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Recent Projects Embody Firm’s Commitment to ‘Preserve, Adapt, Renew’

Stephen Jablonski (right) and Brian DeVriese.

Stephen Jablonski (right) and Brian DeVriese.

Architects Stephen Jablonski and Brian DeVriese have crafted an impressive legacy of projects involving schools, libraries, museums, parks, and a host of other structures. But rarely have they been tested by the time constraints they faced last summer when Springfield College tapped them for repairs of three tornado-damaged residence halls. The resulting success story is a lesson in teamwork, setting goals, and adapting to change.

When Stephen Jablonski and Brian DeVriese arrived at Springfield College on June 2, the morning after a devastating tornado ripped through the city, they were shocked by the extent of the damage on campus.
But they had no time to lose.
Due to a relationship that stretches back a decade and includes the award-winning Stitzer YMCA Center, college officials quickly tapped Jablonski DeVriese Architects to work with Erland Construction of East Windsor, Conn. to repair three hard-hit residence halls — International, Reed, and Massasoit — as well as a damaged power house.
There was one big question, however: could the job be done in a mere 10 weeks, or would students expecting to live in those dorms need to find other lodging for the start of the fall semester?
“We worked very carefully with the Springfield Building Department because we didn’t want anyone saying we were going too fast,” Jablonski said, looking back on a hectic summer that, indeed, saw all three dorms ready for students by mid-August.
“The Building Department worked excellently with us,” he recalled. “They could easily have said, ‘are you kidding? The whole city was hit by a tornado; we’re not going to approve anything for six months, but we’ll take it under advisement.’ They were there on site the first day.
“As far as we know, International Hall was the tallest building completely damaged in Springfield,” Jablonski added. “We’re not aware of another taller one in the direct path of the tornado, and it was completely repaired in two months.”
Jablonski and DeVriese sat down with BusinessWest recently to explain how that came to pass, and how the project fits into the philosophy of a firm committed to preserving the past while adapting to the often-harsh winds of circumstance.

Plan of Attack
The first step, of course, was turning that initial shock into a well-defined strategy.
“We had to do damage assessment of the dormitories,” DeVriese said. “We went through every room in every dorm and itemized all the damage. In all three, we had a list of every room and all the categories of damage that we could use as a starting point, helping the contractor develop an estimate for what it was going to take to repair the damage.”
Erland personnel secured broken window openings with temporary closures. But a big thunderstorm rolled through less than a week after the tornado and damaged most of those quick fixes. Meanwhile, Jablonski said, “we had to ask, ‘can we salvage these buildings at all?’ We had an intuition that they were definitely salvageable.”
DeVriese, who recently forged a business partnership with Jablonski, noted that the tornado had blown many of the windows out of the building, ripped solid-core doors off the hinges, and damaged much of the furniture. “Light fixtures were hanging down from the ceilings, and there was a tremendous amount of water inside the building. That was mainly International Hall; there was some of that damage in Massasoit and Reed, but to a lesser degree.”
Once they decided the structures, even International, were salvageable, the architects and contractors had a significant challenge: to complete the work in time to house returning students.
Even as cleanup crews were just starting to remove fallen trees, Jablonski said, meetings were quickly convened involving college officials, insurance carriers and agents, and the architects and builders, during which all parties agreed to cost estimates and orders of new doors, windows, furniture, exterior metal panels, and other materials.
Jablonski credited the college’s insurance carriers for acting quickly — though they did have a financial incentive to do so.
“We said to the insurance company, ‘do you want to approve this list right now and get this stuff ordered, or run the risk of students going to the Sheraton to live off-campus?’” — an insured expense no one wanted to trigger, he said. “Even though they brought in their own experts, we shared a lot of our analysis with them, and that was the success of it. We hit the target and did not have any delayed openings at all.”
After seeing several architectural renderings, the college decided to go beyond simple repairs by replacing the original exterior of the building with higher-quality, better-insulated panels than what had existed before, Jablonski said.
“Most people feel it looks a lot better now than it did, no question,” he added. “The windows are much more high-quality, and we put in much better insulation; there was no insulation behind the enamel, so we put in a nice air barrier. It used to get a lot of wind-driven leaks.”
R&R Windows of Easthampton provided the aluminum replacement windows and new aluminum panels, while the new doors came from Hardware Specialties of West Springfield, Collins Electric of Chicopee made electrical repairs, and Harry Grodsky Co. of Springfield repaired damage to the HVAC system.
“One thing I’ve been impressed with about Erland — they don’t just order windows and start installing them,” Jablonski said. “They put one in, test it for water penetration, for air leakage; actually an engineering company comes to look at it and blast it with moisture and high wind pressure. And if it doesn’t pass, they have a meeting with everyone about what they did wrong, and keep doing different configurations until they pass the test.”
As new windows, doors, and exterior panels were installed, floor tiles were replaced in only a portion of rooms in order to stay on schedule (floors in other rooms were repaired, cleaned, and waxed). And 10 weeks and $5 million after the twister ripped through, little evidence remained of anything other than a summer remodeling job.

Study in Teamwork

YMCA Center at Springfield College

The design of the Stitzer YMCA Center at Springfield College has earned multiple awards for Jablonski DeVriese Architects.

Last June, DeVriese, who had a company in Shelburne Falls, joined Stephen Jablonski Architects as a partner. “Brian and I worked together for 10 years; he was a consultant with me on projects,” Jablonski said. “But we decided it would be a stronger company to have a partnership, so we formed a corporation.”
“My experience has been mainly restoration and renovation types of projects,” DeVriese said, “and quite a number of municipal projects, which requires familiarity with public bidding laws. So I think that, combined, we cover pretty much the whole gamut, public and private.”
With the name change came a new discussion of where the firm should focus its energies.
“As a young architect, I was trained to design everything, and I guess I believe in that,” Jablonski said. “But when we formed a corporation, we took the opportunity to really look at what our strengths are. And it seems like almost all the projects both Brian and I worked on individually, even going back to being employed by other architects, were renovations and restorations. So we came up with the motto, ‘preserve, adapt, renew.’ I think that has a real selling power in New England because there’s so much that needs preservation, adaptation, and renewal.”
The next natural question, he said, was what types of customers they should focus on.
“We’re identified really strongly with three or four sectors,” he explained, including higher education; municipal and government work, which includes schools, libraries, park buildings, and museums; and historical buildings of all kinds, which can cut across many sectors.
The firm also does some residential work, “but in Western New England, we’ve found it’s very difficult to be successful in residential projects; there aren’t enough multi-million-dollar houses going up — certainly, in this economy, there are zero.”
The firm’s various areas of focus give it a diversity that can withstand economic trends, Jablonski explained.
“The nature of municipal work tends to be ebbing and flowing, and recently there’s been a serious ebb, and we don’t know when it’s going to start flowing again,” he said. “The great thing about higher education is, they’re fueled by tuitions and alumni donations and endowments. They’re not independent of the economy, but they’re often able to do things the other sectors can’t.”
The partners like to talk about ‘adaptive reuse’ when describing projects, and the firm’s design of the Museum of Springfield History at the Quadrangle is a good example. “It was an old Verizon office building,” Jablonski said. “Springfield Museums, because of its location, wanted to acquire it, but how could they use this as a museum? They didn’t want an office building.
“When people talk about sustainability and sound design, we feel that one of the best ways to embody that is to take resources that are already there — the bricks were already there, the wood, the windows, everything was there, but it didn’t have a current use. A lot of it is imagination, when something is transformed into another thing, but making sure it’s up to date with modern building codes.”
That museum project led to Springfield College hiring the firm for its complete renovation of Judd Gymnasia, renamed the Stitzer YMCA Center. For that design, Jablonski DeVries Architects received the Paul E. Tsongas Award from Preservation Massachusetts, as well as the Springfield Preservation Trust Award for Restoration/Stewardship.
The project had a museum component, Jablonski said, and the wife of college President Richard Flynn is a trustee at Springfield Museums. “She was aware of our work at the history museum, and really liked it, and said, ‘why not give these guys a try?’”
When that call came again last summer, under much more trying circumstances, ‘preserve, adapt, renew’ was more than a motto — it’s why students at International, Reed, and Massasoit halls didn’t have to find a new home.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Architecture Sections
At Dietz & Co. Architects, Sustainability Is a Way of Life
Kerry Dietz

Kerry Dietz, says the design work her firm does must meet clients’ needs and budgets and also create a sustainable and comfortable environment for the people who will occupy or work in the buildings.

Kerry Dietz was talking about sustainable building design.
And although many people associate the concept with ‘green’ construction, to Dietz, the word ‘sustainable’ encompasses a wide range of considerations.
“Design is critical and happens at many levels, and the word ‘sustainable”’means a lot of different things to our clients,” said the principal of Springfield-based Dietz and Co. Architects Inc.
At Dietz, it includes the comfort and health of those who will live and work in a structure, the aesthetics inside and out, and the costs to maintain a structure during its life cycle, which is especially important to nonprofits that may not have the resources to do maintenance work in the future. “It also includes the materials, the context a building sits in, and the image the client wants to project, because a building can become a brand (more about that later). “It is all critical to us,” she said.
Her company’s tagline is “design that looks good, does good,” and that value has remained key to the way the firm has approached its projects for the past 25 years.
“People know they can count on us to do quality work and do it right,” Dietz told BusinessWest, adding that the entire staff believes their designs should make a difference in the community. “We have never faltered from that initial desire to create architecture that also serves. We are a company that pledges to be a responsible citizen in everything we do.”
Their projects range from affordable housing, which has always been a mainstay of the firm, to education, health care, commercial, institutional, and historic-preservation work. Part of the company’s success is attributed not only to having employees who are experts in their fields, but also to the fact that everyone working on a project is well-versed in its finances.
“We are an open-book company, and my employees know the budgets on our projects, which includes how much money we are making and how many new jobs there will be,” said Dietz, adding that, when there is a profit, everyone shares in it. “People who come here from other firms are surprised at this, but I believe my employees need to know the rules of the game and what the parameters are in terms of hours and months allocated to it.”

Blueprint for Success
Dietz said architectural firms in Western Mass. have to be generalists. “There is not enough work here to be a niche operator unless you are global in scale,” she explained.
However, one of the firm’s challenges is competing with Boston-based companies. “Every time the economy goes south, they come here. And sometimes they bring a level of expertise we don’t have,” she explained. “For example, we haven’t designed 50 schools, and we have never designed a library, so we will never get one. People want to hire someone who has done the job before.”

Michael Erickson, an architectural associate at Dietz & Co. Architects Inc.,

Michael Erickson, an architectural associate at Dietz & Co. Architects Inc., works on a design for one of their many projects that range from affordable housing to education, health care, commercial, institutional, and historic preservation.

The firm has several specialties, but its bread and butter has always come from work in the affordable-housing industry. “We understand the funding cycles and the regulations. Very often, it means scrambling to put together an application, then having to wait, but we are very familiar with that. Our core value is about serving the community.
“Architectural firms are altruistic to begin with, but for this firm, serving the community is at the core of our values,” she continued. “We tend to attract employees whose desire is to serve, and we do a lot of work for nonprofits. We understand the pressures they are under in terms of funding.”
Another niche for the company is education, especially colleges and universities, said Dietz, adding that the firm is also well-versed in the challenges, fiscal and otherwise, facing both public and private institutions. “Their decision-making and funding sources and flow are totally different from affordable housing.”
When schools receive grants, the work has to be done right away, and most institutions are dependent on state funding and bonding, so any time a financial crisis hits, it affects their budgets immediately, she went on. “But we like doing the work. It ranges from designing new environmental centers to cafés in science buildings, to work in their libraries.”
Banks are also a specialty. The firm designed Easthampton Savings Bank’s new main office and is renovating some of its branches. “We have also done work for United Bank and have been involved in master plans and studies,” Dietz said.

Staying Afloat
In recent years, the firm’s focus has shifted. It is designing less affordable housing and has broadened its base, in part because the economy has made it difficult for nonprofit developers to get funding.
“The heart of the recession was horrid; it was an equal-opportunity destroyer, and we were lucky to survive it. In 2008 and 2009, we had the worst two years we have ever had. Then in 2010 we had the best year we have ever had in our history,” Dietz said.
She attributes the firm’s success to carefully crafted strategic planning, and said its forecasting tools yielded indications that the recession was imminent. “By October of 2008, it was clear we were headed toward a major disaster. And we knew 2009 would be horrible and we were unlikely to get any new work.”
Although many architectural firms laid off employees or closed their doors, Dietz chose to keep all 19 employees on staff. She cut her own salary and reduced employees’ hours, taking advantage of a graduated program within the state’s unemployment system.
“It allowed us to reduce hours without substantially penalizing our employees, which was important, because we still had projects we were working on,” Dietz said. And although it would have cost less to lay employees off, she knew that, by keeping them, the company was positioned well, as there would be clients who would want to take advantage of declining construction prices.
The company has won a number of awards, and individuals within it have also earned accolades. Dietz said one of the firm’s architects received an e-mail from the Department of Public Health stating that her submission for the Caring Health Center, a recent project in Springfield delayed by the June 1 tornado, “was the best she had ever seen in her history.”
“The ability to make these people happy is a huge selling point for us,” Dietz said, adding that it takes a lot of expertise and work to meet complex and detailed requirements.
She added that much of the housing design they do is dependent on low-income tax credits, and they are also knowledgeable about those requirements due to their 25-year history in that arena.

Attention to Detail
An architectural design contains many elements and can become a “brand,” said Dietz, as she talked about the building the firm created for the YWCA of Western Mass. about 10 years ago.
“The organization almost died about 25 years ago,” said Dietz. “They came to us when they were on their last legs and had sites scattered in a variety of office buildings. They told us they wanted a new facility that looked corporate and would let people know their importance as one of the largest human-service agencies in the area.”
So the firm designed a building for the YWCA that “became a reflection of who they are and their vision for the future. Sustainable meant a lot of things to them, including choosing a high-efficiency heating and air-conditioning system as well as exterior materials that wouldn’t require maintenance,” she said.
Dietz said it’s critical to her company’s mission to think about who will use the buildings they design. Office workers need to have enough light and should not be distracted by noise or each other, for example.
“We really try to integrate our philosophy about sustainable design into everything we do; it’s not new to us, and some of the folks who work with me have been thinking this way for 20 years — sustainability is like religion,” she told BusinessWest, explaining that, although the U.S. Green Building Council developed a system of measurements for green building and Dietz and some of her employees are LEED-certified, there are a variety of measures that can be used to promote sustainability.
“We look at the human cost in terms of materials, rather than just the dollar cost,” she said. For example, although many buildings contain vinyl floor tiles, maintaining them requires expensive chemicals, which are not good for the environment; the people who work with them or the employees who will inhale the fumes of the cleaning solutions.

Unchanging Goals
“Since we opened our doors in 1985, we’ve worked to provide an environment that’s both challenging and nurturing,” Dietz said, adding that this begins within the company and extends to the nuances of every project.
“We never lose sight of our ultimate goal: to interpret our clients’ personal vision and create spaces that look great, feel great, and serve the needs of the people who will use these spaces,” she added.
And they do so in a way that creates comfort — and sustainability — now and for generations to come.

Architecture Sections
At Studio One, Knocked Down Doesn’t Mean Knocked Out

Greg Zorzi (right, with Chris Novelli)

Greg Zorzi (right, with Chris Novelli) says it was important to get back to work after the tornado, for the sake of not just ongoing projects, but also Studio One employees.

When remembering the events that took place on June 1 and 2, Greg Zorzi paused and looked out the window onto the streetscape below in downtown Springfield, and when he began to talk again, his words were shaken, yet strong and clear.
Like many in Springfield and beyond, the historic tornado changed Zorzi’s world in a single day. The stately Civil War-era brick block known as South Commons that his parents, the original Studio One architects, had renovated and owned was badly damaged one day, then demolished the next. Among several other businesses were the offices of Studio One architects and planners, as well as the Zorzi home.
Sitting in the offices that became the latest headquarters for this architectural firm that has been in existence in Springfield since 1974, he said that, while the business was dealt a great blow both physically and spiritually, the show must go on.
“I strongly believe in the expression that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” he said, smiling. “We had a city water main break about 10 years ago down there, and we were flooded. We thought that was bad!
“But not only was it important for us to get back to work, to get to the projects that we had been working on right after the tornado hit,” he continued, “I’m responsible to all these people who work here. That is what kicked in. We can’t focus on the negative; we have to move forward.”
Talking about what has driven Studio One since the earliest days of the firm, back when his parents, Peter and Melinda Zorzi, were principals, he said that one of the greatest factors in their strength is wrapped in one word, endurance. “You need a tremendous amount of drive to succeed in this business.”
It’s not just all sweat that makes a good architect, he went on. “What we do, and what my father taught me from an early age, was to build goodwill with clients. That means going the extra mile, never mind whether something is an additional service or not. That’s the best advice I ever got. And because of that, folks call us back.”
Very soon after their offices were destroyed, Studio One relocated to 115 State St., and it was here that Zorzi spoke to BusinessWest. In a suite of rooms that doesn’t have the appearance of a makeshift space created on the quick, Zorzi told the story of how he came to be where he is today.
Glossy images of the buildings his firm has designed over the years line the walls, and with that backdrop, he said that the South Commons location may have been part of the firm’s identity — having been its home for over 25 years — but there’s a silver lining somewhere in that story, somehow.  It’s clear that the endurance he talks about will give Studio One a firm footing to set forth on its next endeavor (more on that later), to be started this fall.

Historic Preservation
A solid book of work in Studio One’s portfolio comes from multi-family housing and SRO (single-room occupancy) projects, and this goes back to the days when Greg’s father Peter was at the helm. Projects have ranged from luxury condo units to the redevelopment of historic properties for housing in Westfield, with a range that covers most of Southern New England.
The firm was one of the businesses instrumental in the revitalization of the historic Matoon Street area in Springfield. Years later, historically sensitive new construction took place in that district, and that, Zorzi said, is one area where his firm excels.
Reiterating the notion of goodwill that he mentioned earlier, he said this has been a great asset not just for his clients, but for his business as well. With many projects over the years funded by HUD money, sometimes going the extra mile meant a repeat customer — many times over.

South Commons, pre-tornado,

South Commons, pre-tornado, was Studio One’s home for more than 25 years.

“One of the distinctions of our firm is that we are very willing to work up front with our clients, especially with those HUD projects,” he said. “They might need assistance with funding, or any amount of assistance in getting their project off the ground. Oftentimes we’re not paid a nickel until the construction documents are 100% done. Then we receive DPG [demonstration program grant] monies from HUD — and then we’re paid. We’re way out there though from the start.”
Repeat customers, from HAP Inc. to Domus in Westfield to the Sisters of Saint Joseph, have been a significant component to how Zorzi’s firm has kept busy and how, unlike other firms its size, it has never had to downsize in staff. “Again, from working with my father, this is how I learned how to build a business,” he said.
With his father in a strong leadership role from the start, Zorzi laughed when talking about succession issues when he became president. While Peter is still active in the firm — “he knows so many people in the industry; he’s an incredible asset, and we still get work from his numerous contacts” — it was natural for the child who started running errands at the age of 10 to eventually take over someday.
After graduating from Boston Architectural College in the 1980s, Zorzi went to work for a large firm in the Hub. It was good experience, he said, but he knew he wanted to return to a smaller-sized shop.
“I was still working there,” he remembered, “when I asked my dad one day at a wedding, ‘are you going to ask me to join the firm or not?’ His response was, ‘I thought you were happy in Boston!’ and then, ‘of course!’”

Student Loans
There are many events that can shape the history of a business. While the events that took place after the tornado are a significant obstacle, Zorzi firmly said that this is a hurdle, but not a dead end.
His comments were carefully thought out, and it’s clear there’s a lot of hurt still there. But he repeated again that one word as an overarching answer to all of what transpired: “endurance.”
“When the city demolished South Commons, we were all greatly saddened,” he said. “I thought the city’s approach was heavy handed and capricious, and not thought out. Those buildings were secured. When we found that block in 1980, it was in worse shape than what happened by the tornado — the section of wall that was damaged and knocked down was a non-load-bearing wall.
“But the worst part,” he continued, “is that we’re licensed architects, and we weren’t even consulted on the fate of those buildings. We were told by City Hall that FEMA was calling the shots, but we later found out that was wrong, that the building commission was. No question in my mind, those buildings on the National Register of Historic Places could have been saved. It’s hurtful. I think the city has made some grave errors in judgment, and we’re calling them out on that.”
Then he stood up from the desk and called in his project manager, Chris Novelli. “There might be a good ending to this story after all,” Zorzi said.
It will start this fall, as Novelli teaches a graduate-level seminar in the Architecture + Design Department at UMass Amherst, to be held in Court Square. “It’s going to be a South End reconstruction studio,” Novelli said. “It’s still in the planning stages at this point for scope and focus. And this is not going to be a purely tornado-based program, but rather taking a broader-based look at the South End — the history of it, what problems exist, and how to create development opportunities.
“I think the biggest goal is that the students learn something,” he continued. “But I personally hope that some of these ideas that the students will eventually come up with will help the city leaders and planners see potential for what they can do, rather than trying to get in any developer who is just willing to do anything there.”
Zorzi added that he would like to see business and civic leaders engaged in the session as well, to act as ‘clients’ of a sort for the students’ projects.
“This is about healing. Even if it’s just a vision for what can be, it’s a healing process,” Zorzi said. He was referring specifically to the UMass program, but it was clear that this architectural firm’s president was also thinking about Studio One, and the city he has called home most of his life.

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