Few client relationships are as intimate as the architect/ client relationship. Lawyers hear your deep dark secrets, doctors see you naked, and accountants roam around in your bank accounts, but architects are supposed to get inside your head and probe your psyche to design the space that is Perfect For You.
For commercial buildings an architect must satisfy the physical and psychological needs of both the executives and the corporate entity. The architect must consider the company’s style, ambience, workflow, and budget to come up with a productive but cost-effective space. When something goes wrong, no matter whose fault it is, the architect gets the blame.
But what happens when the architecture firm is also the client? That was the case for HACBM, which is just settling into its own new home, a former industrial building on Darrah Lane, just off Route 1 in Lawrence. The architecture, engineering, and planning firm had been leasing from Interpool on College Road East in Princeton Forrestal Center.
Along the way, like the surgeon who goes under another surgeon’s knife, these professionals learned what it’s like to be the recipient of their own services. For instance, it took a longer time than they expected — three years — to buy, design, rehabilitate, and finally move into the new place. But they also had a chance to collectively re-define their organization — its inner psyche and its public face.
Emad Abou-Sabe, vice president, says the architects learned how exciting it is to be the project owner. “It also helped us to consider the owner’s perspective and feelings. We can relate more to what they are going through when they are spending their money.”
With so many experts, the mood of the client meetings changed. “Our paid clients treat us as experts,” says Robert M. Mailer, HACBM president. “But in our own meetings, they didn’t ‘buy’ the expert opinion.”
Everybody had a preference about the decisions at all levels, the color of the carpet, or the organization of a cubicle, or the facade material.
Mailer congratulates himself on having the prescience to appoint one person, Harlow R. Pearson, to be in charge. “The most important thing I did was to make Harlow the client representative and back him up.”
“We asked each principal, if they had any complaints to compile them in an E-mail, and we met at fairly regular intervals. We would go through the complaints and let everybody speak, then ask Harlow. Sometimes he would go against the majority,” says Mailer.
Mailer describes himself as “gun shy” at the end, “because I saw how much abuse Harlow was taking. Harlow made some decisions that I didn’t really like, but for the most part he made good decisions.”
The goals: to create an environment conducive to design excellence, to demonstrate an equality among all the employees, and to make the various disciplines accessible to each other.
“It is not a huge open hall or a crowded house,” says Abou-Sabe. “It is the right size property, five acres, under a stand of mature trees, with lush green outside to see and experience, to walk through at lunch time. It fits us very well, and it fits our growth. It makes a statement about our company now, and about its future.”
HACBM had started out 18 years ago in a three-story building at 134 Nassau Street, and it considered buying vintage houses on Mapleton Road and Orchard Road, but, like the office on Nassau Street, that would not have allowed an open layout. They were renting space from Interpool, and they had seen that space go from 8,000 to 6,200 square feet. They chose a 9,800-square-foot former machine shop, owned by S.G. Frantz but long empty, on 4.5 acres.
To get there, turn off Route 1 onto Darrah Lane, passing the Lawrence Library on the right and the former Triangle building on the left. The next building on the left is HACBM’s. It has been stripped it to steel and rebuilt from the slab up.
On the outside are zinc metal panels, which will weather to a dark metallic look, resting on a light gray stucco base. Windows ribbon most of the perimeter, and some have solar awning-type shades. The chief design element is a 9-foot by 14-foot monolith of red tile. (That the firm’s logo has not yet been mounted on the tile is one of the complaints about which this client is beefing to itself.)
Turn left into the drive and left again to reach the main parking area and the main entrance in the back of the building. The five-acre lot has beautiful mature sweet gum trees, gorgeous in the fall, supplemented by autumn purple ash trees, red maples, fringe trees, various pine and spruce trees, azaleas, hollies, dogwoods, rhododendrons, hydrangeas, and mountain laurels.
The striking lobby has an undulating red wall, tile floor, and grids in the ceiling.
The heart of the building is the open studio. It is very different from the leased space, where HACBM had to take over what Merrill Lynch left behind. Arranged in an L-shape, it had too much space for files. “As a tenant we did not have much flexibility in layout and functionality,” says Abou-Sabe. “The cubicles were not laid out the right way. It was more geared to a financial institution than an architectural office.”
These workstations, all in the center, are organized by discipline. With five-foot, see-through, sound-proofed walls, it is very easy to find someone — simply stand up and see if that chair is occupied. Though the partners get perimeter offices for conducting business, they also work in these cubicles. “It is easier to work out on the floor; you can talk to the person next to you and work out things together,” says Mailer. “It makes the process run more quickly.”
Tools of the trade are evident. In a central alcove, open on two sides, are two industrial size printers for blueprints and a giant worktable for cutting and laying out plans. Standing at the far end of the studio are racks of blueprints, the current projects, including additions to Palmer Square and renovations at Market Fair. On one side is an alcove for shelves of sample books, samples of flooring, carpet, tile etc.
On part of the third wall, toward the street, are utility rooms (which would have been expensive to move) and tall bookcases. The bookcases are flanked and topped by windows, to provide extra light. Yet most of the light shining in on the open studio comes from the perimeter offices, which are partitioned by glass.
“We wanted people to have a positive visceral response to the work station — light and airy with natural ventilation — but not overly noisy,” says Mailer.
Though equality and inclusion are important values here, each principal has a perimeter office, with windows that open. In contrast to the carpet in the studio, and the tile in the entrance hall, these offices have hardwood floors, some with Oriental rugs. In addition to Abou-Sabe and Mailer, the other principals are Robert F. Ferris (director of finance); architect Pearson, and two engineers, Michael A. Marquis, and Ashraf E. Metwally, Steve Heckel, marketing manager, also has a perimeter office.
Another feature promoting inclusion is the largest of two conference rooms; it can accommodate the firm’s traditional staff meeting, held one Wednesday a month. “Before, we were cramming 20 people in a conference room planned for eight. Now we can seat 40 people, the entire staff, or have a multifaceted client bring everybody in,” says Abou-Sabe.
Mailer’s corner office is closest to the entrance. It might seem surprising that the president’s office is occupied by an engineer, not an architect. But his title reflects HACBM’s history.
The predecessor firm to HACBM was founded in 1989 by Dick Hoisington, who had been a structural engineer at CUH2A, now on Lenox Drive with 230 employees. Hoisington thought structural engineering wasn’t getting enough emphasis there. He took Mailer with him and opened his own firm. Two architects who had been with CUH2A, Ahmed Azmy and Pearson, joined the firm in 1992 to provide architectural consulting services. At that point the firm hired Bruce Constant and Ted Bell as partners, and it become known as Hoisington Azmy Constant Bell Mailer or HACBM.
The engineering services included mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection engineering. Though it was capable of doing the work of a full-service architecture/engineering firm, HACBM still operated mostly as a subconsultant, offering a mix of services under contract to other design firms.
In the late 1990s, when Hoisington retired, followed by Constant and Bell, HACBM decided to focus on prime contracts, so that architectural commissions would drive the firm and the engineers could support those contracts. The first “ground up” projects were a bank branch in South Brunswick and the Metuchen municipal hall.
Recent important projects were the award-winning Donald Stewart Center for Early Childhood Education, a $13.8 million pre-school for 300 children in Elizabeth, completed in 2004, and the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Early Childhood Education, an $11.8 million pre-school for 300 children in Elizabeth, built in 2005.
Underway is the Garden Vista at Passaic, an adaptive re-use renovation of an historic but long-vacant Italian Renaissance Revival building that formerly housed an Elks Lodge and will soon offer 40 one- and two-bedroom condo apartments. Some of the original public spaces (lobby, hall, ballroom) are being preserved for communal use by the residents.
HACBM continues to do some engineering work for outside firms, including for Richardson Smith (a Cherry Hill restaurant, a building in Red Bank, and a six-story condo on Seaside Heights) and Minno Wasko (the Hulfish Street expansion of Palmer Square).
Mailer, now president, says that he does not fit the stereotype of the engineer, which he says is someone “very good at solving complex problems but doesn’t see the big picture and doesn’t get involved in the decision process, versus someone who likes working with people.”
Mailer grew up in Cartaret, where his father, a Scottish immigrant, was a shipwright and carpenter. “That’s where I learned my love for the construction industry,” says Mailer. “He worked as a union carpenter, but there was no future in it, and he started his own business. I was very good at math, and good at construction, so engineering was a natural choice.”
Mailer lived in Scotland for a year during high school and spent summers there. He majored in structural engineering at Stevens Institute, class of 1979. He worked three years in New York, joined CUH2A in 1982, and left to join Hoisington Engineers Ltd. in 1989, becoming president in 2000 when Hoisington retired. He and his wife, a nurse, live in Solebury with two school-aged children.
Mailer is both principal in charge on selected projects and managing principal of the firm. He specializes in engineering design of concrete, masonry, wood and steel construction and serves as an expert witness on structural design issues in litigation, providing structural analysis and forensic investigations of structural failures. But he spends just one-fourth of his time doing engineering, and the rest is spent in marketing, writing proposals, and administration.
His “people skills” were stretched to the limit during the construction. “The process was very distracting, not only to the principals but to the firm in general,” he says. “A big delay exacerbated that feeling.”
The delay involved special thermopane glass made by PP&G. “The drawings had been done predicated on this glass, but only part of the glass came in on time,” says Mailer. “They make the glass only at certain times of the year, and we were small fish in a big pool. They had a captive customer It took three iterations to get all the glass here, and now three windows still have to be replaced. We put plywood up but were delayed eight to nine weeks due to the glazing problem.”
Was it embarrassing? Certainly, says Mailer. “Unforeseen? No. Uncommon? No. Frustrating? Yes. Once the suppliers have you under contract and have produced the drawings, they give you a date, then the glass doesn’t show up. The glass will be another two weeks, they promise. Then another two weeks. Then there is a strike at the factory. We went from July to August, to September, and finally the glass was delivered in September.”
An October 15 target for move-in was pushed back to December 8. Though the supplier made some restitution, says Mailer, “we will not order from them again.”
Abou-Sabe is more sanguine, noting that the glass problem was “beyond our control, a manufacturer/installer issue,” and that “problems were few and far between because it was so closely managed by the people in charge. It went relatively well.”
The son of a Rutgers microbiology professor who emigrated from Egypt, Abou-Sabe grew up in East Windsor and went to Notre Dame High School. His brother is a mortgage broker at First Choice Bank (U.S. 1, April 25). His wife, Ola Abou-Sabe, is the general manager of a small Johnson & Johnson subsidiary, Independence Technology (which has the wheelchair that can climb stairs, among other things). They have a sheep farm in Skillman, where they live with their two teen-aged children.
Abou-Sabe studied landscape architecture at Rutgers, worked for the firm of Johnson Jones in the mid 1980s, and was invited by Azmy (a friend of his family) to help with a design competition for Dubai. “We won the project and were commissioned to set up an office there for mixed use waterfront development in United Arab Emirates. We stayed through the first Gulf War.” Abou-Sabe joined HACBM in 1993, managed some of the bigger projects, and took on the business development role. Azmy retired on January 1.
Chris Bollwage, the mayor of Elizabeth, credits HACBM with a major role in helping to develop Elizabeth — designing an addition to the Ikea building plus three buildings including two early childhood centers. Abou-Sabe is happily engaged in his primary interest, landscape architecture, as he designs the second phase of the Elizabeth Trail, which runs along the river in the central business district. This “greenway” type land planning and landscape design aims to recapture the river as a vital visual, recreational, and pedestrian amenity, and to connect existing parks and places in the city with each other and with county and regional trail systems.
His Egyptian heritage has a strong hospitality streak. “It is a big part of my personality and of my life. We planned our layout so we could have a tent outside, for community events. And we hope to entertain, quarterly, in our boardroom, with wine and cheese parties, showcasing art work and our projects in the gallery area, and opening the building up to nonprofit groups. One of our staff members invites his religious group here, and some business networking groups are welcome to hold their meetings here. It is a central location, and we really want this to be our home.”
In retrospect, says Abou-Sabe, he would have wanted the building to be more respectful of its factory origins and have a more raw appearance — no carpeting, just concrete floors, exposed steel, and exposed pipes. “When we ended up finishing the spaces, the right thing to do was to make the ‘front of house’ more high end, with hardwood floors and tile floors. If the building had been raw throughout, the front of house could have had a more industrial feeling.”
Anyone on the staff could enter the design competition, and Abou-Sabe responded with what was dubbed a “Stonehenge” scheme, five freestanding monoliths, amorphous shapes, down the central axis of the building, with open areas around them. That proved too costly.
A scheme presented by one of the young designers was the closest to the final selection. The architects chopped away at the cost, making what are euphemistically known as “value engineering changes,” such as reducing the window sizes by one foot. One item that got “value-engineered” out was the shower for those who might want to bike to work.
The cost of this project: $900,000 for the property, found for them by Anne LaBate of Segal Commercial. Including demolition and construction (by GeoMatrix) they spent an additional $1.4 million for a total of $2.3 million, or about $235 per square foot, plus $37,000 for the interior materials furnishings, most supplied by ICI.
Demolition took place from April to December in 2006. Just about the entire building came down, except for the steel frame and part of the concrete slab. Light oils from the machine shop had gotten into the slab and could endanger the groundwater.
“As a precaution, we had to cut out the slab and dig out two feet of earth. We decided, as long as we had to replace the slab, we could put radiant heat in the floor,” says Mailer. “Now, so much thermal mass is in the slab, that the radiant heat has turned into our primary heating system.” Circulating liquid, heated to temperature, radiates heat into the space; feet are warm and drying effects, caused by forced air heat, are minimized.
Other “green” influences on the construction came from materials — recycled concrete and recycled materials from demolition — and the solar shades. They incorporated these elements of LEED certification (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) but bypassed going for the certificate because of the time and management effort required, and the possibility that it could delay the project.
Another glitch: the red panel on the outside. The original supplier, in the Netherlands, could produce samples of the required thickness, but it couldn’t “bend” the material as required. Scrambling to find a different product, they substituted tile.
Trimming for the windows (known as mullions) was supposed to be red, to match the monolith, but they decided the red might fade to pink and the red would have had to extend to the interior. They switched to black.
In a room of experts, who got to pick the colors? A recent hire, Russell DiNardo, who had just come from the Michael Graves firm. It was important, says Mailer, for DiNardo to be able to participate in branding the firm. “Harlow will be retiring and Russell will be director of architectural design. He has a very well developed sense of color and a wonderful sensitivity, and he knows how to put things together so they look really well done. In a lot of ways he is a designer’s designer.”
DiNardo has also influenced everything from business cards to the color of the building to the color of logos slapped down on the corners of all plans. The goal for the logo: to be up to date, clean, and modern, branding the firm as clean, modern, and up to date.
“He arrived in time to make some decisions on final phases — the wall sign, the grid for the ceiling in the lobby space, and some of the finish materials. He made the corridor one foot wider and flipped an office door so it couldn’t be seen from the lobby.”
Abou-Sabe admits the firm has had growing pains. At the urging of Nick Carnevale, who sits on the board, the principals took a Dale Carnegie course last year “to polish up a bit,” as Abou-Sabe puts it, “to communicate more effectively with our staff, to grow the company.”
“We have open communications. We share our passions and are direct and very explicit,” says Abou-Sabe. They also share reading material. On the advice of Jim Collins, the school superintendent in Elizabeth, everyone read “Good to Great” by Jim Collins, in preparation for hiring more people. The current staff size of 30 is five short of what it has been in the past.”
“More than money, employees consider the actual culture of the organization and I feel that is extraordinary about our organization. If someone doesn’t pull their weight they are told so — all the time,” says Abou-Sabe. “On the other hand, many of us have children, and the firm provides an informal flexibility for people to deal with important family events like soccer games and graduations.”
Says Abou-Sabe: “The whole project makes me very proud. It’s a major milestone in the growth of the company and the years we have invested — having your own building, having it represent our values, our passions, our ideals.”
Says Mailer: “My only regret is that I wish we had done it earlier.”
HACBM Architects Engineers Planners LLC, 31 East Darrah Lane, Lawrenceville 08648; 609-452-7779; fax, 609-452-7959. Robert M. Mailer, president. Home page: www.hacbm.com