What’s Trending in the Architectural & Engineering Industry?

August 20, 2015

With over 29,000 projects throughout the region, over $100 Million of construction each year in municipal, educational, hospitality, ecclesiastical, senior living, and private clients, that’s a big task for LAN Associates.  The man in charge of it all, President Ken Karle sits down to discuss architectural and engineering trends in New Jersey. Interview by Tom Cosentino of MWW, Live From Trenton.

First of all thank you for having us on the show. LAN is celebrating their 50th year, it’s hard to believe. I’ve been with the company since 1978 which is also hard to believe.  We are a full-service architectural and engineering firm. We also include other allied professions such as surveying, environmental engineering and planning so that we can provide good comprehensive service to our clients. Our projects often entail the full gamut of disciplines needed for site development, buildings and revitalization.

What inspired you to get into architecture?

The corny story is I used to watch Mr. Ed when I was a kid and he was an architect with a talking horse so what better job could there be than that. The reality of it is the 3 dimensional aspect of design always appealed to me.  The idea of providing a 3 dimensional solution to a client’s needs is very pleasing.  You can meet with a client, listen to what they’re trying to obtain and hopefully suggest other ways to achieve the desirable results for them. We try to provide a solution that meets their needs, is adequate, and that has a certain beauty to it as well.

With 50 years of history here in the state, can you describe some of the highlights and major projects in New Jersey?

Working out of northern New Jersey, we have a great influence in the Bergen and Passaic area, but we also occasionally do work into Manhattan and other surrounding areas. I know when I was starting out some of the bigger projects we were doing in the late 70’s and early 80’s was computer facility design, which thinking back, we were doing, for instance, a $5 million dollar state of the art computer facility for Paramount pictures in midtown Manhattan. What I realize now, is that the amount of computing power in that room for $5 million dollars is far less than what is in your cell phone today. These are amazing jobs.

Some other highlights are Passaic High School where we put a major math and science wing addition, a senior living facility down in Asbury park, which was a 25 story building on the ocean we rehabilitated about 5 years ago working around seniors in an occupied condition to revitalize the façade of the building and make great energy improvements. Jobs like that are unique and satisfying. We think it might be the highest building on the jersey coast between Jersey City and Atlantic City. Of late, we are rebuilding a school in Edison that had burned down, we’re fast tracking that and providing a new state of the art facility for the children that are now housed temporarily in another school. One thing I love about the job is the variety and that every day is different.

How do you feel about building design? Has it changed over the years?

It sure has especially technology and the materials. A lot of what we do here is specify the materials that make up a building. Everything from energy efficiency has vastly improved, roofing, cladding, water proofing systems, lighting, mechanical; it has come so far that the buildings we are doing today are better than ever. They work better, they are more efficient, and they are more interactive. It always amazes me when we get an old historic blue print from say, the 1920’s, of a school and there might be 7 sheets of drawings and 3 of them might be trim details and now the same project will probably have 150 sheets of drawings with technology systems and lighting that didn’t even exist in those days. It’s amazing how progress keeps moving forward.

Is technology what drives the trends that you see?

I think it still comes back to the basics of good design. We are creating space for people and technology is a component of it, but we don’t let that get ahead of just good design, good natural light, spaces that feel good and make people happy, and spaces with natural ventilation. These are the ingredients of a good building. It always amazes me when people really like a space we’ve done. One of the common denominators is often good natural light far beyond aesthetics and everything else. These are the principles we try to bring into our projects.

You have a staff of over 80 and you are managing projects in various sectors. How do you keep that all together when there is so much involved?  You have to prepare for a bid with a township or municipality or you have clients that you are dealing with an ongoing basis with existing projects and those that are starting up. How does that all get managed?

It’s a series of moving parts. Part of the fun of the job is that you are always working on something different or you are always in a different phase of a project, many of our projects literally last years if not even a decade for some of the bigger ones.  In terms of staff, I’ve come to realize that every person has a certain skill or passion that they excel at. To find someone that excels in every single area is very difficult but you can always find someone that is very good at something. One of my jobs is to match the skillset of the person to the job at hand. There’s the old saying, if you do what you love you never have to work another day in your life. That makes employees happy when you can match them to the things they are naturally good at because they will excel and have good job satisfaction. The other side, there is nothing worse than matching someone to a task they just are not good at. Some people are very good at design, interacting, or working alone at their desk. In any business, the key is to get good people around you and to put them into what they are naturally good at doing.

As an architecture firm, you have to work very closely with municipalities, schools, planning boards, etc.  How hard is that to do as a company?

One thing that helps make us successful is being shepherds if you will, or providing background leadership by steering or helping the project move in a direction that benefits everybody, knowing some of the regulatory pitfalls, public relations, what people are looking for, what trends there are. There are more than a few projects right now where our team may involve consultants and or clients throughout a multi-state area. I have one project right now where the team includes people from Baltimore, Philadelphia, Rochester, Richmond, as well as the Metropolitan area on one project. You get that talent and you match it together to try and provide leadership and focus. That’s a part of our role.

Earlier we mentioned the James Monroe Elementary School in Edison. That’s a terrible situation, the school burns down and the kids are displaced in occupying classrooms at Middlesex County College and they got moved to St. Cecilia in Iselin. Are you building that from scratch where it’s a new design from the original?

Yes and no. It is a totally new design; we are matching the footprint to avoid site plan issues and neighbor concerns. Other than that, it is from scratch. The beauty of that, even though it is a tragedy, is that we can bring the new spaces that they were missing, the state of the art features that didn’t exist in 1964 when the building was built, and of course, the latest fire safety will be in the building including sprinkler systems and state of the art fire detection. We’re really excited about that project where we can fast track a nice revitalization project from scratch. We have fun with it and the school is going to benefit, they will probably be able to operate a bigger building with more kids for less operating costs because of the new technologies. Plus give them air conditioning, Wi-Fi networks, a gym, larger classrooms and an expanded cafeteria space. This to us was a wonderful project, part of it was to hit the ground running to get the design done and drawings out to bid right away. It’s good for us and the construction industry; it’s creating jobs. It is coming out of the ground right now and supposed to go live for the next school year and we are on schedule.

You do a lot of engineering work too. Is there a current project of note?

We do so many engineering retrofits from heating ventilating and air conditioning to electrical.  Hurricane Sandy created a ton of emergency generator projects, campus wide type emergency power systems where entire campuses are now on emergency power.  There’s really a new paradigm for backup systems since Hurricane Sandy, things we never thought about until now. Those are things there is no architecture at all, just engineering and industrial engineering and technology support for the industry in the area.