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December 2005
Architecture Niche Yields Success
By Casey Jacobus

      Jim Stewart and John Cooper were classmates at Clemson University. After graduating, they worked for a number of years with firms in Charlotte and Atlanta, before deciding to open their own architectural firm in Gastonia.

“At that time there wasn’t a lot of architectural representation in Gaston County,” says Stewart. “We had gotten a wide range of experience working for larger firms and wanted to build a firm that would focus more closely and directly on serving our clients.”

Stewart and Cooper, who is now retired, never intended to become specialized, but over time their small architectural firm has gained a national reputation for its work on judicial, law enforcement and fire department projects. Over the past 34 years, the firm has designed over 130 fire/EMS stations, fire training campuses, and law enforcement facilities across North and South Carolina and the United States. Several of their designs have won ‘Station Style’ Design Awards from Fire Chief Magazine. More importantly, the firm’s specialized expertise has helped many cities and counties to decrease insurance rates, improve the morale of their firefighters, and provide better protection for their citizens.

 

Drawing up a foundation

When Stewart and Cooper hung their shingle on the door of a small building at the corner of Chestnut Street and Second Avenue in 1971, they established the goal of providing excellence in planning, design, and construction administration to their clients, while keeping in mind the client’s budget and schedule.

“Any architect can design an attractive building,” says Newell. “Our goal is to draw a functional plan that meets the needs and budget of our clients.”

During its initial decade, Stewart-Cooper-Newell concentrated on creating a client base, which over the years, would return to the firm for all of its architectural needs. Repeat customers provided a firm foundation for the company, at one time making up 90 percent of its business.

One of its earliest clients was the city of Gastonia. Stewart-Cooper-Newell did the renovations for several of the city’s fire stations and then designed a new one in the early 1980s. Not only did this help to build the firm’s reputation as an expert on fire stations, it began a relationship with the city that continues today.

As the city of Gastonia has continued to grow, it has retuned to Stewart-Cooper-Newell to design many of its important buildings. In addition to its eight fire stations, the firm designed Gastonia’s Police Department Headquarters and the city’s Operations Center, a multi-building complex for the public works department.

“One of Stewart-Cooper-Newell’s hallmarks is that they design a very good looking building with an eye for function,” says City Manager Ed Munn. “Not only are their buildings very functional, they are easy on the maintenance budget. The firm has served us very well over the last 30 years.”

Gaston County was another client pivotal to the firm’s early success that has also become a frequent customer. Over the years, Stewart-Cooper-Newell has designed Gaston County’s Sheriff’s Office and 424-bed Detention Center, the $25 million Gaston County Courthouse, the $11 million Department of Social Services Building, and two libraries. The firm has also designed the 200,000-square-foot Forrest View High School in the rapidly growing southeast part of the county.

 

Firm specifications

Today Stewart-Cooper-Newell-Architects operates out of an old mill building directly across the street from its original location. It has a second office in Columbia, South Carolina. With Cooper now retired, the firm is headed by Stewart, the senior partner, Ken Newell and James Stumbo. The firm employs 19 people in both offices.

Newell, 41, joined the firm in 1981. A native of York County, South Carolina, Newell was educated at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State. Jim Stumbo joined the firm in 1999 after getting his degree from the University of Tennessee and working in Hickory, N.C. The three partners share not only the workload, but the same sense of values.

“All three of us are pulling the yoke in the same direction,” says Stumbo. “It is important to me to partner with people who share the same Christian ethics I do.” All three men are motivated by their love of architecture, their families and their churches. All three men share a love for architectural design.

“Every building that we design is one-of-a-kind,” says Stumbo. “It’s a very satisfying process to talk with a client, draw from him his needs and desires, and then translate that into a design drawing. There’s nothing like walking through the finished building.”

The three partners are very much involved in every project the firm undertakes. While they each have different areas of expertise and each responds to different clients in different ways, all three are committed to working closely with the clients and the design team to make sure every client is satisfied with their project.

“What makes us a little different from other firms is our approach to projects,” says Newell. “We don’t believe in handing projects off to the design team and keeping clients in the dark. Since no two projects are exactly alike, we make every effort to involve our clients in every aspect of the design process from the first meeting to the final inspection.”

This involvement can sometimes outlast the life of the design project. Stewart mentions the phone call he had from a client recently wanting to know the manufacturer of the light fixtures used in a building the firm designed over twenty years ago. Stewart, a self-professed “pack rat,” was able to find the information.

From the very beginning Stewart and Cooper pledged not only to meet their clients’ needs, but also their employees’ needs. As a result the firm has a great track record for keeping staff and the turnover rate is very low.

“We are only as good as the staff,” says Stumbo. “They make us or break us. Fortunately we have a tremendous office and design staff.” Early on Stewart and Cooper instituted an excellent health plan for employees, as well as a retirement plan and a profit sharing plan. “Our employees are family,” says Stewart. “We judge our success by how happy the people are who work here.”

 

Designing a reputation

When Stewart-Cooper-Newell started building fire stations for the city of Gastonia, it never planned on establishing a national reputation in the area of public safety. However, it was their design work in that area that took the firm outside the boundaries of the Carolinas. Over the past 34 years, the firm has provided architectural and consulting services for fire departments and municipalities in Texas, Kentucky, Virginia, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Nebraska, Montana, Rhode Island, and New Jersey, as well as North Carolina and South Carolina.

When the city of Sunset Beach on North Carolina’s southern coast recently decided to spend $4 million to renovate the town hall and extend it to make room for new headquarters for the police department and to build a new fire station, it interviewed seven firms and chose Stewart-Cooper-Newell. City administrator Linda Fluegal says, “They’re doing an excellent job for the town.”

In addition to building on their experience designing fire stations, the architects at Stewart-Cooper-Newell have also taken the initiative to understand the complexity of designing law enforcement and justice facilities. In years past many architects saw a law enforcement project as an office building with some extra security. In the aftermath of 9-11 and with rapid changes in the technology of law enforcement, much more is required today.

“The technology of law enforcement has changed dramatically in a very short time,” says Stumbo. “Police buildings used to have full photo labs, now everything is digital. Crime labs and support facilities have changed drastically.”

Stewart is the law enforcement design expert on the team. He is a member of the IACP and helped establish the “National Design and Building Standards.” He is also a member of the American Correctional Association and has the firm actively involved with the North and South Carolina Chiefs of Police and Sheriff’s Associations, which helps the firm stay abreast of the regulations and other code changes that effect the design of these facilities.

Members of the firm attend about twenty trade shows a year, including the North Carolina State Firemen’s Association, the South Carolina Sheriffs’ Association, and the North Carolina League of Municipalities. Newell, who has received certification in training centers and burn facilities from the University of Maryland, often speaks or leads workshops at these conferences. He has also published several articles in the Carolina Fire Rescue publication and in the national Fire Chief Magazine.

In 1990 the firm teamed up with Gaston College to begin development of the Gaston College Regional Emergency Services Training Center, a facility that would give professionals, volunteers and students a place to train and refine their skills as firefighters. The facility includes a five-story burn building and drill tower that is the largest in North America at over 20,000 square feet. The interior floors are set up to replicate different fire scenarios and are equipped with burn pads and skids. The bottom floor of the $1.4 million building is designed like the interior of a nuclear reactor and is used by energy companies for training.

The commercial burn building designed by Cooper-Stewart-Newell was just the beginning of the relationship with the Training Center. The firm has worked on a number of associated projects, including the completion of a residential burn building in 2003 and the construction of a 15,000-square-foot office building.

“We’ve developed a great relationship with Stewart-Cooper-Newell,” says Phil Welch, director of the Gaston College Regional Emergency Services Training Center. In fact, Welch has been on the building committee of Calvary Church in Gastonia which hired Stewart-Cooper-Newell to design an extension and was the former fire chief at the Union Road Fire Station when the firm designed a training room extension there.

“They are the best in the state at designing training facilities,” declares Welch.

After 9-11, the need for emergency training centers has became even more important. Stewart-Cooper-Newell has completed or is currently working on nine training centers throughout North Carolina for fire fighters, SWAT teams, police departments, rescue workers, and EMS squads.

A number of the buildings designed by Stewart-Cooper-Newell have won awards, including the Hilton Head Fire Dept. #7, Denton, Texas Fire Headquarters, Old Richmond Volunteer Fire Department in Tobaccoville, N.C., Gaston County Courthouse, and Gaston County Sheriff’s Department and Jail.

However, the architects at Stewart-Cooper-Newell seem somewhat bemused by the attention their work has received. They seldom seek out the awards and recognition.

“It takes time to submit projects for awards,” explains Stewart. “While it’s great to be recognized, our primary goal is not to win awards, but to meet our clients’ needs by designing maintenance-free and durable buildings.”

Despite all the attention their design work on fire facilities and law enforcement buildings has received, Stewart-Cooper-Newell plans to keep on doing what it started out to do thirty-some years ago: provide excellence in planning, design, and construction to their clients, while keeping in mind the client’s budget and schedule.

 

 

Casey Jacobus is a Lake Norman-based freelance writer.
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