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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]

Architecture

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.


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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.


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“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]