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Architecture Special Coverage

Something to Build On

Vice President Vinny Magnano (left) and President Jeff Noble.

Vice President Vinny Magnano (left) and President Jeff Noble.

Western Mass. is home to dozens of architecture firms. And engineering firms. And land-surveying companies.

Not too many can say they’re all three.

But over its 75 years in business — it celebrates that milestone early in 2024 — Hill-Engineers, Architects, Planners Inc. has evolved into a entity that can manage all those aspects of a project. And President Jeff Noble says that broad expertise sets Hill apart in its field — or, more accurately, fields. It’s also a strong buffer against shifting economic tides.

“We’re organized in three departments — architecture, engineering, and civil surveying — and it’s seldom that you get all three of those going gangbusters all at once,” Noble explained. “Sometimes we’re very fortunate, but other times, one might wane a little bit, while the other two are going well. That diversity of services has carried us along, so we’re able to sustain the level of employment and the types of services we offer. That’s been a big benefit.”

The company’s roughly 40 employees reflect that range: architects; structural, mechanical, and electrical engineers; civil engineers, land surveyors, and survey technicians; and project managers, designers, and drafters in all three niches.

For instance, “we did a brand-new facility for Standard Uniform Services. We started with the permitting, the site development, the architecture, the engineering, and designed that whole facility for them,” Noble explained, adding that it contracted with Forish Construction on the build. “That range of services has allowed us to provide all that, though it’s not always necessary that you need all those services together.”

“A lot of architectural firms are just architectural firms, and they have to go to get an engineer for structural, mechanical, electrical, civil … that’s not part of their company. In Western Mass., very few of those have combined engineering and architecture — and certainly not land surveying besides.”

Hill-Engineers, Architects, Planners was established by William T. Hill in 1949 to provide mechanical-engineering design services to the robust paper industry of the Berkshires. It has called Dalton, a small town just east of Pittsfield, its home since its opening.

“Mr. Hill was a paper-mill engineer for Crane & Co. here in town, and he evolved from there,” Noble said of the company’s founding. “He grew little by little and did structural engineering, electrical, and mechanical engineering, strictly for the pulp and paper business.”

Vice President Vin Magnano came on board in 1975, and the company’s work and client base started to expand beyond paper into a wide range of commercial and industrial clients — still primarily engineering, but moving gradually into some design work.

“Then it just started to evolve organically to include more architectural work,” Noble added. “And we had engineering here to offer as backup for an architectural project, so it made a lot of sense.”

This Berkshire Family YMCA project

This Berkshire Family YMCA project includes a pool, court, elevated track, and fitness room.

Magnano recalled that “when I came here — I was just a kid, in my 20s — the only architecture we did was to put up a building that covered the machinery; that’s all they cared about. But we started changing after I was here a few years.”

In 1980, a group of five employees purchased the fixed assets of the founder and changed the company’s name to Hill Engineering Inc., and the company began to expand its footprint further in the fields of architecture, engineering, and surveying. In 1986, the company’s leadership contacted Noble, who had worked there before, to head up the growing architectural group. He was intrigued by Hill’s new model.

“I said, ‘yeah, that sounds like a good opportunity,’ and it turned out it was,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, as an architect, “I always appreciated having engineering in-house. A lot of architectural firms are just architectural firms, and they have to go to get an engineer for structural, mechanical, electrical, civil … that’s not part of their company. In Western Mass., very few of those have combined engineering and architecture — and certainly not land surveying besides.”

The company name was changed again in 1987 to Hill-Engineers, Architects, Planners, Inc. to better reflect these expanded areas of service.

“We still do an awful lot just like we always have: we listen to our clients and respond to their needs. They come to us with a problem to solve, and we solve the problem, and move on to the next one.”

“We just started growing the architectural side of the business, doing more commercial work and some residential, institutional, recreational … lots of different types of projects that weren’t industrial. We added staff, and the company has grown over the years.”


Industrial Evolution

Over the decades, Hill-Engineers, Architects, Planners has performed work for dozens of the most recognizable names in Western Mass., including General Dynamics, General Electric, Berkshire Health Systems, Union Carbide, Solutia, Kanzaki, and Smith & Wesson, as well as numerous colleges and universities; several Berkshire County municipalities; recreational, religious, and commercial entities; cultural institutions like Berkshire Museum, MASS MoCA, the Clark, and Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center; and land subdivisions throughout the region.

“When the architecture started to evolve from the paper mills, it was still industrial-based, no commercial; we hardly ever did banks or colleges or any of that,” Magnano said. “It was really driven in the industrial.”

Today, the firm boasts many long-time clients in all those sectors above, some for 40 years or more, he added.

Its acquisition of West Stockbridge Enterprises became an opportunity to get into the land-surveying and civil-engineering aspect, Noble added. “It, again, broadened our range of services that we can provide to our clients, whether it was strictly a subdivision survey or supported an architectural project. Clients say, ‘hey, I want to build something,’ and they’ve got to go through all the permitting aspects, site design, maybe find a site, do site analysis. All that started to become services we could provide for our clients.”

Meanwhile, in the engineering group, Magnano said, “we still do pretty much every discipline except fire protection; we partner with a company in Albany for all our fire-protection work.”

The Weidmann Electrical Technology facility in St. Johnsbury, Vt.

The Weidmann Electrical Technology facility in St. Johnsbury, Vt. is among the firm’s largest projects.

The firm’s radius of work is typically about 50 miles, though it has done major projects outside that, including a major expansion of Weidmann Electrical Technology’s paper mill in St. Johnsbury, Vt., one of that region’s largest employers, a little over a decade ago — about 35 years after Hill first worked on a project for Weidmann.

“They were losing their edge in the market, in the industry; Germany and other places were building new, high-tech stuff. So they spent $40 million doing a new addition on the old addition. We did everything, right from the site work,” Magnano said. “That was probably one of the most unique jobs we’ve done, and we were literally in there from day one — about four years. That was a big one.”

Over the decades, Hill has seen a number of changes, from technology to the way projects are bid. For one thing, there are fewer long-term, local relationships with clients because of consolidation, with clients being purchased by larger entities all the time. “So your companies that used to be local are now owned by a company that’s out of Springfield, Illinois or something,” Noble said. “You don’t have the same relationship, unfortunately.”

Meanwhile, codes and regulations have become more challenging, and an emphasis on energy efficiency and sustainability has impacted how projects are designed, he added. “But we still do an awful lot just like we always have: we listen to our clients and respond to their needs. They come to us with a problem to solve, and we solve the problem, and move on to the next one.”


Welcome Mat

One negative trend that has impacted businesses of all kinds has been recruiting and retaining talent, and Noble said Hill has been able to maintain a steady staff, but it’s not always easy, especially with engineers.

“You don’t see people applying. It used to be people would come in, knock on the door, send a résumé pretty routinely. Now we can’t even solicit them. We go out and try to get them, and no responses,” he told BusinessWest, adding that Hill’s headquarters in the Berkshires can be a problem for some. “Our location just doesn’t seem to have the attraction for younger people. They’d rather go to the cities where there’s potential for maybe more glamorous or high-profile types of work.

“Students are still enlisting in engineering and architecture schools, but they don’t tend to come back here,” he added. “They go to UMass or Boston for college, but then they won’t come back to the Berkshires to work. That’s what we see as the issue.”

Still, the firm has managed to attract employees from the Pioneer Valley and the Albany, N.Y. areas, and it has also maintained relationships with trade schools to bring young people in for co-op experiences, some of which have resulted in hires over the years.

“You don’t have to necessarily get a master’s in such-and-such; you know you can come out of trade school and go to work as a computer operator here, and we’ll put you to work,” Noble explained. “You can learn on the fly, but under the tutelage of professional engineers.”

Magnano added that “we’ve been fortunate enough to get some individuals whose roots are in Dalton, or close by, and wanted to come back to Dalton. Over the last five to 10 years, we’ve really brought in another whole generation that hopefully will keep it going.”

NUPRO plastic-fabrication factory in South Deerfield

Here, the envelope and siding go up on the NUPRO plastic-fabrication factory in South Deerfield.

Hill-Engineers, Architects, Planners has been community-minded in other ways as well, Noble said, by supporting local nonprofits, social organizations, churches, and other causes in a number of ways.

“The [Dalton] Community Recreation Association is one, whether we do our work at a reduced fee or we support them through ads in their programs, or we sponsor a basketball team or baseball team.”

The firm also supports the Pittsfield YMCA, for which it just completed a major $12 million renovation, including a pool, court, elevated track, fitness facilities, and more. Often, Hill is able to provide services to nonprofit clients at a lower cost, or in an in-kind way, he said. “It works both ways. We get good experience out of it, and the client gets the service at a more affordable level.”

The firm’s leadership and employees also sit on boards and are encouraged to volunteer in the community, Noble added.


Shovels Out

As part of its 75th-anniversary year, the team at Hill is planning to bury a time capsule that includes, among other artifacts, some tools of the trade in 2023, and then unearth it 25 years from now, at the company’s centennial, to see how much their industry — sorry, industries — have changed.

Things have certainly changed plenty since 1949.

“I think we’re just very proud of having carried on Mr. Hill’s legacy here for 75 years,” Noble said. “I think he’d be really happy to see where we’re at. And who knows? Maybe we’ll keep it going for another 75.”

Architecture Special Coverage

Building Momentum

By Mark Morris

River Valley Co-op

The outdoor seating area at River Valley Co-op before it opened last spring.

Curtis Edgin says his business is all about flexibility and constantly making adjustments. This is the case when times are ‘normal,’ he noting, adding that the pandemic and its many side-effects have only added new dimensions to this equation.

Edgin is a principal at Caolo & Bieniek Associates architecture firm in Springfield, and he appreciates that his firm has stayed busy for the last two years, a time when adjusting and remaining flexible became the norm for everyone, not just architects.

“We were fortunate to have a backlog going into the pandemic; because projects were at different phases, we’ve continued to stay busy throughout,” said Edgin said, noting that municipal projects such as schools, libraries and public safety facilities make up more than two-thirds of Caolo & Bieniek’s portfolio.

Much of the design work handled by Kuhn Riddle Architects in Amherst involves colleges and universities. When campuses switched to online learning during the height of the pandemic, they also put many of their building projects on pause, said Aelan Tierney, president of Kuhn Riddle, adding that this began to change this past fall and her firm has been extremely busy since then.

“Colleges felt more confident about the future in terms of bringing students back to campus, so all the on-hold projects came back to life,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s been a complete turnaround from where we were in 2020.”

Meanwhile, it was two years ago that daily headlines generated speculation about if and how area restaurants, pummeled by the pandemic and draconian restrictions, would survive. They have survived — and many are thriving — by adapting to changing times, said Thomas Douglas, principal of Thomas Douglas Architects in Northampton, a firm that specializes in the restaurant and hospitality sectors.

Kuhn Riddle Architects President Aelan Tierney

Kuhn Riddle Architects President Aelan Tierney

“Our restaurateur clients put their focus on refiguring their spaces with less seating and shifted to a different type of service model geared more toward takeout,” said Douglas, adding that these adjustments kept this sector — and his firm — busy at a time when such vibrancy seemed unlikely.

Together these stories convey a time of challenge and opportunity for area architecture firms — a time when some projects were scrapped or delayed, but when others came onto and then off the drawing board as different types of clients adjusted to what the pandemic brought to their doorsteps.

And for many, what it brought was a pressing need to improve the air circulation.

Indeed, design plans for the River Valley Co-op in Easthampton were drawn up long before COVID was on anyone’s radar, said Douglas. From its inception, the plan was for the co-op to run nearly net zero, with most of its heating and air conditioning provided by an array of solar panels covering a large portion of the parking lot. With much of the actual construction of River Valley occurring during the height of the pandemic, he noted that the firm made several changes on the fly. The original plan called for a grab-and-go food area that was nixed after contemplating the idea of people touching food in an open area. At the same time, air quality, took on a new urgency.

“In the middle of the project we needed to shift gears and upgrade the HVAC system with more-robust filtering capacities,” Douglas said. “We made these changes to better address the effects of the pandemic.”

The pandemic has brought other changes and adjustments, especially when it comes to needed materials, said those we spoke with, adding that supply chain shortages combined with steady price hikes for building materials and mechanical equipment have become a constant challenge.

Because architects plan projects that won’t break ground until months later, figuring out what materials will be available and what they will cost has become a big ongoing concern. Tierney said right now mechanical equipment such as generators are delayed up to 12 months before they are available.

“It’s very unsettling for clients and contractors to not know how long it will take to do a project,” Tierney said. “No one feels confident about cost estimates that are put together today because you don’t know if they will be relevant in three to six months when you actually start construction.”

“Any new project plan has to evaluate how it will impact the environment.”

For this issue and its focus on architecture and engineering, BusinessWest talked with several area architects about the many ways the pandemic has impacted business — and how this sector has responded as it always has, by making adjustments and positioning itself effectively for the day when the storm clouds move out.


Blueprint for Success

It’s called a ‘Zoom booth’ — by some people, anyway.

Like the name suggests, it’s a small space, like a phone booth, only instead of phone calls, it’s for the Zoom meetings that have now become part of day-today life in the modern workplace.

“It’s a place where someone in an open office setting can pop into a quieter space to take part in a remote online meeting,” said Tierney, adding that while her firm has included such spaces in many of its plans, it has also converted several conference rooms to accommodate meetings where some people attend in-person while others take part virtually.

Curtis Edgin (left) and James Hanifan

Curtis Edgin (left) and James Hanifan say the pandemic has thrown extra layers of complexity into renovations, particularly with HVAC.

Zoom booths and altered conference rooms would be among the more subtle changes to the landscape resulting from the pandemic, said those we spoke with, adding that the more dramatic adjustments, as noted, involve air flow and a recognized need to improve it.

And the amount of work — and redesign — needed generally depends on the age and condition of the building.

Indeed, unlike making a design change in new construction, planning a retrofit with existing buildings brings another level of challenge, said Edgin, citing, as one example, a school client looking to replace its old rooftop heating unit with an upgraded unit that would add cooling to the system.

“First we look at structural considerations, such as whether the building support the new unit if it weighs more than the old one,” Edgin said.

The next step according to James Hanifan, also a principal at Caolo & Bieniek, concerns the duct work in the building.

“Many older facilities don’t have the ventilation systems that are required by today’s building codes,” he explained, adding that older buildings often depend on operational windows for ventilation which cannot be relied on in cold weather and can invite mold into the building during rainy times of the year.

Schools may opt to purchase stand-alone air filtering units to install in every classroom but that can be complicated, too.

“Sometimes they find out the electrical system can’t support all that additional equipment,” said Hanifan. “Now they’ve got a different issue.”

Recent funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) has certainly helped municipalities in budgeting for these projects. Edgin anticipated that many will use their ARPA funds for improved HVAC and energy projects in their schools and other public buildings.

Overall, energy efficiency and sustainability are built into architecture plans. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification is one standard that has provided what Tierney called a great baseline for architects when considering sustainability standards.

Last year Gov. Charlie Baker signed Executive Order 594 which requires all state buildings to meet strict energy efficiency and emission standards going forward.

“Any new project plan has to evaluate how it will impact the environment,” Tierney said. “The goal is to reach carbon-neutral and net-zero emissions by 2050.” Independently, organizations are increasingly focused on reducing energy consumption and on the types of materials they use when constructing their buildings.

“It’s great to see Massachusetts as one of the strongest states in terms of energy code,” Tierney said. “They are aggressively increasing energy requirements every three years when they update state building codes, which is fantastic.”

Thomas Douglas

Thomas Douglas says River Valley Co-op had a strong emphasis on sustainability from the start.

While the River Valley Co-op had a strong emphasis on sustainability from its inception, Douglas suggested a creative addition to the plan that maintained the spirit of the project.

“My first college degree was in landscape architecture, so I worked with the coop to create a large outdoor patio that has a view of Mt. Tom,” Douglas said. With easy access from inside the building as well as outside, the layout can also accommodate a food truck next to the patio.

“We wanted to create a vibrant, exciting, and yet cozy outdoor atmosphere for the patio.”


Drawing on Experience

Meanwhile, both public and private spaces are being adjusted to provide employees and visitors with larger and, in many ways, different spaces.

Indeed, a few years ago, companies had begun planning office layouts that were open and airy to encourage more collaborative workspaces. The arrival of COVID caused a change to some of those plans.

“After designing for an open-office concept, the pandemic came along, and we had clients who wanted to go back to individual cubicles,” Edgin said.

Kuhn Riddle is still creating collaborative areas, while at the same time staying conscious about air exchange and filtration.

“As we begin opening back up and taking off our masks people remain concerned about air quality,” Tierney said. “The last two years have definitely influenced how we think about design.”

When the Westfield Boys and Girls Club was planning a childcare wing, it increased the size of the project from 11,000 to 15,000 square feet because the state had increased minimum space standards per child from 35 to 42 square feet after COVID hit, said Tierney, adding that her firm was brought in as the schematic design architect to work on this part of the project with Chris Carey, the architect of record on the building expansion.

“We don’t know if the state will ever go back to a smaller square-foot-per-child standard, but we wanted to be ready in the future for another pandemic or other event that requires keeping children spaced apart,” she explained.

Add to these challenges and adjustments the ongoing supply-chain issues and escalating prices of materials, which together bring new levels of complexity — and stress — to designing projects and seeing them to completion

As part of a dormitory renovation at Elms College, Hanifan was planning for a certain type of carpet only to be told that, if it even gets produced (and that’s a big if), there will be a 16-24 week lead time. He has already begun adjusting the plan because the project must be completed before the fall semester in September.

“We will look at other colors and if we can’t get those, we will have to look at other manufacturers.”

This constant uncertainty often puts his municipal clients in a tough spot.

“No one wants to hear that prices have spiked and everyone knows prices don’t tend to go down,” Hanifan said. “So, there is a lot of indecision on whether to go ahead with the project or wait to see if prices come back down at some point.”

While supply chain delays and rising costs are still part of daily life, a sense of optimism creeps in as the weather becomes warmer and COVID mandates get relaxed.

“It’s been a tough couple of years, but I think we’ve turned the corner,” Tierney said.

Hanifan acknowledged that in the immediate short-term, supply chain issues will continue because manufacturers are under pressure to get materials out as fast as they can.

“Eventually they will be able to re-stock and fill their warehouses once again,” Hanifan said. “It may be a few years out but I’m optimistic it will happen.”

All it takes is remaining flexible and making adjustments when necessary.

Coronavirus Sections Special Coverage

Shaky Ground

Curtis Edgin

Curtis Edgin says the status of jobs often comes down to how far along in the pipeline they are.

Kevin Rothschild-Shea had just gotten off a conference call with employees of his company, Architecture EL in East Longmeadow — one of many he’s undertaken since his team begam working largely remotely.

“We’re doing well. We’ve jumped to working remotely and continue to function,” he said. “We’re maintaining our focus on multi-family and affordable housing, which has been strong, and we’re fortunate to have a number of projects.”

Looking 12 to 24 months out, the outlook is a bit murkier.

“We’re fortunate to have a lot of work in the pipeline, but we’re definitely seeing a reduction in new work and jobs starting out,” he told BusinessWest. “Quite a number of projects have been put on hold given the economic and COVID climate, so we’re seeing new projects hit ‘pause’ to a greater or lesser degree.

“We feel pretty comfortable with the workload right now, but when we look down the road, there are definitely concerns,” Rothschild-Shea went on. “We just want to keep everyone working and employed, keep everyone safe, and keep doing what we do.”

Curtis Edgin, president of Caolo & Bieniek Associates in Chicopee, told a similar story as he keeps in contact with his team remotely as well.

“We’re still busy — it’s not quite as efficient as working side by side and collaborating,” he said, adding quickly that his team has had no problem managing a number of projects currently in the pipeline. After that, though…

“We’re fortunate to have a lot of work in the pipeline, but we’re definitely seeing a reduction in new work and jobs starting out.”

“I think there will be a long-term impact in that people will be afraid — or forced, based on economic reasons, to slow down — until things stabilize and get back to where they need to be,” he said. “Right now, it’s hard to ask taxpayers or a corporation to spend additional money when they’re worried about other things.

“For the near term, we’re going to be busy, then we’ll probably see a slowdown,” Edgin went on. “That’s more of a long-term impact that will eventually correct itself like any other construction cycle.”

That’s the hope, anyway. Meanwhile, as definitive answers about the eventual length of the economic shutdown, and the damage it will cause, are difficult to assess right now, firms continue to plan for an uncertain future.

Moving Forward

Edgin said Caolo & Bieniek has plenty projects in various phases, and how the pandemic affects individual project can vary dramatically between jobs.

“Some projects are able to maintain their schedule,” he noted. “One of our school projects is going on, there’s a lot of site work, so nothing keeps people from working at different ends of the site. At some other projects, interior ones, [COVID-19] is starting to impact the ability to perform the work if people are working side by side. It depends on the project.”

On the municipal side, he explained, everything that needs to be voter-approved going forward — that is, when city and town halls begin ramping back up — may be a harder sell, an any tax increases during these times of sudden unemployment will be met with resistance.

“On the flip side, with the interest rates being so low, now is a wonderful time to continue,” Edgin added. “Many of these municipalities have already secured the approval of taxpayers, selectmen, or whoever makes the decision to actually move forward, and a lot of them getting really great financing rates, getting a lot of mileage out of their dollar.”

On the private commercial side, many companies and developers will wait for the dust to settle. “If they’re already committed, if we’re already moving forward, typically they keep going. If they’re just about to move on a project, maybe they have just a little hesitation.”

Kevin Rothschild-Shea

Kevin Rothschild-Shea says his firm is on solid footing in the short term, but expects work across the industry to slow somewhat after that.

In addition to its usual array of multi-family and affordable-housing projects, Architecture EL has been tackling, among other things, a Holyoke project with Local 104 Plumbers and Pipefitters and a project for Theodores’ in downtown Springfield.

“They’ve had significant slowdowns, as all restaurants have, but continue to look down the road at their overall restaurant needs, and they’re looking to keep that project on track,” Rothschild-Shea said. Meanwhile, he understands that other businesses will respond to the current economic climate by tapping the brakes and preserving cash flow.

The architecture world has responded to the COVID-19 crisis in other ways, too. For example, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) launched a task force to help inform public officials, healthcare-facility owners, and architects on adapting buildings into temporary healthcare facilities.

“On a daily basis, I am hearing from our architects who feel a deep sense of moral duty to support our healthcare providers on the front lines of this pandemic,” AIA President Jane Frederick wrote on the AIA website. “As our communities assess buildings to address growing surge capacity, we hope this task force will be a resource to ensure buildings are appropriately and safely adapted for our doctors and nurses.” 

“I think there will be a long-term impact in that people will be afraid — or forced, based on economic reasons, to slow down — until things stabilize and get back to where they need to be.”

The task force has developed a model of ‘rapid-response safety space asssessment’ for AIA members that will include considerations for the suitability of buildings, spaces, and other sites for patient care.

“This is a race against time for healthcare facilities to meet bed surge-capacity needs,” Kirsten Waltz, president of the AIA Academy of Architecture for Health and director of Facilities, Planning, and Design for Baystate Health, also noted on the website. “This task force will help inform best practices for quickly assessing building inventory and identifying locations that are most appropriate to be adapted for this crisis.”

Waiting Game

Meanwhile, life goes on for local firms like Architecture EL, even if the team can’t see each other face to face.

“We see a little loss of efficiency in terms of communicating, trying to connect with the team, but we’re doing well on that front,” Rothschild-Shea said, adding that he conducts at least three project-management conference calls a week. “I’m looking forward to the camaraderie of working together.”

He believes companies, in architecture and elsewhere, will take lessons from these many weeks of remote work, many of them positive, if only an understanding the capabilities technology-supported teams have to do things more efficiently.

“It’s a whole different way of working,” he added. “We’re already looking down the road at the so-called recovery and how we will reintegrate and get back to work. But we expect there will be some changes for the better. We’re trying to look at the positives.”

Edgin said Caolo & Bieniek, like other firms, is able to keep employees busy in the short team because of the long arc of many projects, but no one can really predict the impact of a sustained economic shutdown.

“It’s different here than in retail, where you need to have someone coming through the door purchasing something to pay the sales clerk,” he noted. “We’ve got things in the works in the near term. As for the more intermediate term and the future … we’ll see.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]