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Design Digest: GRA+D Architects

Walker Evans Walker Evans Design Digest: GRA+D Architects
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Here at Columbus Underground, we spend a lot of time talking about development, construction and city planning. But too infrequently do we stop to further examine the creative people and businesses behind the scenes of our built urban environment. To fix that, we’re launching “Design Digest”, a new series dedicated to various forms of architecture, design and other related types of creative planning.

To kick things off, we turn our attention to Gieseke Rosenthal Architecture & Design, a local firm responsible for creating many familiar spaces including retailers such as Jeni’s Ice Creams and Northstar Cafe, as well as many other restaurant, office and residential projects. We spoke recently with Andrew Rosenthal, principal at GRA+D, to find out more about the type of work his firm produces and what projects they’ve been working on lately.

Q: First, can you tell us a bit about your background?

A: My undergraduate degrees are in Political Science and History from Miami University… so not a real typical track to architecture. Upon finishing graduate school at OSU my now-business partner and I spent a couple of years doing some small design/build projects. Swinging pencils and hammers. On a beautiful fall day it was the greatest job I ever had. Up there on a roof nailing in sheathing in the sun. Just great. Conversely, it was probably a bitterly cold winter day when we finally decided it was time to get “real jobs.” Also – in order to get licensed as an architect you are required to work for a licensed architect. So it felt like time to get that moving. I went to work for George Acock and spent almost 10 years there. It was a great experience. Enough rope to make mistakes and learn – but also a great safety net of knowledge. The decision to leave was not an easy one but the motivation was the desire to “design” a practice and also to find an environment with no predetermined limits in terms of growth potential or area of focus. Our firm is now about 8 years old… very fortunate to have a broad base of clients on a wide range of project types. There are 4 of us in the Columbus office. My business partner holds down the fort in our office down in Hyde Park (Cincinnati).

Q: So what types of projects does GRA+D specialize in, or are most interested in?

A: We really welcome the challenge of any project type. A great deal of our work comes from what I refer to as “entrepreneurial” clients… clients for who are highly invested in whatever it is they are doing. They are passionate and smart and place a great value on architecture that captures what it is that makes them and their enterprise unique. Many of these are start-up or growing businesses… so there is also often an “all in” nature to the projects… they need the results to be great and there is not a lot of room for error. So that is a fun environment to work in. People tend to know projects like the Northstar Restaurants or the Jeni’s stores… and they are great examples of that project/client type. But there are others like Dupler Office, Bluestar Barber Shop and most recently Homage that fit that same mold. Even with larger institutional clients like Ohio State we often find user groups internally who have that same spirit.

Q: In working with those types of popular consumer-facing businesses, do you seek out specific clients that you’re interested in working with or do they find you?

A: Honestly we don’t spent a lot of time tracking down and marketing to clients. Partially because we are busy doing architecture and partially because they sort of self-select. When people ask us about residential I tell them we are happy to do it… but we are probably a better fit for “unusual” residential. If you just want a traditional looking addition to your Arlington home… we probably are not the best fit. We would do it, but there are plenty of firms who do it more and could probably do it less expensively. Now as the project becomes more specialized and customized… the fit becomes immediately much better.

A nice thing about having a handful of more retail/public type projects out there is it gives people a chance to experience our work and react to it. So a significant portion of our clients come to us having been in those spaces and responded favorably to them. We will get calls from people saying they like those projects and have an opportunity they would like us to look at… sometimes they are similar project types but just as often they will be something totally different. We’ve done animal care facilities, a lumber mill, offices, houses, library work, child care facilities. You name it.

I think our approach is very collaborative and as such it allows us to work very comfortably on a wide range of projects. Our clients are the experts in their fields – we bring an approach and an understanding of how their needs might translate into architectural solutions to the table. But that transcends expertise specific to any one project type. People are surprised to learn that Northstar Cafe was the first restaurant we ever worked on. But that is a great example of what I am talking about. They know the technical side of it and understand their functional needs far better than we ever could. They also knew how they wanted the space to feel and what reaction they were seeking. So with all that as background – our work becomes much simpler.

I will say that one nice thing about being a smaller firm is we don’t need to find massive quantities of work. And as such we have the luxury of working with clients and on project types where we can really be of the greatest value.

Q: Being a smaller firm, how would you say that the national recession, and the start of what looks like a recovery, impacted your business?

A: It sort of goes back to our client base. I tell people we work for bakers, not bankers. And so while booms in the economy don’t make us rich… dips in the economy don’t necessarily crush us either because for many (most) of our clients, this is their job. So whether the economy is doing well or not, they have bread to bake. Maybe their plans to grow are curtailed a bit – but they can’t wait around. This is their passion and their life… no matter what the news tells them they should be feeling or doing. In a boom situation, everyone is making money and growing (well, as I say, except for us)… but in a downturn it is the smart, nimble people and organizations that still find a way to make things happen. And fortunately for us, that is the profile of many of our clients. It isn’t as if we wouldn’t do work for a developer… it is just that I don’t think what we do would is of interest to most of them. But my sense is that we have been spared a lot of the pain felt in the industry by virtue of staying small and focusing on work for very involved and passionate clients rather than folks approaching architecture as a more speculative type endeavor. If that makes sense?

Q: Are there any exciting projects that you’ve recently completed or are currently working on?

A: Homage at Easton just opened and that has been a great project that we are very proud of. It is a smart group of folks with a strong vision and a great deal of passion. Plus they are just fun to work with. So while the project was challenging in a number or respects – it was a very welcome challenge and I think the results are really special. Their team brought a ton to the table in terms of ideas, resources and people.

We also spent much of the past year working on renovations to public spaces at the headquarters of Limited Brands. And that was a really special project as well. Even though it is clearly a very established company the spirit of the thing was very fluid and there was a desire to really effect change.

We are also in the middle of a significant project at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, renovating virtually all of the existing public spaces on their campus. That has been and will continue to be complex and rewarding. Then, at the same time we are working on renovations to a great carriage house over in Marble Cliff for a very nice and interesting family.

I am also on the board of the Center for Architecture + Design, and in that capacity we have donated architectural services to help flesh out the vision for their space needs going forward… so that has been a lot of fun too. I am very proud of that connection and look forward to seeing where that goes over the course of the coming year or so.

More information about GRA+D can be found online at www.grad.cc.

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