Upping the Value: Architects Take on Challenges by Emphasizing Innovation

Architects located throughout the Midlands say the pandemic combined with the higher interest rates that have followed, have provided dual challenges for firms and their clients alike. In response to this, many architects are doubling down on technology to help boost efficiencies and control costs.

“For-profit, developer-led initiatives, which have not yet been designed or have secured financing are seeing incredible challenges,” said Curt Witzenburg, principal with Holland Basham Architects. “While lending rates are nowhere near the historic highs of 18% or 20%, the current rates are negatively impacting several projects’ ability to start design.

“As a firm, we actively monitor key market indicators, working to strengthen or reposition our efforts within new, existing or emerging markets as situations dictate. For projects coming off the boards or in construction, the labor and financing pressures have largely been accounted for within the project proforma, allowing the projects to proceed per schedule.” 

Technology Abounds

Witzenburg said new tech has helped the firm be more efficient, boost collaborative efforts and eliminate errors. At the same time, these tools allow architects to maintain total control over the creative process.

“Visual-based artificial intelligence is having a profound impact on the creative world,” Witzenburg said. “While AI-generated outcomes rely on designer inputs, it has an incredible ability to quickly generate multiple iterations, thus streamlining the process of searching for the best forms, materials and colors.

Rendering of Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium orangutan exhibit renovation. (Courtesy of Holland Basham Architects)
Rendering of Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium orangutan exhibit renovation. (Courtesy of Holland Basham Architects)

“Holland Basham Architects has always been quick to embrace new and evolving technologies to enhance our client experience and optimize outcomes. Our offices also have fully integrated building information modeling, which is a five-dimensional modeling program. This program is combined into our virtual reality devices, allowing our clients to experience the interior and exterior architecture in a totally immersive environment which replicates the final built environment.”

The firm has employed these tools to great effect in recent notable projects including the 103,200-square-foot Steelhouse Omaha. The $82.8 million performing arts center was completed in August of 2023. One of the first venues of its size in Omaha, seating about 3,000, it features cutting-edge design on the exterior to make it stand out and build an identity.

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“Holland Basham Architects worked with design architect Ennead Architects and took the project through construction documents as the architect of record,” Witzenburg said. “We also worked with acoustical engineers on the details to provide a state-of-the-art, acoustically engineered auditorium.”

Other projects Witzenburg noted included a 21,500-square-foot, $3.5 million tenant improvement for Scooter’s Coffee, completed last fall, and the $23 million orangutan exhibit renovation, which began this year for  Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium.

“Technically, the zoo project is very complex, with selective demolition of portions of an existing building, installing new structures adjacent to the remaining building, and keeping all program spaces within the structure with proper adjacency,” Witzenburg said. “At the same time, we are combining all of the building’s physical spaces, and the entire exhibit needed a complete overhaul to retheme and elevate the visitor’s overall experience.

“The Scooter’s project was unique in the sense that all workspaces are unassigned and needed variety in their set-up to adapt to different tasks and work styles. This project included new training rooms, meeting rooms, huddle spaces, lounge areas and desks, thus allowing for the greatest possible flexibility. In addition, technology integration was needed to accommodate in-person and remote meetings. We also paid special attention to environmental graphics and added a full-service coffee bar to reinforce the brand.”

Scooters Coffee corporate office tenant improvement. (Courtesy of Holland Basham Architects)
Scooters Coffee corporate office tenant improvement. (Courtesy of Holland Basham Architects)

Creative Solutions

High interest rates have also provided steep challenges for projects as owners look to leverage available dollars to the fullest. Beau Johnson, DLR Group senior associate and design leader, said the challenges are complicated by clients wanting to design the most flexibility possible to accommodate the new workplace, yet struggling to determine what that looks like.

“The obvious challenges within the financial markets – inflation, rising interest rates, et cetera – tend to get a lot of the headlines currently,” he said. “But I believe the uncertainty on how we occupy the spaces and buildings we create, as well as those that already exist, are in many ways the root of our struggle. Following the pandemic, so many employers are still searching for the right ways to ‘come back to work’ and that has caused an instability that many are still processing.”

Johnson said the firm has taken additional steps to help create beautiful spaces that work for clients today as well as provide flexibility for the future.

Gretna East High School, which opened Fall 2023. (Courtesy of DLR Group)
Gretna East High School, which opened Fall 2023. (Courtesy of DLR Group)

“On the one hand, we’ve worked directly with employers to reassess the evolution of their workplace,” he said. “There is not a one-size-fits-all solution to the workplace, but by utilizing our R&D teams in our daily practice to better understand the users and the space itself, we’re finding quantitative and qualitative ways to make the workplace worth it again, for both the employee and the employer. 

“On the building side, we are working with a variety of clients to re-imagine creative solutions for their existing spaces. The adaptive reuse of vacant office buildings creates an opportunity for innovation and the revitalization of our urban core.”

Once again, technology plays a major role in the company’s workday. Johnson said from drones to wearable model gear, DLR Group has emerged as a leader in new thinking when it comes to ways to get buildings drawn and done.

“Especially as it applies to adaptable reuse, our teams are able to capture highly accurate point-cloud models in a very short amount of time,” he said. “This data can then be automated into workable BIM models for our architecture and engineering teams.

“The accuracy of the modeling and photo imagery significantly benefits the workflow of the project teams during both design and construction. Beyond that, these point cloud models also provide our clients with detailed records such as 3D scans, photo imagery and measurable digital files of their existing buildings, which can be extremely useful throughout the life of the building.”

One standout project on the company’s resume of late was the 360,000-square-foot Gretna East High School, which opened for class in the fall. DLR Group not only designed the physical structure for the $139.5 million project but did the entire creation of the brand for the school itself, which will eventually accommodate 1,600 students.

Bryan College of Health Sciences nursing office space. (Courtesy of DLR Group)
Bryan College of Health Sciences nursing office space. (Courtesy of DLR Group)

Human Touch

Not everything is about digital tools, however. Joseph Saniuk, principal with AO*, said the human touch has never gone out of fashion.

“What sets us apart is meaningful communication in a timely manner,” he said. “There is nothing that replaces regular, dynamic communication and continuous involvement by team members from beginning to end. This has been at the core of our practice since the studio was started in 1981.

“We feel strongly that intimate connections between team members help negate the inevitable information drop that occurs when a project is handed off from design team to production team to construction administration team. The faces seen at the first meeting, therefore, will be the same ones seen throughout the construction administration phase. This continuity of personnel, combined with regular team meetings throughout design and construction, helps to reduce errors and omissions.”

Renovation of the Japanese Garden at Lauritzen Gardens. (Courtesy of AO*)
Renovation of the Japanese Garden at Lauritzen Gardens. (Courtesy of AO*)

Employing this philosophy has led AO* to many highly visible projects through the years. Some recent standout work includes the clubhouse of the Lost Rail Golf Club, a 16,000-square-foot project completed last summer. Renovation of the Japanese Gardens at Lauritzen Gardens is another standout project, including a unique curvilinear path that provides an accessible route to view the greenhouses and orchid collection punctuated along the way by stair shortcuts and movement along the perineal color burst plantings and opportunities to rest with views.

Of particular note is the company’s $10.5 million historic renovation of apartment buildings for inCOMMON. AO* was engaged to help renovate the historic Bristol Apartments and the three-story Queen Anne Georgia Row House. Both properties have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“The 1921 Bristol building, originally called Hanscom Apartments, will contain 64 renovated apartments on five floors, with InCOMMON utilizing the majority of the lower level for community spaces,” Saniuk said. “The 1890 Georgia Row House building, originally built as three dwelling units will contain 11 two- and three-bedroom units
after redevelopment.

“These spaces will also be open to members of the neighborhood with the encouragement of use for community and neighborhood meetings. These buildings will help fulfill InCOMMON’s mission in the Park Avenue neighborhood, creating a working model that they can take to additional neighborhoods in the city.”

An Eye on the Future

One bright spot amid architecture’s challenges is the abundance of young people headed into the field. Still, numbers aren’t the only measure of a healthy local industry, which is where AIA Nebraska comes in, providing for continuing education and mentorship to keep the state’s best and brightest.

“Following COVID, the UNL (University of Nebraska-Lincoln) College of Architecture and AIA Nebraska members continued their mentorship program for students,” said Sara Kay, executive director. “This program pairs students and members of the profession and provides opportunities for students to network and learn more about architecture by participating in firm tours, touring buildings under construction or built.”

The organization is also casting a wider net to help ensure future generations are exposed to the architecture profession at younger and younger ages than previous groups of students.

“AIA Nebraska’s Architecture in School Committee has created tools and information about becoming an architect for grade school and middle school students,” Kay said. “It’s an informative tool about opportunities as well as some fun elements of architecture exercises for students and classroom teachers. This is in the process of being distributed to teachers and schools across Nebraska.”