If you want to hear a good laugh, ask the architects and executives at Potter Lawson, which will celebrate its centennial in Madison in 2013, if they ever considered letting another architecture company design their first new office space since 1982.

It just isn’t done, they said, after they finished laughing. Especially on the eve of such a milestone for the company — which has designed or helped design some of the city’s most recognized buildings, such as Monona Terrace, the Overture Center and University Square — it was important that Potter Lawson enter its second century in a space of its own unique design.

“We’re about success by design,” said executive vice president Beth Prochaska, borrowing the company’s signature tag line. “We’re very excited about moving into our new building and (about) our 100-year anniversary.”

“We want to bring clients into the space and let them experience the architectural process,” said Douglas Hursh, director of design.

Currently the sole tenant of a two-story-plus-mezzanine building off Schroeder Road, Potter Lawson’s new space will be on the top floor of a three-story, $14.9 million retail/office building under construction at University Avenue and Whitney Way. Potter Lawson will share the third floor with the Energy Center of Wisconsin.

The building is part of University Crossing, envisioned as a seven-building, $100 million, mixed-use development by Krupp General Contractors, which is building it in phases.

Potter Lawson, with 35 employees including 17 architects, will occupy 9,400 square feet, down from 15,000 at the company’s current location.

“We’ve been talking about (moving) for a number of years, and this opportunity came and fit all our needs,” said Eric Lawson, president and CEO. “We were looking for a place where we could all be on one floor and have that opportunity to collaborate better than we do right now.”

Lawson isn’t dwelling on the company’s centennial, despite it coinciding with the move next summer.

“It’s just hard to imagine a company is 100 years old, quite frankly,” he said. “It’s really fun to look back on the past, but at the same time we’re planning for the future. That’s why we’re doing our move; that’s why we’re reinventing how we will operate in the future.”

Clients come first

But what, if anything, changes when an architectural firm becomes its own client? Is it easier to work — more freeing, with less friction — or does operating without a paying client to answer to carry perils?

It’s not an either/or, Potter Lawson executives said.

Working for yourself does provide one important shortcut, Hursh said.

“When you’re designing for other people, it takes a long time to listen and learn about their culture and understand how they work and what’s best for them,” Hursh said. “With us, we think we know who we are from the beginning.”

But it’s also a business reality that the projects of paying clients come first.

“That’s probably the hardest thing, finding the time to work on your own building,” Hursh said.

“(We) can say, ‘We need to have this done,’” he added, “but if a client tells you you need to have something done, you’re going to get it done and you’re going to be at that meeting.”

In fact, Potter Lawson’s commitments go beyond its own space even within University Crossing.

Working for Krupp, Potter Lawson also designed the retail/office building itself, along with some possible apartments and a parking ramp that could be built at University Crossing, another building there that’s almost built now — a digestive health clinic for UW Health — and the master plan for the entire 14-acre development.

“The idea was to create nice, walkable streets, with nicely scaled buildings,” Hursh said. “There’s a new urban feel to it, added density and a mix of uses.”

When finished, in five to 10 years, University Crossing also could include a hotel, two more health clinics and a cancer patient lodge. Potter Lawson may design those pieces, too.

Wide open spaces

Still, while the press of other work has meant fine details of the new office space must be worked out in the coming months, its main features and the concept behind it are clear.

Potter Lawson leaders plan to open up the company’s workspace even as its overall size shrinks. They want to encourage more teamwork by creating more social meeting spaces, and they want to make the company’s working processes more of an open book to clients.

In the current office, the reception desk acts as a barrier, blocking a visitor’s view of the rest of the office. It will be just the opposite in the new one.

“You’re going to walk in and you’re going to see everything,” Hursh said. “You’re going to see where people work, where we assemble color palettes, where we have our materials samples, because we want the clients to have that architectural experience.”

In addition, conference rooms for client discussions, rather than ringing the reception area as before, now will be “spread across the entire footprint” of the office, Lawson said, “so you can bring clients through the process.”

The new office also will have more and different types of meeting spaces.

“We could have a living room-type space,” Hursh said, “where you can pull up your drawings on a flat screen and work together as a team and explore ideas in more informal settings.”

The new space also will reject the traditional design of individual walled-in offices positioned along the perimeter with a bay of segmented rows of cubicles in the middle.

Instead, both managers and other employees will have mostly open workstations, “where everybody has access to natural light,” Hursh said.

And with 40 workstations, the company will have room to grow, even though square footage will be 37 percent smaller than the current office space.

The company can get by with a smaller office in part because it has fewer employees now — down 10 from 2008 — due in part to the economic downturn.

But increased use of technology also has reduced the need for space. There are no drafting tables, since all drawing is done on computers now, and there’s a reduced need for storage space.

“We’re finding we don’t need all this space,” Prochaska said. “Things have changed, and we can be much more efficient.”

But one thing not expected to change is Potter Lawson’s long-standing preference for projects in the Madison area.

“It’s nice to be able to practice architecture where you live,” Hursh said. “You’re part of the community, and you can add to the community by doing good design.”

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