In Part 1 of this interview with Jim Dennell, of BCDM, we discuss the type of work the office is involved in, finding a market, leadership roles, and the formation of BCDM. To learn more about Jim and his practice visit bcdm.net.
ARC: First off could you introduce yourself and describe your role at BCDM?
JD: I'm Jim Dennell and I'm the president of BCDM. I'm one of the majority owners so outside of practice I manage the whole firm. I'm kind of the "idea guy" and set the vision. I work on the strategic growth and direction of the firm. So I'm kind of the scout, if you will, that goes out through the woods and figures out the best track for clearing while everyone is building the roads behind.
ARC: What type of work is BCDM involved in?
JD: Well we nailed it down to being- well you know our passion is to create environments that form people. It took a while because for many years we were just trying to nail down what is it we do and why are we doing. So that's the least common denominator, if you will. So that really focuses on two areas: education and religious. I think those are really the epitome of forming people. It's not that we won't or don't do other things, it's just where our direction is so that we don't get spread out. We've found that being a generalist in everything, you just never perfect the profession. The majority of our work is the repeat of the same markets. We consider ourselves expert users. So what that means is not only do we understand the architecture of the facilities we're doing- you know, the brick and mortar- but we also understand their operation to a point where we feel we could actually be viable in the business. Whether it's schools or churches we understand it, the way they use it, almost as a user. That is very helpful to understand the dynamics and empathize with all the practice they do within the facilities and the economics of things. Some of our solutions are not just brick and mortar, but they are like understanding where you want to go and we understand as an organization. In particular one was a school and they had so many teachers and courses, so they were designing everything towards that. I think most architects would see that, take it, and run. "that's what you told me, you wanted this many." We looked at it and we knew because of our broad experience how those [courses] are really taught. It was a middle school and fifty percent of the time, the class or core class was not in the curriculum that was meant for that classroom. So we knew that and we said, "what if you alter your schedule so there are consecutive times where they're not in the classroom." We reduced 30% of the class additions that they needed to do. The solution was actually not building, it was changing the organizational structure of how they normally operate.
ARC: How did you come to this market suitable for you in the first place?
JD: Yeah, that's a good question. I think it's probably, personally, what I think most people here are interested in. So would that have been teaching? We chose architecture, but I think deep down working with kids, educating kids, making an impact on society was really the heart of what we wanted to do. Obviously too is religious. The ministry side of that is kind of within us. To that point, Bob Mabrey has started churches on his side. So it's blending the personal and spiritual and our profession. But to be honest with you, as a strategic thinker, I went into architecture and they said "why are you doing that?" This is like, from 1975 to 1979. They said there were no opportunities whatsoever. And they were right. In Nebraska, you were lucky to get a re-roof project. There was nothing, not a crane in the sky or anything around here due to the economy. But I don't think of the present, I think of the future. I got to thinking "great, but you'll always need buildings." And the economy is never staying in the same place, it ebbs and flows. I thought, well if everybody's getting out, somebody's got to stay and by the time I get experienced, everyone's starting to retire, there will be a lot of opportunities. That became in true in 1988-ish. Things started to pop. At the same time, we were not investing at all in education. You can't put off not housing kids in school. So it was a pent-up demand as opposed to a nicety. I was working with other districts doing grunt work, more maintenance work. It made me really understand what worked and what didn't work in the past practices. I could also start to see and hear the evolution of education and how that might be moving somewhere. They were doing what they could, but they had resources. Computers were starting to come into classrooms, and so the use of the classroom and some dynamics of the classroom were changing. Special Education was another thing that was just being introduced through mandates. They were starting to put in resource classrooms and a lot of other special programs. So they had to fit them somewhere. They were putting them everywhere, custodial closets, dividing classrooms. They would take two classrooms and make them three. Well, nobody wanted that work, but seeing that I knew everything would be changing. So when the money did come, it was just set out there that education is a priority and we have to do something. Up to that point, it seemed that nobody cared. So that fueling it, you know it's just like Kennedy saying we're going to the moon. We did it. So that popped a bubble, communities were starting to reinvest into education and renovating and restoring existing structures. If you think about it, these are the first structures that were schools. I also was part of a study that twenty percent of our schools were done before World War II. There were sixty or seventy percent done in the 50's or 60's. So I thought what's going to happen in the year 2000. I could see that vision and was very fortunate to be along with others. We were experts at a time when no one else wanted to put anything into education.
ARC: Could you introduce and describe the roles of other principals in the office?
JD: The way we have it, there's what we call Project Management, the practice. There's Business Administration, and within that there's finance, IT, marketing, and HR. So those are managed by a principal, John [Sullivan]. Not always does that happen, but in 2006 I took a hiatus from practice to build an infrastructure for all that business administration because it's very important to have an understanding of the practice and then integrate it into the business. Because a lot of times business administration won't have any idea- or appreciation of the practice. So there's usually headbutting and it can, I feel, really affect the practice. So I was able to pull out and for about five years build the infrastructure with these people in each of these divisions. Now we're just maintaining them and that's what John does. On the practice side, or PM side, Bob Mabrey is the principal of that. The welfare of the practice is all in his hands. Being accountable is very important to us so we have roles, responsibilities, and expectations that everybody has. We have those two roles and I'm, the strategist, if you will, in a sense the leader to manage everybody. Then we have Kevin Strehle, who is a senior project manager but he also has board and principal responsibilities. Primarily he's still working with projects and managing projects. Bob set's the vision for that. John sets the vision on his end, and I set the overall vision the puts the two together.
ARC: BCDM has an interesting origin story, could you talk a bit about how BCDM was formed?
JD: Well there were two firms. It was CDG and ZBM, two different firms. ZBM started around 1978 by Golden Zenon. He was an african-american architect, one of the only ones in practice around at the time. He was a great designer and focused on schools mainly, some religious. Myself and Dave Ciaccio, he was the sole proprietor of this landscape architecture practice, he and I got together, we had similar visions and so I started with him on the architectural practice side. It was established and the stuff you have to do to get established, from chairs, computers, to a place, and all that- you know it just takes a lot of time and capital. So I thought it was a good way to get in and go. Both firms had the same markets and we shared a lot of the same clients. I always respect ZBM as a high quality firm. I didn't really know too much about the core values. As I was evolving from my 30's to my 40's, spiritual things were happening for me and the core values were very important as much as money, practice, ego, and all that comes with architecture. We started doing some joint projects, particularly Mount Michael, and Dave Ciaccio had kids there and Dave Beringer [ZBM] also did. So they both were connected to Mount Michael and they were wanting to work on the Master Plan. So Dave Ciaccio did a lot of the site stuff and Dave Beringer did a lot of the building. Dave Ciaccio said one day when they were working that, "If this all comes through we would like to do more than just the landscape." Dave Beringer said, "If it happened today you'd have to do all the architecture, because we're so busy." We end up with these kind of peaks in our business and how do you recruit and grow while you're practicing? It's like changing tires while the car is moving. They were having that problem and we were having that problem. How do you get the same kind of people and quality? And we didn't know that because we were still pretty much a studio as opposed to more of a business. We got together once and said, "What if we share resources?" We did that on a few projects so it would get us over a few spikes. It worked pretty well. One day we got together for a lunch and I think both were thinking maybe this could be more than sharing separately- just one. The first question from ZBM, we just have to know about this shrine [Holy Family Shrine]. So we were able to tell the story that we were the founders and it was a personal mission, and of course the only way would get a church job is to be the owner. [Laughs] It had a real compelling story and that washed away any doubt individually. It was pretty much like getting married. All of the sudden you know when you connect, you just don't really care about the details and that's kind of where we were at. Each Dave said Jim and Bob would know how to put it all together.