After decades in the business, architect Brett Prather still gets excited talking about whatever project he's currently working on. Take last week, when he sat down to discuss the setting for a 200,000-square-foot campus under design in Woodland Park, Colo.
"It's just pure mountains, pine trees," Prather said. "What a beautiful site."
That enthusiasm may be part of the reason why the architectural firm Prather helped start in 1994 has managed to expand in recent years while many other firms are contracting.
The other is diversification.
"Everybody is going after everything," Prather said of the hyper-competitive climate. "We've just been a little luckier than most. This has been our busiest year ever. The reason is because we've cast our seeds wide."
Owned by Prather, Brad Doeden and Dale Hermes, Architectural Innovations employs 21 people in its headquarters on the eighth floor of the Equity Bank building on Kellogg and in a branch office in Colorado Springs. Seven of those employees have been added since the current economic downturn began.
Prather, Doeden and Hermes first worked together in the mid-1980s. Since going into business their firm has specialized in school, religious and medical buildings staring with its first job, a performing arts center in Galena, Kan. Notable projects in Wichita include expansions of the Kapaun Mount Carmel and Blessed Sacrament campuses, as well as designs for the Lord's Diner and the Center for Women's Health in Wilson Estates.
As construction of all kinds slowed in recent years, the firm has gone after other business niches. Most recently, Slawson Cos. hired Architectural Innovations to work on its Oak Creek Village and NewMarket Square retail developments.
"We had to get all of our eggs out of one or two baskets and get more diverse," Prather said.
Whatever the job, Prather said the firm adheres to a few principles. The first is to listen to a client's needs rather than bring preconceived notions to a project.
In the case of the Center for Women's Health, "The doctors wanted to create an environment that patients would really feel comfortable in," Prather said. The result looks like a place where you'd vacation in Tuscany, with a fireplace in the lobby and armoires instead of metal cabinets in the exam rooms.
Another is to use a collective design process. The firm employs seven licensed architects as well as an interior designer, draftsmen and other specialists.
Work on religious and school buildings has kept the firm healthy in the current economic climate because such work isn't generally dependent on bank financing, Prather said. Architectural Innovations has designed churches from Atlanta to Colorado. The Woodland Park project — its biggest to date — is for a Bible college.
But working with those kinds of organizations is different than working for cooperate clients because there are usually more people involved in decisions, he noted.
Because much construction involves expansion of existing structures, the firm has also become adept at blending the new and old. Prather is particularly proud of an expansion to the Sacred Heart church in Colwich. The early-20th-century Romanesque building was "just too beautiful" to alter in any way; instead, the expansion carried through the themes of the original building. The firm is currently designing the renovation and expansion of the cathedral of the Catholic diocese in downtown Wichita.
Architectural Innovations opened a Colorado office about five years ago, moving it from Pueblo to Colorado Springs two years ago. The firm is investing in other ways, too, including buying the expensive software that turns blueprints into 3-D computer programs that clients can "walk through."
Despite its recent growth, Prather said the firm's partners "really don't want to get any bigger. All three of us are still hands-on. We feel that's what makes us successful."