MGM’s architecture and engineering industry brings the region (and beyond) the tangible places and spaces in which we all live, work and play, using a combo of raw talent and sophisticated tools to marry form and function.
From idea spark to full-fledged vision, from blueprint to actual bridge, road or building, at every step of planning and creating the spaces that shelter us and the infrastructure elements that connect us, there are architects and engineers at work. Without them, our ability to do business and our quality of life would — both literally and figuratively — crumble.
While it may seem obvious that the architecture and engineering industry has and will continue to play essential roles in the River Region, Don Brown, FAIA, founder of Brown Studio Architecture elaborated on the point. “We create things that matter and that bring pleasure and usefulness to people,” he said.
Vice President at JMR+H Architecture Tim Holmes, AIA, echoed Brown. “Good architectural solutions equal productive office environments, pleasurable retail opportunities and cultural gathering spaces that enhance our daily lives,” he said. “The influence this has on creating positive experiences for all we do is undeniable.”
Knowing that our area’s architecture and engineering firms are foundational to continued growth and progress, it’s comforting to also understand the depth and breadth of options that the large number of firms in the River Region provides. “Our area architects and engineers are some of the best in the United States. One of the industry’s greatest assets is our expertise,” said Jack Daniels, President of structural engineering firm Blackburn Daniels O’Barr, Inc. “We are able to provide highly complex designs for a multitude of projects.”
Some firms, like JMR+H and Goodwyn, Mills and Cawood, Inc. (GMC), cover multiple bases in one office. “Our practice is diversified and spread over many areas, including commercial, governmental, military, educational, retail and coastal resort work,” Holmes said. “So our beneficial influence sweeps a wide path: whether it’s a student sitting in a classroom at Carver High School, a patient having surgery at a local clinic, a family going to the movies or a soldier receiving training or a professional practicing in an office environment.”
But the industry brings more to our community than interesting, usable buildings and transportation systems that stand the tests of time. It packs a pretty sizable economic-impact punch too, according to Dr. Keivan Deravi, Dean of AUM’s College of Public Policy and Justice. “The architecture and engineering industry, statewide, has a payroll of $2.2 billion and a total employment of 26,000 employees,” he said. “I believe the River Region’s share of the industry is approximately 6 percent of the state figures. That means a payroll of $100 million and employment of 1,500.”
GMC alone employs more than 400 professionals companywide, with approximately 120 of those in the River Region. “Architecture and engineering are major sources of employment for an educated workforce here,” said David Reed, PE, PLS, Executive Vice President and Board Chairman at GMC. “That’s a big positive.”
Simply having so many architects and engineers living alongside us is a plus. “Because the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) is here, there are a lot of engineers here,” said Pep Pilgreen, President of Pilgreen Engineering, a civil engineering firm. “And having a lot of engineers here means a lot of well educated folks here."
Reed agreed. “Having a large number of architects and engineers in a community helps cultivate interest in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math,” he said. “Development of STEM in education and the workforce of the River Region is vital to the community’s future success in attracting new commerce and industries.”
Brown offered a wider perspective on his profession’s role. “During the recession, we lost a greater percentage of our profession than any of the others in this country. Conversely, when we are busy, as we are now, the economy is strong. We are the canary in the mine shaft.”
TOOLS & TRENDS
Even as advances in technology bring multiple changes to the way work gets done in the industry, the higher education that Pilgreen mentioned is still integral. “Now, almost everything we do is measured and drawn on computers; nothing, other than some preliminary design work, is done by hand anymore, and computers are faster, so that’s good,” he said. But the amount of automation is not without issues. “We, as engineers, still have to have the knowledge. Computers can spit out an error, especially when changes are made, so you have to understand what you are looking at,” he said. “It can also give false confidence and cause some to not check their work as much as they should,” Pilgreen said.
Reed also praised the efficiency of modern times but admitted he sometimes misses the “old ways.” “Today, we use drones to conduct topographic surveys. Plans are drawn using design software on a computer, often in 3D,” he said. “Calculations of complex systems that once took days and reams of paper are now done by importing the data and criteria and letting the computer do its work. Technology has completely transformed our industry, and it is wonderful; however, I do miss some of the old, hands-on experience that was necessary to complete a project.”
Brown believes the same is true in his profession and offered a caveat similar to Pilgreen’s. “All of us use current-generation digital tools today, which enable small firms like us to perform more comprehensively and large teams to connect across platforms,” Brown said. “But what really matters is the intellectual capacity, education and training that we as architects employ to be the trusted advisor. It’s not about the tool. It’s about judgment.”
Wilbur Hill, AIA, an architect at Brown Studio Architecture, still puts pencil to paper at the beginning of most projects but employs digital devices too. He expressed some concern about the profession’s reliance on technology. “The ability to be able to communicate with a pen is still very important to this industry,” he said. “I worry a bit that we will become too dependent on technology. You should use technology as a tool, but don’t let it drive your creativity.”
Technology is also presenting other challenges. By speeding up the work on projects with software and modeling that allows for increased collaboration across disciplines and trades, it is elevating clients’ expectations, often to unrealistic levels. “The faster pace that technology has afforded us has also created expedited schedules that sometimes don’t give enough time for the design team to integrate all of the aspects that the owner wants to have,” said Holmes. Brown added, “The pace of work has accelerated. The components of buildings have become more complicated. Recent economic recovery has released pent-up demand for development and construction. But our profession can’t turn out results overnight.”
One big benefit of technology is its ability to aid today’s architects and engineers in designing and building “greener” structures, according to Barry Robinson, owner and CEO of Robinson and Associates Architec-ture, Inc. “Repurposing old materials like timber elements, recycled glass and aluminum to be more environmentally friendly is currently a trend,” he said.
Brown sees the same thing. “Energy efficiency and sustainability are priorities for more and more clients and more of our colleagues, and we now have the tools to design and build this way,” he said. Holmes also sees a lot of movement in this direction. “Responding to renewable energy resources with smart design solutions is the latest in design and construction trends,” he said.
On the engineering side, Dan Cooper, Senior Client Manager with TTL, Inc., explained how technology has greatly enhanced his ability to protect the environment in his work as a chemical engineer. “Detection limits for environmental analytical capability have vastly improved,” he said. “Back in the early to mid1970s, we were fortunate to analyze soil and water contaminants to the levels measured in just a few parts per million (ppm). Today, contaminants can be detected in parts per trillion (ppt) and beyond. As a practical matter, contaminant cleanup capabilities and standards today allow scientists and engineers to find contaminants left as undetected during earlier days of environmental regulation.”
Another trend, one aimed at the efficient use of time, can sometimes present a problem for the architecture industry, according to Holmes. “One of the biggest challenges to our industry would have to be the myriad project delivery methods now being employed in the construction industry,” he said. “Construction management represents a relatively popular form of delivery that relies on a management firm to organize, manage and deliver projects for an owner. As such, the architect is a member of a team controlled by a manager and not the lead professional of the project. It works well with the right team but can certainly be a challenge in the wrong hands.”
While the focus on designs and methods that conserve both natural and personnel resources isn’t likely to go out of fashion anytime soon, Brown is hopeful that another current trend will soon reverse course. “There is a shortage of skilled architects,” he said. “Many of the 5,000 graduates annually in professional architecture programs had to find other careers for five years due to the deep recession recently. Now there is a shortage in a career area that take many years to matriculate.” Reed identified the same dilemma.
“One challenge our industry is facing is attracting and retaining high-quality engineers and architects,” he said. “Not only is there a shortage of qualified individuals, but firms have to be located somewhere people want to bring their families to live and work. Housing, education, safety, recreation and opportunities are all key factors to attracting top talent.”
FOR THE LOVE
Despite hurdles like these, many architects and engineers in the River Region see a bright future for their industry and are fully enjoying the attributes of their profession that first drew them to their careers. Robinson, who’s been in architecture for more than four decades, still loves creating something he can touch. “We get to physically see our work come to fruition,” he said.
Hill appreciates this, as well as his job collaborative elements. “It’s fun to watch something you’ve been drawing and then working on for months actually materialize,” he said. “And I love working with a client to find solutions to their problems and to create something that works for them and the wider community.”
Reed is living his childhood dream and finds satisfaction in ever facet of his work. “I grew up wanting to be an engineer, and I love that I am. To me, the most important part of this job is building the relationships required to succeed. The people I work with every day all allow me to accomplish the great joy of being an engineer: building something that lasts.”
When the Retirement Systems of Alabama added the former State of Alabama Judicial Building on Dexter Avenue to its real estate portfolio, it faced an immediate obstacle. How to take a small, dated structure that had been abandoned for more than 15 years and fill it with tenants to turn a profit. And there was another consideration. While the building had no real architectural interest, through the years, the judges that presided there delivered some far-reaching, monumental rulings, so razing it or stripping it down to bare bones to start over weren’t viable options. But RSA’s CEO Dr. David Bronner saw an alternative that could renovate, enhance and preserve all at once: build a new structure over and around the existing one and refurbish it as well.
Bronner has long been known for his vision; RSA buildings in downtown Montgomery developed and erected under his watch have defined the capital city skyline. But this plan was innovative even for him. He didn’t pull it from thin air though; it was inspired by a situation he saw unfold in New York City. “I wanted to preserve the history associated with rulings that came from the building, but its physical structure was not that impressive,” he said. “My job is to make money, so I had to figure out how to do both. I remembered a skyscraper that went up in New York, and one building in its way wouldn’t sell, so the developer bought the air rights above it, and built right over it.”
He had the idea, and he used a local architecture firm to bring it to fruition. “JMR+H had a real challenge to make something that did what it needed to and was also visually interesting,” he said. The design called for 25,000 tons of steel trusses to hold the new construction over the old building. It also added space behind the judicial building.
The result is certainly architecturally significant, but what’s inside it is equally important: the RSA Datacenter, which is the backbone of the MGMix and a cornerstone of the city, county and Chamber’s TechMGM initiative in partnership with Maxwell-Gunter AFB. “It’s the smartest thing we did in that building,” Bronner said. “The Datacenter is more profitable than any office leasing, and it is almost at full capacity. We’re completing a new room now to add more space.”
RSA Dexter is unique, but it shares a bond with other RSA buildings around the city and state; they each include a feature everyone occupying the building can use. At RSA Dexter, common meeting space is provided in the meticulously restored judges’ chamber. “The chamber is historically preserved down to the last detail, but the technology is there too,” Bronner said. “It’s pretty amazing and really beneficial to our small tenants because this shared space lets them maximize their square footage.”
Another architectural hallmark of all RSA buildings is ease of maintenance, as Bronner explained. “I was a janitor in high school and college and that taught me the importance of being able to keep a space clean,” he said. “Ensuring our designs are workable for maintenance staff is key; we work with all of our architects to make sure that is reflected in their designs. What a space looks like matters, but if you can’t maintain it and keep it looking good, it actually doesn’t matter.”
HOLDING ONTO HISTORY/ ONE OF THE RIVER REGION’S MOST EXPERIENCED REALTORS EXPLAINS WHY OLDER ARCHITECTURE MATTERS
Sandra Nickel, founder and CEO of The Hat Team Realtors, has been selling real estate with a focus on historic properties for 37 years, 25 of them in Montgomery, and she admits part of her longstanding passion for historic preservation is based on personal feelings. “I grew up in a really small bungalow with five siblings, so it got pretty cozy at home,” she said. “But my grandparents lived in this magnificent 1890s Queen Anne house, and I still remember how I would feel when I walked into that house with its tall ceilings and windows bigger than the doors at my house. I’d exhale, and stretch, and it felt so good. That’s where my love for old houses began.”
She’s not alone. Many are equally moved by the design and craftsmanship of old homes. “You can’t quantify it, but there is something awe-inspiring about looking at an old building or home that has stood the test of time with the details and work we can’t afford to repeat today,” she said.
Nickel also made the case for the educational value of historic structures. “I remember being taken to house museums, like Lincoln’s birthplace, and the history I was learning in books became much more meaningful when I could tie it to a life experience,” she said. “When I’m down at Old Alabama Town, when kids are there, I can see the lights coming on in their eyes when what they have read and heard all of a sudden becomes more real.”
She pointed to how the purchase and use of historic structures brings tangible benefits to our area too. “Renovating an existing structure is a very ‘green’ approach to housing folks; it’s far less wasteful than tearing a structure down, filling landfills with good stuff, materials often better than those produced today,” she said.
Preservation has positive economic impacts as well, thanks to the tourism draw of historic structures and their stories. “Montgomery gets hundreds of millions of dollars a year from the tourism industry through lodging taxes and other activities, and of those travel dollars, roughly 20 percent is strictly leisure travel, and a significant percentage of that tourism money is heritage tourism,” Nickel said. “Many studies show that heritage tourists [those interested in history] stay longer and spend more money than people coming here to do other things.”
Designated historic districts in Montgomery (and nationwide) also tend to hold their property values better. “Higher property values mean more property taxes coming in for the city and its services,” Nickel said.
Nickel is known for her promotion of preservation and her willingness to explain the ways it can enhance our area, and she sees an additional plus that Montgomery is not yet taking full advantage of. “Historic preservation is an incredibly effective tool for neighborhood revitalization,” she said. “We’ve not been great so far at doing that here, but I believe we’re on that track, and I believe we’ll see some great results.”
HERE AT HOME
The City of Montgomery is taking some proactive action on infrastructure with an improvement program that’s using the latest tech to do it right.
RoadBotics, one of the country’s leading road monitoring technology companies, recently did a pilot scan to assess Montgomery’s road conditions with its AI-based, cutting-edge proprietary program. City of Montgomery officials anticipate using this assessment to adopt a data-driven approach to future paving projects that could result in bigger taxpayer savings, increased efficiencies and longer-lasting roads.
“As Montgomery continues our journey to becoming a leader among America’s Smart Cities, we must explore new technologies that benefit our residents and preserve Todd Strange said. “Testing RoadBotics’ effectiveness in optimizing infrastructure throughout our city could lead to safer, smoother travel and newfound cost savings for our city organization thanks to smarter decision making.”
In late July, RoadBotics deployed a team of its certified operation technicians to Montgomery. Over the course of one week, the technicians drove a designated portion of the city’s road network, collecting image data of the roads using a windshield-mounted smartphone.
The team will then upload the data to RoadBotics’ secure cloud where it will be analyzed using machine-learning technology. RoadBotics’ assessments of this data are giving the City of Montgomery up-to-date information about its infrastructure at an unprecedented speed, while also our resources,” Montgomery Mayor offering precision and affordability.
NEEDED NOW/ INFRASTRUCTURE IMPROVEMENTS ARE CRUCIAL FOR CONTINUED ECONOMIC GROWTH
Alabama is at a critical crossroads. While our state has achieved multiple economic development wins in the last decade, to keep that momentum going, transportation infrastructure issues around Alabama have to be addressed and addressed soon. According to leaders at The University of Alabama’s Alabama Transportation Institute, the ability to attract new industries will be negatively impacted by our failing roadways. “When businesses are expanding or locating in a new area, the site selection process looks at three main areas: business climate, workforce and transportation infrastructure,” said Justice Smyth, Outreach Director, Alabama Transportation Institute.
To drive the point home, Smyth suggested considering Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama and its hourly “just-in-time deliveries” from nearby supplier plants, which are integral to its efficient production. “A car or truck accident can cost them as much as a $10,000-per-minute penalty because the manufacturing line is shut down,” he said.
But our infrastructure woes aren’t only costing us opportunities in economic development. Safety and quality of life are suffering too. There were more than 1,100 roadway fatalities in 2016 in Alabama. “These are our friends and families that are being killed on our roadways — It’s important that we improve them,” said Smyth.
These findings are just pieces of the more complete information coming out in October in the first report of the AL 2040 Infrastructure Study. The 20-year study, conducted in partnership with the Alabama Transportation Policy Research Center, is examining the numbers and conditions of our state’s roads, bridges and harbors; determining how city, county and ALDOT funds are allocated for them; and creating forecasts and recommendations for restorative, preventive and capacity enhancements.
And time is of the essence; none of the problems get better with a wait. If nothing happens or changes, congestion, safety and commute times will all get worse. Currently, Alabama has more than 5,700 bridges maintained by ALDOT. More than half of these are more than 50 years old, and that’s the total life span of a bridge.
According to Dr. Shashi Nambisan, Executive Director of The Alabama Transportation Institute, adequate funding is lagging behind usage. Alabama roads and bridges are supported by the gasoline tax ($.18 per gallon from the state and $.18 per gallon from the federal government). After factoring in inflation, Alabama’s funding level has stayed relatively flat since 1992. Yet, due to a rise in population and a higher number of vehicle miles being driven across the state, the number of tires traveling the roads has increased. There are other factors too. Fuel efficiency has decreased the revenue while increasing the wear and tear on roadways, and electric and hybrid vehicles aren’t buying as much gas, so no taxes are collected from them.
Upcoming technologies like automated vehicles will further widen the funding-usage gap, as will strategies like the trucking industry implementing “platooning” technology that allows trucks to decrease the distance between them to increase fuel efficiency by lessening drag (much like race cars that “draft” off of the car in front of them).
Our neighboring states already understand how having the right infrastructure no only keeps its residents and visitors safe by is also a key waypoint on the road to a robust economy. Many of them have been investing in infrastructure to attract larger companies. To stay competitive, Alabama has to step up.
With a 20-year view into the future, this study and series of reports hopes to show elected officials and residents where the greatest threats lie and by so doing, promote action. “The federal government under President Trump has proposed a substantial investment of matching funds for transportation infrastructure; it actually bonuses those funds that are recurring yearly maintenance,” said Nambisan. “Our business community and citizens need to contact the State House and encourage an increased investment to capitalize on these upcoming federal funds. With wise infrastructure investment, Alabama residents will receive the maximum economic return on their tax dollars.”