“I don’t fabricate it … I stay modest about it.” – Kendrick Lamar, “Humble”
WORDS: Kevin Criss
I’m walking into Shears Adkins Rockmore for the first time and … wait, what? Where’s the grand lobby? No perky receptionist? No awards on display? Am I in the right place? I look around at the door to make sure I didn’t make a wrong turn. Nope, this is the place.
I go through the door of one of Colorado’s hottest architecture firms and I’m suddenly in their offices, walking amongst the staff desks until someone glances up from their monitor and greets me.
And that’s just how they like it. That lack of a showy entrance is by design and establishes the humble tone that makes Shears, Adkins Rockmore tick. Forget the show; they want you to head straight into the heart of an office dedicated to the pure, unrelenting pursuit of excellent work.
“Our clients walk in and they’re just part of our company, they know they can hang out,” says Chris Shears, newly minted AIA Fellow. “It’s a totally different environment here, and they know and appreciate that.”
“For us it matters that when you go from the front lobby to the studio that they’re the same office,” says Jesse Adkins, AIA. “In many, many cases with other firms, we saw that wasn’t always the case. From the lobby to the studio it wasn’t even the same firm.”
Another part of the SA+R ethos? There are no job titles here.
“We are not a highly structured, title-oriented design firm,” says Shears. “Rather the professional culture is egalitarian.”
According to Adkins and Andy Rockmore, AIA, there is an employee manual but it’s only about five pages long. And, don’t go looking for a lot of rules or preachy dogma in there.
“We love what we do. We enjoy who we do it with and we want to have fun,” says Adkins. “That’s our manifesto. And we’re serious about it, we’re not egotistical about it.”
“It’s a very collaborative, humble environment,” says Rockmore. “As partners, just like the other designers in the office, we’re growing as architects, too. Every day, we try to get better and I think that has been a driver of our growth. People have appreciated that we’re not so product focused and that we have respect for each other.”
Three Paths Lead to One
To understand SA+R’s unpretentious spirit, you just have to look at their backgrounds.
These aren’t snobby, silver-spoon, coastal elites. These are down-to-earth, smallish-town guys who learned a solid work ethic early on.
Shears grew up in Hutchinson, Kansas, a small city in the south central section of the state. When he was a kid, he made spending money as a laborer for his grandfather’s highway construction company.
Adkins grew up in the small, south-central Nebraska town of Minden, where he earned extra money working on a family friend’s feed lot digging fence post holes and sorting cattle. Not just a passing gig, he held this job for 10 years, from middle school through college. According to Adkins, “When you grow up in a small town in Nebraska, that’s just what you do.”
Rockmore grew up in Albany, New York, and his first job was working for the town, painting fences, mowing lawns, doing whatever they asked to make Albany a better place.
Growing up in Kansas, Shears spent his summers mountain climbing in Colorado so after he collected his master’s degree from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in 1980, even though it was hard to leave Boston, there was no doubt in his mind where he was headed.
For Adkins, the decision to come to Denver came down to a lucky toss. After graduating with a Master of Architecture from the University of Michigan in 1994, Adkins and his wife threw a dart at a map of the United States. That dart landed on Denver.
And Rockmore’s landing in Denver was more bad luck than a divine dart toss. After graduating with a Bachelor of Architecture from Albany’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1993, Rockmore and a buddy went on a year-long road trip around the country. Driving back to New York from California, he stopped at a cash machine in Denver. And that’s when he realized he only had $23 to his name. So, out of money and with no way to get back to New York, Rockmore walked into Wayne Lucky’s architecture firm and scored his first job in the business.
In the 1980s and ’90s, Shears teamed up with James Leese, and Shears Leese began to cultivate a strong reputation for design by teaming with larger firms on bigger and bigger projects. Shears Leese designed many residential and office infill buildings in Boulder, LoDo and in Kansas City, well before mixed-use became the popular trend it is today. According to Shears, the idea of mixed-use came from lessons he learned back in Boston. “As a city geek I knew mixed-use and diversity were among the necessary ingredients for cities to work well.”
In 1995, Adkins was working at Denver’s RNL Design and they teamed up with Shears Leese to pursue the Stadium Walk project. They came in second, but the two men had formed a mutual admiration, so with Leese set to move from Denver, Shears and Adkins began meeting in private to discuss the potential of forming their own office. And their age difference was embraced as a strength, not a weakness.
“I felt that there was a complement between an older gentleman and a younger gentleman,” says Shears. “So, Jesse and I started talking and eventually we realized that this could really work.”
“I opened up a fortune cookie one day and it said ‘Leap and the net will appear’,” says Adkins. “And I was like, I gotta’ go and find out if this will work.”
So, with Adkins leading the formation of the business and architect of record and Shears bringing in new projects as design architect, in 2002 Shears Adkins was born. According to Shears, from the start they were locked and loaded for success.
“The fortunate thing was that we had two projects, one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast that had been teed up for us, so we had the confidence of those two clients and that amounted to $170 million worth of development that we could start with, which is always important when you start a new firm,” says Shears. “But, it was the complement of our two styles that made it work.”
“Chris is a 40,000-foot thinker in a lot of ways and he relies on people to delve further into the detail,” says Adkins. “I’m the guy that spreads a lot between 5,000 feet and 40,000 feet.”
With Shears Adkins taking office space at The Dairy Block, Rockmore was also there with Architecture Denver and the three ran into each other from time to time in the halls. A chance hallway chat about Rockmore’s passions and professional goals opened the door for meetings that ultimately led to him joining Shears Adkins in 2004.
“Their humility was what attracted me,” says Rockmore. “I met these guys and I felt instantly that we were on the same page. You can be fooled in this profession thinking that you have to be abrasive in order to do good work. Chris and Jesse are shining examples that that doesn’t need to be the case.”
From 2004 to 2007, SA+R was an office of fewer than six architects working on a host of major projects like The Mark in San Diego, 4646 Broadway in Kansas City and The Walnut in Boulder. The three had found a winning formula and SA+R was on its way.
The Culture Informs the Work, Which Informs the Culture
SA+R specializes in urban infill and they excel at just about everything they touch, including a recent restaurant interior for The Preacher’s Son in Bentonville, Arkansas, which was just named a James Beard Award finalist for restaurant design. And they no longer team up with larger firms to bring in the projects. But, years of teaming with those bigger firms provided the partners with keen insight into how they wanted to run their firm.
“We have an entire philosophy that’s built around who we are that’s in response, in part, to a small boutique mentality and a large corporate practice mentality,” says Adkins. “Everything we do is rooted in our choices, our responses, our actions and I don’t think we’ve ever veered off of how we’ve established our culture, so I personally rely on that as a foundational element to deal with all of the things that come at us.”
That lack of pretention unsurprisingly weaves into SA+R’s work. They eschew a signature style and believe that their buildings should have integrity, honestly express use, satisfy the client’s program and contribute contextually to the spirit of the space. While some firm’s may be chained to a signature look, according to Rockmore the freedom of their approach is a valuable benefit for their clients.
“I think a lot of people come to us because they’ve seen the buildings that we’ve designed over the last 15 years, and they are still handsome buildings because we haven’t tried to do a one-off or tried to be trendy or tried to shout out for attention because that’s not us and we don’t believe our buildings should do that either. And when you do as much urban work as we do, the work has to be enduring.”
At the core of SA+R’s humbleness is a strong belief that what they do is for communities and humanity. It’s not for business. Let that sink in for awhile.
“We’re about the city. When we walk in here every morning, it’s about contributing to the city and that’s what architects should do. We’re not about making a name for ourselves. It’s about contributing to the community,” says Shears. “We do that in this office professionally and we do that with a number of other organizations … not to create business but because it is right. We absolutely do not do it for the business. If you’re an architect, you have a responsibility to contribute to your community. So we think about the city and about incrementally influencing it in a very positive way. That’s what I think this company will continue to do because everybody walks in here thinking about the city.”
When Shears thinks about the growth of SA+R in Denver, he describes a scene in Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, where the two are doggedly pursued by a posse. At different points in the film they look back at and wonder aloud, “Who are those guys?”
“I think that is what has happened in Denver because we have quietly developed a reputation as such that we are on many of the lists competing against the really big firms and, by golly, we are getting selected a lot, and I think a lot of it has to do with our attitude and the way we do things.”
A Deep Affection for the Firm They’ve Built
When you ask the partners of SA+R for their elevator pitch, they struggle to find an answer. Then it occurs to Adkins, “Honestly, I don’t think we have an elevator pitch because that suggests we have something to sell and that we’ve packaged it. I think one of our biggest differentiators is who we are as people, and that includes the entire office. It’s the authenticity of who we are and you can’t write that down.”
But, ask them what they are most proud of in their careers, and there isn’t a second of hesitation: It’s the 50 committed individuals who surround them and make SA+R what it is today.
“That’s easy, it’s this company,” says Adkins. “I’ve poured my heart and soul into this place. It’s everything for me and everybody in it.”
“Well, of everything in my career I’m proud of this company,” says Shears. “I just love it. I just love this company. There are a number of people here who will be very prominent architects in Denver. That’s our legacy. The best gauge of success is that other firms will come out of this firm.”
Based on their impressive portfolio that continues to grow, it appears that love is being returned. And in an era of self-promotion run amok, it’s refreshing to see that being humble is still respected and, better yet, still works. It’s nice to see good guys finish first.
Chris Shears has been named to the 2018 AIA College of Fellows Class. What does it mean to him?
“I’ll tell you what it means to me: It’s allowed me to reflect on what I’ve done and think about what I want to do and it’s a real kick in the rear end. I want to teach. I don’t know how I’m going to find the time, but I want to give back. It’s encouraged me to look at the next 20 years in my career. I have a lot that I want to do.”
Published in the June 2018 issue of Building Dialogue.
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