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Design Digest: DesignGroup

Brent Warren Brent Warren Design Digest: DesignGroup
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DesignGroup has received plenty of attention in recent years for its work on projects such as the Franklin County Courthouse, the Grange Insurance Audubon Center and the new addition to the Columbus Art Museum. They’ve also developed an extensive healthcare portfolio, designing hospitals and medical buildings throughout the region.

Principal Michael Bongiorno talked with Columbus Underground about DesignGroup’s philosophy, the advantages of being a 40-person firm, and why it’s important for Columbus to develop an “urban identity.”

Our full Q&A can be found below:

Q: Can you tell us a little about the history of DesignGroup?

A: We were established in Columbus in 1972, under the name of our original founders, Gosnell/Rettstatt/Essinger/Weithman Architects. The founding partners, understanding that named design firms typically don’t live on past the retirement of their founders, subsequently renamed the practice DesignGroup in 1980.

DesignGroup was established with the fundamental belief that architecture should improve the community that it is part of; we strive to design buildings which provide inspirational spaces in which to work, live, learn, heal, and that contribute to the long-term sustainability of their contexts. Today, 41 years later, our work remains rooted in these beliefs. Our core services and competencies, historically, have been Architecture, Planning, and Interior Design. We located our offices in the Discovery District of downtown Columbus in 2000 as part of our sustained commitment to and the city; we are currently a 40 team-member strong practice.

In 2003 we received our state’s highest design honor, The AIA Ohio Gold Medal Firm Award. In 2009, Jack Hedge, FAIA, one of our design principals, received the architectural profession’s highest honor when he was inducted into the AIA’s College of Fellows. Today DesignGroup is a recognized, award-winning force in bold, contemporary architectural design, and a pioneer in the area of sustainable architecture and design.


Q: DesignGroup has been involved with wide a variety of projects, from hospitals to condos to student housing. Would you say there is an overall philosophy that applies to all of your work?

A: Fundamentally, for the benefit of our customers and the communities they serve, we strive to create desire for architecture rather than taking the path of least resistance and conforming to commodity – that is what all customers desire from their architects and it is exactly what we demand of ourselves. One thing we know is that we are not is a “signature” firm, meaning, we don’t have a visual formula that we impose upon our customers and their projects.

What we do provide consistently is a high-aspiration experience and process for our customers. We inspire the customer by first being inspired by them and their philosophies as a company or organization. We then guide them along a path of discovery, asking challenging questions and questioning the results of those questions until we have discovered the essential truth of the project together. Most importantly, we always, always check our egos at the door.

Size matters. We have rigorously maintained our office size in order to be the right size for our customers and to maintain a cohesive sense of family. Our message to our customers is that we are neither boutique nor behemoth: we are big enough to be expert but small enough to care about you. We seek talent that aligns with our core values and we continually nurture them toward the embodiment of those values.

We care about and are deeply committed to our community. Civic responsibility is integral to DesignGroup’s philosophy. Beyond bricks and mortar, the firm is deeply involved in community organizations, including the Center for Architecture and Design, the Greater Columbus Arts Council, DesignWeek, Camp Architecture, Columbus 2020, and the Knowlton School of Architecture. The question for every member of the DesignGroup team is not “if” you will be involved but “with what” do you plan to be involved.

Q: The new Franklin County Courthouse has inspired a lot of discussion on our messageboard – anything you can share about DesignGroup’s role in that project and the approach you took to maximizing the sustainability of the building?

A: We shared design roles with the NYC-based firm, Arquitectonica, and were the Architect-of-Record. Partnering with others and playing well in the sand box is something we believe we do well and a characteristic that our customers appreciate about us. DesignGroup led the sustainable design approach to the project. As a rule, we see sustainability as a part of good design – good design is always sustainable. We always encourage our customers to think low-tech first by exploiting passive solar design strategies to their maximum before ever entertaining more sophisticated technologies because good passive solar design is at no added cost to a project.

One of the largest challenges with the courthouse was to ensure the energy-efficiency of the building despite the large amount of glass. It was important for the County that the building be largely transparent, symbolizing the transparency of the justice system. To solve this problem, the window system has two low-E coatings, which reduce the amount of heat entering the building in the summer, and escaping it in the winter. We also designed a sun-shading system on the curtainwall which protects the glazing from summer sun, and is part of the building’s distinctive image.

A Rain Garden at the corner of Mound and Front Streets is a sculpted landform framed by flowering trees with a recessed lawn panel and a stone pediment for use as an informal stage. A 200,000 gallon subsurface storage system beneath the Rain Garden harvests rainwater for landscape irrigation use.

Q: In terms of architecture and the built environment, how do you think Columbus has changed in the years you’ve been working here?

A: One of the most satisfying things to witness has been the revitalization of not only the downtown core but also neighboring communities such as Franklinton, Weinland Park, and others. Redevelopment of the urban center has improved the city’s identity significantly, particularly within the last 10 years. With a greater sense of urban identity came an appreciation of the potentials of higher density living/working/playing and a shift from car-centric to people-centric development in the urban core. That we have a media source in the Columbus Underground that is willing to encourage conversations about design, development, and the physical city says it all for us.

We see that our citizens, and not just designers, are starting to develop a critical eye toward their physical surroundings and not just take for granted that the man-made physical world they see around them has been thought through. We still have our work cut out for us. We would like developers and business leaders to ask tougher questions, expect better than a passing grade, and teach themselves to see. We believe that once Columbus achieves a level of collective awareness about what constitutes a quality environment we will achieve a greater sense of “civic culture”. All great cities are self-aware. All it takes is higher expectations and asking the right questions. Just good enough is never good enough for great places.

Q: Do you see good things happening in the next 20 years? From a design and architecture perspective, do you think Columbus is on the right track?

A: Yes, we expect many good things to happen over the next 20 years. Columbus is becoming more diverse, more prosperous, and better educated, and with those changes has come a desire for buildings, spaces, objects, graphics and experiences which are equal in aspiration and design quality to the best design worldwide. When it comes to design (along with many other things), Columbus has been too modest in the past.

Blind or stubborn acceptance of the status quo has been equated with an admirable modesty, but this is changing a little bit at a time. We can be humble without being anachronistic – and this should show through in our built environment. We believe the key to being on the right track is to not equate good design with a particular “style.” Style by its very nature is en-vogue one moment and passé the next. For Columbus, we’ll be on the right track if design parallels the city’s push to be smart, open, forward thinking, and innovative. Our profession isn’t so fun if you don’t see good things in the future so we are perennial optimists!

Q: Are there any other exciting new projects that you’re currently working on, or looking forward to in the near future?

A: Absolutely! While we have been asked to keep the news of some projects confidential for now, we are very, very excited to share that we will be serving our customers and Columbus through some new high-profile local, community-impacting projects. One notable project that is just now breaking ground is our striking and innovative design for the expansion of the Columbus Museum of Art.

Another that we are extremely proud to have been awarded recently is the City of Columbus’ new City Services Office Tower at the corner of Front and Long. Columbus Metropolitan Library has also selected us to lead the design of an addition and renovation to the Northern Lights Library, a building that we originally designed in 1990!

Last but not least, we were recently awarded notable healthcare projects for The Ohio State University, one of which is the new Jameson Crane Sports Medicine Institute. We have a number of the other Columbus projects that are currently under design, construction, or near completion such as the John R. Maloney Family Health and Wellness Center on South Parson Avenue, the Columbus School for Girls in Bexley, the Food District at Weinland Park, the Columbus Scioto 6-12 School on South High Street, and the Columbus Spanish Immersion Academy in Linden. These are just a brief list of our Central Ohio projects. We are also designing healthcare and library projects across the state and country.

Q: Anything else we should know about DesignGroup?

A: We have weathered every storm the economy has thrown at us and have always come out stronger, smarter, and more energized. Building upon the legacy created by design principals Jack Hedge and Elliot Bonnie, with the dynamic leadership of our young CEO, Sherm Moreland, and the creative energy of our new design principal Michael Bongiorno, the practice is making waves in Columbus and beyond. The best is yet to come. Watch for it!

More information about DesignGroup can be found online at designgroup.us.com.

CMA Rendering via DesignGroup. All photography by Brad Feinknopf.

From September 23rd to September 29th, Columbus Underground is Celebrating Design Week, brought to you by the Hamilton Parker Company. With a 15,000 square foot showroom located just outside Downtown at 1865 Leonard Ave, the Hamilton Parker Company has been your go-to local resource for home and business improvement projects of all sizes and budgets. Find out more at www.hamiltonparker.com.

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