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Designs on Continued Growth

Curt Edgin gestured toward a photo of the old chapel at UMass-Amherst.
It’s one of many framed pictures that cover nearly every inch of wall space at the offices of Caolo & Bieniek and effectively tell of the story of this half-century-old architecture firm.

Indeed, the photos display the full range of the company’s work — from design of modern classroom buildings at Springfield Technical Community College, to libraries both new and renovated; from a large number of police, fire, and public safety complexes designed for communities across New England, to the old chapel, which illustrates some of the more unique work this firm does — duties that might seem to fall outside the realm of what some might expect from an architecture firm.

The oldest building on the UMass campus and perhaps the university’s most recognizable landmark, the stone chapel was earmarked in the mid-’90s for what university administrators thought would be minor repairs, what amounted to caulking work. Caolo & Bieniek, which was commissioned to assess the structure and design restoration efforts, quickly determined that the chapel was in far worse condition than previously believed.

“Essentially, the building was being held up by the forces of gravity,” Edgin, the company’s president, explained. “The lime mortar was gone — it was essentially sand between the stones. Any good tremor would have brought that building down.

“It ended up that the building was taken down to its base and reconstructed,” he continued, adding that individual stones had to carefully removed and numbered in order to reconstruct the building as it was originally built.

The old chapel work, which earned the firm accolades from the Mass. Historical Commission, is an example of how Caolo & Bieniek works imaginatively to meet client needs and address concerns — blending form and function, to borrow terms from the industry.

Such customer-focused efforts have enabled the company to survive the economic ups and downs that have a dramatic and often immediate impact on construction-related businesses — and provide a deep sense of optimism for the next 50 years in business.

BusinessWest looks this issue at Caolo & Bieniek’s rich history, the solid reputation it has built, and its prospects for the future.

Step by Step

As they talked with BusinessWest about their company and its recent milestone anniversry, Edgin and fellow principals Ken Jodrie and James Hannifan would use the photos on the walls to punctuate their remarks.

When talking about the public sector and the importance of cost-effective, low-maintenance building materials and design, Jodrie pointed to a sequence of shots of three classroom buildings built at STCC during the 1980s.

“These are durable materials, designed to last,” he explained, referring to the brick structures designed to blend in with the historical Springfield Armory complex that surrounds them. “That’s what the owner wants, something that can be easily maintained. That’s why they typically use masonry in buildings like this — because masonry is a product that once it’s installed the owner can ignore it for a long period of time; he won’t have to do anything to it for 50 years.”

Meanwhile, as they talked about diversity and specialties the company has developed over the years, the three pointed to public safety facilities built locally (Chicopee and Easthampton are just a few) and well beyond the 413 area code — Ashburnham, Mass., for example.

“Public safety is one of the areas we’ve moved into and developed quite a reputation for quality,” said Edgin, pointing to photos of complexes designed for Northampton, Lowell, and other cities and towns. “This is a highly specialized field, one where we’re achieved a good deal of success.”

As the walls attest, the company’s portfolio is extensive, and the process of building it began in 1955, when Vito Caolo (now deceased) and Victor Bieniek (retired since 2001) set up shop in a small office on Pearl Street in Springfield. As the company grew, it moved first to bigger quarters in the old Gilbarco complex in West Springfield and, later, to still-larger space on Cottage Street in Springfield.

Eventually, after the addition of several employees and the emergence of the next generation of ownership, the company moved once again, this time into the former Falls Provision market on East Street in Chicopee, which was renovated into a suite of offices.

As Bieniek was nearing retirement, he took steps to expand the staff and put succession plans in place, said Edgin, adding that he joined the firm in 1987 after working for architecture firms locally, and also in New Jersey and Kentucky. Meanwhile, Hannifan became part of the new leadership team in 1993, and Jodrie joined in 1995.

Over the years, the company has built its reputation largely in the public sector, with dozens of schools, libraries (including the new facility in Chicopee), police and fire stations, the Holyoke Soldiers Home, and even a parking garage or two in the portfolio — and on the walls. In addition to the buildings at STCC, for example, Caolo & Bieniek has designed new buildings and renovations at Westfield State College, Holyoke Community College, UMass, and a host of other schools.

But the public sector is easily impacted by swings in the economy and the flow of tax revenue to Boston and Washington, said Hannifan, citing, for example, the current stagnation (and growing backlog) of public school building projects — work is expected to start flowing again in 2007. This phenomenon necessitates diversity, he told BusinessWest, adding that the firm has handled work across a number of business sectors — from retail (including preliminary designs for a new Starbucks on East Columbus Avenue in Springfield) to physician offices.

And while new building projects comprise a good amount of the firm’s workload, renovations, restorations, and modernizations — at sites ranging from the old chapel at UMass to the central library in Springfield — have kept the company (and area frame shops) busy.

Edgin noted that schools built a century ago, or even 30 years ago — were not designed to accommodate today’s communications technology.

“Quite often the infrastructure and the electrical capacity isn’t there,” he explained. “As recent as the ’60s, there was one plug in the front of the classroom, for the overhead projector, and one in the back; now you need electrical supply everywhere, because everyone has a laptop.”

The qualities that have enabled Caolo & Bieniek to survive a half-century in the often-turbulent construction field, are the same ones that will propel it forward, said Edgin. Elaborating, he listed diversity as an obvious factor, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the firm’s ability to generate repeat business from satisfied customers.

Quality of work has much to do with this, but there is also the “comfort level,” as he described it, that the firm works to create.

“At many of the larger firms in Boston, New York, and elsewhere, you have people whose job it is to sell — and that’s what they do, sell,” he explained. “And after they’re done selling, those people probably won’t be involved with the project again.

“Here, it’s different,” he continued. “The three principals are involved in every project … we’re accessible, and we’re involved every step of the way. That’s the way we do things, and it has helped us generate a good deal of repeat business.”

Room to Grow

If a picture is really worth 1,000 words, then visitors to the offices of Caolo & Bieniek should allocate considerable time for ‘reading.’

The photos relate a 50-year success story, one with many chapters still to be written. The company that takes a highly personalized approach to doing business has no plans to deviate from that pattern.

If there’s an immediate challenge, it might be the need for more wall space.

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