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Jim Lohmeyer and Jennifer Wilson say niches at their firms are born out of necessity and opportunity.
Jim Lohmeyer and Jennifer Wilson say niches at their firms are born out of necessity and opportunity.

CEO Roundtable: Architects

Posted online
What’s the next big thing in architecture design? Springfield Business Journal Editorial Director Eric Olson sat down with architects Jim Lohmeyer of Hood-Rich Inc., Michael Sapp of Sapp Design Associates Architects PC and Jennifer Wilson of nForm Architecture LLC. They talked trends, the recession and evolving communications.

Eric Olson: How would you describe the architecture industry in one word?
Michael Sapp: I would say fluid. Our industry is similar to probably every industry today. It’s extremely exciting. There’s no time for stagnation.
Jennifer Wilson: That was my word: exciting. We have so many opportunities that we just didn’t have a short time ago.
Jim Lohmeyer: I was trying to use a word other than busy. But vibrant maybe is another good word. I think disrupting is an interesting word, the way technology has changed our profession.

Olson: How has technology disrupted your work?
Sapp: Our business model is flipped over. We have a director of communications in our office. That was unheard of in our industry, particularly with firms of my size. I mean, the expectation, not only from ourselves, but from our clients, is a constant state of communication. There is no idle time. At a moment’s notice, we’re posting almost everything that’s occurring that we think might be important to somebody. So, that’s an expense, an overhead expense we never had in the past. It didn’t take very long for us to realize it started paying for itself. Every client we work with today has almost a different form of communication they want to use because they’re using it in their industry. Those days are gone where you can set aside concentration time to respond to key issues of clients. It has to be instantaneous. They have that expectation and if you don’t do that, then you may not get repeat business or the project is not going to go as well as you hoped.

Olson: Would you say technology designed for efficiency has caused inefficiency?
Sapp: I think with communication tools, it has. We can’t go sit in a corner office or studio and just work, work, work. It has always been about collaboration and communication with a client, but now you have this impact of minute-by-minute communication.

Olson: On the design side, what are the trends you’re noticing?
Sapp: Minimalist approach, which was kind of a 1960s-’70s era that was really strong, is back. Sometimes it takes long for things to hit the Springfield market, but it’s here, it’s growing every day. You see stripping buildings down to the really basic elements in terms of the exterior design being very simplistic but having very bold geometric forms, simple building material pallets, a lot of transparency – all those things that go with really breaking and building down to the very basics.
Lohmeyer: I still see it pretty eclectic in Springfield. You’re going to drive down Glenstone and see all sorts of things, various products. Cost is always a factor. I think modernist and simplicity, but I still think you’re seeing a lot of eclectic things. You get outside Springfield and it may change a little bit.
Wilson: Aside from this aesthetic, the use of multipurpose spaces becomes integral to everything that we do. It used to be people built these big blocks of space, but now people are much more concerned with how they use those spaces. We are doing smaller and nicer projects than we were doing 10 years ago. The good thing about the green movement is that it led to energy efficient systems and green materials for the everyday material pallet. People now have gotten more accustomed to paying for things that will last.

Olson: What are some good examples of these minimalist, multipurpose spaces?
Sapp: A couple of examples of ours, I would say Nixa Junior High. It was a renovation project, but it is very stripped down and simplistic with a really bold, strong entryway and a tremendous amount of transparency at the front entry. Some would say, “Isn’t that contrary to what you would do at a school?” For safety and security, but we have other ways that we treat that. You drive by that building and it’s just one big form and you look through it. Sherwood Elementary  – we did that – and we used one form six times. The way we put those forms together to create the entire building envelope.
Wilson: We did the archives over at Greene County – going back to multipurpose, that space is just a big room that they lease out to use for about eight hours every single day and the whole key to that space is making it functional.

Olson: What big projects are on the horizon?
Wilson: Well, Springfield Public Schools just voted to put a pretty significant ballot initiative in April for $189 million.
(group laughter)

Olson: That could keep you busy for a while.
Lohmeyer: Yeah, it could. It could keep a lot of architects in Springfield busy.
Sapp: I would just say from a project discipline standpoint, our school and public library market is stronger than ever and continuing to grow. Not just here in the area, but regionally; we’re excited about that. Not only the number of projects, but the scale of the projects are getting bigger. When I say bigger, it’s in terms of dollar volume, so it’s inherently the quality that’s improving. Even in the public markets, gone are the days where you had to just beat yourself to death to give the best product under a minimal budget.
Wilson: Yeah, we do a lot of courthouses and jails in rural Missouri and we’re being asked to put in geothermal systems. I mean the whole concept of just building things as cheap as they can has gone away. Most of my clients are people who are going to use one project in their lifetime; they aren’t used to fancy materials. They are used to quality now. And that’s new in the last 10 years.

Olson: It seems after the recession, we saw the public market come back before the commercial market and maybe that sector is still leading. Has private or commercial swung back up?
Lohmeyer: Private stuff has now picked up. That’s a lot of work we do, private side, the developer side. We’ve got a large project outside of Missouri in the Dallas market. Now, the developer, the private developer market, has increased dramatically. We see work just here in Springfield, Tim O’Reilly’s is certainly a part of that. He’s growing and expanding his business, not just in Springfield and in surrounding states. Our work really kind of revolves around more of a Midwestern-type area. There’s so many hotels out there that were neglected during that recession time; now there is a huge backlog of work.

Olson: Each of you have spoken to working on projects from a regional basis. Is that a product of the recession?
Lohmeyer: I’ve always worked outside of Missouri, even prerecession time.
Wilson: I think it’s a product of being specialized in a particular type of work. I think as you get a more specialized practice, that kind of forces you out into a more regional market.
Sapp: The same for us. We have specialized markets and there’s only so much you can do here locally or regionally. We’ve always been spread out within a reasonable area. We’ve been invited to go to other places, but if we don’t feel like we can give our client the service they need, we’re going to turn it down. We work within our comfort zone.

Olson: How important are those niches and did you arrive at them strategically or just kind of by virtue of opportunity?
Wilson: Niches have been created more recently. It used to be a lot of people had more of a general practice when I first started practicing architecture, but quite frankly just because of liability and the increased change in trends, it’s pretty hard for an architect to keep up with seven different markets and all the different changes in those markets. For instance, we do a lot of jails. Well, jails are a high liability building type and it’s a hard thing for an architect to jump into. So, there aren’t many architects who do that kind of work. I think you see that in other areas too. For instance, I’ve never worked on a hotel and I can’t imagine doing it.
Lohmeyer: And just the time and effort that it takes to get that knowledge, you have to constantly be researching all the time. When a client comes to you and you’re competing against other highly qualified firms, if you haven’t completed two to three different projects of that same type, it’s very difficult. Back in the recession, we were doing a lot of hotel work and it all of a sudden turned off. It really hurt. The lesson I’ve learned on that is, yes, niches are good and knowledge is good in that area and we want to keep that going, but do not put all of your business and all your eggs in that basket. We strategically have to think about that.

Olson: What areas are you guys branching out in and how do you go about that?
Lohmeyer: A principal in my firm has a passion for church architecture and that’s what his focus is. That’s what he wants to do, what he loves. He’ll put that effort in and that research in understanding what is required to do it. It really is about passion. It’s great that he does that because it balances our firm in that regard.

Olson: With education being one of the key areas, are there any concerns with this upcoming bond issue passing?
Sapp: Well, I certainly hope it does. I travel the country in this field and I see smaller communities doing bigger, bolder things than Springfield sometimes. That really is hard to see when you come home and you say, “Well, why aren’t we doing this?” What’s happened in the industry over time is that it used to be that a building was a place to provide academia to students of all age levels. The teachers worked within that model. Whatever it was, wherever it was built, they just went in there and went to work and the students learned in that model. Well, today there’s tests that prove the success of a child’s learning capabilities and test scores can be directly linked to the quality of architecture and the environment they’re in. The project-based learning – (science, technology, engineering, math) – all of those require a different building model to be able to co-teach or bring classes together at a moment’s notice. What’s happened is that because the academic side is changing and continuing to evolve, the buildings have to respond to that. Well, Springfield is moving that way, obviously, from a teaching model, so the buildings need to start responding to that or it’s going to create a little bit of a dilemma for instructors. Plus, just like hotels, schools got left behind as far as repairs, renovations and capital improvements go. A big part of what Springfield is promoting is getting their buildings back up and responding to the teaching model that we’re talking about. A lot of people will argue the monetary amount, but Springfield is such a huge district. For years, I’d sit back and watch Springfield put small bond issues out, some of them that were smaller than places we were working in that were a quarter the size of Springfield. I always scratched my head. Why are we taking ministeps? Why aren’t we taking the steps we need to be taking to be current all the time?

Olson: What are some of the lingering effects of the recession on your firms? Are you back to where you were prerecession?
Sapp: For us, nothing is a sure deal anymore. It doesn’t matter if you have a signed contract or not. Even if you are working through that project and you’re getting your invoices paid, there is no level of certainty that the project will complete. It’s the new normal, so to speak. I don’t like it. None of us like it, but it’s reality. Last year, we had six projects at various phases – several of those public projects – that stopped.
Lohmeyer: I look back and I probably act a little differently, a little more conservative. I look at our overhead expenses in the firm a little bit closely, because like Michael said, nothing is certain anymore. Trying to balance out the highs and the lows and trying to keep the even keel on this. A project you’re excited about could end very quickly and you see that all the time. We’re still working, and there’s a lot of people who couldn’t do that. I think we’re stronger for it. I think we got rid of a lot of the chafe during those times. The ones that are still here really love this profession.

Interview excerpts by Features Editor Emily Letterman, eletterman@sbj.net, and editorial assistant Barrett Young.

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