Just take a walk through the offices of Smith+Associates Architects in downtown Rochester, N.Y., and the firm’s design ethos is made abundantly clear: reuse, repurpose, reinvent.
President and founding Principal Kenneth Smith (MArch ’85) purchased and refurbished the circa 1830s building, former home to the city dog pound, in 2005 to house his fledgling architecture and interior design firm. Seeking to create an artful space without breaking the bank, Smith made countless “pragmatically creative” solutions along the way. Walls around the dog-viewing area became windowed office partitions. A concrete bathtub for the dogs was converted into a chic coffee table.
Over the years, Smith, a woodworking and salvage art hobbyist, has layered the space with found materials — hammered scrap copper layered over an otherwise non-descript door, architectural drawings stowed in a once trash-bound chest of drawers. Guests enter the conference room through a set of antique doors he picked up at Buffalo’s Antique and Architectural Circus salvage shop during his student days.
“I’m an opportunist,” says Smith, a former executive at a large Rochester architectural firm who broke out on his own about nine years ago. “It’s flow and function first, but artistic details make the difference. We work to infuse artfulness into architecture in a way that’s purposeful and cost-effective.”
The design principle finds its way into every line of work for the firm, whose portfolio includes multi-unit residential, corporate, retail and health care — the firm’s largest business segment. Started out of Smith’s living room, Smith+Associates now employs 16, including five other School of Architecture and Planning alumni.
Balancing artistry with a tight project budget isn’t always easy, says Smith, noting that such creative details are usually the first things to go when construction budgets get tight.
Take for instance the firm’s current renovation design effort for Diamond Packaging, a leading folding carton manufacturer. Hearing from some that the budget was too sparse for art, Smith challenged them to include artwork.
“I’ll give you our most economical per-square-foot project and it’s dripping with creativity,” he says. For example, brass dies that the company once packed into 50-gallon drums for recycling will now be collaged into its renovated facility.
In the renovation concept of an operating room corridor for Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center, colorful, sculptured panels were artfully assembled over ceiling-mounted mechanicals that would have been cost-prohibitive to remove. Perhaps most importantly, Smith says, patients receive a calming view on their way to the operating room.
Much of this creative work is done by S2 Industries, the industrial and interior design studio Smith incorporated into the firm a few years back. The studio partners with an extended team of sculptors, painters, graphic designers and even signage specialists to integrate artistic elements into a project.
To work all this in cost-effectively, an efficient design process is key. The firm prides itself on its “design build” model, which involves tradespeople, contractors and the artistic team early in the process, smoothing the hand-off to construction and, most crucially, reducing documentation. Its hallmark is the hand sketch Smith completes at the outset of each project. Smith says the “quick and humble” hand sketch gets to the heart of design concept quickly with room for the design to evolve before formal documentation.
The design method was put to the test in Smith+Associates’ renovation design of 1.3 million square feet for Kaleida Health’s Buffalo General Medical Center. The ongoing effort, begun in 2006, has involved creation of a master plan and dozens of renovation projects, from the heliport to surgery rooms.
“Health care renovation is complex. I see it as 3-D chess on a moving table,” says Smith, who managed the Buffalo General Medical Center effort with Thomas Huchzermeier, co-principal of the firm and a 1998 graduate of the BPS program. For instance, the team orchestrated work on the sterile processing department, which manages infection control in hospitals, over five phases to minimize impact on daily operations. The loud machines in the MRI suite required copper shielding in the walls and strategic placement of waiting areas to minimize patient exposure. The firm has worked with a diverse team, including Kaleida Health's management and construction division, hospital staff and architects designing an addition to the facility.
Even in these complex health care designs, artistry comes into play, Smith says — from murals in children’s waiting rooms to coves for artwork and sculpture.
Meanwhile, Smith+Associates’ “pragmatically creative” formula is fostering growth. The firm’s health care portfolio has gone national, while its presence in Buffalo will grow through new renovation projects for the Erie County Medical Center. And its residential, retail and corporate segments are diversifying.
Back at the office, Smith continues to practice cost-effective, artful design as he introduces new layers of art and salvage to the space. “I just keep adding to it. It’s a passion that we try to bring to our client projects, on schedule and on budget.”
Kenneth Smith, President and Founding Principal (MArch ’85)
“I remember drawing columns in studio and fluting them like a Greek revival temple. I had critique with my studio and architectural history professor at the same time. This open environment and access to professors allowed me to tinker. It’s quite literally what I encourage the staff to do here.”
Thomas Huchzermeier, Principal (BPS ’98)
“My participation in design charettes with faculty and students broadened my understanding of architecture and opened the door to new possibilities.”
Justin Hildreth, Architectural Designer (Architecture BS '05)
“I started school wanting to create great buildings, but left wanting to create great experiences.”
Adam Noga, Draftsperson (MArch ’12, Architecture BS '10)
“I loved the open studio environment. Walking around studio and talking with other students about their designs helped me grow.”