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February 2013
Intentional Design
By Zenda Douglas

     MBAJ Architecture’s favorite projects are the ones their clients love. Judging by the stellar reputation of the firm and the repeat business it enjoys, that means that pretty much all of them.

     From its inception in 1981 as a sole proprietorship in Shelby, N.C., the architectural firm has experienced impressive growth, opening the Charlotte office in 1988 and the Raleigh office in 1996.

     MBAJ Architecture has six principals practicing out of four offices in North and South Carolina. The ownership of the firm is shared by 17 employee shareholders including the principals. In what Rob Johnson calls “a really good culture,” the firm focuses on leadership, serving projects which support their client’s mission and cultivating new opportunities.

     “What we don’t emphasize are hierarchy and seniority,” says Johnson. “Over the last decade, we have strategically aligned ourselves,” and Johnson lists the principals with their complementary emphasis: Stan Anthony, finance and business; Rick Brown, firm development and technology; John Thomas, project management and quality assurance; and Angie Crawford Easterday in Raleigh and James Golightly in Charlotte, the principals in charge day-to-day.

     Johnson, himself, has an emphasis on marketing, external relations and new business development. Each principal is a registered architect, actively engaged in projects, focused on client satisfaction and active in their community.

 

The MBAJ Blueprint

     MBAJ Architecture provides a broad range of services from pre-funding studies and assessments, programming, and master planning to architectural design, bidding and procurement, construction administration, and digital imaging. Throughout the implementation of these services, the firm is committed to cost control, schedule management, quality assurance and sustainable design.

     “Critical thinking, problem solving and collaboration form the foundation of our work,” says Johnson. “We’re really helping people who have needs associated with educational, civic and governmental, religious and commercial facilities to understand and prioritize their needs and desires, so we can then creatively offer alternative ways to accommodate their needs, incorporate their desires and determine the best-fit solution to implement.”

     Frequently, MBAJ is called in before clients have obtained their funding for a project and, in today’s economy, clients are trying to decide between refurbishing, new construction or phasing over time.

     Typically, MBAJ Architecture is hired by the owners of the building project and often handles the bidding process for contractors. “Once contractors are awarded the commission, we look after it and make sure it’s being built according to the drawings and specifications,” says Johnson. Architects are selected on the basis of qualifications.

     “We primarily do public work,” says Johnson. “Consequently, we work mostly with boards of education, county commissioners, community colleges, local governments and state agencies.” The firm also does commercial/private work and has completed a variety of banking, office and church projects.

     Examples of the firm’s work include First Ward Elementary School, Myers Park High School, Selwyn Elementary School, Bailey Middle School, South Pointe High School (Rock Hill), Highland School of Technology (Gastonia), Mitchell Community College Advanced Technology Center, Surry County Judicial Center, Iredell County Department of Social Services, Yadkin Valley Bank, Holy Angels Group Home (Belmont), Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, and Stuart W. Cramer High School (Cramerton).

     “We’ve been fortunate to work on a wide variety of new buildings and also many challenging additions and renovations,” says Johnson. The firm is also responsible for the architectural work at Central Piedmont Community College’s first satellite campus—the North Campus.

     The firm’s design teams are carefully compiled, according to Johnson; contracting and consulting with multidiscipline engineers and specialized consultants. MBAJ also assembles a project team that identifies key client participants.

 

Architectural Inspiration

     Johnson’s inspiration to become an architect arrived at the age of 10. Living in his hometown of Wilmington in the mid-’60s, he experienced his parents building a new house. They sketched the plans and hired a local architect who refined the plans, drew sections and elevations, and on numerous occasions came to their home.

     “They let me sit in on the meetings with the architect and later the contractor and by my doing so, along with watching our house being built, I knew from that time that this was what I wanted to do. I’ve never wavered,” says Johnson.

     The second piece of direction came from his high school guidance counselor who told him about UNC Charlotte developing a new school of architecture. There he met fellow student, Stan Anthony III, who agrees, “We both feel that we received a fabulous education.”

     Johnson went on to earn his master’s in Architecture from the University of Illinois and Anthony did the same from Georgia Tech. He joined MBAJ in 1988. The other principals are similarly educated. Golightly and Thomas are also graduates of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte as is Brown, who additionally is a Virginia Tech grad; and Crawford Easterday graduated from Texas A&M and North Carolina State University. Anthony also serves as the mayor of Shelby, his home town.

     Johnson touts the academic rigors demanded of architectural students: “We receive a well-rounded education. As an architect, you are a generalist; you have to know a little about a lot of stuff.”

     Johnson likes to point out that the 1980s musical group Talking Heads was made up of architecture students, as was the late songwriter, Dan Fogleberg. “It speaks well of our profession,” he chuckles. “We’re flexible and can blend into a lot of different professions.”

    More seriously, Johnson speaks of the need to migrate on your feet: “The difference between building airplanes and cars is that they are built inside. Buildings are built in the weather; coming out of the ground. There are a lot of decisions that happen in the field; it makes for an exciting way to earn a living.”

 

A New Era

     Advances in technology have made huge inroads in architectural design and analysis, providing many opportunities for creativity and problem solving. First, there were two-dimension drawings, then some three-dimension tools. Now, all the components are ‘smart’ and work together.

     AutoCAD came along in the 1990s allowing drawings to be done by computer. Next came Building Information Modeling (BIM), which allows architectural, engineering and construction components to be observed and manipulated in relation to each other.

     “It’s incredible the power of the computer,” says Johnson. “What we’re seeing now will seem like child’s play in the future, but right now we’re greatly benefited by being able to create and visualize designs. It is a great communication tool for our clients and us. BIM can also run conflict resolution between the components to determine if that light and that beam and duct work are all in the same three-dimensional space.”

     As with any discipline or firm, there are challenges. “The main one is the reduced level of funding going into building facilities since the downturn,” says Johnson. “We also have a reduced number of architectural graduates continuing on to registration, preferring instead—and having the ability—to use their skills within other industries and concerns such as energy or real estate.”

     As the recession unfolded, 2010 and 2011 were wrought with challenges for the firm. “K-12 school projects stopped in their tracks,” says Johnson. “We were accustomed to a handful of large projects at any given time; however, the shift in the marketplace caused us to seek several handfuls of smaller projects.

     One of the main things that kept the firm going in the downturn were existing clients who used the downturn to assess their needs, conduct feasibility studies and complete very economical small additions and renovations. “Also, in that it can take a year to design larger projects and a couple of years to build, the cash flow income from these larger projects were a big factor in sustaining the tough times.”

     Johnson describes breaking even as the recession eases as ‘the new normal.’ “Although we’re still in the curve coming out, it is incrementally upward and our peace of mind is much better than a few years ago,” says Johnson.

     Johnson actually cites positive impact from the financial difficulty: “We’ve used the downturn in the economy as an opportunity to turn things around to fully utilizing BIM.” Plus, he sees a different, more responsible climate.

     “Now building is being done a lot more thoughtfully. People appreciate energy more. Before, the goal was to build it fast and inexpensively without much regard to sustainability,” Johnson says.

     He also detects a new attitude towards architects: “The downturn has actually helped in terms of people realizing what an architect can do for them. As a field, we are more appreciated. As we work to design buildings with much fewer resources, we’re back to being problem solvers. This means being involved from the beginning of a project and helping to determine the best use of space.

     “There’s a lot more pre-design—analysis and feasibility studies. It used to be people figured out what they wanted and then called in an architect to draw up blueprints—just slide them under the door. Now, they call in an architect to figure out what they need and desire. The profession is a lot more challenging but fun because expectations have gone up. It’s a new day and forever different; it’s exciting.”

 

A Families Affair

     “The firm is made up of not just principals and employees, but 25 families,” says Johnson. “We know one another. We work hard and we play hard.” The firm values opportunities where employees and their families can spend time together away from the office: “We’ve had deaths and been faced with cancer—we rally around each other.”

     “Our culture is an outgrowth of our shared kindred spirit,” says Johnson. “We all believe that our personal lives are just as important as our professional lives. It’s all about the people you meet along your path. In the end, you probably won’t worry about your sketches or technical aspects but you will be comforted by the fond memories of the many people you have met thorough our firm and the profession.”

     For the last eight years, the principals of MBAJ Architecture have been involved with UNC Charlotte’s architectural professional practice classes. “They ask us to come in and talk about all aspects of being a mid-size firm and our marketing, human resources, technology—things that make a firm work.”

     They also sit on the Central Piedmont Community College Architectural Technology Program Professional Advisory Board. Johnson attests, “Mentors were important to me and I want to mentor in turn.”

     “We seek to make a positive difference in the communities we serve,” says Johnson.

     “It’s good to be proud of the things you’ve been a part of but better, still, is the ongoing lineage,” he continues. “For an architectural firm to sustain multiple generations is a real accomplishment.

     “We want clients to describe us as genuinely good people—trustworthy people who greatly support and advance their mission—a firm they would like to work with again.”

 

 

Zenda Douglas is a Greater Charlotte Biz freelance writer.
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