Decade of Design
When Kevin Shea launched his own architecture firm after almost two decades working for someone else, it wasn’t exactly a great time to start a business — particularly one in a construction-related field.
It was 2008, actually, right at the start of the Great Recession, which would significantly dry up building activity for the next few years.
“We started at the bottom, but we got lucky, and we worked hard and delivered good client service — the things you want to build on as a new business,” said Shea, who has grown his firm, Architecture EL, from a solo practice to a six-person operation. “Now were seeing some of the firms that survived and hung on — some older, respected firms — start to close up or retire, which puts us in a good spot; we’re well-established at this point, and we can take on the work and fill in the gaps.”
As the East Longmeadow-based firm celebrates its 10-year anniversary in October, Shea can look back at an eclectic blend of projects, ranging from affordable housing to municipal work; from a children’s museum to a country club.
“We started at the bottom, but we got lucky, and we worked hard and delivered good client service — the things you want to build on as a new business.”
“We have a good, diverse mix of work,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ve done some restaurant work locally; we’re looking at significant renovations to Elmcrest Country Club, which had a couple of fires last year; and we’re looking at more affordable housing and some private residential.”
For example, the E. Henry Twiggs Estates, a 75-unit affordable-housing project in the Mason Square neighborhood of Springfield, is being developed by Home City Housing. “We’ve worked through phase 1 with Home City on Twiggs, and now phase 2 is almost slated to begin at the end of the year, so that’s represented a lot of our office time lately,” he said.
“We’ve gotten to grow with some good work in housing, especially the affordable-housing sector,” he went on, citing other upcoming work, such as a project with Community Builders, a nonprofit that has become a significant force in the affordable-housing market from Boston to New York. “We’re in the early throes of conversations to do a 70-unit multi-family renovation in Western Mass. — it’s not contracted yet, but well along in the talks. That’ll be nice.”
While developing a strong base in multi-family housing, Shea said his firm has built a diverse portfolio in other areas as well, with recent and upcoming projects including a childcare center in Monson, a fire-station addition in Hampden, and an accessibility project at Hatfield Town Hall, following more extensive design work several years ago on that town’s municipal offices.
“You never know what we’ll be up to,” said Richard Morse, a consultant at the firm — and sometimes, the work can be very outside the box. Take, for instance, a planned project to design a veterans’ memorial on North Main Street in East Longmeadow, in front of the Pleasant View Senior Center, a stone’s throw Route 83 from Architecture EL’s office.
“That’s a relatively modest commission in terms of dollars, but it’s important to us here in East Longmeadow,” Shea said. “A veterans group came to us; they have an agreement for a piece of land in the front yard of the senior center, so we’re in the early stages of a design project for a memorial.”
Morse noted that the project is in the fund-raising stages, but there have already been conversations about what it will look like.
“They came to us with a shopping list, and we’re bringing to it a sense of space and respect and contemplation — and we have to do that in front of a building along a busy street,” Shea said. “We don’t just want to build a chunk of stone; we want to create a space where people come and reflect. That’s one that we’re really honored to have a chance to with these veterans. It’s a nice project, and we’re happy to be doing it close to home, right here in town.”
Unrolling the Future
Shea has always wanted to be an architect, having told the story on occasion of seeing old blueprints lying around his house as a child and being fascinated by what they represented. Architecture ended up fitting his personality, with its blend of hands-on and creative work, mechanical and artistic skills.
So after graduating from Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, he took a job with a small architecture firm for 18 years before deciding in 2008 to strike out on his own.
Architecture 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, decades ago, those elements were far more often bid separately.
“I think the trend is toward more hands-on work, more design-build, more working with the trades in the field,” he said. “We see a little of the traditional drawing on spec and bidding to three or five contractors. But we see more of the construction-management side of things, where a developer wants to partner with us and a favorite contractor or builder and basically pull together architects, engineers, and contractors to get an efficient, affordable team.”
That has always been his preferred model, he added. “The nice thing is, you usually get to the point pretty quickly. The contractor is at the table, and you can move from design to construction pretty efficiently.”
With friendly cooperation among all parties, Morse said, “we can be the bridge between the client and the contractor because that gets kind of lopsided without our involvement. We’re able to have dialogue with the builder and come up with ways to control cost and schedule.”
The ‘EL’ in the company’s name doesn’t stand for East Longmeadow, as some may assume, but, as noted earlier, for Environment Life, concepts reflected in the types of work Shea takes on. Green building was on the rise when Architecture EL was born, but it’s become in many ways standard practice, reflected in both customer demands and Massachusetts building codes.
But Shea said he’s not interested in the bare minimum. “On the environmental side, we keep digging further into energy and good design, to deliver not just code compliance but a healthy, safe, well-constructed building. That piece never goes away.”
The ‘life’ piece is a more general idea, but it gets into the whole experience of a space and the specific ways it will benefit the lives of those who live in and use it, whether it’s residents benefiting from affordable housing; the kids who will benefit from an accessibility-improvement project at the Wilbraham Children’s Museum; or the employees of Marcotte Ford who work in that company’s commercial truck center, built in 2015, or its new headquarters, which opens this month.
“We don’t specialize in custom, single-family residential, but it seems that those who end up here need someone to help solve a problem. A lot of times, they have a house, a budget, a program, and can’t figure out how to put it all together.”
“Even a private residential project, that’s very intimate for the client,” Morse said. “You’re designing space where they’ll spend a good portion of their lives, so that always makes our work interesting and impactful.”
Shea agreed. “We don’t specialize in custom, single-family residential, but it seems that those who end up here need someone to help solve a problem. A lot of times, they have a house, a budget, a program, and can’t figure out how to put it all together. It’s nice to work with those people. Those projects can be fun.”
Whether designing a municipal project, a place of business, or a home — or a multi-home development — Shea has never stopped seeing his role as focusing on a client’s environment and life, and coming up with solutions that enhance both.
“We’ve been busy for quite a while, and we seem to be staying busy. Clearly the economy is moving along,” he noted. “We’ve seen a lot of smaller single-family projects creeping up, three or four at a time. These are people who aren’t just hiring a contractor, they want to make sure they get to a good solution. People are looking to invest in the design time up front.”
Morse said the team is cautiously optimistic that the good times will persist.
“We’ve been lucky, and we’ve been busy,” Shea added. “We’ve been growing steadily, though we’re not looking to grow too much. We just want to keep working hard for our clients. That’s what keeps them coming back.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]