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Decade of Design

Kevin Shea (left, with Richard Morse)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unrolling the Future

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

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

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

The firm’s recent projects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Answer Man

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Architecture Sections

Home Makers

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

Something old, something new.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lean and Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Jacobs

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

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

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

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

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

Home for Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Architecture Home Builders Sections

Surface Appeal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laying It Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stepping Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Architecture Sections

Blueprint for Success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rising Tide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lean and Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Architecture Sections

Come Together

By Joanna Smiley

The homes at the Pioneer Valley Cohousing community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

List of Architecture Firms in the region

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

Laura Fitch (right, with intern architect Aviva Galaski)

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

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

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

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

Welcoming Environment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Earth Friendly

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

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

The new theater studio at Smith College

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

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

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

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

The new classroom building at the Hartsbrook School.

The new classroom building at the Hartsbrook School.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Architecture Sections

Living Spaces

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

These findings and others were featured in a new report, “The Drive Toward Healthier Buildings 2016” by Dodge Data & Analytics, in partnership with Delos and the Canada Green Building Council, and with the participation of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) as a critical research advisor and partner.

The report documents the value and need for more of the research, education, collaboration, and outreach efforts that are hallmarks of the AIA’s Design and Health initiative. Since 2013, AIA has invested in expanding the body of knowledge on the connection between design and health, including professional continuing education and the 17-university Design & Health Research Consortium.

“As a society, we spend nearly 87% of our time indoors,” said AIA Chief Executive Officer Robert Ivy. “Designing and constructing healthy buildings is crucial to our own well-being.

“Working with architects, we can accelerate this need for healthier buildings and improve quality of life across the country,” he continued. “This report documents how architects can help clients have a positive effect on human health, through the built environment.”

That positive result includes increasing employee participation and fulfillment, the report found. Sixty-nine percent of owners who measure employee satisfaction and engagement reported improvement in both attributes due to their healthier building investments.

According to the report, the top five healthier building features implemented by architects include better lighting and daylight exposure, products that enhance thermal comfort, spaces that enhance social interaction, enhanced air quality, and products that enhance acoustical comfort. Use of nearly all of these is expected to grow considerably along with further pioneering approaches like the use of biophilic design features, spaces that enhance tenant mood, and opportunities for physical activity, the report found.

“The increased attention to building health impacts is just beginning,” said Stephen Jones, senior director of Industry Insights at Dodge Data & Analytics. “In a similar way several years ago, companies engaged in green construction because of the demonstrable business and financial benefits they were able to achieve. The findings of this report demonstrate that the focus on buildings that enhance the health and well-being of their occupants is likely to follow a similar trajectory, boosted by those who have committed to sustainability in their organizations.”

Additional highlights from the report include:

• Most owners are not aware how healthy building investments result in business benefits like leasing rates (52%) and asset values (58%). However, among those that report an effect, 73% report faster rates, and 62% report higher values.
• According to architects and interior designers, the top driver for greater investment in healthier buildings is improved public awareness of the health impacts of buildings.
• Public-health professionals report that the most common policies currently in place to support healthier building practices are requirements to avoid the use of hazardous materials in buildings (65%). The key policy areas that are currently being considered include incentives that encourage physical activity (47%) and requirements for ongoing building air-quality measurement (46%).
• Ninety-two percent of public-health professionals also report that their institutions are actively conducting research on the influence buildings have on occupant health and well-being.
• Architects are most aligned with their clients (owners) when it comes to understanding the goals of healthy-building investments, as compared to other industry players, recognizing that improved tenant/employee satisfaction and happier and healthier occupants is the primary focus for owners related to their investments.
• The largest percentage of owners, at 42%, identify that they are very interested in partnering with architects to help increase their ability to implement healthy-building practices. While low, it is notably more than the next two highest potential partners — facility managers and educational institutions, both at 31%.

The report also received key support from CBRE, Dewberry, and the U.S. Green Building Council, with additional support from Armstrong Ceiling Solutions and the Regenerative Network. Other organizations that participated in the research process include the American Society of Interior Designers, the National Assoc. of Real Estate Investment Managers, and the World Green Building Council.

This article was prepared by the American Institute of Architects, which works to create more valuable, healthy, secure, and sustainable buildings, neighborhoods, and communities.

Architecture Sections

Blueprinting a Growth Pattern

Robert Stevens

Robert Stevens

Tessier Associates has been in business since Warren Harding was in the White House and Prohibition was the law of the land. No architecture firm can survive that long — and through all those twists and turns in the economy — without being resilient and resourceful, and the Tessier firm has been both. In recent years, for example, it has been diversifying its portfolio, complementing a dwindling amount of public-school work with projects in higher education and other sectors, and now has a steady supply of work in the pipeline.

The photos, sketches, and blueprints adorning the front entranceways and conference rooms at architecture firms usually tell a story — or, to be more precise, a big part of the story.

Indeed, collectively, these images become a highly visible, although not always organized, chronicling of a company’s history, examination of its portfolio, and window into its past, present, and, in some ways, its future.

This is definitely true at Tessier Associates, the nearly-century-old firm that has long been doing business out of a large storefront on the second floor at Tower Square in downtown Springfield. The photos in the front lobby and hallway leading to the production areas speak to the company’s proud history, which has included everything from dozens of school projects to a number of new churches and a host of commercial buildings, including bank branches, which became a prolific niche for a number of years (more on that later).

The main conference room offers more of the same, but specifically a look at more recent history — and a very necessary diversification of the portfolio to reflect changing times when it comes to designing new public schools, additions, and renovations.

“It’s much more difficult to get school projects today. There are fewer of them out there, and the selection process is now out of Boston — the rules have changed,” said Robert Stevens Jr., long-time principal with the company, noting that, while local school systems once did the hiring of an architect for a project, now those decisions are the purview of the Mass. School Building Authority.

Go HERE for a list of Architecture Firms in the region

This explains why the conference room still features photos and drawings of some of the firm’s school projects — including Lenox Middle/High School, which actually dates back to the late ’90s, and Hampshire Regional High School, newer work but still more than a decade old — but far more wall and easel space is now devoted to work with area colleges and businesses, which have become a far larger and more reliable pipeline of projects.

There are several images, for example, of a new dining commons being planned by Western New England University. Curved, and featuring large amounts of glass and a host of different and unique dining areas, the structure currently taking shape on the drawing board reflects a heightened interest in food and food service at institutions of higher learning, said Stevens.

“Food is a big deal now, and it’s important when it comes to recruiting students — you have to be on the cutting edge of this,” he explained. “These facilities now require a lot of social space, a lot of dining opportunities, a number of seating arrangements, and some quiet space; there’s a lot that goes into these now.”

The walls tell of other recent projects at Bay Path University and Springfield College, and also the Big E, which is exploring possible renovations to several of its historic buildings, including the coliseum (see related story, page 6). Stevens noted that such private-sector work is both necessary and, at the moment, at least, steady enough to keep the firm busy and in a contemplative mode when it comes to expansion and bringing on more staff.

dining commons at Western New England University

One of the Tessier firm’s renderings of the planned dining commons at Western New England University.

Still, like many in businesses across virtually every sector of the economy, Tessier has some doubts about the staying power of the current expansion, if one chooses to call it that, and noted that there are risks to bringing on more staff, especially in a sector as vulnerable to swings in the economy as this one.

He believes the economy is improving, but, like most others, would like to see more solid evidence that the upswing is real.

“We could be hiring others, and we probably should be,” he explained. “When you’re leery about whether the economy is really improving, you tend to hold back, even when you think you need to hire.”

For this issue and its focus on architecture, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at … well, the walls and easels at Tessier Associates and at what they reveal about where the company has been, and where it’s going.

Designs on Diversification

Tracing the history of the company, Stevens said it was started by Henry Tessier in 1923, who was still working part-time when Stevens joined the firm in the mid-’80s.

“Henry worked until he was in his mid-90s,” he recalled. “He obviously liked what he did — he was still coming into the office every day.”

Under the tutelage of Tessier and later his son, Bob, and fellow partners Doug Engebretson, who retired in 2012, and Stevens, the firm developed a number of niches within the broad realm of architecture, including everything from churches to those aforementioned bank branches.

The former remains a source of some work, said Stevens, noting that the portfolio includes several projects in this category, including the new Immaculate Conception Church in Holyoke, St. Patrick’s Church in Springfield, Nativity Church in Holyoke, and Holy Name Church in Springfield.

As for those bank braches, they were a solid source of work decades ago as area institutions sought to develop a presence in many of the emerging suburbs.

“There was a period of time just after I came here when we really did nothing but bank branches,” he said, noting that, in those days — and perhaps not so much now — architects could, and did, get creative with design of the teller lines and other elements of those structures to give them individuality.

But the firm’s main bread and butter starting in the mid-’80s was public-school projects, said Stevens. The portfolio includes initiatives across this region and beyond, with most of them in response to growing populations and/or a need to replace or modernize aging infrastructure. The list includes additions and renovations at Frontier Regional School in South Deerfield, Commerce High School in Springfield, and JFK Middle School in Northampton, as well as new construction at Quarry Hill Elementary School in Monson and Grafton Elementary School in Grafton, among many others.

But by 2004, the pipeline of school projects dwindled to a trickle as the state all but stopped funding schools and changed the formula for how such initiatives were funded. By the time conditions changed and money started flowing more freely, the selection process for architects had changed, adding another layer to the challenge of landing such projects. The last one the firm handled was Hoosic Valley Regional Middle and High School in Cheshire in 2012.

With school work dwindling and prospects for improvement in that realm dim, the firm has done what it has always done since Warren Harding was in the White House and Babe Ruth was leading the American League in home runs, said Stevens — create a diversified portfolio and adjust its focus to where the work happens to be at a given time.

Indeed, an architecture firm cannot survive 93 years and an untold number of economic twists and turns, including both the Great Depression and Great Recession, without being flexible, resourceful, and resilient, and the Tessier firm is deserving of all those adjectives.

Drawing on Experience

Recently, for example, the firm has garnered a number of projects in higher education, tapping into one of the pillars of the region’s economy.

“We’ve been relying mainly on private work in recent years,” said Stevens, “and we’ve been successful in getting some nice projects. We’ve done a lot of work at area colleges and universities.”

Perhaps the signature initiative in this realm is the $30 million Center for the Sciences and Pharmacy building on the Western New England University campus, undertaken in 2009. “That was a significant project for us, coming right after the recession,” Stevens explained.

But there have been many others, including several projects at Bay Path University, including, most recently, renovation to some of the science labs. There has also been work at Springfield College, Elms College, and other schools.

The Center for the Sciences and Pharmacy

The Center for the Sciences and Pharmacy building at Western New England University is one of Tessier’s signature projects.

Meanwhile, there have been other forms of commercial work, including an office addition and renovation project for UniFirst Corp., a Wilmington-based supplier of uniforms and provider of related services that has a facility in Springfield, as well as another site in New York that the Tessier firm is also working on.

Those projects and others have provided Stevens with a sense that the economy is improving, that business owners are becoming more confident about the immediate future, and that this scenario may continue for some time.

And this sentiment wasn’t present in the years immediately after the Great Recession, even when analysts were saying the economic picture was brightening and businesses in many sectors, including those in the broad realm of construction, should see some trickle-down.

“Things were questionable in the few first years after the recession ended — I would hear that the economy was improving, but we weren’t feeling it,” he explained. “But at this point, it seems like there’s more activity.

“We have backlog — you can see enough work out for a year or two,” he went on, “and that’s pretty unusual for recent years.”

This is what he tells builders who will call and ask him what he thinks and what he knows — calls that come often, because, historically, architecture has been an accurate barometer of the economy; when firms are busy, that’s a good sign, and when they’re not … well, no explanation needed.

“The climate is improving,” he said in conclusion. “I’m feeling much more optimistic than I was a few years ago.”

Lines of Business

Tucked in a corner of the Tessier firm’s conference room is an aerial photo of the Elms College campus, complete with the wellness center the company designed.

Stevens couldn’t pinpoint the date of that project, but did know that it was some time ago. That was an acknowledgement that what’s on the walls and easels of such firms don’t exactly (or always) reflect current events.

But those items tell a story, or, as noted earlier, the story.

In this case, it’s one of a history of creativity — both on the drawing board and in business itself — and resiliency.

In other words, Tessier has developed a blueprint for surviving and thriving in changing times.

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

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]

Architecture Sections

Lighting the Way

spray-chalk displays

The spray-chalk displays drawing people to the Holiday Market are one way to make an impact downtown with little cost.

Frank Sleegers wants his classroom to extend far beyond the UMass campus.

“For these students, it’s not just the work they do to get grades, but they actually care about what they do; they see their work is important and can make an impact,” said the urban design professor at UMass Amherst.

He was speaking of a recent project by a group of landscape architecture students, who worked with the Springfield Central Cultural District to improve the downtown pedestrian walkway known as Market Place and attract more activity there.

Morgan Drewniany, director of the Cultural District — an organization launched in 2014 to cultivate arts and activities and generate interest downtown — said the student “interventions,” as she and Sleegers called the work, involved bringing light to Market Place with paper lanterns and using spray-chalk designs on downtown sidewalks to get people thinking, and talking, about Market Place as a destination.

The short-term project was intended to coincide with the opening of the Downtown Springfield Holiday Market, a joint project of the Springfield Business Improvement District (SBID) and the Cultural District intended to boost retail sales downtown during the holiday season by bringing artists and vendors to spaces located between 1331 and 1391 Main St. and throughout Tower Square.

“One group of students incorporated spray chalk, directing people to the Holiday Market and Market Place itself as well, and really getting people talking about walking and walkability downtown,” Drewniany told BusinessWest. “The other group utilized a series of paper lanterns to bring light to the space, to create more of a welcoming environment, somewhere people really want to linger and spend more time checking out the shops.”

A third group project is working on a longer-term project downtown to be unveiled this spring, she added, giving no details but calling it “an innovative, moveable park.”

Market Place, also known as Market Street, is a pedestrian-only walkway running parallel to Main Street from Falcons Way to Harrison Avenue. A bustling space in the days of Johnson’s Bookstore, today, the walkway typically gets little use except as a cut-through between the downtown towers and the MassMutual Center.

Drewniany said Sleeger’s students had been working on city-improvement ideas for several years through the Office of Planning and Economic Development, a partnership supported with a small Community Development Block Grant. Since its formation, the Cultural District now oversees the projects, which typically take place twice a year, during the fall and spring semesters.

“This year the city planner was able to loop me into the students, to really make their plans a reality,” she said. “Whereas a lot of the students’ ideas in the past had been incorporated into future city plans, we were able to do an independent project where students were able to see their ideas realized. The city has the capacity to make things happen in a few years; we, as a cultural district, are able to focus on it and make it happen in a couple of months.”

Real-world Experience

Sleeger said the Springfield projects usually involve undergraduate students in the fall and graduate students in the spring.

“We’ve worked in a number of neighborhoods that needed some help, that were disadvantaged, where sidewalks were crumbled, things like that,” he told BusinessWest. “Last year, we did an intervention downtown with high-school students from Putnam [Vocational Technical Academy]. Because the city liked our approach, we were able to do some short-term interventions.”

Indeed, last spring, students from the UMass Graduate Urban Design Studio — after consulting with Springfield residents, city Planning and Economic Development officials, the Cultural District, Focus Springfield, small entrepreneurs, and Putnam students — staged six installations throughout downtown Springfield using what Sleegers calls ‘tactical urbanism,’ an emerging form of urban design that seeks to enliven cities with temporary interventions that are inexpensive and easy to install.

The ongoing partnership between the UMass program and the city is “a great idea that also educates the students who come to Springfield,” Sleegers said. “They see what’s here — a city with great potential. We can do something with very little money that has a high impact. That’s typical of other cities as well; parts of the country are struggling, and cities don’t have big bucks, but we can make them better.”

For discussions of longer-term improvements, students have worked with entities ranging from planning officials to the SBID to DevelopSpringfield. In one project, they developed ideas to enhance safety at the X neighborhood in Springfield, aiming to improve pedestrian crossing and making aesthetic enhancements.

“We’re proud of these contributions, and we have a great working relationship with the city,” Sleegers said, noting that the Springfield Design Center — which opened in Court Square in 2009 as a collaboration among UMass programs in Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning, Architecture and Design, and Agriculture — is now housed in the UMass Center at Springfield, located in Tower Square.

“We continue to work on other ways to make our work more visible,” he said. “These interventions have positive effects, and we get a great response.”

Art and Commerce

Sleegers said too many people have yet to discover the potential of downtown Springfield, and that his students are only helping to showcase it. “Our conversations with the shop owners of the Holiday Market were most inspiring. Their presence transformed the place immediately. I want to get our students involved and embraced. These experiences make them grow and succeed.”

Drewniany said she would like to see the connection between the Cultural District and UMass continue to grow.

“For Springfield to continue its growth and success, we really need to capitalize on all the relationships we have, and work with students who have some real ideas to help bring us to the next level of being a really innovative city,” she said, calling her organization “economic development through arts and culture,” which includes landscape design.

“Young people — and employers who have employees who are young — are really looking at the amenities a city has, not just how cheap rent is. They want to see we have galleries, that we have cool events happening, public art you can walk around. We really see that as something necessary for the future of the city.”

In a sense, those luminarias and chalk designs are just another way to light the path to that goal.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Architecture Sections

Common Ground

Future residents of Village Hill Cohousing

Future residents of Village Hill Cohousing with the agreed-upon preliminary site design.

Cohousing isn’t for everyone — for example, people who just want to be left alone should probably take a pass. But for individuals and families who crave a balance between privacy and community, it can be a highly attractive proposition. Kraus & Fitch Architects and Transformations Inc. have been hard at work designing Village Hill Cohousing in Northampton, but they haven’t worked alone; future residents have plenty of input in what promises to be an intriguing, collaborative, ultra-energy-efficient development.

Peggy Gillespie loves her home in Belchertown. But the 67-year-old widow plans to move to Village Hill Cohousing once the development is built on the grounds of the former Northampton State Hospital, and has been attending meetings for the past year with other prospective residents.

“I love living and working together with people, and the idea of being surrounded by a community while having autonomy in my own private space is very appealing to me,” she said. “Cohousing is like living in a village, and I hope to be able to help young families who move there. And since residents are committed to helping each other, it’s a guarantee that you will have a lot of people to support you if you are dealing with an illness or physical disability.”

Deborah Schifter shares similar feelings, but finds the community particularly attractive for environmental reasons. When she was in her 20s, she lived on a kibbutz in Israel and enjoyed the camaraderie in the close-knit community, as well as the fact that people with diverse talents shared responsibility for its upkeep.

But one of the most prominent selling points of Village Hill for Schifter is that every structure in the neighborhood will be a zero-net-energy building.

“We’re heading into a time that will be very different due to climate change, and sustainability and living in a community with people who are knowledgeable about energy resources are among the things that appeal to me,” she said.

The women belong to a group of 15 future residents who have put down a $5,000 deposit to pay for architectural fees for the new development. They come from diverse locations — local towns and cities, the Boston area, Cape Cod, New York, New Jersey, Florida, even Saudi Arabia — and attend frequent meetings held to ensure their wishes are taken into consideration during the design phase of the project.

The initial plan for the anticipated community came about as a result of a collaboration between Amherst-based Kraus Fitch Architects Inc. and Transformations Inc., which was awarded a contract by MassDevelopment to create Village Hill Cohousing on the last remaining large parcel of land slated for residential use on Village Hill.

Transformations President Carter Scott said his firm submitted a plan in response to a request for proposals for the 41-acre site, which contained a letter of intent from Kraus Fitch Architects and a drawing of the proposed cohousing neighborhood created by architect Laura Fitch.

Mary Kraus cooks dinner for residents

Mary Kraus cooks dinner for residents in her cohousing community, where members share a meal several times a week.

However, in addition to the cohousing neighborhood, the plan includes construction of 53 units of conventional housing in a different section of the tract that will be designed by a different architect.

Both neighborhoods will be within walking distance to downtown, but the cohousing development will be unique. It will contain a spacious parking lot, 10 duplexes, and 12 single-family homes ranging in size from about 700 to 1,600 square feet, with space for a community garden.

However, the most important structure will be a 4,600-square-foot common house, where members will likely share meals several nights a week. Its interior will boast a gathering room with a kitchen and dining area large enough to accommodate all of the residents, as well as a children’s playroom, an exercise room outfitted with equipment, a game room, a guest suite with two bedrooms, and storage space.

“Two things define cohousing and make it different than a condominium association,” Scott said. “One is having a large common house that is used frequently by all of the residents, and the other is the fact that members are involved in the development process.”

Principal architect Mary Kraus says her firm is one of a handful in the country that specializes in cohousing and sustainable design, and has been involved in at least 30 of these developments. In the past, groups with established goals came to them when they were ready to establish a new community, but Village Hill is unique because, when the idea was conceived, they had no idea how much interest it would generate.

So she set about marketing the proposed neighborhood long before MassDevelopment awarded the contract to Transformations. “We held three informational meetings, which were highly successful. They attracted about 130 people,” she said.

Scott added that enthusiasm soared when he mentioned he planned to build zero-net-energy homes in the community. “People at the meetings broke out in spontaneous applause, which was really exciting. And one of the Planning Board members got tears in his eyes when he looked at the plan,” he recalled, adding that an e-mail list of interested people was created during the meetings.

Involved Process

After a group of individuals and couples expressed a decided interest in the community, Kraus began the process of getting them together to solicit information about their values and goals.

“These things are important, but the meetings involved more than what was addressed; our goal is to help the group build a social community while they are designing their physical community,” she told BusinessWest, adding that gatherings can be stressful due to differing viewpoints.

Peggy Gillespie, left, and Deborah Schifter

Peggy Gillespie, left, and Deborah Schifter are among a group of individuals actively involved in the planning of Village Hill Cohousing.

But Kraus and Fitch Architects has developed a methodology to help large groups make decisions efficiently, in a way that supports connection and collaboration. “When we work on cohousing projects, we facilitate a series of participatory workshops in which future neighbors work together to come to consensus on key decisions for their community,” Kraus explained. “In the case of Village Hill Cohousing, the workshop topics included values, a vision statement, sustainable design, site design, common facilities, and the size and location of individual homes.”

Kraus sent out an online survey prior to each session, which included questions and recommendations pertinent to the topic. The responses were analyzed, and once areas of agreement and divergent opinion were identified, the agenda was tailored to focus on areas that needed to be resolved through discussion.

“The surveys helped us make the most efficient use of the group’s time,” she told BusinessWest. “During the workshops, we model respectful communication and active listening to create a safe environment so members can speak frankly, yet remain open to other ideas, even though it might be challenging. We staged three two-day workshops and three day-long sessions which helped us understand where the group was in consensus and where we had to have difficult conversations.”

And there were definitely differences of opinion.

“Some people wanted an exercise room in the common house, while others wanted a meditation room,” Schifter said, explaining that they compromised when they realized an exercise room was needed to house equipment, but a multi-purpose space could be designed to feel contemplative. Other issues included the number of pets a person could have and what the owner’s responsibility would be in monitoring their behavior.

During one workshop, group members were given small building blocks so they could simulate the layout of their community, which changed as they moved tiny structures around the table.

“But by working together, they built relationships and dealt with their fears as well as interpersonal challenges,” Kraus said.

The workshops began last August, and a basic design was completed by the end of last winter. Members continued meeting on their own after that, and today, a membership committee, design group, communication committee, and facilitation committee have been formed.

Several meetings were held in Schifter’s Northampton home, and she said some future residents plan to move to the area before the development is finished to avoid frequent, long commutes. “We started meeting every two to three weeks during the spring and continued through July. We had a potluck lunch at noon, followed by a business meeting from 1 to 5 p.m., but it often went over the timeframe,” Schifter said, noting that they have begun meeting again at Gillespie’s home. “People have already made friends, and some are starting to get together socially.”

Kraus said the facilitation process that fostered goodwill and built consensus for their cohousing clients can be used in a wide range of business situations, such as creating a design for a large stakeholder group or helping a company improve their decision-making process while fostering positive working relationships among their staff members.

Moving Forward

Ground is expected to be broken next spring for the zero-net-energy community, and Scott is excited about it.

He is on the governor’s Zero Net Energy Building Advisory Council, and cited a long list of prestigious awards that Transformations Inc. has received for its work in this arena, including the Northeast Sustainable Energy Assoc. Public Impact Award for building more zero-net-energy homes than any other member.

“In 2012, we built two homes that produced enough energy to drive an electric car 30,000 miles per year,” he noted. “But we will be able to go much further on the sustainability curve with this cohousing project because we are not building on spec, but for a group of ecologically minded people.

“Village Hill Cohousing will be one of the most sustainable communities in the country, based on the climate-change perspective,” he went on. “Every home will have solar electric panels and dual-stage air-source heat pumps, which are incredibly efficient, and houses with basements will have air-source heat-pump water heaters.”

This new neighborhood on Village Hill promises to be an attractive addition to the former state-school property, which has been transformed into an oasis with a wide variety of housing options.

The combination of many positive factors, including a close-knit community, have caused Scott and his family to consider moving there. “We haven’t made a decision yet, but it’s a nice way to live,” he said.

Gillespie agreed. “I think people are longing for this type of environment. They miss knowing their neighbors and being able to interact with them on a frequent basis. Village Hill Cohousing will have a nice environment and be a great place for people,” she said.

Kraus and her husband have lived in Pioneer Valley Cohousing in Amherst for 21 years and love being part of a close community.

“It has exceeded our expectations,” she said. “Before we moved here, we didn’t realize just how vital small interactions are to us as a species. Cohousing recreates the type of neighborhood people lived in years ago.”