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From top left, Stephanie Ireland, Joel Thomas, Eric Olson, Karen Cordes Spence and Brandon Dake
SBJ photo by Christine Temple
From top left, Stephanie Ireland, Joel Thomas, Eric Olson, Karen Cordes Spence and Brandon Dake

CEO Roundtable: Architects & Engineers

Posted online

Springfield Business Journal Editor Eric Olson talks architecture trends and design with Brandon Dake, president, executive director and co-owner of Dake Wells Architecture Inc.; Stephanie Ireland, CEO of Ireland Architects Inc.; Karen Cordes Spence, associate dean of Drury University’s Hammons School of Architecture and board president of the American Institute of Architects Springfield chapter; and Joel Thomas, principal of Buf Studio in Springfield.

Eric Olson: In one word, how would you describe the architecture industry?
Stephanie Ireland: Unpredictable.
Brandon Dake: Cautiously optimistic.
Joel Thomas: Hopeful.
Karen Cordes Spence: Promising. We still have lots of prospective students and our students are anxious to get back. The future looks good. It’s just kind of the day-to-day, week-to-week as far as how do we get to that better place.
Olson: We’re not at that place yet, but what will it look like when we are? Are clients planning for a different configuration of their office spaces?
Ireland: As far as things that are under construction right now, we are going back and adding more permanent screens that actually can be removable later for reception counters or areas that are open right now. So, when the next wave hits or if something else comes along, they can still have that protection or remove it. Also have some spaces that were originally discussed to be open spaces and that has changed. Not to enclosed offices, but almost going back to the ‘80s cubicle idea, although it’s a little different in practice.
Thomas: There were a lot of design trends or technologies that were coming out anyway, like touchless technologies or antimicrobial services, better-suited HVAC so you’re not recirculating sick air. I did see an office addition that was looking at instead of doing an elevator shaft, which is one of the big issues, and doing an escalator shaft. So that was all open escalator and it was going 15 stories. It was just an idea somebody had about trying to separate people. In a few years’ time, when this all kind of goes to the wayside and things settle down, I think the human spirit will come back and people will be more confident in going back to how it used to work.
Dake: A lot of things had already started becoming more online and more connected, more digital. Instead of the open office, we’re starting to see a few more enclosed spaces within the open office space. But architecture is a slow profession. We’re making minor modifications like what Stephanie was talking about, but long term, we’re looking out at two years from now. We’re not making major, drastic changes. As architects, were charged to create buildings and spaces where people can live and work and learn. And I hope that we’re not designing them to separate everyone because we still need community. I don’t see any major trends that’s going to shift the way architecture is done yet. I think it’s just minor modifications to get us over this hump.

Safe design
Olson: Safety is such a big issue. That’s the key to getting the human spirit back, to getting the connections in the office face to face. How do you see other ways the architecture industry can produce safer environments when you think about the office of the near future?
Spence: Our major issue is to address the health and safety of all our clients. I almost think that what this does is puts that front and center again. Even though we know we’re all kind of wishing it was six months ago and that we could do something to prevent the pandemic from ever happening, it brings to the forefront this health and safety issue. Even after the pandemic phase, we’re still going to be concerned with how do we create office environments that sicknesses will be minimized and you won’t have offices where you’ll have people who have to take a lot of sick days or that create conditions they can really thrive in. There’s a new standard coming out, the Well Standard. It’s a certification that people are looking to ensure that environments are meeting a health and safety standard for everyone.
Dake: I think it talks a lot about natural light, indoor/outdoor connection, fresh air exchange, lower energy costs by bringing in more natural light and less artificial lighting. This is more specifically looking at the well-being of the person and maybe not as much about energy efficiency or environmental design, which is what (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is really focused on. Over time, I think it might start getting introduced into the code to influence all architects. Some of those things are already trends that we’re starting to all address anyway because it’s just good design.
Ireland: There’s a lot of technology available anymore that maybe has been overlooked. For instance, how many of us have used a push-button operated door? Everybody. But did you know there’s also a technology now where you just wave your hand in front of it rather than actually touching a button. It’s been around for years and really wasn’t noticed because touching something wasn’t a big deal.
Thomas: There’s been a lot of stuff out there that we’ve presented on that really increases the efficiency and flexibility on a building. There’s movable partitions, modular furniture to go into more of a cubicle-type space, an elevated floor system, which is used in high-rise office spaces so you can swap out tenants every year and you don’t have to worry about ripping up the concrete floor. There’s a lot of stuff you can do to make it very flexible to where if this happened again, you weren’t just stuck with the office you had, you could go back and shift stuff around and be six feet away. I don’t see it used a lot in the industries that I’m working in. The cost always outweighed the need for it.

Today’s trends
Olson: What about aesthetics? What are the most popular looks right now?
Ireland: I’m dealing more with interior finishes and the cleanliness of them right now. Joel mentioned the antimicrobial finishes, making sure that the finishes can be sterilized and clean.
Dake: As far as exterior goes, we’re not really looking at trends as much as we are just trying to solve the problems. We see a lot of owners that are really interested in durable, high-quality materials because they’re going to last longer. There’s a lot of new materials out and some of them haven’t been tested through time to know how they’re going to look in 40 or 50 years. We do see a movement toward continuing with solid, durable materials. We see a lot of new innovations in glass. We’re starting to see more and more glass; it brings in natural light and they’re much more energy efficient than they used to ... because you can reduce your lighting load.
Thomas: It’s really just client based on what their aesthetic pleasures are. I have one client that uses the same brick and same stone on every retail center. He does it because he knows retail centers get beat up, and stone and brick will take a beating and still look good in 15 years. You see a lot of metal panel now in commercial architecture; it’s durable. Metal panel and glass is pretty much a big trend you see throughout all architecture.

New players
Olson: There have been some new local firms in our market. Joel with Buf Studio is one and Boti Architecture is another. Should we expect to see more activity there, whether it’s through mergers or acquisitions or startups?
Dake: What I typically see is when there are difficulties in the market, innovators usually step up and take the risk to do something new. There’s people who have been laid off or furloughed and so they may wait around to find another job, or they may say I’m going to start my own gig. We saw some of this in 2008 and 2009 with the recession. People seize the opportunity when things are hard. I could see us having more new firms pop up in the next year or so.
Ireland: I agree. It sounds like the bedroom architects, where you’re working at your home, you don’t necessarily need an office to put your shingle out to start a business.
Thomas: Obviously, people are getting furloughed and laid off. I was a result of that. But it does seem like the industry is a lot better than what it was predicted at the beginning. We’re still not completely out of the weeds. I think you’re going to see an uptick once this all goes away because money is cheap right now.
Spence: We’ve had a lot of our students who have been successful in keeping their internships and finding employment. I think that is a good sign for how healthy architecture is right now. We’re just kind of hoping that it continues that way. I know it’s really hard right now to bring new people into practices just because everything is distance at this point, but it’s encouraging to see how many graduates have found jobs and how many internships there are.
Olson: Are any of your firms in that scenario where you’ve hired somebody who has just graduated?
Ireland: Not recently.
Dake: We have two student interns (from Drury). I don’t think we’ve hired any 2020 graduates this year, but we have added two new people since the whole pandemic started in addition to the two interns. There’s just a lot of work out there.
Thomas: We’re looking for somebody. Karen, if you know anybody.
Spence: OK. Good to know.

Project pipeline
Olson: It seems like just the last few weeks, a lot of projects coming out of the ground. A lot of steel going into the ground. As far as the bidding opportunities for you guys, what’s the volume?
Dake: We had a lot of work and a lot of backlog before the pandemic started that we’re continuing to work on. That is now starting to hit at the contractors’ level. And a lot of projects are starting construction. The problem that contractors are having is there’s a shortage of wood right now. Steel prices are skyrocketing. It’s hard to get doors and other materials sometimes because some of the plants had just shut down due to the pandemic. And now they’re behind by two or three months. Construction might be a little slow right now, but there is a lot of pent-up demand. That’s why I said cautiously optimistic at the beginning because we don’t know what the fall and winter is going to look like. It has been steady through the pandemic.
Ireland: Over the last month, we’ve had an uptick in projects. Anything that was under construction continued under construction. But anything that was on the board, meaning designwise, for about a month and a half just quit while everyone was very nervous about what’s going to happen in the future. Those people are starting to call back and say, “OK, let’s pick it up again.” My concern is the material. And also, when I said unpredictable, that’s exactly what I meant. What’s going to happen in about three months when they say the second wave is going to hit?
Thomas: It does seem like a lot of owners are taking advantage of the fact that we’re back in the office, and I think they’re trying to push stuff quicker now maybe before that second wave hits. Industrial really takes advantage of these times. I even talked with SRC [Holdings Corp.] one time and they said they actually love when there’s a recession because they start to buy properties and get ready because as soon as the recession’s done, they’re making money. Not to say they want a recession to happen, but they’ve historically seen good things coming out of recessions.

Creek development
Olson: One specific project I want to ask about is the city’s plan to daylight Jordan Creek. They recently sent out a request for qualifications, more so on the engineering side. What potential do you see on the design work?
Ireland: I actually have a client who’s very excited about that project. They had purchased some older building that’s along that development and they are very excited for that to happen. As you mentioned, it’s more of an engineering project, but I’m more interested in residual effects because if it’s a nicer area, the properties around it are going to get developed and that means more work for us.
Spence: It’s really critical for the city. As everyone was commenting about how there’s time for restaurants to look at renovations and offices to look at renovations, the city is able to do the same thing. There’s less traffic and there’s less people out and about. Some countries and some cities have really taken advantage of the pandemic and changed streets to cut off traffic and to make more pedestrian ways. Daylighting Jordan Valley Creek will actually bring a lot more people downtown. It will be an attraction. We’ve seen it across different cities, like Chattanooga [Tennessee]. Talent flocks there and that’s what we need. France did this thing during the pandemic where they don’t want people to ride mass transit, so instead they sent everyone in France 50 francs to fix their bicycles and they’re giving free bike lessons. And I thought that’d be a wonderful thing for us to do in Springfield.
Olson: What do you envision developing around this daylighting project? It seems like a stretch to say it’s going to be an economic boon to downtown. Maybe I’m missing something. What do you guys visualize when you think about that project?
Dake: I know it’s mostly an engineering project, but we are on a team with some hydrology and urban design experts and we think it’s a real catalyst for Springfield. I think some people still look at Springfield as a big town, not as a small city. Some of these urban developments that would connect, for instance, Brick City down to the West Meadows, and develop all of that I think we’ll start creating some really needed greenspace downtown, which is going to make downtown much more appealing. It’s not just all asphalt and concrete. That’s going to start bringing in some outdoor restaurants and some other activities, maybe there’s some outdoor movies shown. It’s a real park setting. That could completely transform really the personality of downtown Springfield. It’s going to be really good for our small city.
Thomas: We are on a team, as well, mostly civil landscaping urban development consultants. My biggest concern with this project, and I hope it does very well. I’m a downtown guy. The article about IDEA Commons came out three years ago and nothing has really happened there. I know this daylighting Jordan Creek idea has been around since I’ve been here, from 2001. It just seems like, and the (Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce) will agree with this because I’ve spoken to them about it, when they finally get IDEA Commons built and they get the creek daylighted, that can’t be the end. That’s got to be the catalyst. But it seems like stuff moves so slow here. It’s going to be hard to convince people to develop along the daylighted Jordan Creek unless there’s just 100% support from the city, from the chamber. Nobody wants to be on the bleeding edge. If the creek is daylighted and just sits there for another 15 years, I think it’s going to be a huge failure on the part of the city and on the architects not getting people down here to develop it more.
Ireland: I’m really hoping that this is, as you mentioned, a catalyst.
Spence: I think it’s incremental. When it reaches that tipping point, then a lot of other things will happen.
Dake: One of the things that gives me hope is now we have Tim Rosenbury. This is his focus, in transforming Springfield and creating new places. I’m hopeful more so than anything because we have someone in place that is now kind of leading that charge. And I’m not sure we’ve had that in the past. Tim follows through with things, and he is a great visionary. But like Joel said, only time will tell.
Thomas: They need to hire Tim for more than two years.

Excerpts by Features Editor 
Christine Temple, ctemple@sbj.net.

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