Tom Tooley, left, and Steve Fry are the driving forces behind Concept Design’s flurry of activity in Grand Rapids. Photo by Pat Evans
Concept Design has been really busy, and it looks like that won’t change anytime soon.
By next fall, Concept Design will have designed more than 500,000 square feet of new and renovated office space and more than 800 apartment units in downtown Grand Rapids since April 2014. At any given point in time, the firm may be working on 25 to 35 projects.
The steady stream of work accounts for the growth of the architecture and design company, which has doubled the number of employees it had three years ago, due to Concept Design President Steve Fry bringing on Tom Tooley and his Serve Studio architecture firm.
“I had lost an employee and had more work than we could produce, and I needed to do something different than just replace an employee,” Fry said.
When Concept Design was working on the Riverfront Plaza project, Tooley was one of the local architects working on the adjacent JW Marriott. For nearly a year, the firms worked together on intersecting parts of the two projects, such as the skywalk.
“It was an interesting, complicated project,” Fry said. “When I needed to expand the firm, I said, ‘Why not find out what they’re doing?’
“Having had the opportunity to work together on the JW and surrounding projects, I was pretty knowledgeable about the work ethic and all those things.”
Tooley said the firms compared and contrasted their strengths to see if it would work. He had started Serve Studio immediately prior to the Great Recession and was able to survive on small projects. But he greatly preferred working on large projects, he said, which he had done during previous stints with BETA Design Group and Albert Kahn Associates.
“We were competitors and always bumping heads, so we saw the ability to take two firms and grow it into a much larger operation,” Tooley said.
Fry has spent more than 35 years in the Grand Rapids market. He started Concept Design in 1989; the company’s first project was a renovation of the Amway Grand Plaza. Tooley moved to Grand Rapids in 1998 to become vice president at BETA Design Group.
Now, as Grand Rapids is undergoing a massive amount of development, the pair’s connections are paying off.
Concept Design recently completed work on The Kitchen by Wolfgang Puck at Amway Grand Plaza, 300 Ottawa, Legacy Trust Building, the office of Colliers International and Cork Restaurant at Watermark Country Club.
Projects in progress include Arena Place, Twenty 5 Ottawa and the Waters Building, now called Waters Center.
Fry said more than 75 percent of the firm’s projects are for returning customers.
Orion Construction has worked with a variety of architects over the years, according to President John Wheeler, who added West Michigan should be proud of its broad selection of architecture firms. Recently, though, his firm has partnered with Concept Design more often than others.
“Orion Real Estate Solutions and its partners have selected Concept Design on many of our more recent projects in the city like Arena Place, Venue Tower and The Gateway at Belknap because of a shared vision for what the project should look like in relation to the surrounding area,” Wheeler said.
“Concept Design does an outstanding job. We have fun with them and it’s a relationship built on trust and proven results.”
Concept Design expanded at the same time many of the area’s developers were starting to ramp up their projects, leading to more work for the firm.
“Timing was good,” Tooley said of the large amount of projects the firm has taken on in recent years. “But it’s those experiences and abilities we have that get us our out-of-town partners, like Franklin Partners.”
Tooley said it’s beneficial to work with developers from outside the Grand Rapids market as they bring new ideas into the market. Until recently, it was common for office buildings to be built to the same model, leaving the buildings rather bland looking. That has changed.
“We’re seeing everyone compete for the same talent, and seeing a shift focused on amenities, interaction areas,” Fry said. “Before, it was, “How little can I spend and make mine look correct?’ Now they need to make their culture correct to match up with competitors.
“It makes them more flexible. A lot of times we had those ideas, but they weren’t open to it yet.”
The new flexibility allows Concept Design to utilize the client design process they enjoy most.
“I don’t have two days alike,” he said. “We have to learn a company’s business; we have to learn what works well (and) what doesn’t. We design a space — a building that supports them. So we have to go in and learn that business completely and understand it completely.”
Concept Design works with new builds — such as Venue Tower downtown next to The B.O.B., which should break ground soon — and renovations, such as Waters Center. Both offer their challenges.
“The newer buildings allow us to integrate the changes in office trends from the ground up,” Tooley said. “With a new project, you have to programmatically figure out what that building will be.”
Older buildings may mean working within a smaller framework because of the way they were built, often more than a century ago.
“You have to start with what’s good about an old building: It’ll have more character,” Fry said, mentioning brick walls and high ceilings. “In some cases, we’re deconstructing the building back to what it was.”
New buildings or old, Concept Design has not limited the scope of its projects. The firm often heads outside of the downtown area for its projects, from restaurants to car dealerships to suburban apartments.
The firm doesn’t want to be tied to a specific type of project or market, Tooley said.
Having a hand in the major development projects as downtown Grand Rapids continues to grow will offer even more opportunities, Fry said.
“We’re really excited about the three or four residential towers that are coming up,” he said. “Those are having an impact on the city, and we’ll turn around and have the next level and support service businesses to design. People are asking, ‘Where’s the next fitness center, grocery store?’
“There are now legitimate interests because they can see another 1,000 residents will be downtown within the next 18 months.”