newer work but still more than a decade old — but far more wall and easel space is now devoted to work with area colleges and businesses, which have become a far larger and more reliable pipeline of projects.

There are several images, for example, of a new dining commons being planned by Western New England University. Curved, and featuring large amounts of glass and a host of different and unique dining areas, the structure currently taking shape on the drawing board reflects a heightened interest in food and food service at institutions of higher learning, said Stevens.

“Food is a big deal now, and it’s important when it comes to recruiting students — you have to be on the cutting edge of this,” he explained. “These facilities now require a lot of social space, a lot of dining opportunities, a number of seating arrangements, and some quiet space; there’s a lot that goes into these now.”

The walls tell of other recent projects at Bay Path University and Springfield College, and also the Big E, which is exploring possible renovations to several of its historic buildings, including the coliseum (see related story, page 6). Stevens noted that such private-sector work is both necessary and, at the moment, at least, steady enough to keep the firm busy and in a contemplative mode when it comes to expansion and bringing on more staff.

dining commons at Western New England University

One of the Tessier firm’s renderings of the planned dining commons at Western New England University.

Still, like many in businesses across virtually every sector of the economy, Tessier has some doubts about the staying power of the current expansion, if one chooses to call it that, and noted that there are risks to bringing on more staff, especially in a sector as vulnerable to swings in the economy as this one.

He believes the economy is improving, but, like most others, would like to see more solid evidence that the upswing is real.

“We could be hiring others, and we probably should be,” he explained. “When you’re leery about whether the economy is really improving, you tend to hold back, even when you think you need to hire.”

For this issue and its focus on architecture, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at … well, the walls and easels at Tessier Associates and at what they reveal about where the company has been, and where it’s going.

Designs on Diversification

Tracing the history of the company, Stevens said it was started by Henry Tessier in 1923, who was still working part-time when Stevens joined the firm in the mid-’80s.

“Henry worked until he was in his mid-90s,” he recalled. “He obviously liked what he did — he was still coming into the office every day.”

Under the tutelage of Tessier and later his son, Bob, and fellow partners Doug Engebretson, who retired in 2012, and Stevens, the firm developed a number of niches within the broad realm of architecture, including everything from churches to those aforementioned bank branches.

The former remains a source of some work, said Stevens, noting that the portfolio includes several projects in this category, including the new Immaculate Conception Church in Holyoke, St. Patrick’s Church in Springfield, Nativity Church in Holyoke, and Holy Name Church in Springfield.

As for those bank braches, they were a solid source of work decades ago as area institutions sought to develop a presence in many of the emerging suburbs.

“There was a period of time just after I came here when we really did nothing but bank branches,” he said, noting that, in those days — and perhaps not so much now — architects could, and did, get creative with design of the teller lines and other elements of those structures to give them individuality.

But the firm’s main bread and butter starting in the mid-’80s was public-school projects, said Stevens. The portfolio includes initiatives across this region and beyond, with most of them in response to growing populations and/or a need to replace or modernize aging infrastructure. The list includes additions and renovations at Frontier Regional School in South Deerfield, Commerce High School in Springfield, and JFK Middle School in Northampton, as well as new construction at Quarry Hill Elementary School in Monson and Grafton Elementary School in Grafton, among many others.

But by 2004, the pipeline of school projects dwindled to a trickle as the state all but stopped funding schools and changed the formula for how such initiatives were funded. By the time conditions changed and money started flowing more freely, the selection process for architects had changed, adding another layer to the challenge of landing such projects. The last one the firm handled was Hoosic Valley Regional Middle and High School in Cheshire in 2012.

With school work dwindling and prospects for improvement in that realm dim, the firm has done what it has always done since Warren Harding was in the White House and Babe Ruth was leading the American League in home runs, said Stevens — create a diversified portfolio and adjust its focus to where the work happens to be at a given time.

Indeed, an architecture firm cannot survive 93 years and an untold number of economic twists and turns, including both the Great Depression and Great Recession, without being flexible, resourceful, and resilient, and the Tessier firm is deserving of all those adjectives.

Drawing on Experience

Recently, for example, the firm has garnered a number of projects in higher education, tapping into one of the pillars of the region’s economy.

“We’ve been relying mainly on private work in recent years,” said Stevens, “and we’ve been successful in getting some nice projects. We’ve done a lot of work at area colleges and universities.”

Perhaps the signature initiative in this realm is the $30 million Center for the Sciences and Pharmacy building on the Western New England University campus, undertaken in 2009. “That was a significant project for us, coming right after the recession,” Stevens explained.

But there have been many others, including several projects at Bay Path University, including, most recently, renovation to some of the science labs. There has also been work at Springfield College, Elms College, and other schools.

The Center for the Sciences and Pharmacy

The Center for the Sciences and Pharmacy building at Western New England University is one of Tessier’s signature projects.

Meanwhile, there have been other forms of commercial work, including an office addition and renovation project for UniFirst Corp., a Wilmington-based supplier of uniforms and provider of related services that has a facility in Springfield, as well as another site in New York that the Tessier firm is also working on.

Those projects and others have provided Stevens with a sense that the economy is improving, that business owners are becoming more confident about the immediate future, and that this scenario may continue for some time.

And this sentiment wasn’t present in the years immediately after the Great Recession, even when analysts were saying the economic picture was brightening and businesses in many sectors, including those in the broad realm of construction, should see some trickle-down.

“Things were questionable in the few first years after the recession ended — I would hear that the economy was improving, but we weren’t feeling it,” he explained. “But at this point, it seems like there’s more activity.

“We have backlog — you can see enough work out for a year or two,” he went on, “and that’s pretty unusual for recent years.”

This is what he tells builders who will call and ask him what he thinks and what he knows — calls that come often, because, historically, architecture has been an accurate barometer of the economy; when firms are busy, that’s a good sign, and when they’re not … well, no explanation needed.

“The climate is improving,” he said in conclusion. “I’m feeling much more optimistic than I was a few years ago.”

Lines of Business

Tucked in a corner of the Tessier firm’s conference room is an aerial photo of the Elms College campus, complete with the wellness center the company designed.

Stevens couldn’t pinpoint the date of that project, but did know that it was some time ago. That was an acknowledgement that what’s on the walls and easels of such firms don’t exactly (or always) reflect current events.

But those items tell a story, or, as noted earlier, the story.

In this case, it’s one of a history of creativity — both on the drawing board and in business itself — and resiliency.

In other words, Tessier has developed a blueprint for surviving and thriving in changing times.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Architecture Sections

Purposeful Design

Kevin Rothschild-Shea

Kevin Rothschild-Shea at a residential project site.

Kevin Rothschild-Shea launched his architecture firm seven years ago, just as the economy was starting to sour. But, though a combination of diversity, flexibility, and a commitment to service, he has seen his business not only survive, but grow. It helps that he’s got a number of what he calls “socially responsible” jobs under his belt, as he has a passion for working with clients who serve people in need.

Kevin Rothschild-Shea has designed buildings for a wide variety of residential and commercial clients, but he takes particular pride in projects with a social benefit.

Take the child-care center his firm, Architecture EL, designed in Chicopee for the Valley Opportunity Council. “They’re very excited to see a new building replacing a very small, old, out-of-date structure,” he said of the partially state-funded project. “For us, it’s a nice little job, but for them, it’s a big project that’s been a long time coming.

“It involved creating a space that’s bright and clean — not just a room, but a room that creates an opportunity for learning and positive experiences,” he went on. “For some of these kids, it’s the nicest place they’ll get to go all day.”

He also cited the E. Henry Twiggs Estates, a 75-unit affordable-housing project in the Mason Square neighborhood of Springfield. The client, Home City Housing, is a “great organization with the goal of maintaining affordable housing for people in the area. That’s a really significant project that we’ll be drawing through the wintertime, and we hope to start construction in late spring or early summer.”

Meanwhile, “we did some work with the Community Survival Center in Indian Orchard — space planning, space analysis,” Rothschild-Shea explained. “They’re an organization that continues to grow and provides a great service to people in need. I feel fortunate I’ve been able to work with them.”

Rothschild-Shea uses the word ‘fortunate’ often, occasionally applying it to the success of his own company, which he launched in 2008, into the teeth of an economic meltdown, followed by a lengthy recession. But he says he’s happy to be very busy today.

“The economy is typical of Western Massachusetts — there seem to be hot spots,” he said. “I’ve been busy while other people have been slow, and I’ve been slow while I’ve seen others swamped. It’s hard to get a read on it. So maybe I should just keep working.”

That said, “we’ve been pretty fortunate. We’ve had a good variety of work and great clients, and we were fortunate to survive the recession, and not only survive, but we managed to grow,” he went on, noting that the company has expanded from a two-person operation in 2013 to five employees today, and recently moved into new offices that effectively doubled its physical space. “That’s a good sign of our growth and the work we have on our plate.”

Bold Beginnings

Rothschild-Shea has told the story of how he loved helping out around the house as a child, which inspired him to pursue a creative, hands-on career. After graduating from Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, he took a job with a small architecture firm for 18 years before deciding to strike out on his own. “I just jumped in feet first and said, ‘let’s get to work.’”

A rendering of the new Valley Opportunity Council early-education center in Chicopee.

A rendering of the new Valley Opportunity Council early-education center in Chicopee.

Architecure EL — the acronym stands for Environment Life — was built on the idea of direct design. It’s more common than ever, in fact, to partner with owners and contractors in the design and construction of a building, whereas, a decade ago, those elements were bid separately. “The construction-management type of partnership atmosphere is much more common than we saw in the past.”

Setting up shop in East Longmeadow, he said, many customers assume the EL is an acronym for the town, “but the reality is, we want to be environmentally friendly, energy-efficient, and design the best space we can that’s comfortable to work and live in.”

Meanwhile, the industry — reflected in both customer demands and Massachusetts codes — is increasingly making green-friendly building the standard, not the rule, he said. “The codes require pretty high-performing buildings as a baseline. But from there, we always want to do better.

“When we were starting out, our simple approach was to do good design that was responsive to our environment, sensitive to the world we live in, whether that means making homes energy-efficient or salvaging materials and recycling building products.”

That’s the ‘E’ in a nutshell. The ‘L’ stands for life, and is a more amorphous idea, but just as important. “That’s the whole experience — making a space comfortable, whether it’s your house or office or truck-repair center. The core is making it rewarding to work or live in that space.”

Rothschild-Shea has weathered varying economic climates, he said, by focusing on personal service — working closely with clients from design conception through construction and occupancy — but also on flexibility and diversity, taking on most any type of proposal.

Download a PDF chart of area architecture firms HERE

“We are pretty diverse for a small practice — everything from small studies and accessibility projects and single-family additions and renovations right on up to significantly scaled commercial and residential work,” he said.

For example, this past year saw the completion of Marcotte Ford’s commercial truck center in Holyoke, a 17,000-square-foot, 160-bay facility unlike any in Western Mass., he noted. “It can handle pretty much any vehicle — a lot of municipal and police work, SWAT vehicles, ambulances, right on up to big transport vehicles like retirement homes have.”

As part of the Ford’s ‘landmark design’ program, Rothschild-Shea’s firm will also handle Marcotte’s next job, which is giving its main showroom a facelift, expanding some office space, and completely renovating the service center.

“We’re also continuing to do small office improvements for the Insurance Center of New England,” he noted. “We worked with their Agawam branch a year or so ago, and now we’re doing some improvements at an office in Gardner.”

A rendering of one of the affordable-housing units

A rendering of one of the affordable-housing units at the E. Henry Twiggs Estates, a Springfield project set to begin construction in 2016.

Architecture EL also designed Hatfield’s town offices, with an opportunity to bid on additional work coming up in the next year or two. The firm designs plenty of residential work as well, including a recent project on the Connecticut River for a retired couple, replacing a small cottage.

Whatever the job, Rothschild-Shea said, “the core of it is good service. Being small, we’re able to be responsive and efficient and more economical with our time than perhaps a larger company.”

Problem Solver

When asked what drives him the most, Rothschild-Shea paused for a moment before answering simply, “the problem solving.”

“For me, whether I’m designing a house or a service center, success lies in coming up with solutions — whether it’s creating an economical space, or one that’s energy-efficient, creative, comfortable, whatever. It’s taking the physical constraints and the site constraints and massaging that into a successful solution.

“That’s the core of what we do,” he went on. “All the imagery and design and final product are byproducts of solving a problem. That’s the core of good service — understanding the problem and solving it in a creative architectural fashion.”

It’s easier to focus that passion on each job now that the economy has improved, the construction industry is warming up, and architects are focused on more than survival.

“We’re seeing some great municipal work happening recently — maybe not as many schools as before, but there’s a fair amount of public work out there,” he said. “The economy seems to be strong and moving, and we’re looking forward to more of that socially responsible work we’ve been fortunate enough to do. We’re certainly looking forward to expanding on that, whether it’s affordable housing or things like the Survival Center.”

Meanwhile, phase two of the Twiggs project is coming online as well — just one more opportunity for Rothschild-Shea to do well for clients that are doing good.

“I’m fortunate I get to jump on board with these organizations that existed long before I did, and help support their missions,” he told BusinessWest. “There are still a lot of gaps in the economy, and so many people continue to struggle, and it’s nice to help fill in those gaps.”

After all, “people have to live and work in what we draw,” he went on. “So it’s a responsibility on a lot of levels; it’s not just a contract, per se. It is a nice feeling, like we’re making a difference.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Architecture Sections

Lighting the Way

spray-chalk displays

The spray-chalk displays drawing people to the Holiday Market are one way to make an impact downtown with little cost.

Frank Sleegers wants his classroom to extend far beyond the UMass campus.

“For these students, it’s not just the work they do to get grades, but they actually care about what they do; they see their work is important and can make an impact,” said the urban design professor at UMass Amherst.

He was speaking of a recent project by a group of landscape architecture students, who worked with the Springfield Central Cultural District to improve the downtown pedestrian walkway known as Market Place and attract more activity there.

Morgan Drewniany, director of the Cultural District — an organization launched in 2014 to cultivate arts and activities and generate interest downtown — said the student “interventions,” as she and Sleegers called the work, involved bringing light to Market Place with paper lanterns and using spray-chalk designs on downtown sidewalks to get people thinking, and talking, about Market Place as a destination.

The short-term project was intended to coincide with the opening of the Downtown Springfield Holiday Market, a joint project of the Springfield Business Improvement District (SBID) and the Cultural District intended to boost retail sales downtown during the holiday season by bringing artists and vendors to spaces located between 1331 and 1391 Main St. and throughout Tower Square.

“One group of students incorporated spray chalk, directing people to the Holiday Market and Market Place itself as well, and really getting people talking about walking and walkability downtown,” Drewniany told BusinessWest. “The other group utilized a series of paper lanterns to bring light to the space, to create more of a welcoming environment, somewhere people really want to linger and spend more time checking out the shops.”

A third group project is working on a longer-term project downtown to be unveiled this spring, she added, giving no details but calling it “an innovative, moveable park.”

Market Place, also known as Market Street, is a pedestrian-only walkway running parallel to Main Street from Falcons Way to Harrison Avenue. A bustling space in the days of Johnson’s Bookstore, today, the walkway typically gets little use except as a cut-through between the downtown towers and the MassMutual Center.

Drewniany said Sleeger’s students had been working on city-improvement ideas for several years through the Office of Planning and Economic Development, a partnership supported with a small Community Development Block Grant. Since its formation, the Cultural District now oversees the projects, which typically take place twice a year, during the fall and spring semesters.

“This year the city planner was able to loop me into the students, to really make their plans a reality,” she said. “Whereas a lot of the students’ ideas in the past had been incorporated into future city plans, we were able to do an independent project where students were able to see their ideas realized. The city has the capacity to make things happen in a few years; we, as a cultural district, are able to focus on it and make it happen in a couple of months.”

Real-world Experience

Sleeger said the Springfield projects usually involve undergraduate students in the fall and graduate students in the spring.

“We’ve worked in a number of neighborhoods that needed some help, that were disadvantaged, where sidewalks were crumbled, things like that,” he told BusinessWest. “Last year, we did an intervention downtown with high-school students from Putnam [Vocational Technical Academy]. Because the city liked our approach, we were able to do some short-term interventions.”

Indeed, last spring, students from the UMass Graduate Urban Design Studio — after consulting with Springfield residents, city Planning and Economic Development officials, the Cultural District, Focus Springfield, small entrepreneurs, and Putnam students — staged six installations throughout downtown Springfield using what Sleegers calls ‘tactical urbanism,’ an emerging form of urban design that seeks to enliven cities with temporary interventions that are inexpensive and easy to install.

The ongoing partnership between the UMass program and the city is “a great idea that also educates the students who come to Springfield,” Sleegers said. “They see what’s here — a city with great potential. We can do something with very little money that has a high impact. That’s typical of other cities as well; parts of the country are struggling, and cities don’t have big bucks, but we can make them better.”

For discussions of longer-term improvements, students have worked with entities ranging from planning officials to the SBID to DevelopSpringfield. In one project, they developed ideas to enhance safety at the X neighborhood in Springfield, aiming to improve pedestrian crossing and making aesthetic enhancements.

“We’re proud of these contributions, and we have a great working relationship with the city,” Sleegers said, noting that the Springfield Design Center — which opened in Court Square in 2009 as a collaboration among UMass programs in Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning, Architecture and Design, and Agriculture — is now housed in the UMass Center at Springfield, located in Tower Square.

“We continue to work on other ways to make our work more visible,” he said. “These interventions have positive effects, and we get a great response.”

Art and Commerce

Sleegers said too many people have yet to discover the potential of downtown Springfield, and that his students are only helping to showcase it. “Our conversations with the shop owners of the Holiday Market were most inspiring. Their presence transformed the place immediately. I want to get our students involved and embraced. These experiences make them grow and succeed.”

Drewniany said she would like to see the connection between the Cultural District and UMass continue to grow.

“For Springfield to continue its growth and success, we really need to capitalize on all the relationships we have, and work with students who have some real ideas to help bring us to the next level of being a really innovative city,” she said, calling her organization “economic development through arts and culture,” which includes landscape design.

“Young people — and employers who have employees who are young — are really looking at the amenities a city has, not just how cheap rent is. They want to see we have galleries, that we have cool events happening, public art you can walk around. We really see that as something necessary for the future of the city.”

In a sense, those luminarias and chalk designs are just another way to light the path to that goal.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Architecture Sections

Common Ground

Future residents of Village Hill Cohousing

Future residents of Village Hill Cohousing with the agreed-upon preliminary site design.

Cohousing isn’t for everyone — for example, people who just want to be left alone should probably take a pass. But for individuals and families who crave a balance between privacy and community, it can be a highly attractive proposition. Kraus & Fitch Architects and Transformations Inc. have been hard at work designing Village Hill Cohousing in Northampton, but they haven’t worked alone; future residents have plenty of input in what promises to be an intriguing, collaborative, ultra-energy-efficient development.

Peggy Gillespie loves her home in Belchertown. But the 67-year-old widow plans to move to Village Hill Cohousing once the development is built on the grounds of the former Northampton State Hospital, and has been attending meetings for the past year with other prospective residents.

“I love living and working together with people, and the idea of being surrounded by a community while having autonomy in my own private space is very appealing to me,” she said. “Cohousing is like living in a village, and I hope to be able to help young families who move there. And since residents are committed to helping each other, it’s a guarantee that you will have a lot of people to support you if you are dealing with an illness or physical disability.”

Deborah Schifter shares similar feelings, but finds the community particularly attractive for environmental reasons. When she was in her 20s, she lived on a kibbutz in Israel and enjoyed the camaraderie in the close-knit community, as well as the fact that people with diverse talents shared responsibility for its upkeep.

But one of the most prominent selling points of Village Hill for Schifter is that every structure in the neighborhood will be a zero-net-energy building.

“We’re heading into a time that will be very different due to climate change, and sustainability and living in a community with people who are knowledgeable about energy resources are among the things that appeal to me,” she said.

The women belong to a group of 15 future residents who have put down a $5,000 deposit to pay for architectural fees for the new development. They come from diverse locations — local towns and cities, the Boston area, Cape Cod, New York, New Jersey, Florida, even Saudi Arabia — and attend frequent meetings held to ensure their wishes are taken into consideration during the design phase of the project.

The initial plan for the anticipated community came about as a result of a collaboration between Amherst-based Kraus Fitch Architects Inc. and Transformations Inc., which was awarded a contract by MassDevelopment to create Village Hill Cohousing on the last remaining large parcel of land slated for residential use on Village Hill.

Transformations President Carter Scott said his firm submitted a plan in response to a request for proposals for the 41-acre site, which contained a letter of intent from Kraus Fitch Architects and a drawing of the proposed cohousing neighborhood created by architect Laura Fitch.

Mary Kraus cooks dinner for residents

Mary Kraus cooks dinner for residents in her cohousing community, where members share a meal several times a week.

However, in addition to the cohousing neighborhood, the plan includes construction of 53 units of conventional housing in a different section of the tract that will be designed by a different architect.

Both neighborhoods will be within walking distance to downtown, but the cohousing development will be unique. It will contain a spacious parking lot, 10 duplexes, and 12 single-family homes ranging in size from about 700 to 1,600 square feet, with space for a community garden.

However, the most important structure will be a 4,600-square-foot common house, where members will likely share meals several nights a week. Its interior will boast a gathering room with a kitchen and dining area large enough to accommodate all of the residents, as well as a children’s playroom, an exercise room outfitted with equipment, a game room, a guest suite with two bedrooms, and storage space.

“Two things define cohousing and make it different than a condominium association,” Scott said. “One is having a large common house that is used frequently by all of the residents, and the other is the fact that members are involved in the development process.”

Principal architect Mary Kraus says her firm is one of a handful in the country that specializes in cohousing and sustainable design, and has been involved in at least 30 of these developments. In the past, groups with established goals came to them when they were ready to establish a new community, but Village Hill is unique because, when the idea was conceived, they had no idea how much interest it would generate.

So she set about marketing the proposed neighborhood long before MassDevelopment awarded the contract to Transformations. “We held three informational meetings, which were highly successful. They attracted about 130 people,” she said.

Scott added that enthusiasm soared when he mentioned he planned to build zero-net-energy homes in the community. “People at the meetings broke out in spontaneous applause, which was really exciting. And one of the Planning Board members got tears in his eyes when he looked at the plan,” he recalled, adding that an e-mail list of interested people was created during the meetings.

Involved Process

After a group of individuals and couples expressed a decided interest in the community, Kraus began the process of getting them together to solicit information about their values and goals.

“These things are important, but the meetings involved more than what was addressed; our goal is to help the group build a social community while they are designing their physical community,” she told BusinessWest, adding that gatherings can be stressful due to differing viewpoints.

Peggy Gillespie, left, and Deborah Schifter

Peggy Gillespie, left, and Deborah Schifter are among a group of individuals actively involved in the planning of Village Hill Cohousing.

But Kraus and Fitch Architects has developed a methodology to help large groups make decisions efficiently, in a way that supports connection and collaboration. “When we work on cohousing projects, we facilitate a series of participatory workshops in which future neighbors work together to come to consensus on key decisions for their community,” Kraus explained. “In the case of Village Hill Cohousing, the workshop topics included values, a vision statement, sustainable design, site design, common facilities, and the size and location of individual homes.”

Kraus sent out an online survey prior to each session, which included questions and recommendations pertinent to the topic. The responses were analyzed, and once areas of agreement and divergent opinion were identified, the agenda was tailored to focus on areas that needed to be resolved through discussion.

“The surveys helped us make the most efficient use of the group’s time,” she told BusinessWest. “During the workshops, we model respectful communication and active listening to create a safe environment so members can speak frankly, yet remain open to other ideas, even though it might be challenging. We staged three two-day workshops and three day-long sessions which helped us understand where the group was in consensus and where we had to have difficult conversations.”

And there were definitely differences of opinion.

“Some people wanted an exercise room in the common house, while others wanted a meditation room,” Schifter said, explaining that they compromised when they realized an exercise room was needed to house equipment, but a multi-purpose space could be designed to feel contemplative. Other issues included the number of pets a person could have and what the owner’s responsibility would be in monitoring their behavior.

During one workshop, group members were given small building blocks so they could simulate the layout of their community, which changed as they moved tiny structures around the table.

“But by working together, they built relationships and dealt with their fears as well as interpersonal challenges,” Kraus said.

The workshops began last August, and a basic design was completed by the end of last winter. Members continued meeting on their own after that, and today, a membership committee, design group, communication committee, and facilitation committee have been formed.

Several meetings were held in Schifter’s Northampton home, and she said some future residents plan to move to the area before the development is finished to avoid frequent, long commutes. “We started meeting every two to three weeks during the spring and continued through July. We had a potluck lunch at noon, followed by a business meeting from 1 to 5 p.m., but it often went over the timeframe,” Schifter said, noting that they have begun meeting again at Gillespie’s home. “People have already made friends, and some are starting to get together socially.”

Kraus said the facilitation process that fostered goodwill and built consensus for their cohousing clients can be used in a wide range of business situations, such as creating a design for a large stakeholder group or helping a company improve their decision-making process while fostering positive working relationships among their staff members.

Moving Forward

Ground is expected to be broken next spring for the zero-net-energy community, and Scott is excited about it.

He is on the governor’s Zero Net Energy Building Advisory Council, and cited a long list of prestigious awards that Transformations Inc. has received for its work in this arena, including the Northeast Sustainable Energy Assoc. Public Impact Award for building more zero-net-energy homes than any other member.

“In 2012, we built two homes that produced enough energy to drive an electric car 30,000 miles per year,” he noted. “But we will be able to go much further on the sustainability curve with this cohousing project because we are not building on spec, but for a group of ecologically minded people.

“Village Hill Cohousing will be one of the most sustainable communities in the country, based on the climate-change perspective,” he went on. “Every home will have solar electric panels and dual-stage air-source heat pumps, which are incredibly efficient, and houses with basements will have air-source heat-pump water heaters.”

This new neighborhood on Village Hill promises to be an attractive addition to the former state-school property, which has been transformed into an oasis with a wide variety of housing options.

The combination of many positive factors, including a close-knit community, have caused Scott and his family to consider moving there. “We haven’t made a decision yet, but it’s a nice way to live,” he said.

Gillespie agreed. “I think people are longing for this type of environment. They miss knowing their neighbors and being able to interact with them on a frequent basis. Village Hill Cohousing will have a nice environment and be a great place for people,” she said.

Kraus and her husband have lived in Pioneer Valley Cohousing in Amherst for 21 years and love being part of a close community.

“It has exceeded our expectations,” she said. “Before we moved here, we didn’t realize just how vital small interactions are to us as a species. Cohousing recreates the type of neighborhood people lived in years ago.”

Architecture Sections

Peace of Mind

Magazine Commons represents an important measure of independence

Joan Ingersoll says Magazine Commons represents an important measure of independence for its residents, who are clients of the Mental Health Assoc.

When an apartment complex owned by the Springfield-based Mental Health Assoc. was destroyed in the 2011 tornado that touched down in the city’s South End — displacing 14 MHA clients who lived there — the architects at Studio One certainly empathized, because their offices were wrecked as well.

“We really could relate,” said Christopher Novelli, one of those architects. “These people lost their homes. It’s an emotional experience. We lost our office, and Greg Zorzi, our principal, had an apartment above our office, so he lost his home as well.”

So Zorzi and his team took plenty of satisfaction in designing Magazine Commons, the new, 16-unit apartment building on Magazine Street that replaces the former residential complex on Union Street. The new structure, set to open in November, was built next to the MHA’s headquarters on Worthington Street, in the city’s McKnight district, on a formerly blighted parcel.

“We had a building on Union Street that we’d operated for 30 years, but it was completely destroyed,” said Joan Ingersoll, president and CEO of the MHA, which provides residential and support services that promote independence, community engagement, and wellness for people impacted by mental illness, developmental disabilities, substance abuse, homelessness, and other challenges. “The people scattered; some relocated in other towns, and others stayed in Springfield.”

Several will be returning this fall to Magazine Commons, which is a success story on multiple levels, said Novelli, referring to its importance to the MHA and also its development on a brownfield site the city had been anxious to clean up for some time.

“There were contaminated soils, and it was unusable for building,” Novelli said. “The city owned it for years and issued several RFPs, but there were no takers on the property. Finally, the MHA came in.”

For this issue’s focus on architecture, BusinessWest talked with Novelli and Ingersoll about how the $4.6 million project came together, and how the new building will improve the lives of its tenants.

Home Again

In the aftermath of the tornado, residents of the destroyed complex dispersed to temporary housing, Ingersoll said, but, four years later, the MHA had no problem filling the 17,000-square-foot Magazine Commons with former Union Street residents as well as new clients.

“Some people are moving in from a group home, so this is their first opportunity to live independently,” she noted. “Some already live independently, so this is a different opportunity for them; they’re excited to move in. A couple of people had been in and out of different places and had periods of homelessness, and this is brand-new, stable housing.”

Chris Novelli (right, with Greg Zorzi)

Chris Novelli (right, with Greg Zorzi) says Magazine Commons achieves two goals: to restore housing to those who lost it in the tornado, and to help revitalize a neighborhood by replacing a brownfield site with a building that complements the architecture of its environs.

Darnella Johnson, one of the individuals preparing to move in, told BusinessWest she expects it to be comfortable and safe, and appreciated its proximity to a bus line — an amenity Ingersoll said is important to clients seeking to hold down employment.

Vincent Littlejohn is one of those. “I’m looking to get a job, and living close to a bus line will help me get to a job and my [support-group] meetings,” he said, noting that he, like Johnson, is currently living in a group home and is looking forward to a new measure of independence once interior construction is complete.

The facility, built by N.L. Construction in Ludlow, includes four apartments on the first floor and six apartments each on the second and third floors. The design also includes common space as well as office space for MHA staff.

“It has a community room for skill-building opportunities like cooking lessons, classes, and gatherings for social opportunities,” Ingersoll explained. “The staff offices are on the first floor — but this is not a staffed residence; the staff are outreach staff. All the residents have a certain number of hours the staff spends with them on things they need assistance with — managing medications, going to doctor appointments, teaching them how to take public transportation, how to manage money. Some of the staff will have the building as their home base, but they don’t sleep there.”

Novelli said the interior design reflects the needs of people who live independently but still face challenges.

“The people that will live there are all capable of self-preservation, all capable of living on their own. It’s not an assisted-living facility,” he explained. “There is some extra reinforcement in the bathrooms and some higher-durability finishes — rather than using carpet, it’s all tile in the living room, so it cleans up easily.”

Another challenge was fitting the building’s exterior into the historical context of the McKnight neighborhood — typically a priority for Studio One, which has plenty of experience designing housing complexes.

“We did a study of existing housing sites, and didn’t want to replicate them,” said Novelli. “But we wanted to make sure it fit in, as far as the exterior detailing, the massing of the building, and the proportions. We had several neighborhood meetings with people in the McKnight district.

“Some of the items in the original design were cut due to budget, but we were able to keep most of the proportions they wanted,” he went on. “All 16 are one-bed units, 550 square feet with large kitchens that open to living rooms.”

Studio One’s design also complied with — and in many cases exceeded — the city’s stretch codes, which mandate strict standards for energy efficiency, he added.

“We’re going beyond that with highly efficient mechanical systems, the building envelope, and thermal details,” he said, noting that such codes are becoming industry standard in many types of buildings, just as homeowners and developers are increasingly understanding the eventual cost savings. “The main concern has always been the bottom line rather than the long term. But people are starting to realize that, if you invest money at the start, you end up saving more money.”

Community Asset

Ingersoll was quick to note that Magazine Commons represents not just a housing complex, but a $4.6 million investment in the neighborhood, including sidewalks, lighting, neighborhood stabilization, and brownfield development. And it’s not an investment in just 16 current residents, but for dozens, even hundreds more over the coming decades, all of whom are trying to get to a more secure place in life, she added.

The MHA’s development team presented the plans to the McKnight Neighborhood Council in April of 2013, at which time the council voted to support it. The project has received financial support from the city of Springfield, the state Department of Housing and Community Development, the Mass. Community Development Assistance Corp., the state Department of Mental Health, MassDevelopment, the Affordable Housing Program of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston, and People’s United Bank.

With about $2 million in insurance money in hand from the tornado, the multiple funding partnerships meant the MHA had to finance only about $750,000 of the overall cost. Designated a HUD 202 project for people with disabilities, the apartments are subsidized, with residents paying no more than 30% of their income and HUD picking up part of the rental cost, Ingersoll noted.

“HUD told us we could rebuild in Springfield when we got the subsidies transferred over to the new project,” she explained. “We’ve been working with the city since then to identify and agree on the land, which was, fortunately, right next door to our main offices. The land was a pretty big parcel, but it was blighted and needed cleanup. We bought it for a dollar from the city, and we were able to revitalize the whole block.”

Novelli said the design included a specialized foundation system called a geo-pier, which densifies soil underneath a structure, so it can be built on what otherwise would be considered unsuitable soil.

Despite the challenges — or perhaps because of them — he and Zorzi are gratified to help the MHA rebuild a key component of its services. Founded in 1960, the agency operates 21 sites throughout Greater Springfield and serves more than 400 people annually through its residential and outreach programs.

Magazine Commons will be staffed weekdays from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., making the location next to MHA headquarters ideal for both residents and staff, Ingersoll added.

“It’s pretty unbelievable for the people moving in there,” she told BusinessWest. “I’ve had the opportunity to go in with some clients for the first time. When they see it, they become so excited. They think the units are beautiful. It’s a great opportunity for them.”

After all, she added, good housing is often a critical step in helping people procure good jobs and a brighter future. “It’s often the foundation for everything else in life.”


Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Architecture Sections
Dietz & Co. Marks a Milestone with Some Imaginative Initiatives

Dietz & Co. Architects owner Kerry Dietz

Dietz & Co. Architects owner Kerry Dietz in the lobby at the UMass Center at Springfield, which the firm designed.

Kerry Dietz says talk about what to do for the 30th anniversary of the architectural firm that bears her name started last fall, four or five months before the actual anniversary date.

There were discussions about some sort of party, she told BusinessWest, meaning one of those affairs with a deep invitation list including a wide range of clients, elected officials, and area business and economic-development leaders.

But those talks never got very far.

“You can have a party and get a caterer, and everyone can sit around and drink some chardonnay and eat some cheese; that would be cool,” she told BusinessWest. “And I love seeing all those people we’ve worked with over the past 30 years — it’s actually a lot of fun. But this just seems like a different place and time, and those kinds of parties…”

She never actually finished that sentence, but she didn’t have to. She’d already conveyed the message that the employees of Dietz & Co. Architects Inc. had decided to do something much more meaningful — and lasting — to mark a milestone that eludes many in this business, where one’s fortunes are tied inexorably to the peaks and valleys of the economy, and especially the latter.

Actually, they decided to do several things — starting with some much-needed work on the home of an 85-year-old resident on King Street in Springfield’s Old Hill neighborhood. As part of Revitalize Community Development Corp.’s annual Green-N-Fit Neighborhood Rebuild late last month, Dietz employees did some painting, cleaned out the yard, and repaired the decking on his porch, among other projects.

In June, employees will host a cookout for residents of the Soldiers Home in Holyoke and make a $5,000 donation for medical equipment. And later this year, they’ll fund $25,000 worth of needs identified by Springfield public-school teachers through the education-crowdfunding website donorschoose.org. That’s the same initiative to which comedian Stephen Colbert, in partnership with Share Fair Nation and Scansource, recently pledged $800,000 to fund every request made by South Carolina public-school teachers.

“We want to honor initiative … we’re about ideas; that’s what we do here,” said Dietz as she encouraged teachers to log on and submit a project. “We try and be a step ahead, and so we want teachers to be thinking about what kids need to know and what they need to do in order to learn.”

Finding the time to do all this will be a way of saying ‘thank you’ to the community, said Dietz, but it will also be an extreme challenge.

That’s because her team is quite busy right now as the company continues to recover and build its portfolio in the wake of the latest of many economic downturns Dietz has weathered over the past three decades.

“The recession hit us very hard, and it took a couple of years to pull out of that,” she told BusinessWest. “We had our best year ever last year, as in ever, ever, ever — off the charts ever — and I think this year looks to be similar based on our projections.”

Indeed, the list of ongoing and recently completed projects includes everything from the UMass Center in Springfield, which opened last fall, to the new, 21,500-square-foot senior center now under construction in Westfield and slated to open in September; from upgrades to several buildings on the campus of Worcester State University to the zero-net-energy affordable senior housing project in Williamstown known as Highland Woods; from a comprehensive building assessment of the historic Chicopee City Hall and its annex and planned restoration of its second floor to renovation of the Juniper Elementary School on the Westfield State University campus into the new home of the school’s Fine & Performing Arts Program.

As she discussed these and other projects, Dietz said the company has built a solid reputation over the past 30 years for work in a number of realms, in both the public and private sectors, and for meeting client needs — for ‘green’ design elements, more efficient workspaces, and everything in between.

Given its age and the depth of its portfolio, Dietz summoned the term ‘venerable’ to describe what the firm, now the largest in the region, has become, and it’s an adjective she and her staff wear proudly.

“We’re really busy, and I think part of the reason for that is we’ve been around for a long time, and all that experience comes into play,” she said. “People value that.”

For this issue and its focus on architecture, BusinessWest looks at how Dietz & Co. has drafted a blueprint for business success, as well as a working schematic for how to give back to the community.

Learning Curves

As she talked about her 30 years as a business owner and nearly four decades as an architect, Dietz said those in this field earn a good deal of their money — and hang most of those pictures of their work that dominate their lobbies and conference rooms — when times are good.

But it is the ability to slog through those times when things are far from good that often defines one’s career — and determines its ultimate path.

An architect’s rendering of Parson’s Village

An architect’s rendering of Parson’s Village, a zero-net-energy affordable-housing complex in Easthampton, and one of many projects in the Dietz portfolio.

To get her point across, she ventured back to the weeks and months just after 9/11. This was neither the longest nor deepest of the downturns she’s weathered — the one in the early and mid-’90s wins that first honor, and the Great Recession earns the latter — but it was perhaps the most frightening and career-threatening.

“I have never seen things dry up as quickly as they dried up,” she recalled. “Things just disappeared. People got scared; I’ve never seen fear like that.

“I remember meeting with my banker at one point,” she went on, “and basically saying, ‘here are the keys [to the business] — do you want them?’ Fortunately, he didn’t take me up on my bluff.”

Indeed, the company managed to weather that terrible storm and add several more pictures to the conference-room walls. The key to doing so was that aforementioned diversity as well as the diligence and sheer talent of the staff, she said, noting that the firm now boasts 20 employees and 10 architects.

That kind of success might have been difficult for Dietz to envision when she first decided to go into business for herself.

She started down that path after earning a master’s degree in architecture at the University of Michigan. Soon after graduating in 1977, she joined Architects Inc. in Northampton (see related story, page 31) and later became part of the team at Studio One in Springfield.

In addition to her architectural talents, though, she possessed an entrepreneurial spirit, and decided in late 1984 that it was time to put her own name on the letterhead and over the door.

“It seemed like the next logical thing to do,” she said with a touch of understatement in her voice. “It sounds like a rational decision, but it wasn’t, necessarily, nor was it a well-thought-out decision. I didn’t go read a book to see how you start a business, let alone an architecture business. I learned by doing.”

Fortunately, this was a time when things were good. The real-estate boom of the ’80s had just begun, and there was considerable work to be had.

“We rode the historic-tax-credit boom that ended when Reagan’s tax plans made it less lucrative,” she explained, adding that the firm enjoyed solid growth through the end of the decade, when the real-estate boom went bust and the well of projects dried up, offering a challenging, but nonetheless valuable, learning experience.

“I had no concept that things like that could happen,” she said of what turned out to be a lengthy downturn. “What did I know? We got through it somehow.”

There have been several ups and downs since as the company has amassed a huge portfolio of projects in sectors ranging from public housing to education to healthcare, said Dietz, adding that one thing she’s been able to learn by doing is how to read the economic tea leaves, try to anticipate the next downturn, and prepare for it to the extent possible.

“This is a very volatile business, and one of the things you have to have are some planning tools and some prediction tools in place, which I’ve developed over the years that allow me to look out a year and say, ‘oh, look, there’s no work in six months, what am I going to do?’” she explained. “So, every month, I’m doing an analysis of the future on both an accrual and a cash basis.”

Westfield’s new senior center

Westfield’s new senior center is one of two such facilities currently in the Dietz portfolio.

Looking ahead, she sees reason to be concerned about global instabilities and other factors such as national fiscal policies, but she believes the current period of modest growth and solid consumer and business confidence will continue for the foreseeable future.

Growth — by Design

This forecast is reflected, to a large degree, in the number of proposals for new projects being drafted by Ashley Soloman, the firm’s marketing coordinator, who puts the number at several a week on average.

It is also reflected in the current and recent projects list, which reveals not only the firm’s diversity and work across both the private and public sectors (especially the latter), but also current trends in building design and construction.

Indeed, several projects on that list involve new construction or renovation aimed at making the structures in question energy-efficient — or much more so.

One such project involves renovation of 209 units of elderly housing in the Boston suburb of Brighton that Dietz called “an energy monstrosity.”

“We’re looking at ways we can tighten this building up — strategies we can devise for decreasing energy use,” she explained. “Its claim to fame, if you can call it that, is that it’s one of the largest consumers of energy in MassHousing’s portfolio, on a cost-per-unit basis, and we’re hoping to reduce their status.”

Meanwhile, already under construction is a 40-unit, net-zero-energy affordable-housing project in Easthampton called Parsons Village, she went on, and the foundations were just poured for that aforementioned net-zero-energy elderly-housing project in Williamstown.

“Both of these are really exciting projects,” she told BusinessWest, because we sort of pushed the envelope, if you will, on envelope design, insulation levels, and looking at really sealing the buildings using good building-science technology.” Meanwhile, Chicopee City Hall is another intriguing project, said Dietz, adding that there will be a historic-renovation study to examine not only the exterior of the building, built in 1871, but also the feasibility of converting the long-unused meeting space on the top floor into a new chamber for the Board of Aldermen.

That study will also involve the historic stained-glass window in that room, which has been damaged amid deterioration of the ceiling.

Other work in the portfolio includes a series of projects at Worcester State University, said Dietz, adding that many of the buildings on the campus are now 30 or 40 years old and in need of maintenance and renovations aimed at greater energy-efficiency.

And while the company is being imaginative and cutting-edge in the field, it is doing the same, she believes, with its work within the community.

The company has had a long track record for giving back, said Dietz, and years ago, it decided to establish a donor-advised fund with the Community Foundation to help ensure that it could continue to be active, even during those downturns.

“We already had a fairly robust program for charitable giving,” she noted, “but this allows us to be even more … interesting and have a little more money to play with.”

An architect’s rendering of Highland Woods

An architect’s rendering of Highland Woods, a zero-net-energy senior-housing project in Williamstown, and one of many ‘green’ projects the Dietz firm has designed.

The company was to mark its 30th year — and celebrate its best year ever — by pumping $30,000 back into the community, she went on, adding that this number has since risen to $35,000. And the entire staff has provided input into how best to apportion those funds.

The projects eventually chosen reflect the company’s values, and in each case they also involve another of its strengths — teamwork, said Tina Gloster, the firm’s operations manager, noting that 25 employees and family members were involved on King Street, a large crew will be needed for the picnic at the Soldiers Home, and many individuals will be involved in deciding which school projects to support if requests exceed the available funds.

And they anticipate that there will be many to choose from.

The site donorschoose.org enables teachers in a given community to post a specific request, said Gloster, meaning materials or an activity that they cannot afford. Individuals and groups can go on the site and choose initiatives they want to support.

“Between August 1 and September 25, we’re making a big push to get Springfield public-school teachers to log onto this site and put their projects there,” she added. “And then we’re going to pick projects to fund in their entirety.”

There will likely be more projects than can be funded with $25,000, she went on, adding the company is encouraging other businesses and the community at large to get involved with the initiative, either in Springfield or other area communities.

“Rather than send us a plant and say, ‘happy 30th,’ we want people to fund a project,” said Dietz. “That’s a much more interesting way to help us celebrate.”

Drawing Inspiration

The actual 30th anniversary for Dietz & Co. came in February. As mentioned earlier, there was no party for clients, politicians, and friends.

More to the point, there wasn’t even anything small in-house for employees.

“We just couldn’t get our act together,” said Dietz with a laugh, adding that, roughly translated, this means everyone was simply too busy.

As in too busy with all those projects in the portfolio, and too busy with those initiatives within the community and the planning involved in making them happen. These are the things the company has managed to make time for, said Dietz, adding that the sum of these various parts constitutes a great way to mark a milestone and celebrate being “venerable.”

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Architecture Sections
HAI Architecture Expands Well Beyond Healthcare Niche

Rick Katsanos and Don Hafner

Rick Katsanos and Don Hafner have parlayed strong relationships with regional institutions and municipalities into a diverse roster of projects.

When Rick Katsanos and Don Hafner met as freshmen at Penn State in the early ’80s, they couldn’t have foreseen someday co-owning an architecture firm two states away.
As it turned out, however, they were among a knot of architecture students who gravitated north after graduation to find work. Katsanos, a Wilbraham native, was hired in 1986 by Ed Jendry, who had launched Architects Inc. in Northampton in 1976. Two years later, Hafner, who had been working in Vermont, joined him at the firm.
Five years later, they launched a successful partnership at the helm of that company, now known as HAI Architecture.
“In 1993, Ed wanted to slow down, so Don and I bought the business from him. He still works for us, half days — which means he works 12 hours a day instead of 24,” Katsanos said with a laugh. “But the transition was fantastic.”
A few years before that, Jendry had spun off a sister company, Healthcare Architects Inc., to pursue work in the regional healthcare market — a decision that proved lucrative; the company has designed dozens of modern, high-tech spaces for hospitals, health systems, and physician practices across Southern New England.
“Ed basically found that was a good market,” Katsanos said. “Doing work for healthcare institutions provided a very solid workload. People knew we were capable in that area — they didn’t have to look far for somebody with that expertise.”
Hafner said he and Katsanos have enjoyed the challenges of that niche. “We’ve always been involved in those projects, which tend to be equipment-intensive. Rick and I are fairly engineering-minded, and we value the idea of being able to coordinate those disciplines.
“Some of the projects have been really fascinating,” he continued. “When we worked on our first linear accelerator, the gravel had to come from a single quarry in Canada. We found out a lot of unique stuff about medical technology. That was a really cool aspect of our jobs.”
Several years ago, however, the partners felt that the effort of maintaining two corporations outweighted the benefits, so they merged them into one company, called HAI Architecture. Architects Inc. disbanded, Katsanos explained, and Healthcare Architects — which survives for now, due to some outstanding federal contracts — will eventually go away as well.
The problem, he explained, was that the firm had become too well-known in the healthcare world. “People were asking, do you do other stuff? What had been an opportunity was now a problem.”
For this issue’s focus on architecture, Katsanos and Hafner sat down with BusinessWest to talk about their firm’s wide array of work, and how the architecture field continues to evolve in ways that present both new challenges and greater opportunities.

Regional Focus
The name change reflected the company’s broad palette of work, from civic and commercial projects to residential design and historic preservation. Because the company is so well-entrenched in the healthcare realm, Katsanos said, it continues to thrive there based on its reputation.
“We are always doing medical offices, up and down the Valley,” he told BusinessWest, adding that it’s heartening when large health systems tap local talent for their projects instead of larger, Boston-based firms. “We appreciate when Western Mass. businesses use Western Mass. companies. Our people live here and spend money here, and that helps keep the economy local and vibrant.”
But HAI has delved more heavily into the commercial market, he added, citing the new Florence Saving Bank branch in Hadley and the Palmer headquarters of Northern Construction as significant recent projects.
“We did restoration for First Churches of Northampton here,” Hafner added, with other area jobs ranging from the Dakin Humane Society animal shelter in Leverett to renovations to Forbes Library in Northampton; from the new Deerfield fire station to an adaptive reuse project in Florence that turned an 1860s sewing-machine factory into a medical office complex.
HAI has also been increasing its workload at area colleges, particularly Springfield Technical Community College. “Higher education has become a new sector for us,” Katsanos said, “which is natural, since we live in the Five College area.”
‘Green’ building has long been a buzzword in architecture and construction, but Katsanos said sustainable design — with an emphasis on ecological impact and energy efficiency — has become so ingrained in the region that it will eventually be taken for granted.
“The Massachusetts energy code became more stringent, and baseline building standards have become better,” he said. “But Don and I always talked to clients when about sustainable building. Our position is that good design should automatically be sustainable and green. We looked at the building codes and said, maybe we could go a little further, with the materials we put in building. That’s our approach — there should be no such thing as an unsustainable building.”

The new Florence Bank branch in Hadley

The new Florence Bank branch in Hadley is among HAI Architecture’s recent success stories.

Hafner agreed. “Codes have driven the industry this way. We’re seeing this whole cachet of ‘green’ being incorporated into all of architecture. And that’s what our philosophy has been about all the time.”
Katsanos said clients are willing to pay for such amenities. For example, “Florence Bank was very pleased, and we’re happy when the clients are happy. It looks wonderful; they made some smart decisions and didn’t just try to go for the cheapest solution. Being a financial institution, they know what money is worth, and they spent it wisely. That was a good group of people to work with.”
Hafner agreed, and said he and Katsanos have tried to build relationships — and repeat business — with clients they like working with. “We want to establish these relationships, so that people trust us and know we can meet their expectations.”
Those expectations, Katsanos said, are becoming more challenging to meet.
“We’re doing projects on tighter time frame,” he said, partly due to technological advances such as building information modeling, or BIM, by which architects and clients manage and share designs and project information in three dimensions and real time. Having come up in the industry in the era of two-dimensional drawings, they’re nostalgic about the craft of architecture, but have embraced the future — and the shorter schedules clients demand as a result.
“People are so accustomed to seeing the end product right away, they don’t always understand the process,” Hafner said, adding that, in the past, “we were taking a three-dimensional object and reducing it to two dimensions, then handing it to someone else to create in three dimensions. That’s an odd process. With building information modeling, we’re doing away with that, and allowing everyone to think three-dimensionally. That should be the wave of the future.”

Back to Basics
At the same time, Hafner said, HAI is strongly rooted in the traditions of garnering business through relationships and reputation, which is why the firm has not done a great deal of advertising in the past. “Our clients have always been happy with the work we’ve done, so they’ve called us back. For a long period of time, we didn’t have to worry about marketing.”
“We’ve run under the radar a lot,” Katsanos added.
However, Hafner went on, “we have started to elevate our marketing efforts. With the recent downturn we’ve seen in the economy, a lot of larger firms from Boston have started doing what we call downfeeding. Where we controlled a segment in the range of $200,000 to a couple million dollars, a lot of the larger firms in the state are coming over this way and moving down into that segment.”
What’s not changing is the collaborative way the HAI team works on projects, he added.
“We let everyone take part in everything, from design through construction administration,” Hafner said. “When we’re working on something, we start in the beginning at the table, and everyone gets a say in what things might look like. It doesn’t always translate to the project, but it lets everyone work together, and they develop a healthy respect for each other.”
Katsanos agreed. “We work with a good team,” he told BusinessWest, “and we work very collaboratively in this office. It’s not a trickle-down design process.
“A lot of us have been here a long time, but we always try to bring in someone new — either a summer intern or a staff person — because, what they lack in experience, they more than make up for in a fresh perspective,” he went on. “They don’t know not to ask dumb questions, and questions sometimes show that you’re on the wrong path. If you do the same thing over and over again, you can become complacent. It’s good to have someone asking, ‘why do that?’ It makes you constantly analyze what you’re doing.”
Which is — appropriately, for this firm — a healthy way of doing business.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Architecture Sections
Caolo & Bieniek Associates Has Designs on Innovation

Curtis Edgin

Curtis Edgin, principal with Caolo & Bieniek Associates.

It’s not easy being green, but for today’s architects, it’s necessary.

“We’ve definitely had a mix of sustainable-design projects,” said Curtis Edgin, one of the principals of Caolo & Bieniek Associates in Chicopee, noting that some of them have been certified by the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program, but not all.

“Some of our clients seek to pursue that,” he added, “but whether or not they go for that official recognition, they tend to pursue the same design practices.”

LEED, a federal program that lays out stringent, and often costly, guidelines by which new buildings can earn ‘points’ toward different levels of sustainability, has been a driving factor in making construction and renovation projects more environmentally friendly. It involves everything from air quality to the paints and furniture used; from ventilation to energy efficiency, and much more.

The emphasis on green design has seeped so thoroughly into the design and construction industries that even developers who aren’t seeking LEED status are demanding many similar elements, and this is certainly true for Caolo & Bieniek, which is no stranger to sustainable design, including the new Easthampton High School, which features bigger windows to maximize daylight, a photovoltaic array on the roof to harvest solar power, and LED lighting.

“Codes are getting more and more stringent, and continue to evolve,” Edgin said. “Plus, people are more concerned about energy use and will take a long view of things — sometimes pay a little more to have a more cost-effective building throughout its life. That’s what sustainable design is all about. It’s not just about recycling materials and conserving energy; there’s a whole list of things we can do that utilize those defining practices in all our projects.”

Caolo & Bieniek will celebrate 60 years in business next year, providing architecture, planning, and interior-design services across the Pioneer Valley. And Edgin understands the need to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to trends like sustainable design.

“It’s a more long-term view, rather than what’s cheapest on bid day,” he said. “Energy use is the first thing people think of, but it’s much more than that. You can insulate, insulate, insulate, but you still need to get ventilation into it, get fresh air into a very tight envelope.”

Then there’s long-lasting LED lightbulbs, which have become standard practice, replacing fluorescent bulbs. But green design and building extends to the work site itself, from efforts to reduce water runoff from the site to how materials are disposed of.

“When you’re doing demolition, does the debris end up in a landfill, or does it get separated?” Edgin said. “It used to be that everything got pushed off and sent to a landfill. Nowadays, we’re much more careful about what’s going on with these projects. Steel is sent off to be recycled, and maybe masonry is crushed and used for fill.”

The UMass police facility

The UMass police facility, designed by Caolo & Bieniek, was the first LEED-certified building on campus.

In theory, he added, a project like Easthampton can even turn its green features into an outdoor learning experiences, teaching students about bioswales and solar energy. “You can put a lot of technology into the building.”

For this issue’s focus on architecture, Edgin sat down with BusinessWest to talk about the going-green movement and also other challenges and opportunities posed by what has become a fiercely competitive, fast-moving industry.

Broad Palette

Although it has remained active in private development, Caolo & Bieniek wins about 75% of its work in the public sector, which includes plenty of public school construction and renovation. Besides the completed Easthampton project, Edgin said, “the old Chicopee High School is converting to a middle school, and we’re working with the Mass. School Building Authority on that. We also have a project with Phoenix Academy, a charter school in Springfield, up at the Tech Park, and a handful of smaller school projects for various communities.”

In addition, the firm has long been active with area municipalities, from the ongoing construction of the West Springfield public library to a number of public-safety jobs. “Police, fire, public safety … we have several projects ongoing, some in the study phase, some in the early construction phase,” he noted. Area colleges, including UMass, Westfield State University, and STCC, have also been a reliable source of work, from the UMass police station — the campus’s first LEED-certified project — to renovation and repair work on residence halls.

“We’ve also done projects for local public-housing authorities, and also some private, multi-family development in the Northampton area,” Edgin said. “And we’ve been keeping busy with work for financial institutions — banks and some investment companies.”

The sheer diversity of Caolo & Bieniek’s workload is a hedge against recessions, but Edgin admitted that the scale of the average project has decreased slightly over the past several years. That means more, smaller jobs, “which keeps you very busy meeting schedules, juggling multiple projects, and serving clients. We were very blessed to stay busy over the past 10 years. We attribute that to a good staff and good service. We continually strive to satisfy our clients.”

Caolo & Bieniek has taken jobs as far away as Ohio for a Veterans Affairs hospital, and conducted some far-flung work for the U.S. Postal Service, but most of its signature projects have been in or not far from the Pioneer Valley — from the aforementioned schools and colleges to work for MassMutual, Spalding, Raymour & Flanigan, Polish National Credit Union, Rocky’s, Boys and Girls Club of Chicopee, Subway, IHOP, and many others.

“We don’t go long distances away — generally within an hour or hour and a half radius,” Edgin said. “You can’t give good service in the car, so we stay close to home, and wind up seeing clients in the supermarket, in the hardware store, or out to buy a cup of coffee.”

The auditorium inside Easthampton High School

The auditorium inside Easthampton High School, a recent Caolo & Bieniek project with many ‘green’ features.

The firm has also performed historic-preservation work, which comes with two distinct, and often competing, challenges: restoring buildings according to a client’s demands, or working with a client who doesn’t care about a structure’s historical elements, but local and state historical commissions do.

“Phoenix Academy has been reviewed by the National Park Service, the Springfield Historical Commission, and the Mass. Historical Commission,” Edgin said. “Some of the challenges with these projects is getting everyone on the same page. It’s often about balance, what’s practical.”

Older buildings pose myriad questions, he added. “What are the requirements of the building code in order to reuse or renovate historic properties? What is the use? It may have been built at a time when the code requirements — what the building has to withstand from a seismic perspective, especially — were much different than what they are now. And, of course, what does it cost? There are a lot of noble gestures you can make, but somebody has to fund them.”

Issues with historic buildings have come to the forefront at a time when renovation is more popular than new construction, and investors are taking a hard look at older properties they can rehab, as opposed to building from the ground up. “Not everyone wants new construction or can afford it,” Edgin said. “Sometimes there’s value in older buildings, but you have to weigh the cost of meeting present needs, and that goes back to building codes and what the long-term cost is going to be.”

Old and New

Architects and contractors have long told BusinessWest that clients are more demanding than ever before, and time windows are often compressed. On the other hand, technology has improved project planning and communication.

“With the computers these days, the visualization tools we can use now, we’re no longer showing just flat plans. People often can’t read two-dimensional plans, but now we’re showing them three-dimensional images, what it will really look like,” Edgin said. “But you have to keep up with the technology and the new software, and so does your staff.”

It helps that most of Caolo & Bieniek’s 10 employees have been with the firm for many years, bringing consistency to operations. The same goes for customers. “A lot of our clients are long-standing. Even cities and municipalities, we’ll do multiple projects — it might be a school, a public-safety project, and a library project in the same city or town.”

Customer loyalty is critical at a time when firms from Boston and Connecticut are raiding the Pioneer Valley for work, a trend that has developed and intensified over the past 10 to 15 years.

To keep those clients happy, “you have to plan ahead. Everything moves so much faster these days, but you still have to allow time for the process. It doesn’t just happen. If you want a successful project, sometimes it takes years of foresight, and hopefully clients are thinking in the long term, too, rather than just today, what the present need is. Ultimately, that should shape your decision making.”

That forward thinking is one driving force behind sustainable building, but Edgin said it’s important in any project.

“You have to manage expectations, understand what’s possible and what’s not; you have to be honest,” he added. “People have very lofty goals, but cost is often the driving factor. You try to bring your experience — communicate your knowledge and understanding of the process — as early as possible to the client to determine what the end result will be.”

The goal, of course, is something everyone can live with — both literally and figuratively.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Architecture Sections
Gillen Collaborative Architects Offers a Unique Approach

William Gillen

Several years ago, William Gillen changed his business model to one where architects work independently but market themselves as a team.

When William Gillen created Gillen Collaborative Architects Inc. in Amherst, he based his business model on decades of honed experience. “There is no payroll here, so there is no pressure to generate a bill. If one of us wants to spend 24 hours working with a group, we do it,” he said, noting that the two registered architects under his umbrella are self-employed and can work independently on their own projects, or collaboratively as a group, while sharing resources and information from their own areas of expertise.

The trio, which includes Gillen, Carol Vincze, and John Krifka, have more than 100 years of combined experience, and venture into territory that most architects don’t have the time or interest to explore.

For example, when Krifka began working on a contract to renovate the Berkshire Family and Probate Court in Pittsfield and restore its north façade, he came up with an idea to create a documentary that would benefit the public, the city, the state, and groups interested in historic restoration.

After he spoke to city officials about obtaining a grant to pay for a detailed video production of the restoration and renovation, UMass graduate student John Dickson heard about it from the Pittsfield Historical Commission and received permission to document the work as part of his thesis. In addition to a written document, he created a seven-minute video with Pittsfield Community Television titled “Conserving the Old Berkshire Athenaeum,” which can be seen on YouTube.

Since the work on the courthouse is not yet complete, he is also working on another version, which he expects will be at least an hour in length. The finished product will be shown on public-access TV and will serve as a tribute to the artisans who created the 1876 building as well as those who painstakingly matched intricate patterns on the crumbling stone.

“City officials feared the project would disrupt parking and traffic to and from local business, so the idea was born partially to help to help establish liaisons,” Krifka said, explaining that he met with the Town Council and businesses owners to promote the video because he believed it would generate a lot of interest. “Stone structures aren’t built anymore, and I knew this was something that wouldn’t happen in Pittsfield again, so I really wanted it to succeed.”

A photograph was taken of every stone that was removed from the building, and Dickson interviewed a number of artisans about their restoration techniques, including a stained-glass specialist who described the process of reconditioning and replacing missing glass from original windows.

“People will learn many interesting things from the video, such as the fact that you can take a damaged stone with a decorative pattern and build up the missing part with modern materials,” Krifka said, adding that Dickson shared his work with the Western Mass. Historical Commission Coalition at its meeting in July.

“Bill, Carol, and I like to generate ideas,” he added. “But if we were just employees, it wouldn’t be in our interest to do things like this.”

Carol Vincze (right, with John Krifka)

Carol Vincze (right, with John Krifka) says the freedom she has at Gillen Collaborative Architects serves her well in her work.

Vincze agreed and said sharing space with co-workers is a growing trend that allows people to socialize while working independently or in collaboration with each other.

She explained that the freedom she has at Gillen Collaborative Architects served her well when she redesigned the Amherst Survival Center. It serves more than 4,400 needy individuals each year, and Vincze was determined to see firsthand how it used its existing space before she began forming ideas for a design.

“I visited the center at least six times and ate lunch there. I also watched people come and go, and interviewed members of the staff who told me it was important to build a feeling of community,” Vincze said. “They thought they needed six rooms for activities, but it quickly became clear which areas could be combined.”

As a result, she was able to create a workable design, assist with the client’s fund-raising efforts, oversee the bidding and construction administration, and do everything else required to finish the project on time and on budget.

Business Changes

Gillen, who farms 20 acres and owns several real-estate firms in addition to his architectural company, changed his business name several times and had a number of partners in the course of more than five decades of work.

In 1969, the Boston architectural firm that employed him asked him to move to Amherst to take over a satellite office, and all went well until the recession of 1975.

“A moratorium was placed on most state projects, and it knocked the wind out of our sails,” he recalled. “There was not enough work for the architectural firm to keep its Amherst office, so they allowed me to take it over.”

He named his new business William Gillen Architects, finished the projects started by his previous employer, and began paying the employees’ salaries.

A short time later, he formed a partnership with architects John Kuhn, Christopher Riddle, and Dennis Gray, and the business was renamed Gillen, Kuhn, Riddle and Gray Inc.

The firm grew quickly, and although Kuhn and Riddle left in 1988, Gillen and Gray stayed together and kept 10 of 30 employees. In the early ’90s, they were joined by former classmate Kevin Omarah, and the firm’s name changed to Gillen, Gray and Omarah Architects Inc.

“But Omarah died, and Gray moved to Salem, and I became Gillen Architects again; by that time, I knew I needed to be more than a one-man band to do sizeable projects,” Gillen said, explaining that it is risky for a client to do a project with only one architect.

In the late ’90s, Kathleen Ford joined him from New York City, and Ford Gillen Architects was born. The duo worked together for a decade, but after she left and Gillen found himself on his own again, he began collaborating with Vincze because he needed help to complete some large state projects.

“Several years ago, I changed my business name and model again to better reflect what I was doing and market more effectively,” Gillen said, adding that he formed a collaborative because he wanted to eliminate the stress of constantly having to meet payroll. “I created a model where we are all independent, but can also work together and market ourselves as a group.”

However, each of the architects has their own niche.

Gillen specializes in historic preservation and unpretentious architecture that is harmonious with a neighborhood. Meanwhile, Vincze is LEED-certified, and Krifka has done a number of institutional and commercial projects for nonprofit organizations.

Gillen provides space inside a building he owns on Main Street as well as a full-time receptionist who acts as an administrative manager and does all of the paperwork.

“We share resources and networking, but since each architect has their own business, there is no set time for any of us to arrive or leave. But we’ve been very fortunate; architecture is very competitive, and we’ve been awarded several half-million-dollar contracts,” he told BusinessWest, outlining projects that include renovations and updates to buildings at UMass Amherst and county courthouses.

A year ago, the trio was hired to create a master plan for St. John’s Episcopal Church in Northampton, which is located in the Elm Street Historic District.

“We marketed ourselves as a group, but Carol is the project manager,” Gillen said, noting that the renovation plan is in the design stage and includes adding an elevator, a social hall, and office space.

Vincze spent untold hours at the church, helping members of the building committee generate ideas.

“We work really well with committees made up of lay people. In fact, we spend more time figuring out what people need and how much it will cost than any architectural firm I have ever worked for,” she said, adding that she is also involved with a design for a new, large mixed-use building in South Amherst that is under construction.

Gillen’s project history is storied and includes the conversion of the former Northampton railroad station in 1980 into restaurants, as well as the 2002 design of the Strong Avenue shops and condominiums in Northampton, which won accolades from the city. Meanwhile, Krifla’s previous employment included stints with three architectural firms in New York.

Their combined experience has served them well. In fact, over the past three years, the trio has undertaken at least 100 projects.

“Many of them were small, but they were punctuated by the $3.5 million Pittsfield District Courthouse renovation and restoration and a $2.5 million upgrade to the Gardner District Courthouse,” Gillen said. “We also just completed the preliminary work to put a new boiler room in the Pittsfield Superior Courthouse, which will provide heat for the entire district.”

He added that he and designer Lisa Lindgren, who has also begun working collaboratively with him, are creating plans for a house in Hadley.

Attention to Detail

Vincze said one thing that sets Gillen Collaborative Architects apart from other firms is that the architects see their projects through from start to finish.

“We maintain continuity with our clients from the time of the first interview to opening-day ribbon-cutting ceremonies and the years beyond,” she told BusinessWest.

Gillen added that the architects take pride in being accessible, even when it involves little or no notice. “Yesterday at 7:48 a.m., a masonry contractor called me and asked if I could meet him at St. John’s in 40 minutes. I wasn’t dressed, but I got there on time. Then I was told a general contractor was going to remove the staging on the courthouse in Pittsfield over the weekend and needed our architects to take a close look at it, so I volunteered to go there on Friday so the contractor could meet his schedule.

“The bottom line,” he stressed, “is that, if one person is successful, we are all successful.”

Architecture Sections
Kuhn Riddle Continues to Build on a Solid Foundation


John Kuhn, president of Kuhn Riddle Architects

John Kuhn, president of Kuhn Riddle Architects

When local architects John Kuhn and Chris Riddle began their first project together in 1978, they never imagined it would lead to a thriving partnership.

In fact, they had no idea where it would take them. But success, they’ve learned, is a lot like architecture — you start off with a foundation and steadily build your way upward.

Kuhn and Riddle made a risky decision back in 1978, quitting their jobs after receiving a $500 commission to complete a sketch for the Northampton Armory. Kuhn admits it wasn’t one of their most calculated moves, but looking back on it almost 40 years later, he realizes their decision built the foundation for what would eventually become Kuhn Riddle Architects (KRA), one of the most successful firms in the area.

“We were working for a firm in Springfield at the time and carpooling together,” recalls Kuhn, president of the Amherst-based firm. “We’d been talking about what it might be like to get work on our own, and then we saw an article about the building being renovated in Northampton. If we’d known better, who knew what would have happened?”

Fast-forward 36 years — past the initial years of uncertainty, past the fire that engulfed one of KRA’s early buildings, past the painstaking process of building not only structures but relationships — and the firm is prospering in a challenging climate. With 16 employees, it isn’t the largest or smallest firm around, which Kuhn believes is conducive for success in projects of varying scales.

“It’s been a spotty market, and we’ve been fortunate to stay fairly busy,” he told BusinessWest. “Being profitable in a competitive industry is a challenge, and you have to work hard to keep work coming through the door. We’re big enough that we can handle larger projects, but small enough where everyone still wears a lot of hats.”

Kuhn estimates that the firm completes between 50 and 100 projects a year, many of them involving major renovation and reuse efforts. This year, KRA designed renovations for the building that formerly housed the First Baptist Church of Amherst — which now serves as non-academic offices for Amherst College — in addition to renovating an Easthampton mill into affordable housing units and redesigning a Springfield building for National Public Radio.

With dozens of old, once-bustling buildings now sitting dark and abandoned, New England towns are perfect for renovation projects that save structures and money. Like many area architectural firms, KRA has mastered the ability to modernize and repurpose old buildings that would otherwise remain blights on their communities and eventually be torn down.

“Redevelopment and adaptive reuse of buildings brings a lot of work for us,” said Kuhn, who remembers being excited about architecture ever since he took a mechanical drawing class back in high school. “Oftentimes, a building will be renovated for a completely different use. The Amherst College project is a good example; it was once a church and is now used for office space.”

For this issue and its focus on architecture, BusinessWest goes behind the scenes at KRA to see how it takes concepts off the drawing board, or the computer screen, as the case may be, and makes them reality.

Growth — by Design

The building in which Kuhn and his staff work each day is also a testament to the power of redevelopment. The Amherst Cinema Building at 28 Amity St., which houses the KRA offices, Amherst Cinema, Arise Pub and Pizzeria, GoBerry Frozen Yogurt, and HB Financial, among other businesses, has become a major recreational and commercial hub in downtown Amherst. But it wasn’t always that way — many residents recall the building’s former distress before KRA completely overhauled it in 2006.

“The building was an empty black hole, a dead zone in the middle of town,” said Kuhn, who described the 28 Amity St. renovation as the most personally rewarding project in his career. “We were able to renovate it into a mixed-use building that everyone can enjoy. It was rewarding for us to transform a building that served no purpose into a vital part of the town center.”

The renovated Amherst Cinema Building

The renovated Amherst Cinema Building is now one of the highlights of downtown Amherst and home to KRA’s offices.

For local business and civic leaders, the project was not only a restoration, but a reclamation. Don Courtemanche, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, described the work Kuhn and his staff put into the building as a major revitalization effort for the town and region.

“The building had fallen on hard times and was in desperate need of reinvention,” said Courtemanche. “Now it’s one of the most active parcels of real estate in downtown Amherst thanks to John’s design and vision for what it could look like. He took the project on full speed ahead, and the building has become a mixed-use, vibrant powerhouse of downtown activity.”

The project also emphasized Kuhn’s belief in the importance of strengthening cities and towns at their cores by renovating and redeveloping in downtown sections, as opposed to taking on multiple projects calling for new construction at the fringes of towns that offer few geographical benefits.

‘If it’s old and broken, fix it up’ would be a fitting summary of KRA’s stance on redevelopment — and at 28 Amity St., arguably the new heart of downtown Amherst, the benefits and opportunities are endless, even after normal business hours.

“The building doesn’t go dark at five o’clock like a lot of downtown buildings. With the cinema and the shops, it’s alive even on weeknights and weekends,” Courtemanche added.

Yet another advantage for Kuhn to renovating the building that would house his firm’s offices was the ability to include details to enable his employees to maximize their production each day. With spacious rooms and high ceilings comprised of the original beams and trusses, the building has a historical yet modern air, far removed from the standard office environment.

“It was a great opportunity for us to design our office and create new workspace,” Kuhn said.

Building Solid Relationships

A successful career can often distance business leaders from their early adversities, but Kuhn still remembers the struggles he and Riddle endured, the ones they had to persist through in order to build their firm into its current incarnation. Their first few projects were completed out of a cramped, rented space in 1978.

“That’s how we got started,” said Kuhn, “in someone else’s office” — until they partnered with Bill Gillen and began to establish an identity in the community. In November 1989, a fire totaled their office and forced the staff to move to another building. On several occasions thereafter, business threatened to dry up, but through it all Kuhn and Riddle stuck together and used their struggles as learning tools.

“We always had a solid relationship, both professional and personal,” Kuhn said of Riddle, who is now retired. “We were different, we worked well together, and I don’t think we ever said an angry word to each other in all of those years.”

renovated Fuller Block

This rendering shows an interior view of the renovated Fuller Block in downtown Springfield, which will house National Public Radio.

One of the most important lessons Kuhn and Riddle learned during their challenging years was the value of building lasting relationships. Recently, KRA has completed several projects for Yankee Candle, a relationship that has strengthened with each new endeavor. Local high schools and universities are also a wellspring for annual construction opportunities, as they are constantly expanding and evolving to better serve their student populations.

“For us, it’s more about looking for clients rather than projects,” said Kuhn, whose portfolio also includes the $22 million expansion and renovation of Amherst Regional High School and extensive work at River’s Landing Complex in Springfield. “We like to establish long-term relationships with companies and institutions. A primary source of work for us has been repeat customers.”

It’s always difficult to predict the future when it comes to the construction industry, but Kuhn anticipates housing will dominate KRA’s focus over the next five years. In a bustling college town like Amherst where apartment units don’t go vacant for very long, student housing is always a hot topic, but it’s become even more of a focal point in an economy that has seen student costs soar. There will also be an increased need, Kuhn believes, for affordable-housing opportunities for families living in and around Amherst.

“Housing of various types will continue to be a challenge, especially student housing and affordable housing,” said Kuhn, whose firm is also working on a project at Springfield’s American International College, as well as a renovation to the Common School in Amherst. “Housing for retirees is also a huge, untapped market.”

Following the recent completion of a successful affordable-housing project in what has been a busy 2014 for KRA, the firm is eagerly anticipating the opening of 43 units at Olympia Oaks in town. The conversion of abandoned mills, warehouses, churches, and other defunct buildings into affordable-housing units and senior-living facilities has become a popular construction approach over the past 10 years, one that KRA and other firms have taken advantage of with their expertise in adaptive reuse.

“It’s nice to be as flexible as we are in the marketplace,” Kuhn said. “We can handle a range of different projects.”

Drawing on Experience

No matter how big or small the project, Kuhn and his staff are ready to tackle it, not simply with the goal of renovating or constructing buildings, but continuing to transform promising real estate into vital assets for area communities.

In a nutshell, this is what the company has built on that foundation that Kuhn and Riddle laid all those years ago — and continue to build today.

Architecture Sections
Jablonski DeVriese Architects Strives to Preserve the Past

Steve Jablonski, left, and Brian DeVriese

Steve Jablonski, left, and Brian DeVriese say the Northeast offers a rich lode of opportunity in preservation and renovation work.

Their business cards read ‘preserve, adapt, renew.’ That’s the philosophy Stephen Jablonski and Brian DeVriese bring to each of their architectural projects — whenever possible, anyway.

Take, for example, the Clifford A. Phaneuf Environmental Center at Forest Park, which has housed the Environmental Center for Our Schools (ECOS) program — utilized by thousands of Springfield public-school students and teachers annually — since 1970.

The structure was built in the 1930s as a warming house for ice skaters, Jablonski said. “It was built by the Springfield DPW, right after the Depression, but it’s basically sat there for 70, 80 years without any renovation whatsoever.”

Hence the $2.5 million expansion and renovation expected to go out to bid to contractors soon. The plan is to update the building and bring it up to safety codes; provide space for revenue-generating activities during after-school hours, weekends, and the summer months; and incorporate ‘green’ technologies such as a hydro-geothermal HVAC system; cutting-edge insulation; and energy-efficient windows, all of which will contribute to the project’s LEED Silver rating.

“It’s a fairly major expansion and renovation,” Jablonski said before detailing how the design reflects all three elements of Jabonski DeVriese Architects.

“We’re preserving it, maintaining its character; we had to submit documentation to the Mass. Historical Commission,” he explained. “We’re adapting it because it wasn’t originally designed as an educational facility. And we’re renewing it by adding on and preparing for the future.”

Nearby, however, another project at Forest Park does none of those things. The firm has designed a new storage facility for the Bright Nights displays, which Spirit of Springfield had been keeping in a ramshackle horse barn.

“Preserve, adapt, renew isn’t practical in this case because all the posts are rotted, and there aren’t any character elements to this horse barn,” Jablonski said, although the new structure will include classrooms for a skills-training center for the manufacturing and contstruction trades, part of a federally funded workforce-training program that will involve local unions, Springfield Technical Community College, Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy, and the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County.

So, yes, there is some ‘adapting’ going on.

“It’s kind of a niche market that’s prevalent in Western Mass., and in the Northeast in general — historical-preservation projects, adapting, preserving, renewing,” Jablonski told BusinessWest. When he and DeVriese merged their solo practices in 2011, “we figured, well, everyone seems to have a specialty. We were trained to do anything. But people want to know if you have a specialty now.”

Simply put, he said, “we preserve old buildings. It’s something that’s really starting to grab hold in society. Preservation is good. People are moving back to urban areas. Mid-size cities that have architectural character, like Springfield, are on their way up, no matter what people say about the city. I live in Springfield, I was born here, and I’m a big fan of Springfield. That’s not to say that problems don’t exist, but it’s on its way up. ”

When some people see a neglected building, DeVriese added, their first instinct is to knock it down, but he and and his partner see potential — not just to maintain and enhance the strucutre’s architectural heritage, but to improve its environmental impact. “After all,” he said, quoting noted architect Carl Elefante, “the greenest building is the one already standing.”

For this issue’s focus on architecture, Jablonski and DeVriese talked with BusinessWest about some specific ways in which they’ve preserved some of the region’s heritage by putting their names to some truly unique projects.

Together Again

Jablonski had been working as a sole practitioner in Springfield since 1995, and DeVriese had managed a solo practice in Shelburne Falls since 1997, when they began collaborating on projects, notably the design of the Museum of Springfield History at the Quadrangle — a classic adaptive-reuse project, since it’s housed in a former Verizon office building.

“Steve approached me about helping with the Springfield Museums project, and that was a significant project for both of us,” said DeVriese. “We started doing more and more together over the years, and in 2011 we incorporated as partners. We were very, very busy at the time.”

For example, the museum project led to Springfield College hiring the firm for its complete renovation of Judd Gymnasia, renamed the Stitzer YMCA Center. For that design, Jablonski DeVries received the Paul E. Tsongas Award from Preservation Massachusetts, as well as the Springfield Preservation Trust Award for restoration and stewardship.

“For me, there was a lot more activity in this area than in Franklin County, an opportunity to work on larger projects with a longer duration,” DeVriese said. “I like Steve, and he’s great to work with.”

As for Jablonski, he said he’d occasionally been frustrated by a reluctance by state and municipal officials to award large contracts to solo architects — and he wanted an occasional day off. “For me, taking on a partner made a lot of sense, just having the ability to take a vacation and share the burden of production.

“To be honest, a lot of people advised me not to do it,” he continued. “To them, it was counterintuitive: ‘you started it, you should keep it to yourself and benefit from it.’ What they don’t realize is keeping it to yourself is not strategic; sure, you can keep it to yourself, and not get bigger projects, or run yourself into the ground because you can’t take vacations. You can have it all to yourself, but life isn’t as good.”

The pair made headlines soon after their merger when Springfield College — a long-time Jablonski client — tapped the firm to work with Erland Construction of East Windsor, Conn. to repair three residence halls hard hit by the June 2011 tornado.

The pair went through every room in every dorm and itemized all the damage to help the contractor develop a repair estimate. Once they decided the structures were salvageable, the architects and contractors had a significant challenge: to complete the work in 10 weeks, in time to house returning students.

Clifford A. Phaneuf Environental Center at Forest Park

A rendering of the new Clifford A. Phaneuf Environental Center at Forest Park, which houses an environmental-education program for Springfield students but hasn’t been renovated in more than 70 years.

The goal was not just to repair, however, but to improve the dorms where possible. After seeing several architectural renderings, in addition to replacing windows and doors torn apart by the twister, the college decided to replace the original building exteriors with higher-quality, better-insulated panels than what had existed before.

Ten weeks and $5 million after the twister ripped through, little evidence remained of anything other than a summer remodeling job. That project earned a Rebuilding Project of the Year Award in 2012 from the New England chapter of the Construction Management Assoc. of America, which selected the effort from all renovation and modernization projects under $10 million.

College Try

Architectural design for college campuses is nothing new for the firm. “We’re identified really strongly with three or four sectors,” Jablonski explained, including higher education; municipal and government work, which includes schools, libraries, park buildings, and museums; and historical buildings of all kinds, which can cut across many sectors.

“It’s been harder than Brian and I ever thought to break into new markets,” he said, “but we both decided that we can’t put all our eggs in one basket — like the city of Springfield — especially when we have an economic downturn.”

That said, “I’d say about 90% of our clients are repeat customers,” he noted, citing Springfield College and the city of Springfield as two of the most long-standing, going back 20 years. “That says we have to be doing something right. It’s not just what drawings you do; it’s showing up on time and having some flexibility, because there’s always an issue, always some problem, so you have to be flexible. When we get repeat customers, we’re pretty sure we’re doing something right, or they’d go somewhere else. There’s definitely competition in the Valley.”

Jablonski said the firm is willing to do residential restoration, although they don’t actively market in that arena, but there isn’t enough of such work to make a living doing it exclusively. Still, “when someone approaches us, obviously we do it. We recently got a really nice, very large total rehab in Longmeadow.”

And they don’t limit themselves to high-profile jobs, recently taking on, for example, several dentistry offices and small projects for the city of Northampton, as well as preparing to tackle a cold-storage warehouse with a commercial kitchen on Warehouse Road in Springfield for the city’s school system, which recently expanded its free-lunch program to all students.

“I enjoy working with municipalities professionally and appreciate the quality of people involved in local government,” said DeVriese, who has been a selectman in Heath for 15 years. “I’ve done a lot of work with small towns over the years, so it’s nice to know they can come to us to get their problem solved.”

Meanwhile, the Springfield Museums project caught the attention of the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., which tapped Jablonski DeVriese to design an addition to its athletic hall of fame.

“It’s not the first time someone called us up because they’d seen our work, but it is a good example of how we must be doing something right,” Jablonski told BusinessWest. “There is a lot of complexity in this business, and it’s nice to get some confirmation from someone looking at something and saying, ‘ooh, that’s nice.’”

Building for the Future

Things are looking equally good at the Springfield offices of Jablonski  DeVriese, where the partners are growing a promising future.

For one thing, they’ve hired two junior architects. Nirati Shukla, who earned a bachelor’s degree from the Center for Environmental Planning & Technology in Gujarat, India, and a master’s from the New Jersey Institute of Technology, is certified as LEED AP and specializes in sustainable design.  Marcel Alvarez immigrated from Ecuador and is currently a U.S. citizen. He is a graduate of Holyoke Community College and the architecture program at UMass Amherst.

And, as both Jablonski and DeVriese repeatedly stressed, there’s no shortage of opportunities to turn inadequate or neglected buildings into something that will reflect the future while respecting the past.

“Smart people are finally putting two and two together,” Jablonski said. “Instead of a continuous cycle of building new, let’s preserve it, adapt it, renew it.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Architecture Sections
Demand for Architectural Services Grows in Private Sector

Siegfried Porth

Siegfried Porth says he has seen an upswing this year in additions, renovations, and new homes.

John Kuhn says the number of projects on his firm’s books has increased over the past year. However, “I don’t expect to go back to the glory days,” added the president of Kuhn Riddle Architects in Amherst, adding that clients today are more cost-conscious, conservative, and careful than they were prior to the economic downturn in 2008. “But, lately, business has been good.”
Walter Cudnohufsky of Walter Cudnohufsky Associates Inc. in Ashfield agrees, and describes the upturn in business as noticeable and positive. “We have a number of new residential projects,” he said, noting that the jobs are significant because work in real estate dried up for a long period of time. “Things began to pick up last year and have gotten better this year, and our work now also includes municipal and industrial projects.”
After weathering a difficult period, Tom Douglas of Thomas Douglas Architects Inc. in Northampton is also busy again. “Things started to even out about six months ago and really improve, and we have more work now than we can handle,” he said. “People are more willing to spend, and it seems as if access to money has become easier. It takes longer to get funding in place, but people are doing it. We’ve done design work for a lot of restaurants, and there has also been a significant increase in residential work.”
Siegfried Porth of Porth Architects in Easthampton concurred. “Right now I am straight out,” he said. “There has definitely been a big upturn in demand in the last year for new residences, additions, and reconstructions. And some of the jobs I have are major — $300,000 or $400,000 home additions. Ultimately, it’s cheaper to add on if you like where you live and have enough land.”
Bruce Coldham said that, although housing has always been his firm’s mainstay, jobs at local colleges have helped sustain the workflow over the last year. There have also been renovations of homes and office space, as well as projects requested by institutional investors who own multi-family dwellings and want to improve energy efficiency or stay in compliance with changing building codes.
“They are not all poster projects,” said the principal of Coldham & Hartman Architects in Amherst. “But business has been improving slowly and steadily, and we keep getting clients. Some of our colleagues were hit harder than we were, and many architects have had to move from one firm to another.”
Kuhn agrees. “Some people were hit worse than others,” he noted. “We felt the effects of the downturn, but not that severely. Work has been steady, but it’s very competitive.”

Staying Solvent
Indeed, the uptick in project volume hasn’t come about overnight. Several years ago, Porth said, there was so little work that 60% of the architects in Boston were laid off, and many firms went out of business.
And Douglas referred to 2009 and 2010 as “pretty lean times. We had to lay off one person and reduce some employees to part-time, but we had enough work to make ends meet. We were fortunate to get a few new jobs back then.”
One project, involving the renovation of three buildings in Greenfield, was made possible due to historic and new-markets tax credits. Others combined volunteer labor and paid work, including Northampton’s Academy of Music and Forbes Library. “I helped them raise money,” Douglas said.
His firm has also done much work at Smith College, although those jobs dwindled in 2009 and 2010. But the situation wasn’t disastrous, as Douglas used the time to renovate the building he purchased in 2009 that houses his business today.
In 2010, he was hired to design a renovation of the Garden Theater in downtown Greenfield. “Unfortunately, they were unable to pay the bulk of the fee,” Douglas recalled. “It was a very difficult year.”
The picture was similar across the board.
“It was like being on a rollercoaster,” said Douglas. “We would have an incredibly heavy workload for six months, then spend six months not knowing if we would get work. It was very, very difficult to project further than four to six months out.”
There were also an untold number of architects seeking employment. “They were willing to work part-time, and there was a lot of great talent out there. But it was very difficult to project how much work you would have,” Douglas said.
Cudnohufsky also suffered. He had to let several employees go and said it took “heroic efforts” to save his company.
Kuhn said the entire construction industry was hit, and in addition to the loss of any work in certain sectors, many projects were put on hold.

Tom Douglas

Tom Douglas says business is increasing, and so is the diversity of projects his firm is tackling.

Coldham said he is happy that he was able to retain employees, thanks to programs that allowed them to collect partial unemployment benefits. “It meant we could keep everyone until work resumed,” he said, adding that the extra time off allowed at least one employee to complete a graduate degree, and once things improved, he was able to add two people to his staff.
And although the outlook is brighter, many architects feel it is too early to project whether demand will continue to rise.
“But people are building and investing in their properties again,” Porth said. “Things didn’t look very good last Christmas, but this has ended up being a very fine year. Business has been slowly picking up, and right now I have 40 jobs in process.”
Douglas agreed. “The work is slowly starting to pick up,” he said, adding that his firm is now doing a lot of design work for restaurants and hotels.
Still, there are no guarantees. “There has been a definite improvement, but it is not meteoritic by any means,” Coldham said.
Kuhn concurred. “When people take a big hit, it takes years for confidence to come back,” he said.
“Everyone is a little more gun shy.”

Varied Workplace
Today, architectural services are being sought for diverse projects, another trend that bodes well for an industry that saw many sectors fall back or nearly shut down during the recession.
“We just bid on a renovation in North Adams for a group of railroad warehouses,” Douglas said. “We’ve also done three or four restaurant interiors in the past six months, and are wrapping up a new conference-center building in Hadley. We designed a new restaurant in Worcester, and are working on the renovation of a conference center for Smith College and a project for Northampton Arts Trust, which will include a new theater, performance space, and galleries in a building they are purchasing.”
Porth’s working portfolio includes projects in Holyoke and the conversion of an Easthampton tractor-trailer building into a multi-use structure. “We’re also converting an old warehouse into multi-use space and renovating a five-story factory building for commercial purposes,” he said, adding that the projects are large and include new walls, electrical, heating, and other improvements.
Porth is also the architect for the Eastworks Mill in Easthampton. “Half the residential units on the top floor are rented, and we’re starting phase 2,” he said, explaining that the units were designed as live/work spaces so entrepreneurs can operate home-based businesses in them.
Porth is also involved with ongoing projects for Open Square in Holyoke and has four major residential projects — additions and renovations — on the books as well.
“A lot of people are adding in-law apartments or family rooms, and we’re building a huge wine cellar in one home,” he said. “Plus, we just got work today on a new office building in Easthampton. There will be offices on the first floor and residential space on the second floor.”
Other jobs include designing a 160-by-120-foot metal building in Holyoke that will be used to service trucks and a new, two story office building in Florence.
Cudnohufsky is also busy. He began work on Main Street in Great Barrington in 2009, and that project has been ongoing. Other large regional projects include Monument Mills in Housatonic, which consists of several buildings totaling 250,000 square feet, and the design of a major structure in Fitchburg. He also has jobs in New York and Boston. “We have a whole range of work on historic properties, which gives us a really nice mix.”
Markets that have undergone a revival include the restaurant business. “We’ve seen a real upswing in people wanting to put money into them recently,” Douglas said.
And other sectors are growing as well, Porth said. “People are buying commercial buildings in Northampton, Westfield — everywhere in the Valley. Holyoke is up and coming, and people are buying mill buildings in Easthampton, so there is a lot of ongoing activity.”
Coldham’s firm tends to work with clients creating spaces heavily populated by people, such as schools, libraries, and offices. “If people like the space they are in, they tend to stay at their jobs longer and are more productive, which are benefits that come from high-performance buildings,” he said.
His company’s projects range from a new development with more than 20 homes to the transformation of a 100-year-old, five-story mill building in Lawrence into 60 residential units.

Moving Forward
Designs today almost always involve green-building concepts, and one noteworthy trend is the demand for reasonably sized, energy-efficient homes.
“The new generation wants to be green, and we are drawing a lot of smaller houses, due to the cost,” Porth said. “We used to design McMansions that were 5,000 or 6,000 square feet, but today the trend is to go smaller. People want energy-efficient homes that are no larger than 2,500 square feet.”
Cudnohofsky founded and ran the Conway School of Landscaping Design for 20 years and says his firm has always been at the forefront of sustainable ideas and projects. He told BusinessWest that green building has been fueled by revisions in building codes that keep the technology moving forward.
Douglas agreed, adding that salespeople tout how much recycled material their products contain or where their furniture was made. “Material suppliers volunteer the information. You don’t even have to ask about it.”
Kuhn said the combination of new stretch codes and people’s sensitivity to energy conservation has resulted in a new norm. “The standards keep getting much more stringent,” he said, adding that new developments have gone from LEED to net-zero building to the Living Building Challenge, which encompasses the most rigid green-energy initiatives that can be put into place. However, few projects that meet those standards have been done locally, because the work is complex and not financially feasible for most clients.
Coldham & Hartman has completed several co-housing projects and earned recognition for innovative work across the nation. It is one of the only local firms that has built zero-net-energy homes, which generate as much energy as they use. “We’ve done four or five of them,” Coldham said.
However, some jobs continue to be expansive as Baby Boomers seek modifications to their homes. For example, Porth designed a 2,000-square-foot addition for an aging couple who wanted a master bedroom on their first floor. “People are also putting in elevators so they can stay in their homes,” he said, noting that some families are selling their parents’ homes and creating space for them via renovations or additions.

Changing Climate
Kuhn believes changing trends will continue to shape the architectural industry. They include a focus on building within walking distance of downtowns, which has occurred in communities and cities such as Amherst and Northampton. “It’s a more green way to develop,” he said.
It’s also one that promises ongoing work for architects who have weathered the storm of the past few years and are now reaping the rewards for their perseverance and resourcefulness.
For a sector that feels the swings in the economy perhaps more than any other, times are better, and the arrow is pointing up — and firms are intent on making the most of their opportunities.