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Peace of Mind

Magazine Commons represents an important measure of independence

Joan Ingersoll says Magazine Commons represents an important measure of independence for its residents, who are clients of the Mental Health Assoc.

When an apartment complex owned by the Springfield-based Mental Health Assoc. was destroyed in the 2011 tornado that touched down in the city’s South End — displacing 14 MHA clients who lived there — the architects at Studio One certainly empathized, because their offices were wrecked as well.

“We really could relate,” said Christopher Novelli, one of those architects. “These people lost their homes. It’s an emotional experience. We lost our office, and Greg Zorzi, our principal, had an apartment above our office, so he lost his home as well.”

So Zorzi and his team took plenty of satisfaction in designing Magazine Commons, the new, 16-unit apartment building on Magazine Street that replaces the former residential complex on Union Street. The new structure, set to open in November, was built next to the MHA’s headquarters on Worthington Street, in the city’s McKnight district, on a formerly blighted parcel.

“We had a building on Union Street that we’d operated for 30 years, but it was completely destroyed,” said Joan Ingersoll, president and CEO of the MHA, which provides residential and support services that promote independence, community engagement, and wellness for people impacted by mental illness, developmental disabilities, substance abuse, homelessness, and other challenges. “The people scattered; some relocated in other towns, and others stayed in Springfield.”

Several will be returning this fall to Magazine Commons, which is a success story on multiple levels, said Novelli, referring to its importance to the MHA and also its development on a brownfield site the city had been anxious to clean up for some time.

“There were contaminated soils, and it was unusable for building,” Novelli said. “The city owned it for years and issued several RFPs, but there were no takers on the property. Finally, the MHA came in.”

For this issue’s focus on architecture, BusinessWest talked with Novelli and Ingersoll about how the $4.6 million project came together, and how the new building will improve the lives of its tenants.

Home Again

In the aftermath of the tornado, residents of the destroyed complex dispersed to temporary housing, Ingersoll said, but, four years later, the MHA had no problem filling the 17,000-square-foot Magazine Commons with former Union Street residents as well as new clients.

“Some people are moving in from a group home, so this is their first opportunity to live independently,” she noted. “Some already live independently, so this is a different opportunity for them; they’re excited to move in. A couple of people had been in and out of different places and had periods of homelessness, and this is brand-new, stable housing.”

Chris Novelli (right, with Greg Zorzi)

Chris Novelli (right, with Greg Zorzi) says Magazine Commons achieves two goals: to restore housing to those who lost it in the tornado, and to help revitalize a neighborhood by replacing a brownfield site with a building that complements the architecture of its environs.

Darnella Johnson, one of the individuals preparing to move in, told BusinessWest she expects it to be comfortable and safe, and appreciated its proximity to a bus line — an amenity Ingersoll said is important to clients seeking to hold down employment.

Vincent Littlejohn is one of those. “I’m looking to get a job, and living close to a bus line will help me get to a job and my [support-group] meetings,” he said, noting that he, like Johnson, is currently living in a group home and is looking forward to a new measure of independence once interior construction is complete.

The facility, built by N.L. Construction in Ludlow, includes four apartments on the first floor and six apartments each on the second and third floors. The design also includes common space as well as office space for MHA staff.

“It has a community room for skill-building opportunities like cooking lessons, classes, and gatherings for social opportunities,” Ingersoll explained. “The staff offices are on the first floor — but this is not a staffed residence; the staff are outreach staff. All the residents have a certain number of hours the staff spends with them on things they need assistance with — managing medications, going to doctor appointments, teaching them how to take public transportation, how to manage money. Some of the staff will have the building as their home base, but they don’t sleep there.”

Novelli said the interior design reflects the needs of people who live independently but still face challenges.

“The people that will live there are all capable of self-preservation, all capable of living on their own. It’s not an assisted-living facility,” he explained. “There is some extra reinforcement in the bathrooms and some higher-durability finishes — rather than using carpet, it’s all tile in the living room, so it cleans up easily.”

Another challenge was fitting the building’s exterior into the historical context of the McKnight neighborhood — typically a priority for Studio One, which has plenty of experience designing housing complexes.

“We did a study of existing housing sites, and didn’t want to replicate them,” said Novelli. “But we wanted to make sure it fit in, as far as the exterior detailing, the massing of the building, and the proportions. We had several neighborhood meetings with people in the McKnight district.

“Some of the items in the original design were cut due to budget, but we were able to keep most of the proportions they wanted,” he went on. “All 16 are one-bed units, 550 square feet with large kitchens that open to living rooms.”

Studio One’s design also complied with — and in many cases exceeded — the city’s stretch codes, which mandate strict standards for energy efficiency, he added.

“We’re going beyond that with highly efficient mechanical systems, the building envelope, and thermal details,” he said, noting that such codes are becoming industry standard in many types of buildings, just as homeowners and developers are increasingly understanding the eventual cost savings. “The main concern has always been the bottom line rather than the long term. But people are starting to realize that, if you invest money at the start, you end up saving more money.”

Community Asset

Ingersoll was quick to note that Magazine Commons represents not just a housing complex, but a $4.6 million investment in the neighborhood, including sidewalks, lighting, neighborhood stabilization, and brownfield development. And it’s not an investment in just 16 current residents, but for dozens, even hundreds more over the coming decades, all of whom are trying to get to a more secure place in life, she added.

The MHA’s development team presented the plans to the McKnight Neighborhood Council in April of 2013, at which time the council voted to support it. The project has received financial support from the city of Springfield, the state Department of Housing and Community Development, the Mass. Community Development Assistance Corp., the state Department of Mental Health, MassDevelopment, the Affordable Housing Program of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston, and People’s United Bank.

With about $2 million in insurance money in hand from the tornado, the multiple funding partnerships meant the MHA had to finance only about $750,000 of the overall cost. Designated a HUD 202 project for people with disabilities, the apartments are subsidized, with residents paying no more than 30% of their income and HUD picking up part of the rental cost, Ingersoll noted.

“HUD told us we could rebuild in Springfield when we got the subsidies transferred over to the new project,” she explained. “We’ve been working with the city since then to identify and agree on the land, which was, fortunately, right next door to our main offices. The land was a pretty big parcel, but it was blighted and needed cleanup. We bought it for a dollar from the city, and we were able to revitalize the whole block.”

Novelli said the design included a specialized foundation system called a geo-pier, which densifies soil underneath a structure, so it can be built on what otherwise would be considered unsuitable soil.

Despite the challenges — or perhaps because of them — he and Zorzi are gratified to help the MHA rebuild a key component of its services. Founded in 1960, the agency operates 21 sites throughout Greater Springfield and serves more than 400 people annually through its residential and outreach programs.

Magazine Commons will be staffed weekdays from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., making the location next to MHA headquarters ideal for both residents and staff, Ingersoll added.

“It’s pretty unbelievable for the people moving in there,” she told BusinessWest. “I’ve had the opportunity to go in with some clients for the first time. When they see it, they become so excited. They think the units are beautiful. It’s a great opportunity for them.”

After all, she added, good housing is often a critical step in helping people procure good jobs and a brighter future. “It’s often the foundation for everything else in life.”


Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Architecture Sections
Dietz & Co. Marks a Milestone with Some Imaginative Initiatives

Dietz & Co. Architects owner Kerry Dietz

Dietz & Co. Architects owner Kerry Dietz in the lobby at the UMass Center at Springfield, which the firm designed.

Kerry Dietz says talk about what to do for the 30th anniversary of the architectural firm that bears her name started last fall, four or five months before the actual anniversary date.

There were discussions about some sort of party, she told BusinessWest, meaning one of those affairs with a deep invitation list including a wide range of clients, elected officials, and area business and economic-development leaders.

But those talks never got very far.

“You can have a party and get a caterer, and everyone can sit around and drink some chardonnay and eat some cheese; that would be cool,” she told BusinessWest. “And I love seeing all those people we’ve worked with over the past 30 years — it’s actually a lot of fun. But this just seems like a different place and time, and those kinds of parties…”

She never actually finished that sentence, but she didn’t have to. She’d already conveyed the message that the employees of Dietz & Co. Architects Inc. had decided to do something much more meaningful — and lasting — to mark a milestone that eludes many in this business, where one’s fortunes are tied inexorably to the peaks and valleys of the economy, and especially the latter.

Actually, they decided to do several things — starting with some much-needed work on the home of an 85-year-old resident on King Street in Springfield’s Old Hill neighborhood. As part of Revitalize Community Development Corp.’s annual Green-N-Fit Neighborhood Rebuild late last month, Dietz employees did some painting, cleaned out the yard, and repaired the decking on his porch, among other projects.

In June, employees will host a cookout for residents of the Soldiers Home in Holyoke and make a $5,000 donation for medical equipment. And later this year, they’ll fund $25,000 worth of needs identified by Springfield public-school teachers through the education-crowdfunding website donorschoose.org. That’s the same initiative to which comedian Stephen Colbert, in partnership with Share Fair Nation and Scansource, recently pledged $800,000 to fund every request made by South Carolina public-school teachers.

“We want to honor initiative … we’re about ideas; that’s what we do here,” said Dietz as she encouraged teachers to log on and submit a project. “We try and be a step ahead, and so we want teachers to be thinking about what kids need to know and what they need to do in order to learn.”

Finding the time to do all this will be a way of saying ‘thank you’ to the community, said Dietz, but it will also be an extreme challenge.

That’s because her team is quite busy right now as the company continues to recover and build its portfolio in the wake of the latest of many economic downturns Dietz has weathered over the past three decades.

“The recession hit us very hard, and it took a couple of years to pull out of that,” she told BusinessWest. “We had our best year ever last year, as in ever, ever, ever — off the charts ever — and I think this year looks to be similar based on our projections.”

Indeed, the list of ongoing and recently completed projects includes everything from the UMass Center in Springfield, which opened last fall, to the new, 21,500-square-foot senior center now under construction in Westfield and slated to open in September; from upgrades to several buildings on the campus of Worcester State University to the zero-net-energy affordable senior housing project in Williamstown known as Highland Woods; from a comprehensive building assessment of the historic Chicopee City Hall and its annex and planned restoration of its second floor to renovation of the Juniper Elementary School on the Westfield State University campus into the new home of the school’s Fine & Performing Arts Program.

As she discussed these and other projects, Dietz said the company has built a solid reputation over the past 30 years for work in a number of realms, in both the public and private sectors, and for meeting client needs — for ‘green’ design elements, more efficient workspaces, and everything in between.

Given its age and the depth of its portfolio, Dietz summoned the term ‘venerable’ to describe what the firm, now the largest in the region, has become, and it’s an adjective she and her staff wear proudly.

“We’re really busy, and I think part of the reason for that is we’ve been around for a long time, and all that experience comes into play,” she said. “People value that.”

For this issue and its focus on architecture, BusinessWest looks at how Dietz & Co. has drafted a blueprint for business success, as well as a working schematic for how to give back to the community.

Learning Curves

As she talked about her 30 years as a business owner and nearly four decades as an architect, Dietz said those in this field earn a good deal of their money — and hang most of those pictures of their work that dominate their lobbies and conference rooms — when times are good.

But it is the ability to slog through those times when things are far from good that often defines one’s career — and determines its ultimate path.

An architect’s rendering of Parson’s Village

An architect’s rendering of Parson’s Village, a zero-net-energy affordable-housing complex in Easthampton, and one of many projects in the Dietz portfolio.

To get her point across, she ventured back to the weeks and months just after 9/11. This was neither the longest nor deepest of the downturns she’s weathered — the one in the early and mid-’90s wins that first honor, and the Great Recession earns the latter — but it was perhaps the most frightening and career-threatening.

“I have never seen things dry up as quickly as they dried up,” she recalled. “Things just disappeared. People got scared; I’ve never seen fear like that.

“I remember meeting with my banker at one point,” she went on, “and basically saying, ‘here are the keys [to the business] — do you want them?’ Fortunately, he didn’t take me up on my bluff.”

Indeed, the company managed to weather that terrible storm and add several more pictures to the conference-room walls. The key to doing so was that aforementioned diversity as well as the diligence and sheer talent of the staff, she said, noting that the firm now boasts 20 employees and 10 architects.

That kind of success might have been difficult for Dietz to envision when she first decided to go into business for herself.

She started down that path after earning a master’s degree in architecture at the University of Michigan. Soon after graduating in 1977, she joined Architects Inc. in Northampton (see related story, page 31) and later became part of the team at Studio One in Springfield.

In addition to her architectural talents, though, she possessed an entrepreneurial spirit, and decided in late 1984 that it was time to put her own name on the letterhead and over the door.

“It seemed like the next logical thing to do,” she said with a touch of understatement in her voice. “It sounds like a rational decision, but it wasn’t, necessarily, nor was it a well-thought-out decision. I didn’t go read a book to see how you start a business, let alone an architecture business. I learned by doing.”

Fortunately, this was a time when things were good. The real-estate boom of the ’80s had just begun, and there was considerable work to be had.

“We rode the historic-tax-credit boom that ended when Reagan’s tax plans made it less lucrative,” she explained, adding that the firm enjoyed solid growth through the end of the decade, when the real-estate boom went bust and the well of projects dried up, offering a challenging, but nonetheless valuable, learning experience.

“I had no concept that things like that could happen,” she said of what turned out to be a lengthy downturn. “What did I know? We got through it somehow.”

There have been several ups and downs since as the company has amassed a huge portfolio of projects in sectors ranging from public housing to education to healthcare, said Dietz, adding that one thing she’s been able to learn by doing is how to read the economic tea leaves, try to anticipate the next downturn, and prepare for it to the extent possible.

“This is a very volatile business, and one of the things you have to have are some planning tools and some prediction tools in place, which I’ve developed over the years that allow me to look out a year and say, ‘oh, look, there’s no work in six months, what am I going to do?’” she explained. “So, every month, I’m doing an analysis of the future on both an accrual and a cash basis.”

Westfield’s new senior center

Westfield’s new senior center is one of two such facilities currently in the Dietz portfolio.

Looking ahead, she sees reason to be concerned about global instabilities and other factors such as national fiscal policies, but she believes the current period of modest growth and solid consumer and business confidence will continue for the foreseeable future.

Growth — by Design

This forecast is reflected, to a large degree, in the number of proposals for new projects being drafted by Ashley Soloman, the firm’s marketing coordinator, who puts the number at several a week on average.

It is also reflected in the current and recent projects list, which reveals not only the firm’s diversity and work across both the private and public sectors (especially the latter), but also current trends in building design and construction.

Indeed, several projects on that list involve new construction or renovation aimed at making the structures in question energy-efficient — or much more so.

One such project involves renovation of 209 units of elderly housing in the Boston suburb of Brighton that Dietz called “an energy monstrosity.”

“We’re looking at ways we can tighten this building up — strategies we can devise for decreasing energy use,” she explained. “Its claim to fame, if you can call it that, is that it’s one of the largest consumers of energy in MassHousing’s portfolio, on a cost-per-unit basis, and we’re hoping to reduce their status.”

Meanwhile, already under construction is a 40-unit, net-zero-energy affordable-housing project in Easthampton called Parsons Village, she went on, and the foundations were just poured for that aforementioned net-zero-energy elderly-housing project in Williamstown.

“Both of these are really exciting projects,” she told BusinessWest, because we sort of pushed the envelope, if you will, on envelope design, insulation levels, and looking at really sealing the buildings using good building-science technology.” Meanwhile, Chicopee City Hall is another intriguing project, said Dietz, adding that there will be a historic-renovation study to examine not only the exterior of the building, built in 1871, but also the feasibility of converting the long-unused meeting space on the top floor into a new chamber for the Board of Aldermen.

That study will also involve the historic stained-glass window in that room, which has been damaged amid deterioration of the ceiling.

Other work in the portfolio includes a series of projects at Worcester State University, said Dietz, adding that many of the buildings on the campus are now 30 or 40 years old and in need of maintenance and renovations aimed at greater energy-efficiency.

And while the company is being imaginative and cutting-edge in the field, it is doing the same, she believes, with its work within the community.

The company has had a long track record for giving back, said Dietz, and years ago, it decided to establish a donor-advised fund with the Community Foundation to help ensure that it could continue to be active, even during those downturns.

“We already had a fairly robust program for charitable giving,” she noted, “but this allows us to be even more … interesting and have a little more money to play with.”

An architect’s rendering of Highland Woods

An architect’s rendering of Highland Woods, a zero-net-energy senior-housing project in Williamstown, and one of many ‘green’ projects the Dietz firm has designed.

The company was to mark its 30th year — and celebrate its best year ever — by pumping $30,000 back into the community, she went on, adding that this number has since risen to $35,000. And the entire staff has provided input into how best to apportion those funds.

The projects eventually chosen reflect the company’s values, and in each case they also involve another of its strengths — teamwork, said Tina Gloster, the firm’s operations manager, noting that 25 employees and family members were involved on King Street, a large crew will be needed for the picnic at the Soldiers Home, and many individuals will be involved in deciding which school projects to support if requests exceed the available funds.

And they anticipate that there will be many to choose from.

The site donorschoose.org enables teachers in a given community to post a specific request, said Gloster, meaning materials or an activity that they cannot afford. Individuals and groups can go on the site and choose initiatives they want to support.

“Between August 1 and September 25, we’re making a big push to get Springfield public-school teachers to log onto this site and put their projects there,” she added. “And then we’re going to pick projects to fund in their entirety.”

There will likely be more projects than can be funded with $25,000, she went on, adding the company is encouraging other businesses and the community at large to get involved with the initiative, either in Springfield or other area communities.

“Rather than send us a plant and say, ‘happy 30th,’ we want people to fund a project,” said Dietz. “That’s a much more interesting way to help us celebrate.”

Drawing Inspiration

The actual 30th anniversary for Dietz & Co. came in February. As mentioned earlier, there was no party for clients, politicians, and friends.

More to the point, there wasn’t even anything small in-house for employees.

“We just couldn’t get our act together,” said Dietz with a laugh, adding that, roughly translated, this means everyone was simply too busy.

As in too busy with all those projects in the portfolio, and too busy with those initiatives within the community and the planning involved in making them happen. These are the things the company has managed to make time for, said Dietz, adding that the sum of these various parts constitutes a great way to mark a milestone and celebrate being “venerable.”

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

Architecture Sections
HAI Architecture Expands Well Beyond Healthcare Niche

Rick Katsanos and Don Hafner

Rick Katsanos and Don Hafner have parlayed strong relationships with regional institutions and municipalities into a diverse roster of projects.

When Rick Katsanos and Don Hafner met as freshmen at Penn State in the early ’80s, they couldn’t have foreseen someday co-owning an architecture firm two states away.
As it turned out, however, they were among a knot of architecture students who gravitated north after graduation to find work. Katsanos, a Wilbraham native, was hired in 1986 by Ed Jendry, who had launched Architects Inc. in Northampton in 1976. Two years later, Hafner, who had been working in Vermont, joined him at the firm.
Five years later, they launched a successful partnership at the helm of that company, now known as HAI Architecture.
“In 1993, Ed wanted to slow down, so Don and I bought the business from him. He still works for us, half days — which means he works 12 hours a day instead of 24,” Katsanos said with a laugh. “But the transition was fantastic.”
A few years before that, Jendry had spun off a sister company, Healthcare Architects Inc., to pursue work in the regional healthcare market — a decision that proved lucrative; the company has designed dozens of modern, high-tech spaces for hospitals, health systems, and physician practices across Southern New England.
“Ed basically found that was a good market,” Katsanos said. “Doing work for healthcare institutions provided a very solid workload. People knew we were capable in that area — they didn’t have to look far for somebody with that expertise.”
Hafner said he and Katsanos have enjoyed the challenges of that niche. “We’ve always been involved in those projects, which tend to be equipment-intensive. Rick and I are fairly engineering-minded, and we value the idea of being able to coordinate those disciplines.
“Some of the projects have been really fascinating,” he continued. “When we worked on our first linear accelerator, the gravel had to come from a single quarry in Canada. We found out a lot of unique stuff about medical technology. That was a really cool aspect of our jobs.”
Several years ago, however, the partners felt that the effort of maintaining two corporations outweighted the benefits, so they merged them into one company, called HAI Architecture. Architects Inc. disbanded, Katsanos explained, and Healthcare Architects — which survives for now, due to some outstanding federal contracts — will eventually go away as well.
The problem, he explained, was that the firm had become too well-known in the healthcare world. “People were asking, do you do other stuff? What had been an opportunity was now a problem.”
For this issue’s focus on architecture, Katsanos and Hafner sat down with BusinessWest to talk about their firm’s wide array of work, and how the architecture field continues to evolve in ways that present both new challenges and greater opportunities.

Regional Focus
The name change reflected the company’s broad palette of work, from civic and commercial projects to residential design and historic preservation. Because the company is so well-entrenched in the healthcare realm, Katsanos said, it continues to thrive there based on its reputation.
“We are always doing medical offices, up and down the Valley,” he told BusinessWest, adding that it’s heartening when large health systems tap local talent for their projects instead of larger, Boston-based firms. “We appreciate when Western Mass. businesses use Western Mass. companies. Our people live here and spend money here, and that helps keep the economy local and vibrant.”
But HAI has delved more heavily into the commercial market, he added, citing the new Florence Saving Bank branch in Hadley and the Palmer headquarters of Northern Construction as significant recent projects.
“We did restoration for First Churches of Northampton here,” Hafner added, with other area jobs ranging from the Dakin Humane Society animal shelter in Leverett to renovations to Forbes Library in Northampton; from the new Deerfield fire station to an adaptive reuse project in Florence that turned an 1860s sewing-machine factory into a medical office complex.
HAI has also been increasing its workload at area colleges, particularly Springfield Technical Community College. “Higher education has become a new sector for us,” Katsanos said, “which is natural, since we live in the Five College area.”
‘Green’ building has long been a buzzword in architecture and construction, but Katsanos said sustainable design — with an emphasis on ecological impact and energy efficiency — has become so ingrained in the region that it will eventually be taken for granted.
“The Massachusetts energy code became more stringent, and baseline building standards have become better,” he said. “But Don and I always talked to clients when about sustainable building. Our position is that good design should automatically be sustainable and green. We looked at the building codes and said, maybe we could go a little further, with the materials we put in building. That’s our approach — there should be no such thing as an unsustainable building.”

The new Florence Bank branch in Hadley

The new Florence Bank branch in Hadley is among HAI Architecture’s recent success stories.

Hafner agreed. “Codes have driven the industry this way. We’re seeing this whole cachet of ‘green’ being incorporated into all of architecture. And that’s what our philosophy has been about all the time.”
Katsanos said clients are willing to pay for such amenities. For example, “Florence Bank was very pleased, and we’re happy when the clients are happy. It looks wonderful; they made some smart decisions and didn’t just try to go for the cheapest solution. Being a financial institution, they know what money is worth, and they spent it wisely. That was a good group of people to work with.”
Hafner agreed, and said he and Katsanos have tried to build relationships — and repeat business — with clients they like working with. “We want to establish these relationships, so that people trust us and know we can meet their expectations.”
Those expectations, Katsanos said, are becoming more challenging to meet.
“We’re doing projects on tighter time frame,” he said, partly due to technological advances such as building information modeling, or BIM, by which architects and clients manage and share designs and project information in three dimensions and real time. Having come up in the industry in the era of two-dimensional drawings, they’re nostalgic about the craft of architecture, but have embraced the future — and the shorter schedules clients demand as a result.
“People are so accustomed to seeing the end product right away, they don’t always understand the process,” Hafner said, adding that, in the past, “we were taking a three-dimensional object and reducing it to two dimensions, then handing it to someone else to create in three dimensions. That’s an odd process. With building information modeling, we’re doing away with that, and allowing everyone to think three-dimensionally. That should be the wave of the future.”

Back to Basics
At the same time, Hafner said, HAI is strongly rooted in the traditions of garnering business through relationships and reputation, which is why the firm has not done a great deal of advertising in the past. “Our clients have always been happy with the work we’ve done, so they’ve called us back. For a long period of time, we didn’t have to worry about marketing.”
“We’ve run under the radar a lot,” Katsanos added.
However, Hafner went on, “we have started to elevate our marketing efforts. With the recent downturn we’ve seen in the economy, a lot of larger firms from Boston have started doing what we call downfeeding. Where we controlled a segment in the range of $200,000 to a couple million dollars, a lot of the larger firms in the state are coming over this way and moving down into that segment.”
What’s not changing is the collaborative way the HAI team works on projects, he added.
“We let everyone take part in everything, from design through construction administration,” Hafner said. “When we’re working on something, we start in the beginning at the table, and everyone gets a say in what things might look like. It doesn’t always translate to the project, but it lets everyone work together, and they develop a healthy respect for each other.”
Katsanos agreed. “We work with a good team,” he told BusinessWest, “and we work very collaboratively in this office. It’s not a trickle-down design process.
“A lot of us have been here a long time, but we always try to bring in someone new — either a summer intern or a staff person — because, what they lack in experience, they more than make up for in a fresh perspective,” he went on. “They don’t know not to ask dumb questions, and questions sometimes show that you’re on the wrong path. If you do the same thing over and over again, you can become complacent. It’s good to have someone asking, ‘why do that?’ It makes you constantly analyze what you’re doing.”
Which is — appropriately, for this firm — a healthy way of doing business.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Architecture Sections
Gillen Collaborative Architects Offers a Unique Approach

William Gillen

Several years ago, William Gillen changed his business model to one where architects work independently but market themselves as a team.

When William Gillen created Gillen Collaborative Architects Inc. in Amherst, he based his business model on decades of honed experience. “There is no payroll here, so there is no pressure to generate a bill. If one of us wants to spend 24 hours working with a group, we do it,” he said, noting that the two registered architects under his umbrella are self-employed and can work independently on their own projects, or collaboratively as a group, while sharing resources and information from their own areas of expertise.

The trio, which includes Gillen, Carol Vincze, and John Krifka, have more than 100 years of combined experience, and venture into territory that most architects don’t have the time or interest to explore.

For example, when Krifka began working on a contract to renovate the Berkshire Family and Probate Court in Pittsfield and restore its north façade, he came up with an idea to create a documentary that would benefit the public, the city, the state, and groups interested in historic restoration.

After he spoke to city officials about obtaining a grant to pay for a detailed video production of the restoration and renovation, UMass graduate student John Dickson heard about it from the Pittsfield Historical Commission and received permission to document the work as part of his thesis. In addition to a written document, he created a seven-minute video with Pittsfield Community Television titled “Conserving the Old Berkshire Athenaeum,” which can be seen on YouTube.

Since the work on the courthouse is not yet complete, he is also working on another version, which he expects will be at least an hour in length. The finished product will be shown on public-access TV and will serve as a tribute to the artisans who created the 1876 building as well as those who painstakingly matched intricate patterns on the crumbling stone.

“City officials feared the project would disrupt parking and traffic to and from local business, so the idea was born partially to help to help establish liaisons,” Krifka said, explaining that he met with the Town Council and businesses owners to promote the video because he believed it would generate a lot of interest. “Stone structures aren’t built anymore, and I knew this was something that wouldn’t happen in Pittsfield again, so I really wanted it to succeed.”

A photograph was taken of every stone that was removed from the building, and Dickson interviewed a number of artisans about their restoration techniques, including a stained-glass specialist who described the process of reconditioning and replacing missing glass from original windows.

“People will learn many interesting things from the video, such as the fact that you can take a damaged stone with a decorative pattern and build up the missing part with modern materials,” Krifka said, adding that Dickson shared his work with the Western Mass. Historical Commission Coalition at its meeting in July.

“Bill, Carol, and I like to generate ideas,” he added. “But if we were just employees, it wouldn’t be in our interest to do things like this.”

Carol Vincze (right, with John Krifka)

Carol Vincze (right, with John Krifka) says the freedom she has at Gillen Collaborative Architects serves her well in her work.

Vincze agreed and said sharing space with co-workers is a growing trend that allows people to socialize while working independently or in collaboration with each other.

She explained that the freedom she has at Gillen Collaborative Architects served her well when she redesigned the Amherst Survival Center. It serves more than 4,400 needy individuals each year, and Vincze was determined to see firsthand how it used its existing space before she began forming ideas for a design.

“I visited the center at least six times and ate lunch there. I also watched people come and go, and interviewed members of the staff who told me it was important to build a feeling of community,” Vincze said. “They thought they needed six rooms for activities, but it quickly became clear which areas could be combined.”

As a result, she was able to create a workable design, assist with the client’s fund-raising efforts, oversee the bidding and construction administration, and do everything else required to finish the project on time and on budget.

Business Changes

Gillen, who farms 20 acres and owns several real-estate firms in addition to his architectural company, changed his business name several times and had a number of partners in the course of more than five decades of work.

In 1969, the Boston architectural firm that employed him asked him to move to Amherst to take over a satellite office, and all went well until the recession of 1975.

“A moratorium was placed on most state projects, and it knocked the wind out of our sails,” he recalled. “There was not enough work for the architectural firm to keep its Amherst office, so they allowed me to take it over.”

He named his new business William Gillen Architects, finished the projects started by his previous employer, and began paying the employees’ salaries.

A short time later, he formed a partnership with architects John Kuhn, Christopher Riddle, and Dennis Gray, and the business was renamed Gillen, Kuhn, Riddle and Gray Inc.

The firm grew quickly, and although Kuhn and Riddle left in 1988, Gillen and Gray stayed together and kept 10 of 30 employees. In the early ’90s, they were joined by former classmate Kevin Omarah, and the firm’s name changed to Gillen, Gray and Omarah Architects Inc.

“But Omarah died, and Gray moved to Salem, and I became Gillen Architects again; by that time, I knew I needed to be more than a one-man band to do sizeable projects,” Gillen said, explaining that it is risky for a client to do a project with only one architect.

In the late ’90s, Kathleen Ford joined him from New York City, and Ford Gillen Architects was born. The duo worked together for a decade, but after she left and Gillen found himself on his own again, he began collaborating with Vincze because he needed help to complete some large state projects.

“Several years ago, I changed my business name and model again to better reflect what I was doing and market more effectively,” Gillen said, adding that he formed a collaborative because he wanted to eliminate the stress of constantly having to meet payroll. “I created a model where we are all independent, but can also work together and market ourselves as a group.”

However, each of the architects has their own niche.

Gillen specializes in historic preservation and unpretentious architecture that is harmonious with a neighborhood. Meanwhile, Vincze is LEED-certified, and Krifka has done a number of institutional and commercial projects for nonprofit organizations.

Gillen provides space inside a building he owns on Main Street as well as a full-time receptionist who acts as an administrative manager and does all of the paperwork.

“We share resources and networking, but since each architect has their own business, there is no set time for any of us to arrive or leave. But we’ve been very fortunate; architecture is very competitive, and we’ve been awarded several half-million-dollar contracts,” he told BusinessWest, outlining projects that include renovations and updates to buildings at UMass Amherst and county courthouses.

A year ago, the trio was hired to create a master plan for St. John’s Episcopal Church in Northampton, which is located in the Elm Street Historic District.

“We marketed ourselves as a group, but Carol is the project manager,” Gillen said, noting that the renovation plan is in the design stage and includes adding an elevator, a social hall, and office space.

Vincze spent untold hours at the church, helping members of the building committee generate ideas.

“We work really well with committees made up of lay people. In fact, we spend more time figuring out what people need and how much it will cost than any architectural firm I have ever worked for,” she said, adding that she is also involved with a design for a new, large mixed-use building in South Amherst that is under construction.

Gillen’s project history is storied and includes the conversion of the former Northampton railroad station in 1980 into restaurants, as well as the 2002 design of the Strong Avenue shops and condominiums in Northampton, which won accolades from the city. Meanwhile, Krifla’s previous employment included stints with three architectural firms in New York.

Their combined experience has served them well. In fact, over the past three years, the trio has undertaken at least 100 projects.

“Many of them were small, but they were punctuated by the $3.5 million Pittsfield District Courthouse renovation and restoration and a $2.5 million upgrade to the Gardner District Courthouse,” Gillen said. “We also just completed the preliminary work to put a new boiler room in the Pittsfield Superior Courthouse, which will provide heat for the entire district.”

He added that he and designer Lisa Lindgren, who has also begun working collaboratively with him, are creating plans for a house in Hadley.

Attention to Detail

Vincze said one thing that sets Gillen Collaborative Architects apart from other firms is that the architects see their projects through from start to finish.

“We maintain continuity with our clients from the time of the first interview to opening-day ribbon-cutting ceremonies and the years beyond,” she told BusinessWest.

Gillen added that the architects take pride in being accessible, even when it involves little or no notice. “Yesterday at 7:48 a.m., a masonry contractor called me and asked if I could meet him at St. John’s in 40 minutes. I wasn’t dressed, but I got there on time. Then I was told a general contractor was going to remove the staging on the courthouse in Pittsfield over the weekend and needed our architects to take a close look at it, so I volunteered to go there on Friday so the contractor could meet his schedule.

“The bottom line,” he stressed, “is that, if one person is successful, we are all successful.”

Architecture Sections
Caolo & Bieniek Associates Has Designs on Innovation

Curtis Edgin

Curtis Edgin, principal with Caolo & Bieniek Associates.

It’s not easy being green, but for today’s architects, it’s necessary.

“We’ve definitely had a mix of sustainable-design projects,” said Curtis Edgin, one of the principals of Caolo & Bieniek Associates in Chicopee, noting that some of them have been certified by the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program, but not all.

“Some of our clients seek to pursue that,” he added, “but whether or not they go for that official recognition, they tend to pursue the same design practices.”

LEED, a federal program that lays out stringent, and often costly, guidelines by which new buildings can earn ‘points’ toward different levels of sustainability, has been a driving factor in making construction and renovation projects more environmentally friendly. It involves everything from air quality to the paints and furniture used; from ventilation to energy efficiency, and much more.

The emphasis on green design has seeped so thoroughly into the design and construction industries that even developers who aren’t seeking LEED status are demanding many similar elements, and this is certainly true for Caolo & Bieniek, which is no stranger to sustainable design, including the new Easthampton High School, which features bigger windows to maximize daylight, a photovoltaic array on the roof to harvest solar power, and LED lighting.

“Codes are getting more and more stringent, and continue to evolve,” Edgin said. “Plus, people are more concerned about energy use and will take a long view of things — sometimes pay a little more to have a more cost-effective building throughout its life. That’s what sustainable design is all about. It’s not just about recycling materials and conserving energy; there’s a whole list of things we can do that utilize those defining practices in all our projects.”

Caolo & Bieniek will celebrate 60 years in business next year, providing architecture, planning, and interior-design services across the Pioneer Valley. And Edgin understands the need to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to trends like sustainable design.

“It’s a more long-term view, rather than what’s cheapest on bid day,” he said. “Energy use is the first thing people think of, but it’s much more than that. You can insulate, insulate, insulate, but you still need to get ventilation into it, get fresh air into a very tight envelope.”

Then there’s long-lasting LED lightbulbs, which have become standard practice, replacing fluorescent bulbs. But green design and building extends to the work site itself, from efforts to reduce water runoff from the site to how materials are disposed of.

“When you’re doing demolition, does the debris end up in a landfill, or does it get separated?” Edgin said. “It used to be that everything got pushed off and sent to a landfill. Nowadays, we’re much more careful about what’s going on with these projects. Steel is sent off to be recycled, and maybe masonry is crushed and used for fill.”

The UMass police facility

The UMass police facility, designed by Caolo & Bieniek, was the first LEED-certified building on campus.

In theory, he added, a project like Easthampton can even turn its green features into an outdoor learning experiences, teaching students about bioswales and solar energy. “You can put a lot of technology into the building.”

For this issue’s focus on architecture, Edgin sat down with BusinessWest to talk about the going-green movement and also other challenges and opportunities posed by what has become a fiercely competitive, fast-moving industry.

Broad Palette

Although it has remained active in private development, Caolo & Bieniek wins about 75% of its work in the public sector, which includes plenty of public school construction and renovation. Besides the completed Easthampton project, Edgin said, “the old Chicopee High School is converting to a middle school, and we’re working with the Mass. School Building Authority on that. We also have a project with Phoenix Academy, a charter school in Springfield, up at the Tech Park, and a handful of smaller school projects for various communities.”

In addition, the firm has long been active with area municipalities, from the ongoing construction of the West Springfield public library to a number of public-safety jobs. “Police, fire, public safety … we have several projects ongoing, some in the study phase, some in the early construction phase,” he noted. Area colleges, including UMass, Westfield State University, and STCC, have also been a reliable source of work, from the UMass police station — the campus’s first LEED-certified project — to renovation and repair work on residence halls.

“We’ve also done projects for local public-housing authorities, and also some private, multi-family development in the Northampton area,” Edgin said. “And we’ve been keeping busy with work for financial institutions — banks and some investment companies.”

The sheer diversity of Caolo & Bieniek’s workload is a hedge against recessions, but Edgin admitted that the scale of the average project has decreased slightly over the past several years. That means more, smaller jobs, “which keeps you very busy meeting schedules, juggling multiple projects, and serving clients. We were very blessed to stay busy over the past 10 years. We attribute that to a good staff and good service. We continually strive to satisfy our clients.”

Caolo & Bieniek has taken jobs as far away as Ohio for a Veterans Affairs hospital, and conducted some far-flung work for the U.S. Postal Service, but most of its signature projects have been in or not far from the Pioneer Valley — from the aforementioned schools and colleges to work for MassMutual, Spalding, Raymour & Flanigan, Polish National Credit Union, Rocky’s, Boys and Girls Club of Chicopee, Subway, IHOP, and many others.

“We don’t go long distances away — generally within an hour or hour and a half radius,” Edgin said. “You can’t give good service in the car, so we stay close to home, and wind up seeing clients in the supermarket, in the hardware store, or out to buy a cup of coffee.”

The auditorium inside Easthampton High School

The auditorium inside Easthampton High School, a recent Caolo & Bieniek project with many ‘green’ features.

The firm has also performed historic-preservation work, which comes with two distinct, and often competing, challenges: restoring buildings according to a client’s demands, or working with a client who doesn’t care about a structure’s historical elements, but local and state historical commissions do.

“Phoenix Academy has been reviewed by the National Park Service, the Springfield Historical Commission, and the Mass. Historical Commission,” Edgin said. “Some of the challenges with these projects is getting everyone on the same page. It’s often about balance, what’s practical.”

Older buildings pose myriad questions, he added. “What are the requirements of the building code in order to reuse or renovate historic properties? What is the use? It may have been built at a time when the code requirements — what the building has to withstand from a seismic perspective, especially — were much different than what they are now. And, of course, what does it cost? There are a lot of noble gestures you can make, but somebody has to fund them.”

Issues with historic buildings have come to the forefront at a time when renovation is more popular than new construction, and investors are taking a hard look at older properties they can rehab, as opposed to building from the ground up. “Not everyone wants new construction or can afford it,” Edgin said. “Sometimes there’s value in older buildings, but you have to weigh the cost of meeting present needs, and that goes back to building codes and what the long-term cost is going to be.”

Old and New

Architects and contractors have long told BusinessWest that clients are more demanding than ever before, and time windows are often compressed. On the other hand, technology has improved project planning and communication.

“With the computers these days, the visualization tools we can use now, we’re no longer showing just flat plans. People often can’t read two-dimensional plans, but now we’re showing them three-dimensional images, what it will really look like,” Edgin said. “But you have to keep up with the technology and the new software, and so does your staff.”

It helps that most of Caolo & Bieniek’s 10 employees have been with the firm for many years, bringing consistency to operations. The same goes for customers. “A lot of our clients are long-standing. Even cities and municipalities, we’ll do multiple projects — it might be a school, a public-safety project, and a library project in the same city or town.”

Customer loyalty is critical at a time when firms from Boston and Connecticut are raiding the Pioneer Valley for work, a trend that has developed and intensified over the past 10 to 15 years.

To keep those clients happy, “you have to plan ahead. Everything moves so much faster these days, but you still have to allow time for the process. It doesn’t just happen. If you want a successful project, sometimes it takes years of foresight, and hopefully clients are thinking in the long term, too, rather than just today, what the present need is. Ultimately, that should shape your decision making.”

That forward thinking is one driving force behind sustainable building, but Edgin said it’s important in any project.

“You have to manage expectations, understand what’s possible and what’s not; you have to be honest,” he added. “People have very lofty goals, but cost is often the driving factor. You try to bring your experience — communicate your knowledge and understanding of the process — as early as possible to the client to determine what the end result will be.”

The goal, of course, is something everyone can live with — both literally and figuratively.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Architecture Sections
Kuhn Riddle Continues to Build on a Solid Foundation


John Kuhn, president of Kuhn Riddle Architects

John Kuhn, president of Kuhn Riddle Architects

When local architects John Kuhn and Chris Riddle began their first project together in 1978, they never imagined it would lead to a thriving partnership.

In fact, they had no idea where it would take them. But success, they’ve learned, is a lot like architecture — you start off with a foundation and steadily build your way upward.

Kuhn and Riddle made a risky decision back in 1978, quitting their jobs after receiving a $500 commission to complete a sketch for the Northampton Armory. Kuhn admits it wasn’t one of their most calculated moves, but looking back on it almost 40 years later, he realizes their decision built the foundation for what would eventually become Kuhn Riddle Architects (KRA), one of the most successful firms in the area.

“We were working for a firm in Springfield at the time and carpooling together,” recalls Kuhn, president of the Amherst-based firm. “We’d been talking about what it might be like to get work on our own, and then we saw an article about the building being renovated in Northampton. If we’d known better, who knew what would have happened?”

Fast-forward 36 years — past the initial years of uncertainty, past the fire that engulfed one of KRA’s early buildings, past the painstaking process of building not only structures but relationships — and the firm is prospering in a challenging climate. With 16 employees, it isn’t the largest or smallest firm around, which Kuhn believes is conducive for success in projects of varying scales.

“It’s been a spotty market, and we’ve been fortunate to stay fairly busy,” he told BusinessWest. “Being profitable in a competitive industry is a challenge, and you have to work hard to keep work coming through the door. We’re big enough that we can handle larger projects, but small enough where everyone still wears a lot of hats.”

Kuhn estimates that the firm completes between 50 and 100 projects a year, many of them involving major renovation and reuse efforts. This year, KRA designed renovations for the building that formerly housed the First Baptist Church of Amherst — which now serves as non-academic offices for Amherst College — in addition to renovating an Easthampton mill into affordable housing units and redesigning a Springfield building for National Public Radio.

With dozens of old, once-bustling buildings now sitting dark and abandoned, New England towns are perfect for renovation projects that save structures and money. Like many area architectural firms, KRA has mastered the ability to modernize and repurpose old buildings that would otherwise remain blights on their communities and eventually be torn down.

“Redevelopment and adaptive reuse of buildings brings a lot of work for us,” said Kuhn, who remembers being excited about architecture ever since he took a mechanical drawing class back in high school. “Oftentimes, a building will be renovated for a completely different use. The Amherst College project is a good example; it was once a church and is now used for office space.”

For this issue and its focus on architecture, BusinessWest goes behind the scenes at KRA to see how it takes concepts off the drawing board, or the computer screen, as the case may be, and makes them reality.

Growth — by Design

The building in which Kuhn and his staff work each day is also a testament to the power of redevelopment. The Amherst Cinema Building at 28 Amity St., which houses the KRA offices, Amherst Cinema, Arise Pub and Pizzeria, GoBerry Frozen Yogurt, and HB Financial, among other businesses, has become a major recreational and commercial hub in downtown Amherst. But it wasn’t always that way — many residents recall the building’s former distress before KRA completely overhauled it in 2006.

“The building was an empty black hole, a dead zone in the middle of town,” said Kuhn, who described the 28 Amity St. renovation as the most personally rewarding project in his career. “We were able to renovate it into a mixed-use building that everyone can enjoy. It was rewarding for us to transform a building that served no purpose into a vital part of the town center.”

The renovated Amherst Cinema Building

The renovated Amherst Cinema Building is now one of the highlights of downtown Amherst and home to KRA’s offices.

For local business and civic leaders, the project was not only a restoration, but a reclamation. Don Courtemanche, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, described the work Kuhn and his staff put into the building as a major revitalization effort for the town and region.

“The building had fallen on hard times and was in desperate need of reinvention,” said Courtemanche. “Now it’s one of the most active parcels of real estate in downtown Amherst thanks to John’s design and vision for what it could look like. He took the project on full speed ahead, and the building has become a mixed-use, vibrant powerhouse of downtown activity.”

The project also emphasized Kuhn’s belief in the importance of strengthening cities and towns at their cores by renovating and redeveloping in downtown sections, as opposed to taking on multiple projects calling for new construction at the fringes of towns that offer few geographical benefits.

‘If it’s old and broken, fix it up’ would be a fitting summary of KRA’s stance on redevelopment — and at 28 Amity St., arguably the new heart of downtown Amherst, the benefits and opportunities are endless, even after normal business hours.

“The building doesn’t go dark at five o’clock like a lot of downtown buildings. With the cinema and the shops, it’s alive even on weeknights and weekends,” Courtemanche added.

Yet another advantage for Kuhn to renovating the building that would house his firm’s offices was the ability to include details to enable his employees to maximize their production each day. With spacious rooms and high ceilings comprised of the original beams and trusses, the building has a historical yet modern air, far removed from the standard office environment.

“It was a great opportunity for us to design our office and create new workspace,” Kuhn said.

Building Solid Relationships

A successful career can often distance business leaders from their early adversities, but Kuhn still remembers the struggles he and Riddle endured, the ones they had to persist through in order to build their firm into its current incarnation. Their first few projects were completed out of a cramped, rented space in 1978.

“That’s how we got started,” said Kuhn, “in someone else’s office” — until they partnered with Bill Gillen and began to establish an identity in the community. In November 1989, a fire totaled their office and forced the staff to move to another building. On several occasions thereafter, business threatened to dry up, but through it all Kuhn and Riddle stuck together and used their struggles as learning tools.

“We always had a solid relationship, both professional and personal,” Kuhn said of Riddle, who is now retired. “We were different, we worked well together, and I don’t think we ever said an angry word to each other in all of those years.”

renovated Fuller Block

This rendering shows an interior view of the renovated Fuller Block in downtown Springfield, which will house National Public Radio.

One of the most important lessons Kuhn and Riddle learned during their challenging years was the value of building lasting relationships. Recently, KRA has completed several projects for Yankee Candle, a relationship that has strengthened with each new endeavor. Local high schools and universities are also a wellspring for annual construction opportunities, as they are constantly expanding and evolving to better serve their student populations.

“For us, it’s more about looking for clients rather than projects,” said Kuhn, whose portfolio also includes the $22 million expansion and renovation of Amherst Regional High School and extensive work at River’s Landing Complex in Springfield. “We like to establish long-term relationships with companies and institutions. A primary source of work for us has been repeat customers.”

It’s always difficult to predict the future when it comes to the construction industry, but Kuhn anticipates housing will dominate KRA’s focus over the next five years. In a bustling college town like Amherst where apartment units don’t go vacant for very long, student housing is always a hot topic, but it’s become even more of a focal point in an economy that has seen student costs soar. There will also be an increased need, Kuhn believes, for affordable-housing opportunities for families living in and around Amherst.

“Housing of various types will continue to be a challenge, especially student housing and affordable housing,” said Kuhn, whose firm is also working on a project at Springfield’s American International College, as well as a renovation to the Common School in Amherst. “Housing for retirees is also a huge, untapped market.”

Following the recent completion of a successful affordable-housing project in what has been a busy 2014 for KRA, the firm is eagerly anticipating the opening of 43 units at Olympia Oaks in town. The conversion of abandoned mills, warehouses, churches, and other defunct buildings into affordable-housing units and senior-living facilities has become a popular construction approach over the past 10 years, one that KRA and other firms have taken advantage of with their expertise in adaptive reuse.

“It’s nice to be as flexible as we are in the marketplace,” Kuhn said. “We can handle a range of different projects.”

Drawing on Experience

No matter how big or small the project, Kuhn and his staff are ready to tackle it, not simply with the goal of renovating or constructing buildings, but continuing to transform promising real estate into vital assets for area communities.

In a nutshell, this is what the company has built on that foundation that Kuhn and Riddle laid all those years ago — and continue to build today.

Architecture Sections
Jablonski DeVriese Architects Strives to Preserve the Past

Steve Jablonski, left, and Brian DeVriese

Steve Jablonski, left, and Brian DeVriese say the Northeast offers a rich lode of opportunity in preservation and renovation work.

Their business cards read ‘preserve, adapt, renew.’ That’s the philosophy Stephen Jablonski and Brian DeVriese bring to each of their architectural projects — whenever possible, anyway.

Take, for example, the Clifford A. Phaneuf Environmental Center at Forest Park, which has housed the Environmental Center for Our Schools (ECOS) program — utilized by thousands of Springfield public-school students and teachers annually — since 1970.

The structure was built in the 1930s as a warming house for ice skaters, Jablonski said. “It was built by the Springfield DPW, right after the Depression, but it’s basically sat there for 70, 80 years without any renovation whatsoever.”

Hence the $2.5 million expansion and renovation expected to go out to bid to contractors soon. The plan is to update the building and bring it up to safety codes; provide space for revenue-generating activities during after-school hours, weekends, and the summer months; and incorporate ‘green’ technologies such as a hydro-geothermal HVAC system; cutting-edge insulation; and energy-efficient windows, all of which will contribute to the project’s LEED Silver rating.

“It’s a fairly major expansion and renovation,” Jablonski said before detailing how the design reflects all three elements of Jabonski DeVriese Architects.

“We’re preserving it, maintaining its character; we had to submit documentation to the Mass. Historical Commission,” he explained. “We’re adapting it because it wasn’t originally designed as an educational facility. And we’re renewing it by adding on and preparing for the future.”

Nearby, however, another project at Forest Park does none of those things. The firm has designed a new storage facility for the Bright Nights displays, which Spirit of Springfield had been keeping in a ramshackle horse barn.

“Preserve, adapt, renew isn’t practical in this case because all the posts are rotted, and there aren’t any character elements to this horse barn,” Jablonski said, although the new structure will include classrooms for a skills-training center for the manufacturing and contstruction trades, part of a federally funded workforce-training program that will involve local unions, Springfield Technical Community College, Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy, and the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County.

So, yes, there is some ‘adapting’ going on.

“It’s kind of a niche market that’s prevalent in Western Mass., and in the Northeast in general — historical-preservation projects, adapting, preserving, renewing,” Jablonski told BusinessWest. When he and DeVriese merged their solo practices in 2011, “we figured, well, everyone seems to have a specialty. We were trained to do anything. But people want to know if you have a specialty now.”

Simply put, he said, “we preserve old buildings. It’s something that’s really starting to grab hold in society. Preservation is good. People are moving back to urban areas. Mid-size cities that have architectural character, like Springfield, are on their way up, no matter what people say about the city. I live in Springfield, I was born here, and I’m a big fan of Springfield. That’s not to say that problems don’t exist, but it’s on its way up. ”

When some people see a neglected building, DeVriese added, their first instinct is to knock it down, but he and and his partner see potential — not just to maintain and enhance the strucutre’s architectural heritage, but to improve its environmental impact. “After all,” he said, quoting noted architect Carl Elefante, “the greenest building is the one already standing.”

For this issue’s focus on architecture, Jablonski and DeVriese talked with BusinessWest about some specific ways in which they’ve preserved some of the region’s heritage by putting their names to some truly unique projects.

Together Again

Jablonski had been working as a sole practitioner in Springfield since 1995, and DeVriese had managed a solo practice in Shelburne Falls since 1997, when they began collaborating on projects, notably the design of the Museum of Springfield History at the Quadrangle — a classic adaptive-reuse project, since it’s housed in a former Verizon office building.

“Steve approached me about helping with the Springfield Museums project, and that was a significant project for both of us,” said DeVriese. “We started doing more and more together over the years, and in 2011 we incorporated as partners. We were very, very busy at the time.”

For example, the museum project led to Springfield College hiring the firm for its complete renovation of Judd Gymnasia, renamed the Stitzer YMCA Center. For that design, Jablonski DeVries received the Paul E. Tsongas Award from Preservation Massachusetts, as well as the Springfield Preservation Trust Award for restoration and stewardship.

“For me, there was a lot more activity in this area than in Franklin County, an opportunity to work on larger projects with a longer duration,” DeVriese said. “I like Steve, and he’s great to work with.”

As for Jablonski, he said he’d occasionally been frustrated by a reluctance by state and municipal officials to award large contracts to solo architects — and he wanted an occasional day off. “For me, taking on a partner made a lot of sense, just having the ability to take a vacation and share the burden of production.

“To be honest, a lot of people advised me not to do it,” he continued. “To them, it was counterintuitive: ‘you started it, you should keep it to yourself and benefit from it.’ What they don’t realize is keeping it to yourself is not strategic; sure, you can keep it to yourself, and not get bigger projects, or run yourself into the ground because you can’t take vacations. You can have it all to yourself, but life isn’t as good.”

The pair made headlines soon after their merger when Springfield College — a long-time Jablonski client — tapped the firm to work with Erland Construction of East Windsor, Conn. to repair three residence halls hard hit by the June 2011 tornado.

The pair went through every room in every dorm and itemized all the damage to help the contractor develop a repair estimate. Once they decided the structures were salvageable, the architects and contractors had a significant challenge: to complete the work in 10 weeks, in time to house returning students.

Clifford A. Phaneuf Environental Center at Forest Park

A rendering of the new Clifford A. Phaneuf Environental Center at Forest Park, which houses an environmental-education program for Springfield students but hasn’t been renovated in more than 70 years.

The goal was not just to repair, however, but to improve the dorms where possible. After seeing several architectural renderings, in addition to replacing windows and doors torn apart by the twister, the college decided to replace the original building exteriors with higher-quality, better-insulated panels than what had existed before.

Ten weeks and $5 million after the twister ripped through, little evidence remained of anything other than a summer remodeling job. That project earned a Rebuilding Project of the Year Award in 2012 from the New England chapter of the Construction Management Assoc. of America, which selected the effort from all renovation and modernization projects under $10 million.

College Try

Architectural design for college campuses is nothing new for the firm. “We’re identified really strongly with three or four sectors,” Jablonski explained, including higher education; municipal and government work, which includes schools, libraries, park buildings, and museums; and historical buildings of all kinds, which can cut across many sectors.

“It’s been harder than Brian and I ever thought to break into new markets,” he said, “but we both decided that we can’t put all our eggs in one basket — like the city of Springfield — especially when we have an economic downturn.”

That said, “I’d say about 90% of our clients are repeat customers,” he noted, citing Springfield College and the city of Springfield as two of the most long-standing, going back 20 years. “That says we have to be doing something right. It’s not just what drawings you do; it’s showing up on time and having some flexibility, because there’s always an issue, always some problem, so you have to be flexible. When we get repeat customers, we’re pretty sure we’re doing something right, or they’d go somewhere else. There’s definitely competition in the Valley.”

Jablonski said the firm is willing to do residential restoration, although they don’t actively market in that arena, but there isn’t enough of such work to make a living doing it exclusively. Still, “when someone approaches us, obviously we do it. We recently got a really nice, very large total rehab in Longmeadow.”

And they don’t limit themselves to high-profile jobs, recently taking on, for example, several dentistry offices and small projects for the city of Northampton, as well as preparing to tackle a cold-storage warehouse with a commercial kitchen on Warehouse Road in Springfield for the city’s school system, which recently expanded its free-lunch program to all students.

“I enjoy working with municipalities professionally and appreciate the quality of people involved in local government,” said DeVriese, who has been a selectman in Heath for 15 years. “I’ve done a lot of work with small towns over the years, so it’s nice to know they can come to us to get their problem solved.”

Meanwhile, the Springfield Museums project caught the attention of the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., which tapped Jablonski DeVriese to design an addition to its athletic hall of fame.

“It’s not the first time someone called us up because they’d seen our work, but it is a good example of how we must be doing something right,” Jablonski told BusinessWest. “There is a lot of complexity in this business, and it’s nice to get some confirmation from someone looking at something and saying, ‘ooh, that’s nice.’”

Building for the Future

Things are looking equally good at the Springfield offices of Jablonski  DeVriese, where the partners are growing a promising future.

For one thing, they’ve hired two junior architects. Nirati Shukla, who earned a bachelor’s degree from the Center for Environmental Planning & Technology in Gujarat, India, and a master’s from the New Jersey Institute of Technology, is certified as LEED AP and specializes in sustainable design.  Marcel Alvarez immigrated from Ecuador and is currently a U.S. citizen. He is a graduate of Holyoke Community College and the architecture program at UMass Amherst.

And, as both Jablonski and DeVriese repeatedly stressed, there’s no shortage of opportunities to turn inadequate or neglected buildings into something that will reflect the future while respecting the past.

“Smart people are finally putting two and two together,” Jablonski said. “Instead of a continuous cycle of building new, let’s preserve it, adapt it, renew it.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]