Architecture Sections

Sustaining Success

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]