BY BRIAN LIBBY
In my 16-plus years writing about architecture in Portland, I've always had an imaginary tiered system for local firms. And in that top tier of my seven or eight favorites has always been Holst Architecture.
From the moment I began, in about 2001, the firm had significant projects happening, even though at first the firm had few employees beyond founders John Holmes and Jeff Stuhr (the company's name being a fusion of their last names). There were renovations and transformations of old banks and warehouses for local institutions like the Pacific Northwest College, the Oregon Ballet Theater, Bridgeport Brewpub and the Ecotrust building. Not long afterward came some of the first successful multifamily neighborhood residential projects like the Belmont Street Lofts, Thurman Street Lofts, 12.5 Townhomes and Clinton Condos. After that came bigger Pearl District residential projects like 937 and Sawyer's Row, hospitality projects like Hotel Modera and later Hotel Eastlund, innovative social-welfare projects like the Bud Clark Commons and Glisan Commons, and company headquarters for companies like Ziba and Instrument.
All the while, Holst projects seemed to possess a delicate balance: the visual language would adapt depending on the project type, the client or the location, but there also was a connecting thread, even if it was hard to pin down: a kind of rigor in the details, but also a reverence for a variety of materials from wood to weathered steel to bricks.
If I enjoyed following the firm and its ever-growing portfolio of award-winning projects over the years, perhaps I, like many others, thought of it as John Holmes, Jeff Stuhr and their staff. But over the last five years or so, I noticed something beginning to change. When a project was finished, it was often Kevin Valk or Dave Otte I was interviewing rather than Stuhr and Holmes, or even if I was interviewing the original founders, it was in combination with other staff.
Even so, and even after watching Stuhr and Holmes take extended sabbaticals, it was a surprise to learn recently that the duo had sold the firm to a quartet of longtime employees: Valk, Otte, Kim Wilson and Renee Strand. Many firms face a difficult leadership challenge as their principals retire or move on. Will longtime clients stay with the firm? Will the firm be able to produce at the same level of quality, or retain its fingerprint?
To learn more, recently I sat down with the quartet of new Holst leaders to discuss the present and future, as well as to perhaps slightly re-gauge the past.
Portland Architecture: Can you talk about how the transition came about?
Valk: It’s been a five-year-plus process. There’s a lot of people at Holst who stick around for a while. I’ve been here for 20 years. People want to be here for a long time. It became obvious about five years ago that we needed to understand what the long-term picture was or look for something else. Do I want to run my own firm? What do I want to do? John and Jeff were always talking about everything, and long-term planning was done to ask what the firm in the future should look like. What does a transition look like? Does it become employee owned? Something else? As time goes on people are moving into leadership roles anyway and it sort of flushes itself out. Which is kind of what happened. There were no ultimatums given or a conversation saying, ‘Hey, it’s going to be now.’ But Jeff took a sabbatical, and John did, and they got more comfortable with the idea.
Wilson: Strategic planning let us determine what kind of structure we wanted to establish. Up until that point everybody did a little bit of everything. When I started you were the designer, the project architect, the one making coffee. That was fantastic, but when you start to get up in say the high 20s in terms of staff, people rightly want to see how the firm fits into their future. We were able in our long term planning to expand leadership roles. The four of us started taking more responsibility.
Otte: One of the reasons we started strategic planning was we came out of the recession in a really good position. We went down in numbers a little bit. But we had 11 people by the end of the recession and have tripled in size to over 30. With that rapid growth came the need to find what’s next, and a need to put in process as you go from a small firm to a midsize firm. Even being thoughtful about that planning helped us to grow up as a firm.
Valk: There was a lot of discussion about how we maintain who we are. A big part of it was people who had been here filling those roles. John and Jeff always allowed us to take on what ever we took on. It was very much, ‘We’re all working on this together.’ You just took stuff on and you didn’t wait for someone to ask you. You did it respectfully but you did what it took to get things done. And we approached leadership the same way. We were already running projects. We already had a lot of client contact. We just said, ‘We’re going to keep taking more.’ You sort of slowly become a leader. The reality is not a lot has changed as far as how we operate. It was operating the way we wanted it to before. We were already on that path.
How does the apparent ease of transition speak to Holst’s culture?
Otte: The thing John and Jeff did the best is they weren’t obsessed with work. They created this culture where everybody has a life outside, whether it’s painting or traveling or fine dining or volunteering. They want everybody to go home at five o’clock and have a life outside of work. It was less about serving their vision. It was about creating a community. It’s what we still want to do: empower people to be part of the process here, but also turn off the machine and go home. That balance lends itself better instead of serving a single master.
Do you think people in the past wrongly assumed that the whole vision at Holst was coming from John and Jeff?
Valk: It’s a little bit of that but it’s also changing the way we work. It’s even in our new-employee manual: ‘The best idea wins.’ That’s always been the best philosophy. That’s not to say there wasn’t some great talent that John and Jeff had. And we’re not necessarily saying we’re not going to replace that. But we’ve been a part of this office for so long that we all have ways of doing things. There’s positives and negatives to how everybody works. But we’ve been doing that for a while. It hasn’t been one person. We’ve always prided ourselves on how buildings go together: the art side, the craft side. It’s not just craft and it’s not just the artistic side of architecture: it’s a really comfortable blend of both of those. That’s the goal: to maintain that level of balance.
Holst has an impressive portfolio of award-winning projects, and by now a wide variety of project types. Is there a connecting thread?
Otte: What I would say is [it's] getting out of the plan and looking at things three dimensionally—how you experience space and how that translates to the finished product. There’s a cohesive connection, from the diagrammatic standpoint down to the detail. And it’s doing that with very modest projects. Most of our projects don’t have very large budgets. It’s trying to bleed good design out of the every day.
Valk: I think appropriateness is a thread. If you put it on a board people might not know it’s all from the same firm. But we listen to stakeholders and flush out what’s appropriate: the climate, the budget, the city—whatever it is—and not putting our ego in front of it. I can’t say we don’t have some ego. We do. But it has to take a back seat to what’s appropriate. I think that’s what our clients really enjoy.
But lots of firms say they listen to their clients, or that it’s a team effort where the best idea wins. What makes Holst’s work consistently win awards?
Otte: There’s this ethos we have that there’s always a small amount more we can do. That last 10 percent you bleed out is really hard. It takes a lot of thought and collaboration. But that’s what we love, and that’s what excites us. And the clients like that too: that we bleed out that last bit. It just requires the drive to do it, and also finding and building the right team of people who can think for themselves. That’s what John and Jeff did best, I think: finding amazing people and allowing them to own it. Because when you own something, it makes a big difference.
Wilson: We always try and challenge ourselves. Certainly all the people in the office try to do that: find a fresh approach.
Otte: Kim doesn’t allow us to copy details.
Wilson: We’ve got a whole staff out there from one to two years to all the way up. We like to tell people, ‘There’s no place to hide: you’re always responsible for what you’re doing.’ We feel like that will get the best out of them. I just think fundamentally regurgitating what’s done before sucks the life out of the architect.
Valk: I mentioned listening to clients, and of course everybody says that. I think the difference is we also question. We’re not afraid to tell the client we think something’s not appropriate. We do it respectfully and we don’t cause a scene. But if we really don’t feel like something’s right we’ll be clear about it. We may draw what they ask us to draw, but we’ll draw three or four other things too, and it’s usually obvious why it’s a better idea. I don’t know if we’ve ever had someone say no. There’s been a lot of times working with developers where understanding pro-formas and all that can be a big part of what we do. We can say, ‘What about this?’ It’s worked on multiple projects. We’ll listen and be questioning, all along.
Otte: Another thing that allows that to happen is we’re a firm run by designers, not managers. Well, I’m a manager now, but that’s not how I started my career. I’m looking at everything from that designer lens. Even if we spend more time on a project and blow the fee, it’s worth it. It changes the equation.
You talked about the value of looking five years ahead as part of the smooth leadership transition. So what do the few years hold, or what are your goals?
Valk: I don’t think there’s fundamental changes we’re expecting. The challenge is maintaining the variety of what we do. I think we’ve grown with that and taken it for granted what people can do. Sometimes it’s easy to say, ‘We’re going to stop doing that because it’s not as profitable.’ But I think we’re aware of what different projects provide us.
Otte: One thing we identified early on is it’s not about the project type so much as the client. That was kind of a light bulb for me. If you’re working with someone you respect and you have shared goals, that’s what makes it worth it. We’d love to do more higher-ed projects, for example, or a museum, but in the end it’s about who we’re working with.
The firm has also branched out of Portland with projects in places like Massachusetts and California. It has been interesting to see the Holst visual language both adapt to different regions and maintain some kind of identifiable constant.
Valk: We have been expanding to new locations, and we like that. The knowledge base in Portland translates well to other places. I think that will continue to happen as our country evolves and other people want that.
Otte: There’s expertise in Portland we take for granted. There are midsize cities just expanding their cores and revitalizing their downtowns. What we’ve learned here can be exported pretty well.
Valk: Most of the Holsters are not from Portland. I’m from Connecticut. We’ve got a lot of Midwesterners. It’s like, ‘That’s easy, so and so grew up there. We knew how to do that.’
Otte: Part of the reason the work was successful in Amherst is we don’t come to things with a singular vision. We look to that place to tell us what it should be. It’s from the same hands, but it’s in a different context. We don’t have a Holst manifesto.
You’ve talked about how John and Jeff were good about empowering other architects, and that has allowed the succession to take place naturally. But I’ve also always been fascinated by how being a good architect can mean a lot of different things: good at working with clients, good at drawing, good at inspiring staff. Could you talk a little bit about what John and Jeff’s specific talents?
Valk: They’ve both always been very good designers. They would handle that differently in their approach, which evolved. Jeff was always more of a hands-off designer, encouraging staff and working with people to evolve, but less with his own hand: a great editor. And that evolved into being more of a managing partner. John was an amazing designer, in a way that he could draw and ideas would flow through that pen. It was a lot harder for him to be an editor, though, and provide feedback and work that way. And not that one’s right and one’s wrong. They’re just fundamental ways somebody’s brain thinks.
Otte: Jeff’s a people person. He loves to be out in the world. John likes his privacy. I think their two talents were what made this place take off.
Those two different skillsets seemed to compliment each other: almost like a mom and dad of the firm. So let me ask the same question of the four of you, the offspring who have taken over the house. How do your skills complement each other?
Valk: I’m definitely more of a people person…That was a joke, by the way.
Strand: Dave’s a people person. I guess I’m the quiet one.
Otte: I think part of why the four of us evolved into this position is we compliment each other really well. Kim is the best technical architect I’ve ever worked with. It’s why I wanted to work here. Years ago I saw the Belmont Lofts coming together and wanted to find out who did those drawings. She’s our quality director. Everything has to have her stamp of approval. Renee gets the best out of people. She manages the most projects in the office. She’s the glue. Kevin is taking the design lead within the transition. But also it’s interesting watching Kevin evolve from a background doing projects relatively on his own, not with big teams, to now getting to watch him work with bigger teams: it’s really cool to watch. I manage projects but also do business development, marketing. I tend to focus more on the outside face of Holst.
Wilson: Every project we have in the office usually has two of us usually entrenched in it in different roles.
Valk: And at some point we’ve all done each of the other roles, which helps us work well together. We’ve all managed, designed and drawn projects. That allows us to understand what the other is doing. And no matter who’s working on it, it’s a Holst project. Everybody’s really open to communicate what they feel. Nobody says, ‘I’m going to keep my hands out of that.’ And that’s what we’re pushing even more to do: make sure everyone feels part of the process.
Wilson: We place importance on every aspect of a project. I think all of us have shepherded projects to the end. You don’t always like to get those calls three years down the road, but it’s part of what we do. Instilling that is something we enjoy doing. The shift I’ve seen in the last five years is we can be really good at keeping our heads down and kicking ass and getting something done, but we’ve also had to really look up and make sure everyone in the office has that opportunity. That shift in mentorship has been kind of fun.
Otte: One thing I wanted to make sure people know about is we’ve been certified as a women-owned architecture firm and are the largest in the state. It goes back to that work-life balance. A big part of the architectural community drops out because of lack of support. There’s the missing 32 percent. I think it speaks to what our values are at Holst and how we want to continue to grow in terms of talent and opportunity.