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I sat down with Chris Nieto, the founding principal of merzproject along with Joe Herzog, last week at one of their projects, Giant Coffee.  merzproject is a premier up and coming architecture firm in the Valley.  They’ve done some excellent projects such as the After Hours Gallery, The Galleries at Turney and the Show Low Public Library.

Many of the people who work at merzproject went to school with me, Joe Herzog, Jonah Busick and Alison Rainey to name a few.  This firm is one of a handful in town that’s producing exciting, cutting edge work.  I very much like the simple, elegant yet raw style of their projects.  The designers at merzproject are making their mark in Phoenix and I hope they go on to do it on a larger scale. They manage to push the envelope with good design and are at the same time, respectful of the desert.

Chris is the principal that heads up business development at merzproject and he spoke with me about the realities of running an architecture firm in this terrible recession, discussed the merger with Shepley Bulfinch and gave me a sneak peak at the kinds of projects they’re going after next.

Chris says merzproject’s mission is to “change the world through architecture.”  He says they try to do that by “creating a building that can effect many people at a time, to change the way people perceive a city or a space or how they occupy space.”  He goes on to say, “There’s something incredible to me about building buildings, it’s almost like creating history in many cases.  It’s very tangible, it’s something you can see:  something that was once a vacant piece of property or an underutilized piece of property now is something spectacular.”  This is the type of vision and passion that makes for a great architecture firm.

Sustainability is a big focus here on Blooming Rock and I asked Chris how they incorporate sustainability into their projects.  He was quick to say that they view sustainability as a fundamental part of good design, and as far as LEED certification and other labels go, he says, “we don’t really pay much attention to them”.  Frank Gehry got in trouble with many people when he said basically the same thing Chris said about LEED certification.  Often people put too much stock in LEED and other certifications and can, in the process, lose sight of the real issues around sustainability.  The projects I have seen from merzproject seem to grasp the fundamentals of sustainable principles without making too much ado about trendy green gizmos and such.  To me, true sustainability lies in the basics, so I applaud merzproject’s understated, yet honest commitment to sustainability.

Recently, merzproject merged with a large firm from Boston called Shepley Bulfinch.  In fact, this Boston firm is the oldest architecture firm in the nation!  It’s an ironic merger: a young, optimistic, entrepreneurial firm like merzproject coming together with a very established, very institutional firm like Shepley Bulfinch.  It’s like the wild west merging with the old world.

Chris assured me that this merger wasn’t purely a financial decision as many suspected it might be due to this brutal economy that has devoured many small architecture firms with its fangs.  He says it’s more of a strategic decision, where merzproject benefits from the experience, reputation and portfolio of Shepley Bulfinch and they benefit from merzproject’s out of the box, entrepreneurial thinking.

For Chris, a merger was an opportunity to go after big projects that generally elude small firms like his, right now instead of a decade from now.  I hope this calculated risk has been a worthwhile one.  Having worked for a few large firms myself, I know that the security of a large firm many times comes at the cost of creating extraordinary work.  Some large firms have managed to keep their design edge, but most haven’t.

Chris assured me that the quality of merzproject’s design work won’t be diminished because of this merger.  I was happy to hear that, and knowing the people involved, I have faith that this will be the case.

With Shepley Bulfinch’s clout behind them, Chris tells me they will be going after much larger projects and they have their eye on health care in particular.  Being the principal in charge of business development, Chris is aware that the few who are spending money right now, in this recession, are the health care industry and in some cases, higher education facilities like Arizona State University and Maricopa County Community College District.

One reason the health care industry is so appealing to architects is because it’s one of the few industries that almost guarantees a repeat client.  Chris says, “merzproject hasn’t really had a repeat client.  We have to start over every time. I don’t know if it gets easier over time. I know Shepley Bulfinch has repeat clients.  If you can get in with health care, you know you have an ongoing client, because as technology changes, as hospitals change, we’ll be needed.  There’s something nice about that…We’re just trying not to throw mud up against the wall and see if it sticks. We’re trying to approach people that are serious about doing projects. There is only so much time that Joe and I have to spend on project development.  So we’re trying to get smarter about it.”

The trouble, and the opportunity, with health care, is that thus far, it hasn’t been an industry that encourages extraordinary design.  You would figure it would because good design usually creates a healing environment.  But tight budgets and tight schedules tend to dictate the quality of design in health care from my experience working with it for seven years.

However, I’m confident that merzproject can introduce design excellence to their health care clients as they have with all their other clients.  Chris says about merzproject, “we think we can bring something to the table no matter what the project. It can be medical office building, it’s still a place where people are going to spend a significant amount of time, it’s a space of healing, well-designed spaces help people heal, relax people, reduce stress.”

I look forward to seeing the great work that is sure to continue to come out of merzproject’s doors.  This merger with Shepley Bulfinch is exciting, if a little risky.  Having merzproject’s stamp and design ethic on large projects, specially in health care, would be a very good thing for our city and wherever future projects take the firm.

Photo Credit: Photo from architectrio.com

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  1. […] I love most about this redevelopment project is how little the original building changed. Though Merz Project is the architect of record, Venue Projects, because of their design background, gave the majority […]

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