How Helix will diversify its brand and grow the KC skyline

Helix leadership (From front row, left to right): Miranda Groth, associate; Evan Fox, principal; Alissa Wehmueller, principal; Reeves Wiedeman, principal; Jay Tomlinson, principal; Erika Moody, principal; Trevor Hoiland, principal; Mike Heule, principal; Bryan Gross, principal; Jacob Palan, associate; Kristine Sutherlin, principal.

Helix Architecture + Design is setting itself up to capitalize on the wave of new development across Kansas City by joining forces with Blackbird Design Studio. Now under the same roof, the newly combined team is going after more work than ever before.

Following their early August announcement to merge, we sat down with principals Jay Tomlinson and Erika Moody to discuss just what opportunities — and challenges — lay ahead.

Can you quantify the onslaught of development work you’re seeing now versus just a few years ago?

Jay Tomlinson: Just in the past year, our multifamily development has tripled. We have more than 1,000 apartments on the boards in various stages right now. It’s off the charts. Five years ago, we had zero. We’ve done some work here and there over the years, but this boom right now is unprecedented.

Our higher education work is much higher right now than in years past, as well. Over the past year, our revenue from higher education has doubled. That’s truly an indicator of a seasoned firm, because higher ed work is given out much more carefully than developer-driven work.

For instance, we just landed our first project at Mizzou, and we had been knocking on that door for 25 years. Part of the reason we have more higher ed work right now is that we finally have gotten momentum behind us with having been building that part of the practice for years.

Erika Moody: We’ve even seen that growth double since last year, whether it’s staff or project type. We continue to do a lot of rehab, in which [Helix] is the leader in the marketplace. Our corporate workplace has always been strong, and our portfolio is vast from the past lives that my partner Trevor Hoiland and I had led. We’re seeing that continue to pick up with the innovation in workplace thinking, as people study how people want to work, what a workplace is for, why we need them, and what they should look like. We’re seeing our larger clients dive into that in research-based but innovative ways, so it’s exciting to see what they’re rolling out.

Has that workload been hard to keep up with?

EM: Being six people strong, we’d often get the question, “Do you have the capacity to handle this?” And we certainly do. I tell our clients that if you find an architect that’s not busy right now, that might be a good indicator. It’s a good time right now, and there is plenty of work.

What kind of skill sets are you marrying together, and in what other ways did you find Helix and Blackbird compatible?

JT: We had many similarities in that we had architects and interior designers, and we both had youthful leadership and senior leadership. [Blackbird] has the ability to build off the platform we’ve already built, and we have the chance to inject new vibrant design leadership, so it’s symbiotic in that way. But we’re all cut from the same cloth. It’s been amazing to me how readily our two cultures blended into one. When you merge a company, I always thought the hardest part was the accounting and lawyering; Turns out, the hardest part is the culture fit. If the cultures don’t fit, it doesn’t work.

We had an all-firms retreat a few Fridays back at one of our new projects, the Boulevard Brewing Co. visitors center. You’d expect it to be like a seventh grade dance, with everyone checking each other out from the other side of the room, but it was like we had been together forever.

The newly expanded Helix team will locate at Helix's headquarters at 16th and Walnut in the Crossroads Arts district.

What will be the biggest challenge ahead?

EM: Jay and Reeves [Wiedeman] and Mike all had offices, and now they’re going to move upstairs and co-habitate. We’ll turn their offices into additional small conference workspaces.

JT: I’m not nervous but I wonder how I’ll get anything done. The biggest challenge will be having too much fun. It’s lighthearted and smiles everywhere. There’s a buzz in the office right now and I think it will take some time to wear off.

What’s the biggest opportunity in front of you?

EM: We’re excited to take what we’ve both been doing and pour jet fuel on it. We’ve just started to crack the door on conversations about different projects, clients, and regional opportunities. As much as we enjoy the buzz, we’re looking forward to getting back to work. For Kansas City, our ability to utilize all of our resources, and by that I mean relationships, and portfolio, and connections, and really elevate the types of projects we’re going to deliver will be great for the community. It’s an opportunity we can all look forward to.

JT: We’ve been talking a lot about a different business model, in that it won’t be the typical design for a fee. We’ll still do buildings for other people primarily, but we’re talking about doing product development or our own development, so we’re going to evolve the business model so that revenue streams come from several places, rather than just one. We see the most progressive firms in the world doing that. What’s to say we don’t have a Helix denim, or wine, or light fixtures, or furniture, or development? I literally think there are seeds of ideas here that will help us evolve our practice.

EM: Beyond that, it feeds a creative need that a lot of us have to do those things, and I think it helps ride the waves of economic dips we see. It’s something that historically, architects haven’t done. It used to be that “your time is your dime” and you can charge what the rates will allow for certain types of projects. But as we’re seeing tools and technology make those project teams more efficient and effective, it really is time for the whole profession to evolve. There are some leading firms that have started this effort, and we’re learning from them and excited to bring them to Kansas City.

Will this change the type of projects you’ll go after?

JT: I don’t know that it will change the type of project, but it could change the geographic boundaries of our projects to a more regional scale. But we’ll still be doing the same range of small interesting projects and mega projects. Right now, we have a $75 million project in the office, but we’re talking about a $2 million project, too. We’ll be limited to what’s happening in our marketplace, but when a big project comes along, we expect to take a swing at it. We didn’t do this to go after a new market; This was about sympathetic and compatible aspirations as well as skill sets.

What are the biggest takeaways you’ve learned from this marriage?

EM: We are very entrepreneurial on both sides. [Helix] is celebrating 25 years and we have only done this for a few years. But there are so many organizations that don’t see the bigger picture opportunities and get caught up in doing the business that needs to be done everyday. I have been excited to work with folks that are wanting their business to last another 25 years. They’re not just patting themselves on the back — they’re looking forward and to me, that’s exactly why this conversation started. It filters top down, and everyone here understands that you’re building something bigger, something for the long term.

JT: Architects and designers have a responsibility to their community to help move the community and the built environment forward together. Those are legacy conversations that will evolve over several generations, and we’re right at the table in Kansas City. We’re so proud of what we’ve been able to do and be involved in thus far, and we don’t want to stop. We are right in the middle of a golden age in this city. The opportunities to shape this city for the next 25 years are right there for us to pay attention to. You get the kind of city you deserve, and you only get there by working hard. So we are in the middle of conversations about the new streetcar, KCI, the east side, the west side — and we’re passionate about those ideas. We have strong opinions and ideas, and we’re ready to roll up our sleeves and work toward them.