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Colorado Pulse: The Changing Face of Our Architectural Community

Denver skyline

The face of Colorado’s architectural community is quietly transforming, one firm at a time, as a new generation of designers nudges its way into a changing marketplace. With mergers and acquisitions already replacing many of our state’s iconic firms of the past – and other notable, long-established firms beginning the transition to new leadership – a change of guard is at hand.

Cynthia Kemper

Cynthia Kemper
Principal, Marketekture

Yet, even as the future beckons with new talent and ideas infusing energy into the profession, it is important to acknowledge the generation of leaders whose shoulders we stand on today. These passionate, once highly visible architects who devoted their careers to openly standing up and speaking out on behalf of the profession have consistently demonstrated that “architecture matters” through their work, their actions and their words over the last 30-plus years.

Today’s up-and-coming architects have greatly benefitted from this dedication and the strong Colorado architectural community they built. Thankfully, as with their mentors before them, the larger community has been as important to them as their own legacies.

Mergers & Acquisitions

Perhaps it was the recession, or its aftermath, that motivated the notable AR7 Architects to merge with Spokane-based NAC Architecture in 2011. Or it may have been dreams of retirement, or opportunities too good to refuse. Regardless, AR7, which originally was founded by George Hoover and Karl Berg in 1976 (Gary Desmond joined the leadership team in 1980 followed by a name change to Hoover Berg Desmond shortly thereafter), no longer exists in Colorado. As one of the most respected design firms in the state, AR7 was the first high-profile local firm to transition ownership post-recession.

Other well-known firms followed. In 2012, klipp, the award-winning design firm founded by Brian Klipp in 1979, was acquired by Irvine, California-based gkkworks, and Hutton Design Group was purchased by Minneapolis-based Cuningham Group Architecture. Then in 2014, 44-year-old SlaterPaull Architects merged with Hord Coplan Macht, the largest firm in Baltimore, followed by a merger of the 52-year-old H+L Architecture with Lawrence, Kansas-based Treanor Architects in January this year. Since their transitions, all five firms have essentially disappeared from the local conversation.

Thoughts on the implications of these changes have been mixed. To some, change is inevitable. To others, this M&A activity represents the inevitable passing of a singular era worth remembering and honoring.

The End of an Era

“I think what’s going on is a natural evolution. Last year, I read that 78 percent of architecture and interiors firms were planning a merger or acquisition in 2015,” shares Curt Fentress, founding principal of Denver’s acclaimed Fentress Architects. “But there are a lot of moving wheels other than M&A. People are getting older and wanting to retire. There’s also a shift in requirements for licensing in process, something that will impact the future of architecture firms here.”

Colo PUlse

Dennis Humphries, Curt Fentress and Tania Salgado

Fentress, who launched his practice in 1980 with one staff person, was one of the original “one- to five-person firms” that continues to fuel the design industry today. Over the years, his firm has expanded geographically to 135 people and 14 partners in five U.S. cities today.

Dennis Humphries, a founding principal of the notable Humphries Poli Architects is a bit more nostalgic. “Transition is a really tough thing. Younger partners march to a different beat,” he notes. “When you’re the founder of a firm, you don’t know if your firm will succeed or die under new leadership over the next decade or two. Some owners choose to take that chance, others decide to sell.”

Fentress, Humphries and many other notable Colorado architects who launched their firms in the 1970s and ’80s, began their careers when local architectural leaders like Bill Muchow, Temple Buell, Rod Davis, John Anderson, Cab Childress, John Rogers, Chuck Sink and Peter Dominick were still practicing.

“When Bill Muchow died, that was the end of his firm. It’s like the light switch was just turned off,” reflects Humphries. “No one could have bought his firm out, or carried on his work, nor that of Temple Buell. They represent the end of a very special era in architecture. These firms were led by very passionate, bright, talented individuals. When they die or move on, it’s really hard to sustain that same vision and culture over time.”

Tania Salgado, co-founder of 2-year-old Denver-based Handprint Architecture, believes architecture is a global profession today. “To expand, firms need to have a presence in other states,” she explains. “Acquiring a practice with stability and quality like SlaterPaull allows a practice to broaden their work and expand project types.

“In many firms, however, there is no plan for leadership transition. There’s a huge gap there,” Salgado adds. “It’s a different society today; the attitude is not the same. If you’re not engaging the next level of leadership and don’t have the right culture to keep them, they leave – often to start their own firms.”

Navigating Cultural Change

Simmering just under the surface, this shift in culture is beginning to impact design firms statewide.

The “55-plus generation of white men who lead our legacy firms today are still accustomed to a time when people sat at their desks and worked 14 hour days. The way they do business hasn’t changed,” shares Salgado. “The newer firms have a different attitude and a freshness about them … it’s a new culture.”

She continues, “We’ve made a lot of changes in our firm culture. We are all equals and everyone has a voice in the conversation. We may hire more experienced staff than ourselves, and we don’t necessarily focus on hiring the cheapest talent out there. We also believe in flexibility and collaboration. Instead of individual offices, we sit at a community table and work together.”

Fentress adds that pending changes may allow graduates to be licensed straight out of school, leading to more young firms with less experience. “Some may be successful, some may not. This will affect how we all operate and work as architects,” he shares. “Young people often have different ideas – they are not as regimented in regard to how things have been done in the past. In our experience, many don’t stay around very long. They jump … looking for instant gratification.”

He adds, “We don’t know how it’s all going to work out, or what it will look like, but it will be interesting.”

Questions Remain

As with any evolution, questions remain. Where are we headed, and who will the next generation of leaders be? Are Colorado and the profession better off because of these outside acquisitions? Who will fill all the empty shoes?

Humphries shares some valid concerns. “Where are these outside firms in terms of concern for the city, our communities and the profession? Are they here to be owners, or are they merely here to own a bigger piece of the pie? Unfortunately, it seems that the conversation has faded,” he shares. “If these outside firms take ownership of the community, we will be fine. But, even Texas has more design dialogue going on than Denver’s seen in the last 10 years.”

He adds, “There are a lot of young, talented people out there, but I don’t think they put the same level of importance on making the city better. And it no longer feels like the profession is standing up for itself.”

“Who will replace the voices of architects like Jeff Sheppard, Gary Desmond and Brian Klipp? Before us, it was George Hoover, Cab Childress and Peter Dominick. They were all incredibly passionate about architecture,” Humphries reflects. “For us, it was just a part of what you did and why you were an architect. Hopefully, others will stand up and take our place in the future.” \\

Featured in Building Dialogue, June 2016

Edited by Building Dialogue