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Purposeful Design

Kevin Rothschild-Shea

Kevin Rothschild-Shea at a residential project site.

Kevin Rothschild-Shea launched his architecture firm seven years ago, just as the economy was starting to sour. But, though a combination of diversity, flexibility, and a commitment to service, he has seen his business not only survive, but grow. It helps that he’s got a number of what he calls “socially responsible” jobs under his belt, as he has a passion for working with clients who serve people in need.

Kevin Rothschild-Shea has designed buildings for a wide variety of residential and commercial clients, but he takes particular pride in projects with a social benefit.

Take the child-care center his firm, Architecture EL, designed in Chicopee for the Valley Opportunity Council. “They’re very excited to see a new building replacing a very small, old, out-of-date structure,” he said of the partially state-funded project. “For us, it’s a nice little job, but for them, it’s a big project that’s been a long time coming.

“It involved creating a space that’s bright and clean — not just a room, but a room that creates an opportunity for learning and positive experiences,” he went on. “For some of these kids, it’s the nicest place they’ll get to go all day.”

He also cited the E. Henry Twiggs Estates, a 75-unit affordable-housing project in the Mason Square neighborhood of Springfield. The client, Home City Housing, is a “great organization with the goal of maintaining affordable housing for people in the area. That’s a really significant project that we’ll be drawing through the wintertime, and we hope to start construction in late spring or early summer.”

Meanwhile, “we did some work with the Community Survival Center in Indian Orchard — space planning, space analysis,” Rothschild-Shea explained. “They’re an organization that continues to grow and provides a great service to people in need. I feel fortunate I’ve been able to work with them.”

Rothschild-Shea uses the word ‘fortunate’ often, occasionally applying it to the success of his own company, which he launched in 2008, into the teeth of an economic meltdown, followed by a lengthy recession. But he says he’s happy to be very busy today.

“The economy is typical of Western Massachusetts — there seem to be hot spots,” he said. “I’ve been busy while other people have been slow, and I’ve been slow while I’ve seen others swamped. It’s hard to get a read on it. So maybe I should just keep working.”

That said, “we’ve been pretty fortunate. We’ve had a good variety of work and great clients, and we were fortunate to survive the recession, and not only survive, but we managed to grow,” he went on, noting that the company has expanded from a two-person operation in 2013 to five employees today, and recently moved into new offices that effectively doubled its physical space. “That’s a good sign of our growth and the work we have on our plate.”

Bold Beginnings

Rothschild-Shea has told the story of how he loved helping out around the house as a child, which inspired him to pursue a creative, hands-on career. After graduating from Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, he took a job with a small architecture firm for 18 years before deciding to strike out on his own. “I just jumped in feet first and said, ‘let’s get to work.’”

A rendering of the new Valley Opportunity Council early-education center in Chicopee.

A rendering of the new Valley Opportunity Council early-education center in Chicopee.

Architecure EL — the acronym stands for Environment Life — was built on the idea of direct design. It’s more common than ever, in fact, to partner with owners and contractors in the design and construction of a building, whereas, a decade ago, those elements were bid separately. “The construction-management type of partnership atmosphere is much more common than we saw in the past.”

Setting up shop in East Longmeadow, he said, many customers assume the EL is an acronym for the town, “but the reality is, we want to be environmentally friendly, energy-efficient, and design the best space we can that’s comfortable to work and live in.”

Meanwhile, the industry — reflected in both customer demands and Massachusetts codes — is increasingly making green-friendly building the standard, not the rule, he said. “The codes require pretty high-performing buildings as a baseline. But from there, we always want to do better.

“When we were starting out, our simple approach was to do good design that was responsive to our environment, sensitive to the world we live in, whether that means making homes energy-efficient or salvaging materials and recycling building products.”

That’s the ‘E’ in a nutshell. The ‘L’ stands for life, and is a more amorphous idea, but just as important. “That’s the whole experience — making a space comfortable, whether it’s your house or office or truck-repair center. The core is making it rewarding to work or live in that space.”

Rothschild-Shea has weathered varying economic climates, he said, by focusing on personal service — working closely with clients from design conception through construction and occupancy — but also on flexibility and diversity, taking on most any type of proposal.


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“We are pretty diverse for a small practice — everything from small studies and accessibility projects and single-family additions and renovations right on up to significantly scaled commercial and residential work,” he said.

For example, this past year saw the completion of Marcotte Ford’s commercial truck center in Holyoke, a 17,000-square-foot, 160-bay facility unlike any in Western Mass., he noted. “It can handle pretty much any vehicle — a lot of municipal and police work, SWAT vehicles, ambulances, right on up to big transport vehicles like retirement homes have.”

As part of the Ford’s ‘landmark design’ program, Rothschild-Shea’s firm will also handle Marcotte’s next job, which is giving its main showroom a facelift, expanding some office space, and completely renovating the service center.

“We’re also continuing to do small office improvements for the Insurance Center of New England,” he noted. “We worked with their Agawam branch a year or so ago, and now we’re doing some improvements at an office in Gardner.”

A rendering of one of the affordable-housing units

A rendering of one of the affordable-housing units at the E. Henry Twiggs Estates, a Springfield project set to begin construction in 2016.

Architecture EL also designed Hatfield’s town offices, with an opportunity to bid on additional work coming up in the next year or two. The firm designs plenty of residential work as well, including a recent project on the Connecticut River for a retired couple, replacing a small cottage.

Whatever the job, Rothschild-Shea said, “the core of it is good service. Being small, we’re able to be responsive and efficient and more economical with our time than perhaps a larger company.”

Problem Solver

When asked what drives him the most, Rothschild-Shea paused for a moment before answering simply, “the problem solving.”

“For me, whether I’m designing a house or a service center, success lies in coming up with solutions — whether it’s creating an economical space, or one that’s energy-efficient, creative, comfortable, whatever. It’s taking the physical constraints and the site constraints and massaging that into a successful solution.

“That’s the core of what we do,” he went on. “All the imagery and design and final product are byproducts of solving a problem. That’s the core of good service — understanding the problem and solving it in a creative architectural fashion.”

It’s easier to focus that passion on each job now that the economy has improved, the construction industry is warming up, and architects are focused on more than survival.

“We’re seeing some great municipal work happening recently — maybe not as many schools as before, but there’s a fair amount of public work out there,” he said. “The economy seems to be strong and moving, and we’re looking forward to more of that socially responsible work we’ve been fortunate enough to do. We’re certainly looking forward to expanding on that, whether it’s affordable housing or things like the Survival Center.”

Meanwhile, phase two of the Twiggs project is coming online as well — just one more opportunity for Rothschild-Shea to do well for clients that are doing good.

“I’m fortunate I get to jump on board with these organizations that existed long before I did, and help support their missions,” he told BusinessWest. “There are still a lot of gaps in the economy, and so many people continue to struggle, and it’s nice to help fill in those gaps.”

After all, “people have to live and work in what we draw,” he went on. “So it’s a responsibility on a lot of levels; it’s not just a contract, per se. It is a nice feeling, like we’re making a difference.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Architecture Sections

Lighting the Way

spray-chalk displays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Real-world Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art and Commerce

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Architecture Sections

Common Ground

Future residents of Village Hill Cohousing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary Kraus cooks dinner for residents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Involved Process

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

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

Peggy Gillespie, left, and Deborah Schifter

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

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

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

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

And there were definitely differences of opinion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Architecture Sections

Peace of Mind

Magazine Commons represents an important measure of independence

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home Again

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

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

Chris Novelli (right, with Greg Zorzi)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Community Asset

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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

Dietz & Co. Architects owner Kerry Dietz

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

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

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

But those talks never got very far.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning Curves

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

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

An architect’s rendering of Parson’s Village

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Westfield’s new senior center

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

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

Growth — by Design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An architect’s rendering of Highland Woods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drawing Inspiration

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

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

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

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


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

Architecture Sections
HAI Architecture Expands Well Beyond Healthcare Niche

Rick Katsanos and Don Hafner

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


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

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

The new Florence Bank branch in Hadley

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Architecture Sections
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.”