By: Jim Rosenberg
When ArcWest Architects officially opens for business next week, it will be the third newspaper-specialist firm founded in the last three years.
Denver-based ArcWest partners Kevin H. Anderson and Todd L. Heirls worked together, as designer and project manager, respectively, while both were with McClier Corp., originally at its earlier McClier/designAlliance office in Boulder, Colo.
The “overriding thought” in setting up their own practice, said Heirls, was not “to be associated with the big organizations out there.” While others have “tried and true methodologies,” said Heirls — what Anderson called “very definite ways in which they will approach a project” — ArcWest looks to devise custom solutions for each client and project, the partners said.
“We see a lot of opportunity among smaller newspapers and in the western states,” Anderson said, adding that those papers are underserved and most newspaper architects are a day’s travel away in the east.
Also setting the new firm apart, according to Heirls, is that with newspapers lately under financial stress, ArcWest has lower overhead, which enables it to “provide more service for the client’s dollar.”
Anderson said he’d wanted to launch his own business and “do things a little differently,” and with few large competitors, he said, now seemed the right time. He and Heirls knew each other, had shared interests, were both living in Denver, and found that as partners they were “complementing each other with the strengths we have to offer.”
While both spoke highly of their former employers, Heirls allowed that as he advanced at McClier/Aecom-Austin, “the more responsibilities [I] gained in the organization, the less of my own experience and the less of my own ideas would be available going forward.”
Heirls has spent more than half his 18 years as an architect focusing on project management and operational organization for publishing clients, including dailies in Detroit, Knoxville, and Hilton Head. An associate vice president at Austin Aecom, he most recently led the Facilities Design Group in Denver. He earlier was with McClier, designAlliance, and, until mid-1999, Cleveland-based GSI Architects.
Anderson last year joined Dario Designs, headquartered in Framingham, Mass., about the time Aecom merged its Chicago-based McClier Corp. with two of The Austin Co.’s operations and combined McClier and Austin specialists in the Austin Media Group. With experience ranging from programming, site planning, and master planning to construction management and equipment coordination, his clients have included Pioneer Newspapers and the McClatchy Co.
Before serving as Dario Designs senior architectural designer (and except for a two-year Peace Corps stint in Vanuatu, where he and his wife assisted community groups in building development and construction), Anderson worked at McClier, Chuck Blevins & Associates, Blevins Harding Group, and Harding + Collier.
In spring 2004, Gilberti Spittler International veteran Charles A. Rosati picked up his former employer’s newspaper specialty (and phone number), founding Forum Architects. Later that year, following due diligence, Aecom declined to acquire The Austin Co., which declared bankruptcy last fall. Both big firms had staffers specializing in newspapers. By year’s end, Austin had sold its core operating assets to Kajima USA. At the same time, Kansas City-based engineering and construction firm Burns and McDonnell was forming a Media Facilities Group with personnel from Austin’s Kansas City office and a total of 20 of its employees who had served its newspaper and broadcast clients (E&P Online, Jan. 5).
Those and earlier changes (E&P, July 2005) left Dario DiMare, whose firm was the smallest in the mid-1990s, with the biggest newspaper practice 10 years later.
“With all industries, there needs to be some level of specialization,” said Anderson, who thinks there will always be room for three or four newspaper-specialist architectural firms. Heirls guessed that with varying success among further “offshoots” of larger companies, “it’ll probably come back to four or five” competitors, though “maybe not” the seven that once served the industry.
ArcWest hopes to name a client — and possibly two — as early as the end of January, according to Heirls, noting that, with respect to former employers’ clients, professional ethics figures into any start-up. “We feel strongly that there’s enough opportunity for us out there that we can have a clean break,” he said. Already, he added, “We have been contacted by at least two [prospective] clients.”
Apart from changes that have shuffled talent in their own business, architects serving newspapers must respond to their clients’ evolving operations. “Quite possibly,” said Heirls, total investment in heavy equipment and related plants will decrease as a result of production centralization. But while the total number of potential projects may shrink, centralization “still culminates in work for architects.”
Whereas some firms “are concentrating more on the equipment side,” said Anderson, a plant is only half of a newspaper’s home, and ArcWest also has expertise in the design of offices, which will require renovations, modernizations, and expansions.
Looking ahead, architects and publishers alike must consider the lead role played by printed editions and the operational demands that making, packaging, and distributing them places on a newspaper company. Whatever the longer-term position of the printed product, clearly Web publishing is a major contributor, and other new electronic media are emerging.
Heirls said it makes less sense to have staff duplication in news and advertising “as new media has become larger and larger and a more important entity in the newspaper.” For that reason, he continued, the Web already is “a big driver in the newspaper office environment. That’s a market that we’d like to capture.”
It is, said Anderson, “not only a question of “how you position and integrate that into your office workflow,” but also how the workplace is adapted to its impact as a likely area of growth.
At this juncture, Heirls added, there are not necessarily any right or wrong answers in designing productive workplaces for multiple media — only a need to “maintain the flexibility in the space to accommodate change.”
Although the new partnership will work with third-party consultants on process analysis and planning and on equipment selection for clients — whether for front office or back shop — ArcWest also expects to rely on expanding in-house skills.
“We anticipate growing ownership at our company, as opposed to growing an employee base,” said Heirls. “Our goal is to be four or five people in a year-and-a-half, two years.”
Anderson said that “could easily happen this year, and we’re prepared for that,” because the physical infrastructure to support growth is already in place.