The four-decade success story of Little Diversified Architectural Consulting, Inc. is blueprinted in its commitment to serving what it purposefully terms “ideal” clients.
“For us, an ideal client is somebody who is leading change in their industry and who believes that design is or could be an important part of their competitive edge,” explains Phil Kuttner, chief executive officer of Little.
The firm prides itself on enhancing client performance by orchestrating the right mix of expertise, creativity and innovation. “At Little, we deliver results far beyond architecture—results you wouldn’t expect from an architectural firm. We’ll give you measurable outcomes that increase traffic, invigorate your people, expand sales, produce new efficiencies, minimize energy costs, magnify visibility, reduce construction expenses, and enhance profitability—just to name a few. That’s what we mean when we promise results beyond architecture.”
The company’s clients fall in to three broad sectors: workplace, community and retail. Workplace is anywhere work happens, Kuttner says. Community can be schools or libraries or community centers. Kuttner puts Little’s involvement with the NASCAR Hall of Fame in that category. Retail includes supermarkets, mixed-use marketplaces, corporate retail, retail interiors or store design and banks.
Building in the Details
Examples of Little’s innovation abound in Charlotte. In the community market, Little has designed facilities for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, as well as for Charlotte Latin School, Providence Day School, Charlotte Catholic and others. Its higher education settings include the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Central Piedmont Community College and Johnson & Wales University’s Charlotte campus. And its cultural clients include Discovery Place, the N.C. Blumenthal Performing Arts Center and NASCAR.
In the retail marketplace, its projects include restaurants and bars such as Dean & Deluca, Harpers, Firebirds and Blue; retail destinations such as Morrison, Stonecrest and The Home Depot Design Center; and supermarkets for Harris Teeter and the Home Economist.
And in the workplace market, office buildings and commercial clients include Wachovia, Bank of America and Billy Graham Evangelical Association.
“We will do anything to please a client, but our definition of that these days is to find ways to help clients improve their performance,” Kuttner says. “That’s what requires innovation. We are not going to measurably enhance performance without bringing new ideas to the table.”
So how can a Little design enhance a client’s performance? Kuttner illustrates using a school as an example: “By having a very thorough understanding of how kids learn today, and the tools that are available for teaching and the different methodologies for teaching,” he explains, “we can design a learning environment that is more stimulating, improves teacher retention and improves student learning and attention spans.”
Little’s attention to their clients needs is demonstrated in their design of the South Regional library. To help entice students inside, Little integrated spaces that encourage small group study and display windows that allow people to see and be seen. With a circulation that exceeded that of the main library during its first year, South Regional has become a popular spot for teens to gather and study.
Another example is illustrated by Little’s design of the Bank of America Company Store in Founders Hall which contributed to a 28 percent increase in sales over the prior year.
Ken Lambla, dean of the College of Arts and Architecture at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, endorses Little’s emphasis on design that enhances performance. He’s been close with Little for 24 years.
Such design, Lambla says, “creates an intimate relationship between the people who are using the building and the building itself. It’s not about architecture as a monument. It’s about architecture as relationship.”
Sustaining the Environment and Community
These days, “sustainable” design is a fast-growing segment for Little. Kuttner calls emphasis on environmentally friendly structures “the most exciting thing that’s happened in my career.”
Further, he says, “It pays off.”
“Number one, you remain relevant,” he says. “Our objective is to make every project as sustainable as we can within the parameters, the budget and the schedule.”
“It gets a little easier every day,” he adds, “because every day there are new products. Green roofs used to scare people to death. Now there’s 15 different ways to do it.”
Little figures to increase its presence dramatically in redesigning existing structures to incorporate green features. Kuttner thinks the relatively small segment of green business could grow to 50 percent in another decade, especially since relatively new LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards apply to existing buildings.
Little has set a good example at its headquarters, built in 1984 and expanded in 1996. Improvements to its digs include the addition of mechanical units that operate only during work hours, the installation of low-flow fixtures in bathrooms, and printers which automatically default to double-sided documents.
For Freedom Center on Charlotte’s west side, Little helped client Mecklenburg County renovate the former Freedom Mall into a building for government offices that’s on track for LEED certification. A notable feature is a series of rain gardens that filter water before it leaves the property. It’s sized to show developers what is necessary to handle runoff from a one-acre site.
Kuttner takes pride in Little-designed structures that dot the Charlotte-area landscape. He feels these buildings have helped make the Queen City an increasingly vibrant place to live, work, shop, be entertained and more. To that list he adds, “a good place to raise a family.”
Specifically, some of the firm’s recent Charlotte projects include Wachovia Main, the redesigned older building adjacent to the bank’s plaza, and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s (BGEA) headquarters near Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
“The way it blends into a woodsy area is the best part of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s structure,” says Steve Scholle, senior vice president and general counsel at BGEA. Yet natural light is abundant inside.
“It gives a feeling of spaciousness and the atmosphere is relaxed,” Scholle says. “It’s very conducive to concentrating on your work.”
The people at Little dedicate thousands of hours of volunteer time every year—to schools, colleges and nonprofit agencies throughout the Charlotte community. Charitable projects include a facility for First Tee, a golf-based afternoon program to help children learn, and the design of the area’s first Ronald McDonald House which is associated with Levine Children’s Hospital.
“There is a lot about being a big firm that is challenging, so we have to be sure we take advantage of the good things that our size allows us to do,” Kuttner says. “One of those things is that we can help people get involved in volunteer efforts in almost every corner of the community.”
A point of pride for Kuttner is the emphasis Little places on work-life balance. “A lot of the decisions we’ve made allow people to gain more control over their time,” he says. “I was thrilled this year when we were recognized as the number one best place to work among large companies in Charlotte because the recognition was based primarily on anonymous employee input.”
“The Little project spectrum is so diverse that employees can move from one area to another and get wide-ranging experience,” Kuttner says, “atypical of many larger architectural firms where people can get pigeon-holed.”
He believes that flexibility and the employee-friendly environment are why Little’s turnover rate of 11 percent is only half the industry average. Further, the company hires maybe 70 people annually and last year about eight were re-hires, people who had left Little and sought to return.
Kuttner, 48, calls Bill Little and Ed McMahan mentors and believes others feel the same. Little put his name on the company in the 1960s when he formed it out of another firm he’d led. He is still chairman and McMahan, who joined Little early on, remains as vice chair. Both are members of Little’s five-person board.
Kuttner reports to the board, and collaborates closely with the firm’s 17 other partners. “At a very strategic level, these are the people who make sure what we’re doing is relevant, and take us where we want to go,” he says.
And what is that destination? “Our goal is to be among the top five design firms in the world in every market niche we serve,” Kuttner answers. “We think our people deserve to be working on the most important projects to be done.”
The company fashioned two long-range strategic plans in early 2000, one based on a vision for 2010, and the other for 2020. The 2010 plan has served well in tight times.
“It helped us make decisions about what was sacred—what we had to hang onto through thick and thin,” Kuttner says. “A big part of that was our special services and our regional offices.”
The 2020 plan includes more emphasis on a global presence. It’s about building alliances with firms in other countries and establishing footholds around the world to serve a broader client base.
“I don’t know what countries we’ll be in,” Kuttner says. “We are very much relationship-oriented, so we like to be as close to our clients as they need us to be.” Internationally as well as domestically, Little will remain client-based, he vows.
Kuttner is happy with how well the firm is performing and about the character of employees who fashion that performance.
“We don’t give up on our long-term strategies,” says Kuttner, who in his 15 years as chief executive has presided over both an economic-driven downsizing in the early 2000s and subsequent recovery.
“Our priorities and values stay the same,” he adds. “We get a lot more disciplined. But we’re driving innovation and that takes innovative people. Sometimes when the economy is down, we have opportunities to attract new talent that we might not otherwise have known about.”
More Than Architecture
Changing its name from Little & Associates a few years ago to the more extended version including “diversified” demonstrated the company’s commitment to being much more than an architectural firm. It has expertise in interior design, engineering, landscape architecture and animation. It also serves as a facilities management consultant.
With 200 people in its 68,000-square-foot building off Tyvola Road, the firm is working hard to grow its other offices in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Durham, Orlando, Fla., and Dallas, Texas. Those units range from seven people to 35.
Little’s strongest emphasis is on strengthening its foothold in Los Angeles, Durham and Washington, D.C. The Los Angeles office may open doors for the firm in the entertainment industry, for instance, while Durham, next door to Research Triangle Park, is developing expertise in research and development facilities.
“I envision the day when we might have a dozen 60-person offices,” Kuttner says. “Obviously, that would double the size of the firm.”
Then his thoughts return to the firm’s Charlotte roots. He smiles as he thinks about the way it’s served clients that fit its “ideal” definition and what that has meant for the region.
“Of all of the things Little has accomplished,” Kuttner adds, “one of the most rewarding has been the opportunity to impact so many different aspects of the quality of life that make Charlotte such a great place for people to live.”