Spokane Journal of Business

MMEC Architecture & Interiors plans for future

Spokane-based firm says leadership transition will be gradual

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-—LeAnn Bjerken
From left to right, Doug Mitchell, Heidi Pierce, and Boyd Lusarreta, all principals at MMEC, say the firm now has 20 workers here.

Spokane-based architectural firm MMEC Architecture & Interiors says it’s embracing change as it prepares its staff for greater leadership roles and strives to incorporate the latest technology into its building designs.

Established in 1999, MMEC offers architectural design, construction management, and interior design services. The firm was named for its four founding partners, Sue Lani Madsen, Doug Mitchell, Marian Evenson, and Craig Conrad.  

“Our original name was Madsen, Mitchell, Evenson, Conrad,” says Mitchell. “We’ll still answer if people call us that, but we officially changed the name about five years ago.”

He says it was after Sue Lani Madsen’s retirement in 2011 that the remaining three partners began to consider how best to transition the firm into the future. 

 “As part of that idea, we decided to hire four additional partners and begin preparing them for leadership and management roles,” he says. “It’s going to be a gradual, five- to seven-year process, but ultimately it’s all about establishing a smooth and continual evolution of ownership.”

Mitchell says MMEC’s newest ownership partners include Boyd Lusarreta, Heidi Pierce, Walt Huffman, and Jennifer Cox. 

“Walt started with us in 2000, and became a partner in 2011,” he says. “Jennifer has been with us since we started. Heidi started with us in 2004, and Boyd started here in 2008. The three of them were made partners in 2016.”

Amidst its plans for transitioning leadership, in 2015, MMEC also relocated its offices from the Bennett Block, between Main Avenue and Spokane Falls Boulevard and Howard and Stevens streets, to a 4,000-square-foot space on the second floor of the Spokesman-Review production building, at 1 N. Monroe. 

“We chose this location because it’s actually fairly similar to our old space, but with more room,” Mitchell says. “We’re still downtown, and we still have lots of natural light and beautiful views.”

He says the firm currently employs a total of 20 people here and also operates a four-person Kennewick office.  

“We opened our Kennewick office about five years ago now, and I would say our project workload is pretty evenly spread between the two offices,” he says.

Although the company has been growing its staff consistently by about one new employee each year, Mitchell says growth isn’t necessarily its main goal. 

“We certainly don’t feel the need to be the biggest firm out there,” he says. “Many firms will take on a project and hire staff as needed, but we’re the opposite. If a project is too big, we’d rather turn it down than hire staff temporarily.”

Mitchell says that while most staff members have architecture degrees, some are interior designers or have backgrounds in business management.

“Our approach has always been collaborative,” he says. “Each one of the principals and staff bring a different and valued viewpoint, and those different viewpoints make our projects better.”

While he acknowledges the pool of talented, qualified architects and designers is rather small these days, Mitchell says MMEC isn’t worried about staffing. 

“We understand that talented people have the option of choosing where they’d like to work,” he says. “And currently, we have a great staff that really enjoys working together.”

And according to Mitchell, now is an exciting time to be an architect working in Spokane.

“The whole cityscape is changing, with projects like the new Macy’s building, Riverfront Park improvements, and the growth of neighborhoods like Kendall Yards all happening at once,” he says.  “These are projects that will help Spokane begin to grow into a more livable city.”

Mitchell says over the years, most of MMEC’s design projects have fallen under one of six categories: education, commercial, health care, civic, nonprofit, and multifamily residential work. 

 “I’d say we complete between 20 and 50 projects each year, and around 70 percent of those are education related, with a mix of office and commercial work making up the rest,” he says. 

MMEC’s recent projects include work on several schools in the Central Valley and Mead school districts, as well as apartment conversion projects at the Chronicle Building, at 926 W. Sprague downtown, and at the old Cheney High School, at 520 Fourth in Cheney.

In the future, Mitchell says, he hopes to see the firm become involved in more multifamily housing projects like those latter two. 

 “Really, we could focus exclusively on education, as that’s our largest sector,” he says. “But some of these others are fun projects that add a bit of diversity to our work.”

Although Mitchell declines to disclose the firm’s annual revenues, he says it has seen an increase in volume of projects as well as revenues over the past few years. 

“Prior to 2012, we’d had somewhat steady growth in revenues,” he says. “Then 2013 and 2014 revenues jumped about 50 percent above the 2012 level, and our 2015 and 2016 revenues jumped another 50 percent above that. But we expect 2017 revenues to be about the same as the last two years.”

He adds that revenue increases the last few years’ have enabled the firm to catch up on things like profit sharing with employees, and in-house technology and infrastructure improvements.

Mitchell says as technology evolves and new design trends emerge, MMEC also has found itself adjusting to reflect those needs. 

To stay on top of the latest designs, he says, MMEC uses a tool called building information modeling software in the majority of its work.

 “This technology is incredibly different than what we were using even just five years ago,” he says. “We’re able to model the building in the computer, even down to small details like doorknobs, if necessary.” 

BIM software provides a 3-D model of each design that enables architects, engineers, and construction professionals to share information and coordinate the construction of buildings and infrastructure.

Two of the firm’s newer partners, Heidi Pierce and Boyd Lusarreta, say many of the tools used in BIM software were created for use in the gaming industry. 

“This software allows us to bring the building to life. Clients can actually tour it virtually and know exactly how it’s going to look,” says Lusarreta. “It’s super realistic.” 

Pierce adds, “Having that model makes it easier to share information quickly and accurately between all parties. It helps us head off any conflicts in design or building beforehand.” 

Mitchell says the firm has noticed that both private companies and educational institutions are looking for designs that include open floorplans with shared learning and working spaces. 

 “It varies somewhat depending on client needs and worker functions, but I’d say a large majority of tenant improvements we see are moving toward open spaces,” he says.  

He says one example of this concept is MMEC’s design of the Next IT corporate headquarters in Spokane Valley, a project that was completed in September 2015.

“At that location, you can see the influence of new technologies, as well as more open office spaces,” he says. “We’re seeing it a lot in education too, where design has to be adapted to accommodate technology like smart boards, and group learning spaces with iPads. It’s sometimes a challenge just to keep up with all the new tech.”

Mitchell says MMEC currently has eight major education projects in the works, including three in the Central Valley School District, one in the Mead School District, one at Columbia Basin College in Pasco, and three in the Kennewick School District.

The Mead project is a remodel-and-expansion project, but the others are all new buildings, he says. 

 “The Kennewick High School project in particular will be quite large,” he says. “The design phases for that project will be starting late this year with construction scheduled to start in 2019.”

He says the firm also is planning design for three multifamily housing projects, only one of which is a remodel, and that one will involve a building near downtown. 

“The newer projects are outside of the city center,” Mitchell says. “But all of these include 10 to 40 units each.”

As the firm moves ahead with changing technology and leadership transitions, he says he’s proud of its work so far.

“We’ve done some good work, and our staff is just phenomenal,” Mitchell says. “I think everything will turn out well.” 

LeAnn Bjerken
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Reporter LeAnn Bjerken covers health care at the Journal of Business. A Minnesota native and cat lover, she enjoys beachside vacations and writing poetry. LeAnn has worked for the Journal since 2015.

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