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Joel Thomas, right, is principal architect at the new local office for Buf Studio, an Arkansas-based firm started in January by Ryan Faust, left, and Christophe Bouteille.
SBJ photo by Jessica Rosa
Joel Thomas, right, is principal architect at the new local office for Buf Studio, an Arkansas-based firm started in January by Ryan Faust, left, and Christophe Bouteille.

Former Lamar Johnson trio opens firm

Posted online

Just months after its launch, Bentonville, Arkansas-based architecture and design firm Buf Studio has set up shop in downtown Springfield.

At 438 W. McDaniel St., Joel Thomas, formerly at Lamar Johnson Collaborative LLC’s Springfield office, is leading a four-person staff. Buf Studio partners Ryan Faust and Christophe Bouteille, who exited LJC’s Bentonville office Jan. 10, hired Thomas. Faust and Bouteille, who announced plans for the new architecture firm in the fall, opened their office Jan. 13.

Faust said all four of the Buf Studio’s Springfield staff has ties to LJC, which closed its Queen City office in April amid the coronavirus pandemic. Thomas, Megan Eli and Tim Brandt are new hires, joining Angie Love, who started at Buf Studio in January.

“It was kind of fortuitous that LJC let go of their Springfield office and we knew that Megan and Tim would be great production people and Joel would be a great leader for the office,” Faust said. “So, it maybe worked out the best for everybody.”

Between the two offices, the firm employs 11, including four licensed architects and a licensed engineer.

Thomas and Faust both believe the Springfield LJC office at 433 W. Walnut St. is unlikely to reopen. However, Bob Clark, executive chairman and founder of the firm’s Chicago-based parent company, Clayco Inc., said June 3 the matter is still to be determined. The local office is not listed on the firm’s website.

“No permanent decisions impacting offices will be made in the short term while we are still assessing the impact of COVID-19 on our business and the overall economy,” he said via email. “We have projects in 35 states and have had no problem supporting them with the assets we have in operation.”

Clark declined to answer additional questions regarding company plans and employee numbers. In this year’s Springfield Business Journal list of the area’s largest architectural firms, LJC’s local office ranked No. 14 with 15 employees.

In an April 16 news release, LJC officials announced Jim Stearman, principal architect and the Springfield office leader, remained with the firm to continue co-leading its health care practice. Stearman did not return messages seeking comment.

In view
Regarding his departure from LJC, Faust said he didn’t see Springfield and Bentonville being a part of Clayco’s long-term vision, as the company arrived in both communities through acquisitions.

In 2019, LJC entered the Springfield market upon merging with BatesForum LLC. BatesForum was created in 2018 from a merger of Springfield-based architecture firm Bates and Forum Studio, another subsidiary of Clayco, according to past SBJ reporting.

“That was part of our vision – to be more in charge of our own destiny,” Faust said of starting Buf Studio. “I feel we were a little marginalized in Bentonville in the Clayco enterprise, just because of their vision being different than ours was. I don’t think there’s any blame there. It’s just a matter of fact.”

Roughly $100,000 was invested in the firm’s launch, Faust said, noting $35,000 was dedicated to the Springfield office. It’s being leased for undisclosed terms from Josh Stewart of Hook Creative, who moved his marketing and web design firm to the Commercial Street Historic District.

Buf Studio’s focus is on multisite clients, including Ozark-based restaurant franchisor Big Whiskey’s and convenience store chain 7-Eleven Inc. – both relationships formed while working for LJC. Faust said the firm’s worked on roughly 50 7-Eleven stores currently under development. Buf Studio also is involved in the multifamily, banking, commercial and hospitality sectors.

Thomas said the firm is looking at several undisclosed flagship hotels as clients. Talks also are in progress with Coryell Collaborative Group and Entrust Property Solutions.

“It’s really hard to get with a hospitality group right now because they’re all pretty much lean because of this COVID deal,” he said.

Bouteille said the buffalo was an inspiration for the firm’s name.

“Cattle run away from the storm, and buffalo are known to turn towards the storm,” he said. “We just jump right in the storm, put our heads down and get the problem solved. That’s kind of the mentality of what we try to bring to our office and preach to our people. We’re architects and we’re problem solvers.”

Aside from their professional connection working for LJC and BatesForum, Thomas, Faust and Bouteille also are fellow Drury University alumni. Faust graduated in 2005, followed by Thomas in 2006 and Bouteille in 2009. Additionally, Faust and Bouteille previously worked together in Bentonville for architecture firms Harrison French & Associates and K2M Design Inc.

Friendly competition
The trio isn’t the only ex-BatesForum employees to open an architecture firm in the past year.

In August 2019, former BatesForum Vice President Bo Hagerman partnered with local developer Titus Williams to form Boti Architects LLC. He exited BatesForum in March 2019, after selling his stake.

Boti Architects has 10 employees in 3,000 square feet at 504 W. College St. in a building Hagerman owns.

Like Buf Studio, Springfield-based Boti also has a northwest Arkansas presence.

“We shifted gears a little bit and opened a second location in Rogers, Arkansas,” Hagerman said, noting roughly $250,000 was invested to open the 15-employee office in November 2019.

Of his 25 employees, Hagerman said nearly half were formerly with BatesForum.

Hagerman, who said he and Faust are good friends, welcomes competition and believes there’s still enough business for new architecture firms in Springfield and northwest Arkansas.

The principals at Buf Studio say the planning for their firm was months in the making – while they were closing out LJC projects in the fall. Faust said if they had waited until the pandemic had spread, starting a new firm might have briefly given them pause.

“We would have made the jump, no matter what, and made it work,” he said. “But it definitely would have been a little more nerve-wracking to do it now rather than January.”

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