Northwest Business Magazine

Larson & Darby Group: Good Design is About Solving Problems

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From their Rockford home, one area architectural firm has created an international reputation for its creative, inspiring spaces. Chances are, you know the firm better for it’s work right here in our region.

Larson & Darby partners Richard S. McClelland, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP; Dan J. Roszkowski, AIA, NCARB; William Waldorf, SE, RA; and John T. Saunders, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP.

Larson & Darby partners Richard S. McClelland, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP; Dan J. Roszkowski, AIA, NCARB; William Waldorf, SE, RA; and John T. Saunders, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP.

 

The Portland, Ore., manufacturer had a problem: How could it install machine foundations for some new, extremely heavy equipment, and keep the project on budget?

Its architecture firm, Larson & Darby Group, 4949 Harrison Ave., Rockford, crafted a novel solution, one that was literally outside the box.

“We thought, ‘Why don’t we just build it outside? That way, we can design a building around it,’” says Larson & Darby CEO Bill Waldorf, SE, RA. “We showed them some ideas, and they were very impressed. Afterward, Boeing thought what we did for them was one of their world-class facilities.”

Just call them the problem-solvers. That’s how Waldorf and the 45-member team at Larson & Darby see their work. To this talented group of architects, engineers and interior designers, the final product is often the solution to a client’s problem. They’ve solved problems for clients around the world, but you’re probably most familiar with the creative work their firm has delivered to the Rockford area for 51 years.

“Everything we do comes back to solving problems,” says Waldorf, who’s worked with the firm for nearly 40 years. “You think of Heartland Community Church, when they moved into the old Colonial Village Mall. They said, ‘We need a sanctuary, but there are six columns in the way, and the roof is 20 feet too low.’ No problem. We came up with a creative solution that allowed them to stay in their budget. That sanctuary used to be the J.C. Penney store. It’s quite the transformation.”

A full-service architectural firm, Larson & Darby has transformed many a space since it was founded in 1963, and its diverse menu of services – from architecture and planning to engineering and interior design – has led it to work with a wide array of clients. About half of its work is related to manufacturing and industry, a niche that has taken the team across the U.S., and even into Mexico, England, France, Poland, Germany, Egypt, India and China.

Larson & Darby’s creativity extends throughout the region, to publicly owned buildings such as the BMO Harris Bank Center, health care clinics including Freeport’s FHN and Dixon’s KSB, churches such as Heartland and Westminster Presbyterian, and even schools, such as an addition at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford. And that’s just a sample.

“Through the years, we’ve done retail work for some national clients, like GAP, Office Depot/Office Max,” says principal John T. Saunders, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP. “Those companies recognize that a firm our size can do great work on a national level.”

Building Blocks of Success

Larry Larson and his brother-in-law, Sam Darby, began their partnership working small jobs around Rockford – a doughnut shop here, a Geri’s Hamburgers there. Their big break came when they landed a contract to design the headquarters and manufacturing center for Sundstrand, now owned by UTC Aerospace Systems.

“Thinking back to the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, and how strong the industrial base was in Rockford then, we were fortunate to work for many of those major industrial corporations,” says Saunders, who joined the firm in 1984. “Sundstrand, Barber-Colman, Woodward, Mondelēz. Ingersoll was a big client that actually helped us to go around the world, doing work.”

The original partners grew their firm over time, employing about 25 when Saunders and Waldorf arrived, and reaching nearly 120 employees around 2001. Larson, a more technically minded designer and businessman, had an architectural degree and an MBA from the University of Chicago. His expertise perfectly meshed with Darby’s more creative personality. Together, they instilled in their associates the principles of success.

“They were very good at mentoring us,” says Waldorf. “They spent a lot of time looking over your shoulder, their hand on your back, saying, ‘What are you doing, kid?’ Even though John and I both came here when we were in our 30s, there was a lot to learn, and they were very good at bringing us along.”

Waldorf still relies on the business lessons he learned from the pair. “There’s more to doing buildings,” he says. “John and I have to keep 45 people employed every week, and keep our firm profitable. I hate to get pulled away from my drawing board, but we were taught the background for running the business. I have to thank Larry and Sam every time I see them, that they gave us the background to keep the firm going.”

Larson retired in 1995, Darby in 2001. Now, Waldorf, Saunders and their fellow principals are the ones peering over shoulders. On every project, no matter its size, at least one principal is involved, occasionally as the chief drafter.

Saunders remembers Larson’s and Darby’s dedication to hard work and their acceptance of progressive ideas, such as profit-sharing plans and generous employee benefits.

But beyond the inside business practices, Larson and Darby instilled in their team a desire to provide quality service.

“We believe that if you give people a good space in an architectural product, it’ll improve the work in the factory, or the way people perceive their jobs or their community,” says Waldorf. “We constantly strive to make something better.”

And sometimes, making something better also means challenging a client to reframe their needs.

“We’re not just going to draw the box that you asked for – we’re going to challenge you on what you really want,” says Saunders. “We’ll offer solutions a, b and c, and then the client can narrow it down. We want to be their partner, and we want to give them the best project possible.”

In one recent example, challenging the client led to a fresh idea with surprising results. When Field Fasteners, in Machesney Park, Ill., wanted to double its warehouse size and expand its office, architects had to decide how they’d reconfigure and expand the pre-engineered structure’s footprint.

“The typical thing to do is to add another pre-engineered building and another office,” explains Waldorf. “They wanted a space for their employees to gather, and we said, let’s push that into their current warehouse, because it has high ceilings. We created a grand space, with high ceilings and dramatic colors.”

The building expansion encroached on a favorite patio, where the company’s owner enjoyed grilling burgers. So, the new gathering space includes a built-in grilling station.

“It turned out to be a fun, colorful space, and people were excited,” says Waldorf. “It wasn’t just adding another conference room. By working this space into the taller area and taking away a little warehouse space, we gave them a wonderful place that the client was really excited about.”

Saunders and Waldorf find that their approach – providing multiple solutions to a problem – often leads to repeat business. In the case of UTC/Sundstrand, the relationship has continued for decades. Larson & Darby now handles both large-scale improvements and occasional small-time needs. For a manufacturer in Ohio, Saunders recently finished the firm’s ninth expansion since building the factory 25 years ago.

Leading the Charge

Sitting in India, at BEHL, an energy and infrastructure engineer and manufacturer, Waldorf needed to make some adjustments for his international client. From his iPad, he contacted his office, shared the client’s requests and, within a few hours, had an updated computer-rendered model to show off. Compare that to the rolls and rolls of drawings Waldorf had to tote around earlier in his career.

“Now, we can scroll through drawings, changing things on the fly, so to speak,” he says. “The technology and the way we can communicate is so much greater today.”

No stranger to technology, Larson & Darby was one of the area’s first architectural firms to embrace computer-guided design. Today, every aspect of building design is guided by 3-D rendering, also known as Building Information Modeling (BIM). This technology is radically improving the design process, making it easier for clients to envision their final structure, while reducing time and costs.

“What used to be a several-day or weeklong process to draw a picture or build a model is much faster,” says Waldorf. “Now, we can look at a screen on the wall and say, this is what your building will look like. Do you want to stretch it? Here’s how it’ll look. Do you want to change its color? Here’s a different color.”

The process isn’t just faster, it’s also more efficient and cost-effective, says Saunders. Because drawings can be sent electronically to clients and contractors, and renderings are completed digitally, clients no longer pay for rolls and rolls of paper. And, 3-D rendering also has its advantages for designers.

“It helps the whole process, because, instead of working in two dimensions, like we did with drawings, the three-dimensional format allows us to see everything,” says Saunders. “If structural members are interfering with mechanical systems, we can see that ahead of time, before construction crews run into issues. It helps the client because they’re not paying extra money to resolve conflicts that we couldn’t see beforehand.”

As for construction techniques and technologies, Larson & Darby was one of the first firms in the region to embrace the Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) standard for sustainable construction. Led by the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council, LEED promotes smart design that incorporates energy and materials conservation, recycled and renewable materials, and overall efficiency. Currently, Larson & Darby has eight LEED-certified designers, including Saunders, who have worked on several “green” projects.

One of the firm’s early LEED designs, and one of the first in Winnebago County, was a Kishwaukee Street facility for the Rock River Water Reclamation District. Using sustainable technology, the center was built with school field trips in mind.

“They wanted to show the kids how water goes from a sewer pipe and into the Rock River,” says Waldorf. “We have a huge pond in the lobby, encased by a glass box, so kids can see inside. It was a unique building and a fun project, and we’ve been really happy with the impact it’s had.”

Technology has enabled Larson & Darby to open up new markets and reach clients in faraway places, but that increased access also comes with a cost. Chicagoland competitors are now finding their way into other markets, including Rockford.

What separates Larson & Darby is the strength of its reputation. Many new jobs come through referral from loyal clients, while other relationships come about from its work with local aerospace companies, including UTC.

“We pride ourselves on the fact that most of our customers are within a car’s drive,” says Saunders. “So, if there is an issue with a construction site, or there’s a need to be there for an impromptu meeting, we can be there.”

Thanks to its smaller size, Larson & Darby remains more nimble than its larger competition. And the firm happily takes on small jobs for loyal clients.

“UTC called last week and said they needed to lift a part off a machine,” says Waldorf. “They wanted to know if the structure could hold the load, and what would they need to reinforce it? It’s one hour of time to solve their problem, but it did solve their problem. They come to us because we’re willing to give them good solutions.”

At the same time, the firm’s capable of juggling longer-term projects with imperative short-term projects, which often come from industrial clients.

“We can pull resources to get a job done, and that’s what we see a lot of times, when someone calls and says, ‘We need a building and we need it now,’” says Waldorf. “The factory in Ohio called in May and said, ‘The automotive division is taking off, and we need another 80,000 square feet of factory. But, we’d like to occupy it by early October.’ It’s December and they’re all moved in.”

This brand of responsive service goes back to the values instilled in the firm’s founders, and its small-business identity.

“It always goes back to service and quality, the same thing that any small business preaches,” says Waldorf.

The Local Advantage

In their national and international travels, Waldorf and Saunders have witnessed an array of manufacturing and construction settings. In India, the monkeys swing across the girders, and the tigers wander into the work zones. Construction crews are unflinchingly casual.

“I’m there with my hard hat, my steel-toed shoes, my safety vest,” recalls Waldorf. “All of the workers pouring concrete are in flip-flops, and some of them wore a wrap around their heads. No safety glasses, no hard hats.”

Even in other parts of the U.S., Waldorf says, workforce experience, skill and work ethic don’t measure up to that of our region.

“Rockford ought to be very happy with what they have,” says Waldorf. “We’re finishing a three-year project for Caterpillar in Winston-Salem, N.C. We’re putting in 50-some machine foundations and all of the mechanical support to go with it. We found good contractors and workers, but Caterpillar has struggled to fill that plant with good workers.”

Here at home, Larson & Darby employees remain invested in the community, with individuals joining numerous local organizations. You’ll find associates engaged in Alignment Rockford, Transform Rockford, the Rockford Area Economic Development Council, Habitat for Humanity and the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals, to name a few.

“If you look at a list of all of the boards and civic organizations we participate in, it’s pretty significant,” says Saunders. “We really value contributing to our community as a whole. We’re an advocate for United Way, food drives, hospital walks, and much more.”

As the partners look toward the future, mentoring the next generation is front of mind.

“Hopefully, we can retire and pass something on that’s as strong as what we received,” says Waldorf. “It’s not my name on the door, or John’s name, but we’re proud to say we’re Larson & Darby.”

After 51 years, the firm has plenty to be proud of. The group has won numerous awards, including several from the AIA, the ALA, and the Illinois Association of School Boards. In 2009, the AIA’s Northern Illinois Chapter named it outstanding firm of the year, and in 2013, the Rockford Chamber of Commerce named it Small Business of the Year. Saunders’ work with Danfoss, in Loves Park, Ill., and Duo-Fast, in Huntley, Ill., has also won several honors.

Source of Pride

There’s a story at Larson & Darby about the year when a band failed to appear at the company Christmas party. So, for entertainment, co-founder Sam Darby led a slideshow of memorable works created by his firm.

“You would have thought they were family pictures, because he spent two hours talking about the pictures and sharing his love of these buildings he had been part of,” recalls Waldorf.

After 51 years in business, it’s easy for Larson & Darby associates to point out their firm’s work around Rockford. After all, their office provides a daily reminder of the company’s humble beginnings.

“It’s fun to drive around the city and see what we’ve worked on,” says Waldorf. “A journalist gets excited seeing his work in print, but for us, it’s all about the buildings. Every day, pulling up to this building we designed for Sundstrand, I think, ‘This is my building.’ It’s a good feeling.”

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