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August 2012
a + i means design synergies inside and out
By Peter Hildebrandt

     It doesn’t happen often. You find yourself walking through an extraordinary space. You want to keep on exploring what you’ve found. You marvel at the matchless architecture and design features enfolding before you. You are instilled with feelings of awe, inspiration, satisfaction and pleasure that a surrounding can be so beautiful, distinctive, intriguing and ultimately practical to its purpose. You are moved. The experience has enriched you.

     That is exactly the type of reaction ai Design Group wants to evoke in its award-winning architecture and interior design work.

     In their perch on the Green across the street from the convention center, amidst cosmopolitan thoroughfares, eclectic eateries, green space and art sculptures, they are immersed in the very creativity that they seek to design for others.


The Name Says it All

     “Obviously our name is indicative of how strongly we feel about architecture and interiors,” says Kim Marks, one of three principals at ai Design Group along with Wes Jones and John Weller.

     “We’re really focused on having one point of contact for our clients but being able to bring both the ‘a’ and the ‘i’ to the project and work together as a team,” she remarks. “We are almost half and half architectural staff and interior staff, really trying to bring the right person to the project no matter which side they are on.”

     ai Design has always been involved in projects all over the map, both figuratively and literally.

     “Many architectural firms have a client base that is primarily focused on one market sector. When that market sector tanks it can severely impact the firm,” explains Jones. “Being mid-sized and diverse is one of the keys to our success. We practice across many market sectors including automotive, corporate interiors, retail and racing. When we innovate in one area, such as racing, it carries over into our other areas of practice and keeps us thinking outside the box.”

     Marks and Jones had previously worked together in Washington, D.C., in the early 1990s. First Marks, and then in 1995, Jones came to Charlotte and joined an older firm. Unfortunately, that firm, which was heavily invested in banking, was seriously affected by the economic downturn in 2000-2001, and the firm dissolved in 2003.

     At that time Jones, Marks and Weller made the decision to form their own firm, taking 11 or so people from that former firm and carrying on with most of the non-banking work.

     “It was a great way to get started because we got the pick of all the experienced people that we’d been working with for many years,” explains Jones. “As it’s worked out, many of those people are still here. It’s been a good fit and we have a very strong, experienced core of people.”

     Initially located in South End in the Design Center before moving to their present location, the three have seen the city grow up around them. When they first came here, the Ratcliffe condominiums and convention center were the only anchors.

     Now, nearly 10 years later, the cultural campus is complete and they find themselves in the center of the most exciting part of the city. One reason they are uptown now is their longstanding strong relationships with brokers in the uptown office market. But more than that…they just like being uptown and part of the center of the city.


Diversity is Key

     While the economic downturn has presented challenges for the firm, it has been manageable at the same time. Their diversity of practice has been key to their survival.

     Jones leads the racing and automotive areas and has had continued involvement in corporate office headquarters and office building projects. The dealership and racing projects have taken the firm all across the country and, in some cases with racing, overseas.

     Jones began working on projects in the racing venue with Speedway Motorsports in 1996, and has been involved with them ever since, working on speedways all across the country. He also works with other racing project developers. The involvement has led to dealership work all over the country with Sonic Automotive as well as other dealership groups.

     Jones’ corporate office headquarters projects are no less high profile for the likes of SPX, Time Warner Cable, Barloworld and Sonic Automotive.

     Marks, with degrees in both interiors and architecture, manages the firm’s interiors practice and focuses on delivery of services to the building owners and management groups located uptown and throughout the metro area.

     She says, “Our longstanding relationships with clients like Spectrum, Childress Klein and Trinity keep us continually sharpening our skills to make sure we remain highly competitive while delivering the highest quality product.” Marks’ projects have included the Charlotte School of Law, Fifth Third’s headquarters, and most recently, new offices for Babson Capital Management on two floors of the Duke Energy Center.

     Weller focuses on developer-based architecture including everything from the high-end theater complex in Ballantyne and the Okatie Village multi-building complex in Bluffton, to smaller neighborhood centers, food stores and most recently, extensive work with the Automobile Association of America.

     “While we each have our own areas of focus,” explains Jones, “there is also a lot of overlap between the buckets. Every market sector has been affected, but not necessarily all at the same time, so it’s sort of been an up-and-down thing since 2009. We feel like we’ve turned the corner, and we’ve even added three people over the last year or so.”

     “The corporate world can require a sophisticated approach,” comments Weller. “We strive to develop strong relationships with corporate groups who have ongoing needs for design services.” He cites by example the work for AAA Carolinas to develop a prototype building incorporating their insurance group, travel agency and automotive service. As a result, they are working with AAA nationally to implement the prototype.

     “The AAA development team leader had gone to other clubs around the country with this program and taken us with them to AAA Mid-Atlantic in the D.C. area,” says Weller. “We’ve started doing some work in for them in the Chicago area, New York and California. AAA has been a great client to have because their clubs have been able to continue developing through the down economy.”


A Collaborative Approach

     Though ai Design Group is a mid-sized firm with one office in the heart of Charlotte, they’ve teamed up with an alliance of architectural firms in different regions across the country as well.

     Their work on various projects in collaboration with other firms led them to join the alliance branded under the name ONE. This is a way for firms of their size to band together for cross-marketing purposes and to serve clients nationally without having to maintain separate offices in multiple locations.

     “We now have a peer group of all like-minded firms across the country,” says Jones. “While the idea is not new, it represents a tremendous resource for us and our clients going forward.”

     Jones also describes how the delivery of their services has changed: “Working at a larger firm we worked with larger accounting and infrastructure systems—we were working with very large clients and so had to deliver our services in that way. Now that we’re registered and have worked all over the country, it has kept our perspective more national and not so totally focused on our immediate world here.

     “This also keeps us fresh. We don’t take much for granted because when you go into a new locale, you’ve got to learn what the rules are anyway. Most companies would say they are service-oriented, but there is something about what we are doing service-wise that bears that out, because we do keep our clients for so long. We definitely are focused on what the client needs.”

     “We also deliver within their time frame which is sometimes gracious and sometimes demanding,” adds Marks. “Our firm does not have to worry about scoring big on a particular project; we are expecting it to be part of a 10-year relationship.”


Creative Accomplishments

     ai Design Group will celebrate their 10-year anniversary just after the first of the year and they have a lot to show for it. Although they’ve completed projects across the spectrum, they consider as some of their primary strengths designing amateur sports arenas, hospitality banquet and meeting spaces, critical infrastructure facilities, restaurant and food service venues, medical offices and higher education venues. Their marketing is now aimed at highlighting these areas of expertise.

     “We’re also taking a real hard look at hotels morphing out of banquet meeting facilities, and further developing our hospitality sector,” says Jones. “And in the retail world, John is finding that even if they’re not building neighborhood centers, they’re still building food centers such as Food Lion or Bottom Dollar, which we’ve also done.”

     “We have clients who know us as an interiors firm, ones who know us as a retail shell firm and others who know us as a racing design firm,” adds Jones. “Racing gets a lot of notoriety, but part of our mission is to get the message out that we are all of these things. It is core to who we are that we bring all these different points of view and areas of expertise to every project and to each of our clients,” Jones continues.

     Jones admits he’s never worked in a firm that has such an equal weight and level of respect for both the architectural and interiors disciplines. A more typical firm has a stronger focus on one or the other. Trying to keep those disciplines integrated and working together has been a core part of their approach, he says, and they continue to structure their design approach around making that happen.

     The principals believe wholeheartedly in the value of good design. They work to ensure the entire team at ai Design Group is very focused on design and strives to deliver the highest quality design solution within the project parameters. One of the keys to their success is their ability to do things quickly and at low cost, while being prepared to deliver a high end project when called upon—and knowing the difference between the two.

     “We work hard to be a firm that can deliver every level of design solution our client’s may need, from the signature towers to prototype service facilities,” adds Jones. “That’s what the design part of the name is all about: understanding the opportunity and responding appropriately.”

     For the ai Design Group, that sounds like a plan!


Peter Hildebrandt is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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