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November 2008
The Renaissance Man
By Casey Jacobus

     Stephen Onxley is a 30-year veteran of the architectural profession with experience in managing a variety of projects, through all phases of design and construction.

     At a time of growing specialization within the architectural industry, Onxley is an impressive exception. First schooled as an architect for high-rise office buildings, he has designed everything from churches to restaurants, from libraries to banks, from residences to hotels, all with good results for the client. What’s more, Onxley is often asked to choose the colors, carpet, and furnishings as well and, if necessary, design light fixtures and furniture.

     Taking on a wide range of projects keeps Onxley’s firm up to date on all phases of his profession and the construction industry. Paradoxically, Onxley acknowledges, “It makes for a real marketing challenge. We don’t fit conveniently in any niche.”

 

Design Concepts

     Growing up in the historic section of Galveston, Tex., in a house built in the 1870s, Onxley developed an early interest in historic preservation. This is evident in several projects he has undertaken, including the restoration of his own 1924 office building on Monroe Road.

     In 2002, Onxley Architecture and Little Associates collaborated to design the renovation that transformed the vintage 1924 Albemarle High School in downtown Albemarle into a new high-tech elementary school, Central Elementary School, which officially opened in 2007. Albemarle High School was originally designed by Charles Hook, the architect whose work is familiar on the campuses of Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill, and Charlotte’s historic Old City Hall.

     Onxley’s goal in the restoration of Central was to preserve its original charm while redesigning the 97,000-square-foot project as a “green building”—one that is environmentally and energy efficient. He used as many recycled materials as possible and had new stone cast to match the original limestone. The final result speaks to Onxley’s success in reaching his goal.

     “I’ve been building environmentally friendly ‘green buildings’ since the 1980s,” Onxley says. “It’s really encouraging to see so many in the industry embracing this approach.”

     In 2006, Onxley applied his “green” skills to the remodeling of an unusual underground house near the Uwharrie National Forest in Troy, N.C. Originally built in 1980 by Jason Miner Parson as a year-round residence for his family, the renovation turned the house into a retreat for the new owners and for vacationing renters.

     Onxley carefully maintained the original timber frame underground features of the house, while improving the lighting by enlarging the skylights and adding geothermal heating and air and amenities. Today, visitors from as far away as Switzerland are enjoying both the house and the beauty of its environment.

     In the house guest book, one renter from New Vienna, Ohio, wrote, “Thank you for creating such a beautiful, thoughtful and intelligent home. If God is in the details then He certainly must be present here.”

     Onxley jokes about his well-known attention to details. “You might call me obsessive on the job site,” he explains. “I worry about all the details. In fact, I live in the details. I know that they matter.”

     It was just such conviction that prompted Onxley, with members of the his design team, to travel to Italy to search for just the right color and size of marble, granite and limestone to match the beige marble in the lobby of the 40-story Bank of America building at the square in uptown Charlotte.

     During the 1991 renovation of the 17-year old building to link it with an outdoor amphitheatre and fountain, Onxley had to find a quarry that could provide enough stone with consistent color and veining and also cut and finish the stone to the job’s specifications, delivering it within the necessary time and at the right price for the project.

     “By taking the extra effort, we not only found the right stone match and a qualified supplier, we saved the client a quarter of a million dollars by dealing directly with the quarry.”

     Upon renovation completion, Onxley Architecture was recognized by the Building Owners and Managers Association with its Best Renovation of a High Rise Office Building award, which Onxley recalls as more than gratifying.

     John Padgham, vice president of LaSalle Partners which managed the project, praised the firm’s efforts: “Onxley’s ability to fine-tune the design and to see things no one else could see gave us a finished project that was even better than anyone expected.”

     Onxley is a firm believer in teamwork and collaboration to serve the best interests of his clients. His commitment to teamwork was apparent during the 2003 construction of the Children & Family Services Building in uptown Charlotte, a $6.6 million project that now serves as a vital community resource. Charlotte Observer writer Doug Smith called the end result “an uptown monument to philanthropy and cooperation among Charlotte businesses.”

     Onxley worked with Holly Grosvenor, then of Stanfield Studios, to design the five-story, 106,000-square-foot building, whose features include floor-to-ceiling windows, a kitchen, a library, a children’s play area and break rooms. Onxley did the construction administration and designed the interior core, while Grosvenor designed the exterior. Onxley had previously worked with Grosvenor on the Bank of America Plaza renovation.

 

Experience by Design

     Onxley left his native Texas to attend college at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., and returned to study architecture at the University of Houston. He graduated in time to be a part of Houston’s big building boom in the 1980s.Working under tight turn-around schedules; Onxley learned how to design a high-rise office building on a fast track, experience which has proven invaluable in the succeeding decades.

     Among the projects Onxley worked on was the renovation of the 1924 Gulf Building, a 24-story office building in Houston, and the new construction of Uranga Towers, a 320,000-square-foot 15-story high-rise office building.

     While Onxley honed his skills on these large projects for clients, he also renovated a 600-square-foot-garage apartment in River Oaks in Houston, as a home for himself and wife Paula. Despite the compact size of their home, it was featured in Home and Garden magazine in 1983.

     In 1985 Odell Associates, one of the largest architectural firms in North Carolina, asked Onxley to move to Charlotte to design high-end commercial projects. For the next seven and a half years, he was a project designer and manager for Odell. During that time Onxley was the design architect for Charlotte Douglas International Airport’s addition and up-fitting to Concourse A. He was also responsible for the redesign for all airport finishes and lighting.

     As an associate at Odell, Onxley designed the First Union Tower, a 21-story office tower in Greensboro and led the design team on Davis Drive Plaza in Raleigh, a multi-million dollar mixed use project with 60,000 square feet of retail space, 150,000 square feet of office space and a 500-room hotel. He also solved the problem of putting a concrete swimming pool on the top of a hotel as project architect for the Holiday Inn Uptown in Charlotte, a 15-story hotel and conference center.

     After leaving Odell Associates, Onxley worked briefly with Shook Design Group, serving as project manager for a 5-story addition to Capital Towers in Raleigh, a senior assisted living residence. Onxley particularly enjoyed this project because he had written a college thesis on “Housing for the Elderly” and this area of architecture with its particularized needs continues to be of great interest to him. Onxley also collaborated with Narmour Wright Associates on the $6 million, 5-story urban Park Place Condo development.

     In 1993, Onxley established himself as Onxley Architecture. To date, the firm has successfully produced and collaborated on numerous projects, including the Mimosa Grill and Bijou Restaurants in uptown Charlotte, McIntosh’s Restaurant in SouthEnd, Christ Our Shepherd Library and Child Care Center in Mathews, and Parkwood Baptist Church in Gastonia.

     Onxley Architecture collaborated with Narmour Wright Creech on Forest Hill Church, Park Plaza Condos, and the Northeast Medical and Cabarrus Family Medicine Building in Kannapolis. They also collaborated with Perkins Eastman on High Point University.

     Today, Onxley Architecture is highly respected for the quality of its designs and attention to detail, which has become the firm’s hallmark.

     Onxley’s habit of writing everything down as a record of his meetings and his staff’s follow through in making sure every file is complete and up to date assure a minimum of misunderstanding on the site. Clients appreciate the difference this makes in assuring that projects progress smoothly.

     To allow clients to better visualize the finished product and avoid possible misunderstandings, the firm creates 3-D computer models of all their design drawings.

Onxley is a firm believer in hands-on project management and spends many hours personally attending to the needs of each project. By working hard to establish and strengthen personal working relationships with the clients, consultants and contractors, Onxley better understands their concerns and is able to forge a team with a unified goal of excellence as the project moves from plan to a well functioning building—on time and on budget.

     “A smart designer knows what his project costs, knows what the budget is, and knows how to make them meet in the middle,” says Onxley. “If I don’t meet the client’s expectations, I lose a client.”

 

Renaissance Man

     In many ways, Onxley is a true “Renaissance Man” experienced in both the design and production of project types ranging from low-and high rise commercial offices and hotels, to parking structures, industrial, and medium to large-scale institutional projects and private residences.

     Tony Palomba, owner of the Playberry Family Entertainment Center in Matthews, called Onxley “aggressive, creative and imaginative” after Onxley completed a $1.5 million renovation for him in 1998.

     In 1996 Onxley oversaw a $1.5 million dollar renovation at the Peninsula Baptist Church in Mooresville. This three-story 24,000-square-foot project was completed for an amazing $68 a square foot. Eric Wright, the building committee chairman for the project, praised Onxley saying, “He has the ability to visualize the end result and could see what we couldn’t see—lighting effects, acoustics, as well as future needs.”

     To date, one of Onxley’s favorite projects has been the $4.5 million clubhouse he designed at the popular Firethorne County Club in Marvin. The 35,000-square-foot building is designed in the Arts and Crafts style and features natural stone and timber. It includes a bar and two kitchens, as well as meeting and banquet rooms.

     A favorite with brides and party planners, the building has a distinctive look and a luxury feel that belie the fact that it cost just $143 per square foot to construct and upfit in 2002. Onxley was able to save the client money by going directly to the mill for timber and specifying even relatively minor details like buying the light fixtures directly from the craftsman who fabricated them.

     Clients of Onxley Architecture have confidence that Onxley himself will build within their budget and deliver an architectural product that is functional, aesthetically pleasing and well-built. His firm’s most effective means of recruiting new clients has been through the recommendations of the clients whose projects he has successfully developed from idea to asset.

     “It all comes down to this. No matter what I’m asked to do, I want to give the client the best product for the dollar,” says Onxley with conviction. “They invest their confidence in me. I make sure that I do all I can to exceed their expectations.”

 

Casey Jacobus is a Lake Norman-based freelance writer.
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