DTJ: Integrating Open Spaces in Development for 50 Years
WORDS: Eric Peterson
With deep roots in architecture, planning and landscape architecture, Boulder’s DTJ Design has helped lead the way for thoughtful development amid Colorado’s great outdoors for more than 50 years.
A founding partner of the firm, Steve James is the J in DTJ. “The D [Bruce Downing] and T [Tom Thorpe] have since retired,” he says. “I’m the bridge of generations.” Before James came to Boulder by way of Newport Beach in 1984, DTJ had been in business as a residential-focused design-build firm, Downing/Leach and Associates, since 1967. In its early years, it developed the first planned unit development in Colorado, Appleridge Park, followed by Wonderland Hills, a pioneering development for its integration with the natural landscape and its use of solar.
Those two projects put the firm on the map for residential developments on the urban fringe “tucked gracefully into nature,” says James. “We’d get the special, boutique projects that had open space woven through it.
“It’s just a different set of glasses we look through,” he adds. “Usually it’s some sort of landscape or open-space product that nudges us to do something special.”
With this integrated, landscape-centric approach as the calling card, Downing/Leach spun off a standalone design firm in Downing, Thorpe & James in 1988. The name was later shortened to DTJ Design as it worked on such high-profile projects as Anthem Colorado, FlatIron Crossing, Interlocken, and Centerra in the ’90s and 2000s. (Downing/Leach subsequently focused on construction as Wonderland Homes.)
Chris Moore came to work for the firm in 1998 and became CEO in 2012. “I was attracted to DTJ because of the multidisciplinary nature of the company,” he says. “A lot of companies try to specialize in a segment of the market. By providing an integrated service, we’re trying to look at things from a holistic standpoint.”
It’s about how open space influences development, and vice versa, and that means it’s critical to have planners, architects, and landscape architects on the same page to pull it off. “Virtually all of the leadership in the company wears two of those three hats,” says Director of Architecture Dave Williams, who joined the firm in 1982. “We do a lot of work in a collaborative way. We don’t work in silos.”
Williams points to Gateway Canyons Resort south of Grand Junction as a prime example of this integrated approach. “The design had to respect the landscape above all,” he says of the latter.
Mike Hall, Gateway Canyons’ director of operations and development, says another trick was taking a project that had been built as a basic motor inn and re-envisioning it as a luxury resort. “DTJ’s solid,” he says. “I can’t take anything away from them.”
They’re not only holistic in their designs, but they’re also good with budgets, Hall adds.
“They have the ability to say, ‘Here’s the design and here’s the price tag,’” he explains. And, if the price is too high, “They will bring it down to the number without losing the vision. They’re good about listening to what the owner wants and needs.”
At the southern terminus of Broadway, Backcountry in Highlands Ranch is another example of DTJ’s integrated approach. The firm mapped out the residential community’s master plan with an aim to “balance the outdoor environment and active lifestyle” with the development, says Moore. “We’re connecting two open space systems, we’re building on an open space system, and the homes are designed to take advantage of that.”
The stormwater management system became an above-ground amenity that culminates in a water feature in front of the sales center. The design “made landscape amenities out of drainage,” says James. “We learned it in business parks and on highways and learned we could apply it to residential.”
In Longmont, the 17-acre campus for Silicon Valley-based chipmaker Xilinx was “100 percent DTJ,” says Moore. The firm did “all of the architecture, all of the landscape architecture, all of the planning” for the R&D hub and conference center that opened on former farmland in 2002.
Highlighting a trail network and intact historical irrigation ditches, Moore hits on a familiar theme. “There’s this idea you’re out in nature,” he says. “We’re bringing this indoor/outdoor relationship right into the main lobby.”
“They brought a collaborative process to the initial programming of the campus,” says Sue Mesch, Xilinx’s senior manager of global site services, of working with DTJ. “They listened to our wishes to not overpower site with some corporate conglomerate of a campus. We wanted a site that expressed the Colorado character with a built environment that fostered the innovation of our engineers.”
The campus design preserved a significant amount of open space on a 5-acre wetland and wildlife habitat. “By leaving a stand of mature cottonwoods along Left Hand Creek, our site provides a home for many creatures of the prairie, including bobcats, foxes, bull snakes and many birds of prey,” notes Mesch.
After soaring to more than 100 employees, DTJ saw a reversal of fortune in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, but recovered by moving into international work in Russia, the Middle East, Brazil and China.
At the height of the recession, DTJ’s work was 90 percent overseas, but the mix now is about 35 percent foreign projects and 65 percent domestic. “We were able to rebuild due to work overseas,” says Williams, noting that the firm currently has more than 60 employees after a nadir of about 30.
Another growing market: theme parks all over the world. After moving into the niche in 2013, theme parks now represent about a quarter of DTJ’s business. James highlights a recent project in Volcano Bay, the new water park at Universal Orlando Resort in Florida. “It’s the talk of the world right now,” he says. “It’s the quality of the landscape setting for the rides.”
DTJ opened an Atlanta office in 2013, and it’s been another driver for growth. Director Todd Hill is a leader of the firm’s theme park work, and the design the $25 million renovation of Centennial Olympic Park is a high-profile local project for the office. “That’s tapping into a bigger market for us, not only regionally but in terms of work type,” says Moore.
The firm’s home market has remained strong. In Colorado, DTJ has a number of housing projects coming online in 2018, including developments at Stapleton in Denver, RidgeGate in Lone Tree and Centerra in Loveland.
Looking ahead, James sees the “next wave” of development being driven by affordable housing projects that may well be largely pre-fabricated off-site. “Right now, everybody’s behind,” he says of Front Range contractors. “Our builders are clamoring [for efficiency] right now. They know they have at least two more years of a super bull market.”
Featured in the March 2018 issue of Building Dialogue.