Regarded not only as the finest modern architect but also a master builder, Frank Lloyd Wright was known to design everything that would be used in a building down to the lighting fixtures and the plates on the dinner table.
While the professionals at Clark Nexsen tend to leave the tableware decisions to the building owners, they are committed to the master builder philosophy through holistic, integrated design. This is reflected in the firm’s diverse staff which includes architects, engineers, interior designers and planners.
“This is my greatest sense of accomplishment; that we work with the whole building, the whole project. I see us as master builders,” says Peter Aranyi, managing principal of the Charlotte office.
Founded in 1920 in Lynchburg, Va., Clark Nexsen has become a full-service, integrated design firm headquartered in Norfolk, Va., with offices in Richmond and Roanoke, Va.; Raleigh and Charlotte, N.C.; Washington, DC; Atlanta, Macon and Brunswick, Ga.
Clark Nexsen has worked on projects in 46 states and 42 countries. It is recognized as one of the top 50 architectural firms in the nation.
One Big Family
While each of Clark Nexsen’s offices has its own culture, none is a separate profit center; the company runs as a whole.
“We’ve grown up together as one big family,” says Aranyi. “One reason this works so well is that the company is employee-owned. There are close to 100 stockholders in the company, which is run by a board of directors.” Aranyi sits on the board.
“We needed to have a broad base of stockholders to sustain the business over time,” he explains. The firm attributes its success to personalized service and diversity.
Charlotte is one of the largest offices and was started in 1994 with a merger between Clark Nexsen and Charlotte-based Gunn-Hardaway. Aranyi, who previously worked in the Norfolk office, came to Charlotte to head up the office 12 years ago. He also oversees the Roanoke office.
The overall firm specializes in higher education, commercial, offices, government, recreational, manufacturing, health care, and land planning projects. The Charlotte office’s primary focus is higher education projects, especially student life buildings such as housing, dining, academic buildings and student success centers.
Clark Nexsen operates out of 15,000 square feet of space in uptown Charlotte; its third location since opening here. “We previously had offices on Church Street and Morehead Street, and finally now on Elizabeth Avenue. We designed and upfitted our office space to promote staff collaboration,” says Aranyi. “Our Elizabeth office has become home.”
Company-wide, Clark Nexsen has over 500 employees; 54 of them are in Charlotte which includes 21 architects and 25 engineers.
Clark Nexsen’s clients and projects in Charlotte are equally diverse. Higher education projects are active at UNC Charlotte, UNC Chapel Hill, Winston-Salem State University, Duke University, Clemson, University of Virginia and Penn State.
“UNC at Charlotte has been a wonderful client,” says Aranyi. In Chapel Hill, the firm is designing a major student housing project that will replace Odom Village, built during WWII for returning soldiers. The firm has just recently developed a 10-year master plan for the redesign of 26 residence halls at Penn State University.
Since 2002, the firm has designed space for 20,000 beds for higher education housing; an average of 2,000 per year. Over the years, Clark Nexsen has designed many schools for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools as well.
The firm also enjoys significant military work, a consequence attributed to the company’s founders—two military men—one a captain, the other an admiral. Both NATO and the U.S. Navy have been clients, along with dozens of other Department of Defense agencies such as the U.S. Army, Air Force and Coast Guard.
The Charlotte office designed two dining facilities for the U.S. Marine Corps at Camp Pendleton in California which are just wrapping up construction. These facilities are designed to achieve LEED Gold and have received a design award from the local Charlotte AIA chapter. The firm is also under contract with the U.S. Navy on a worldwide energy contract, looking at ways to conserve energy across the country.
Private business clients include Family Dollar Stores and Duke Energy. “One of our interesting niches is indoor firing ranges,” says Aranyi. “We are working on new firing ranges for the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department up in Asheville and are also doing a master plan for Union County.”
Sustaining the Community
Clark Nexsen’s success has driven it to give back, especially in mentoring students in the field. The Charlotte office is currently working with students at UNC Charlotte on the Solar Decathlon competition. Sponsored by the Department of Energy, this national program invites college campuses to compete in the design, build and operation of a solar-powered, smart home.
Its goal is to train the next generation of leaders in sustainable architecture, engineering and business by having them deliver innovative technologies using environmentally conscious, energy-efficient and marketable methods.
“We provide support to the students, giving them advice so they can do a better job,” says Aranyi. “We do it to contribute to the field,” he says, adding, “Students become great employees.”
Work began on the design of the home in October 2011 and construction started in February of this year. The competition will take place in California in October. The Norfolk office is similarly engaged this year with students at Old Dominion University, and previously worked with students at Virginia Tech when they won 5th place in the national completion.
As with any business, there are challenges. “Mine is time,” says Aranyi. “We travel extensively. Our work is diverse and spread out geographically. It’s hard to be in all the places I need to be but I try to get home in the evening to spend time with the family.”
“We’re constantly challenged—in a good way—to keep up with fast-moving technology and advances in the industry,” says Aranyi. “I tell my junior staff that what I see now is the stuff of comic books from the 1960s; we’re there, working in three dimensions and seeing projects as we never could before.”
The firm’s animation programs now use video game engines to model how a building functions with people in it and demonstrate to owners the experience of their projects before they are complete.
The firm is actively engaged in research to stay abreast of developments. “Buildings we design will typically be in place for 50 to 100 years. We are working on flexible design solutions for technologies that are not even in place yet. For instance, in the future, landline phones will be obsolete. Engineering will be required around new systems of communication. We’re making educated guesses about what will be needed for technologies that are not even discovered yet,” says Aranyi.
Committed to Growth
At Clark Nexsen, the junior staff helps the senior staff understand and employ new technology. The senior staff teaches the junior staff the business of integrated design and the communication skills and social graces involved with face-to-face meetings and picking up the phone and talking with a client, according to Aranyi. “Everyone brings value to the table,” says Aranyi.
Aranyi says Clark Nexsen weathered the recession better than most, a fact that he attributes to the foresight in 1994 to diversify.
“When I first came to Clark Nexsen, all of our work was military-related, but the Cold War ended and we saw the writing on the wall. That’s when we got into the higher education market,” explains Aranyi. While a few jobs were lost company-wide, the firm actually added offices during the recent recession years. With an 80 percent repeat business rate, the firm has continued to provide full design services.
Now, uncertainty over military spending is again affecting the firm and is one of Aranyi’s frustrations. He explains that the federal government has not yet disclosed their 2013/2014 projects. Normally, these are communicated a year in advance. “That our elected government cannot work together to keep the country running is demoralizing to companies like ours,” laments Aranyi.
Aranyi is a second generation architect; his father completed his architectural studies at NC State University and opened a business in Virginia Beach, becoming a key player in the solar field and named Energy Man of the Year in 1984 by the Department of Energy. The junior Aranyi worked in his father’s office as a teenager and initially, rejected architecture as a career choice.
“It was a kind of rebellion; I threatened to join the Air Force,” remembers Aranyi. But he found that he was intrigued and went on to study architecture at Hampton University in Virginia. He became a registered architect in record time because he worked during school and earned credit towards the three-year internship requirement. Aranyi lives in Charlotte with his wife, who is an artist, and twin sons. His daughter is enrolled at NC State University in graphic design.
Committed to professional learning and personal growth, Aranyi applied to and was accepted in the 20th class of the Leadership North Carolina program.
“I’m learning a great deal about North Carolina. I had been so focused on my career and the industry, I failed to realize the impact of social issues in our state—economic, health care and education issues,” says Aranyi. “Now my interests are much broader and I understand that as a leader in North Carolina, I have to be involved in these things. There’s a lot at stake right now.”
Active in the community, Clark Nexsen is involved with several charitable and educational organizations including Hands On Charlotte, Habitat for Humanity, the Dove’s Nest and Classroom Central.
They are once again participating in the American Institute of Architect’s program “Canstruction” in which participants build sculpture structures out of food cans, then donate the food to the Second Harvest Food Bank. The firm has also been active in the ACE Mentor program, working with area students who have interest in the architecture and engineering fields, and has just kicked off an Explorer program for architecture.
The firm will continue expanding its business, according to Aranyi. “We’re not comfortable sitting back and saying ‘We did it, we’re done.’ We will probably open an office on the west coast and continue looking west of the Mississippi.”
A remarkable trait of the firm is its workplace culture. It’s a friendly environment, a pleasant atmosphere where even the most junior staffers are encouraged to share their ideas.
“I value everyone’s opinion,” says Aranyi. “Any success that I have is because of all the people who work here.” The firm encourages the exchange of ideas “around the coffee maker.”
The firm also encourages staff and their families to get together at monthly events such as hockey or baseball games, outdoor cookouts or poker nights. “We have a Fun Committee to make sure we have some down time,” asserts Aranyi.
Aranyi holds several titles within the firm—senior vice president, operations director, managing principal, and board member. His current business card simply reads “Principal.”
“I’m waiting for the box to be empty,” he says with a smile. “I didn’t want to spend money for a title. When people ask what I do, I say, ‘I’m an architect.’”