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June 2009
Drawing Inspiration
By Ellison Clary

     If a company emphasized satisfying clients and performing inspiring work, and if it were run by partners who genuinely liked each other, that could foster long-term success.

     That’s what Harvey Gantt and Jeff Huberman surmised 38 years ago and their firm, Gantt Huberman Architects, thrives as a testament to that credo.

     “The reason for our success is that clients believe we connect very well to them,” says Gantt. “We would like them to say, ‘The reason we use Gantt Huberman is that they care about our buildings.’”

     The company that started in one room in the Johnston Building with its pair of founders and a part-time secretary has completed more than 500 projects through the years. At any time, the construction value of its undertakings easily exceeds $100 million.

     Their designs vary widely, and more than a few are iconic. The Charlotte Transportation Center, a model city bus terminal, has been visited by would-be imitators from across the country, and ImaginOn is a unique combination of a public library and a children’s theater.

    Both are in center city Charlotte where the firm recently fashioned a 12-story, cantilevered design for the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Conjuring up a stack of textbooks, that building promises to signify the bustling institution’s intent to be a truly urban university when it opens in 2011.

    Gantt Huberman operates from an office at North Tryon and Eighth streets that is catty-corner from another building that fed the firm’s reputation for quality and innovation. Transamerica Square is a 10-story office building with sidewalk-level retail. With its expansive lawn and separately designed eight-level condominium structure, Transamerica Square set a pattern for mixed-use development in center city.

     “We’ve always said we can provide service and quality design, even if it takes educating our clients,” Huberman says. “Because the end result is a higher quality than perhaps the client was thinking of when they started.”

     Indeed, Ruth Shaw, chair of the UNC Charlotte trustees, recently told a groundbreaking crowd that Gantt Huberman Architects showed the school’s leaders an image for the uptown building that was “what we wanted before we knew what that was.”

     The partners have heard that before. It happened a couple of years back, when the company designed a new sanctuary for Gantt’s Friendship Baptist Church. Gantt asked the Rev. Clifford Jones if it fit his vision. “It exceeds it,” Jones responded.

 

Each Project More Exciting

     Huberman describes the excitement he and Gantt still feel about their designs: “Each project is a good experience that we learned something from, and the next project is probably going to be our most exciting one.”

     The firm has employed as many as 60, but Gantt and Huberman admit they are too hands on to operate well at that size. They like their current 30 just fine.

The majority of Gantt Huberman’s work has been in the Carolinas, but projects range as far afield as New York.

     Gantt, a Charleston native, met Huberman, born in Boston but raised in Miami Beach, when they were starting out together in 1965 at Charlotte’s Odell Associates. They hit it off.

     “Harvey and I had similar politics in an office that was very conservative,” Huberman smiles. “We had a good friendship, like-minded ideals and an appreciation of quality architecture.”

     Gantt was working in Durham on civil rights leader Floyd McKissick’s Soul City experiment when he and Huberman initiated their partnership. It was 1971, and they were 29 and 28, respectively.

     They started small, with an attorney who wanted to build a 10,000-square- foot office building on West Fifth Street.

     “We used that building to promote ourselves to lots of other clients,” Gantt chuckles. “We’d show this one building. That’s the only building we had.”

     But they knew they’d get bigger work. “We always had the idea we were going to do projects that had significant impact on how people felt about the buildings when they were in them,” Huberman says. “We’ve always strived for architecture that’s inspiring to those people working, learning or using our facilities. That was our goal from the very beginning.”

     Their first multi-million-dollar project presented itself in 1976. It was a communications building at Winston-Salem State University. “Their president just decided to take a chance on us,” Gantt says. “It was about $2 million. Back then, that was a fairly big project.”

     For the last five years, Gantt Huberman has emphasized green structures. “We’re doing buildings that are sustainable,” says Huberman. “ImaginOn was the first project for Mecklenburg County that was certified LEED silver.” A subsequent Gantt Huberman structure for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities has been certified LEED gold.

     The partners shy from ranking their projects. “We don’t have a favorite building because we feel a connection to all our clients,” Gantt explains. “They know we give them every ounce of what we can give in terms of trying to produce a quality product. Their project is number one for us, and we like that feeling.”

 

The Impact of Mentoring

     They take pride in the quality of their work force, and especially like the diversity they’ve built. That’s a business advantage, Gantt says, because the company can more easily understand the viewpoints of various constituencies when programming for a public building, such as a new high school.

     Gantt recalls a visit by Ken Lambla, dean of the College of Arts and Architecture at UNC Charlotte, and how much he was impressed with the firm’s variety of professionals.

     “I saw people of various races, of various colors, varying ages, varying approaches to the profession,” Lambla remembers. Gantt and Huberman told him, he continues, that they want their firm to be the “United Nations” of architecture.

     “Harvey and Jeff do an excellent job mentoring a wide range of employees,” Lambla adds. “About two years ago, they hired one of my graduates who is Latin American, a woman they are mentoring through the licensing process. And they understand what it takes to do that.”

     Huberman is quick to expand on mentoring. He points out that more than a few Gantt Huberman alums have hung out their own shingle. Among them is Darrel Williams, who started Neighboring Concepts, based on West Morehead Street.

     An African-American, Williams says he’d grown frustrated with architecture. At black-owned firms, the projects were mundane, while at majority-owned companies, black architects tended to get the leftovers.

     “Gantt Huberman allowed me to get a variety of experience,” Williams says. “I was able to start off at the beginning, from programming with a client to design. I was involved in the whole project.”

     Williams, who’s served on the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners, adds that Gantt’s political involvement helped him understand how architects can have an impact that is broader than the design of buildings.

     “Working for Harvey and Jeff helped shape the person I am today,” he avers.

     Gantt’s civil rights and political pursuits are well-chronicled. He broke the color barrier at Clemson University. He was Charlotte’s first black mayor, serving from 1983 through 1987. And he ran twice as the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate.

     Huberman has been involved with the profession, having served as both president of AIA North Carolina and president of the N.C. Board of Architecture.

     Such leadership pursuits don’t necessarily bring in work, but they make the company better and its employees better citizens, Huberman affirms. “They bring another level of civic pride to, and involvement to, who we are as a firm,” he sums up.

     In light of their own activities, it is not surprising that Gantt Huberman gives its employees time off to pursue civic activities and evaluates them annually on their involvements.

     “We think it helps make them better architects,” Huberman explains. “It helps them be more knowledgeable about what the community is about and how to deal with challenges that are out there.”

 

The Challenge of Deadlines

     What challenges are most sobering to the firm’s leaders?

     “The one thing you cannot buy is time,” says Huberman. “The most challenging part of architecture is how to put all the things that we do into a deadline. You always want to do something better. Doing something better takes more time.”

     Yet meeting those deadlines often produces big rewards. For Huberman, they come on opening days when he watches people enter the firm’s buildings for the first time. “It’s the look and the expression and the happiness of the people who use the building,” he says.

     Problem-solving appeals to Gantt. “We’re interested in solving a major problem a client has,” he says, “and the more major it is, that’s what we’re looking for.”

     Sometimes the firm has satisfied a client, Gantt muses, but has realized it could have done even better. “That, to me,” he says, “is a challenge.” He quickly adds: “Some of my best feelings have occurred when we got it right.”

     Gantt flashes back to the first Sunday his congregation used Friendship Baptist’s new 3,000-seat sanctuary that Gantt Huberman designed. The sun shone through stained glass windows just as the minister rose to deliver his sermon.

     “It was gorgeous,” he recalls. “You could see the satisfaction across the entire congregation.”

     The pursuit of such gratification traces to the early days of Gantt and Huberman. The partners acknowledged the huge amount of repeat work Odell Associates attracted and resolved to make that a cornerstone of their endeavors.

     “We wanted to do very thorough drawings,” Gantt says. “We wanted to take our time to think through the design. We wanted to work with people who could understand that.”

     The result has been as planned. “I guess 65 percent of our work is repeat,” Gantt reckons. “Clients come back to us. That’s the highest form of flattery.”

     Though both are past customary retirement age, Gantt and Huberman confess they’re having too much fun to consider leaving the firm. Each lives in Fourth Ward, within walking distance of the office.

     “I can’t be myself playing golf seven days a week,” Huberman says. “I get too much enjoyment out of what I do.”

     “We’re not ready to retire, either one of us,” Gantt says. “But at some point, you look at transition. And even as we’re talking about working, it probably won’t be nearly at the level of hours we’re putting in now.

     “Younger persons will be taking on more of the responsibilities of the firm,” he adds as he looks five years forward. “And that’s as it should be. You’re looking for people whose skills will take you to a higher level.”

     For advice to the younger folks, both men are succinct.

     “Work hard and enjoy what you’re doing,” Huberman says.

     For Gantt, sharp focus comes first, followed quickly by a love for the profession.

     “You have to be passionate,” Gantt says. “You really have to love creating things. You must love working with people. Architecture is not casual. It’s very visual and tangible and you’re touching people and things. You’ve got to be passionate.”

 

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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