Motivated, perceptive and excited for the future

August 30, 2010
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The year after he graduated from Miami University with a degree in environmental design and the year before he planned to earn a graduate degree in architecture at the University of Kentucky, Rob Sears found himself on Nantucket Island.

He went there to visit a friend for a weekend but ended up staying a year. While there, he landed a job selling sweaters at a local clothing store. It wasn’t his dream job — that was just down the street.

“There was an architecture firm on the island called Design Associates that I wanted to work at. They weren’t hiring. So I went into this architecture firm every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 10 o’clock to check if they needed any help. I mean, I was ultra-persistent to the point of being annoying,” said Sears.

“After the third week, they said, ‘Well, one day a week, if you want to come in here and run blueprints and go get sandwiches for us, you can do that.’ I said, ‘Done.’”

But a week or so later they told Sears he could draft  two days a week, which he did for two weeks, and then Design Associates hired him full time.

“I think it was there where it really helped jell and formulate my design philosophy and what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” he said. “I’ve known from sixth grade that I wanted to be an architect and have a storefront architecture firm. Don’t ask me why a storefront — I just thought that’s really cool and it’s what I wanted to have.”

Sears had worked for a few firms in high school and through college, but the year he spent working on historic residential design for Design Associates struck a chord. “That’s my biggest career break: practicing on Nantucket,” he said.

Sears said his other big break came from knowing Harry Bloem, whom he considers a dear friend and a reliable advisor.

“He was a mentor to my dad, and I’ve known him since I was a 5-year-old kid. I’ve talked to him since I was in junior high and high school about life and about situations. I can go to him with a dilemma and say, ‘Here are the three things I’m thinking. Is it A, B, or C?’ And Harry will say, ‘Well, that’s interesting. I like your A, B and C, but what about D and E?’ I’d say, ‘I never thought about those two,’” said Sears.

“He’ll get me thinking about other options and he’ll get me thinking on how I can make the best decision. It’s a great relationship that I have with this guy. I can talk to him about financial situations and personal situations and business situations.”

Bloem said he felt it was important for people to have someone to bounce their ideas off and he was happy to play that role.

“He is a very receptive young man to any ideas — unusually so. I like to see young people who are motivated succeed. Rob is absolutely right in that I never presented an idea of what he should do, because the final decision always has to be his,” said Bloem.

“I think he is quite successful for a young man of his age,” he added. “But he is motivated; there is no question about that. He has got some class to his thinking and he is very perceptive.”

Sears recently landed his biggest project to date. His firm, Sears Architects, is part of the design team for Singapore Dunes, a 310-acre recreational development in Saugatuck Township along the Kalamazoo River financed by billionaire Aubrey McClendon.

But perhaps the project that has had the biggest impact on his firm is his award-winning design for the Bay Street Cottages in Harbor Springs, the same locale where Sears had hoped to design the boutique condominium hotel, Hotel Janelle. Because of his work in Harbor Springs, he became closely acquainted with Rob Mossburg, a principal of The Cottage Co., which owns Hotel Janelle. Even though he didn’t get the Hotel Janelle job, Sears has collaborated with Mossburg’s firm on 52 residential projects.

Pursuing a commission and formulating the initial design direction for a project are the things that Sears said he likes best about being an architect. “And I love going back to a client’s house or a project when it’s done — that’s huge,” he said.

“Someone asked me once about, when I see my finished projects, if the idea of legacy came up with my kids and, hopefully, grandkids someday. You want to have a legacy, I think, as a person, in teaching your kids to be good citizens and good people.

“But I also look at it professionally because your work is a big part of your life and you want to leave a legacy that is solid. There are projects that I’m going to walk by and drive by for the rest of my life, and my kids are going to do that and say, ‘Oh, my dad designed that building.’ So it’s a fun thing to be able to look back at a project.”

Sears was born in New Britain, Conn. But as a first-grader, he came here — where his family’s roots are firmly planted. “I’m a fifth-generation Grand Rapids resident,” he said. His father, Peter, worked for Bissell Inc. and he traveled for the local company. Rob also spent some of his youth in Chicago and in Dallas, which he said made him a lifelong Cowboys fan.

Rob and Julie have been married for 17 years. They live in East Grand Rapids with their three children: Rachel, 12; Sophie, 9; and 3-year-old Sam. Julie is a Louisville native and also an architect. In fact, they met at the University of Kentucky when both were pursuing their graduate degrees in architecture.

“She was sitting on the front steps of the architecture building. There were a bunch of students sitting there. I got talking to her and one thing led to another, and here we are,” he said.

“We were dating like, I think, for six years (before getting married). … Part of the reason we waited is I wanted to be a registered architect before I got married.”

They moved from Chicago to Grand Rapids to start Sears Architects in 1996. Julie went to work for another local architect while Rob set up the firm in the third-floor ballroom of their home in Heritage Hill. At the time, his company had one project — but it was in Chicago, not here.

“I remember my first month back in Grand Rapids, I billed $400 that month and I thought, ‘Sweet. This is awesome.’ Then one month I billed $1,000. I thought, ‘This is gravy. I’m doing what I love and someone is sending me checks,’” he said.

“So I did that for about two years. As I got busier, our intention was that Julie and I would work together. So she left the firm she was with and started working with me. When we started having kids, she stayed home. I’ve got the easy part: I sketch and I talk on the phone and I render and I color. And she is raising the kids at home. What I do is easy.”

Sears Architects’ first Grand Rapids job was to design a home on Lake Macatawa for Gary and Claire Krouse. “That was 14 years ago, and they’re still friends. Part of the reason I like to do the residential work that we do is because our clients become friends.”

When asked which project has been his favorite over the years, Sears didn’t quote Frank Lloyd Wright and say, “The next one.” Instead, he said he wasn’t certain how to answer that question. “Every project is so different. I mean, we’ll do projects that are small — exterior design consultants for someone on their house — and we’re also doing the project in Saugatuck — Singapore Dunes. So my favorite one? I don’t know which one. But the project with Gary and Claire was fun,” he said.

Sears said the reason he and Julie chose Grand Rapids over Louisville — Julie’s hometown — is they knew that he was going to be the family’s full-time worker for the long term, and he had more contacts here than she had in Louisville because his family has lived here for many generations. When he started Sears Architects, he sent out 400 hand-addressed business announcements and received one response. It was from Chuck Carter, an architect who was retiring, and he gave Sears the Krouse’s name and said they were looking for someone to design their 6,000-square-foot lake house.

“I put up a job sign out in front, and enough people saw the sign that I got hired for another job, and then another job and then another job. And one thing led to another, and we’re busy.”

When Sears designed the remodeling of the kitchen in his and Julie’s home, a recent issue of Women’s Day Kitchens & Baths magazine featured the finished product in its national edition. His work has also been spotlighted in Better Homes and Gardens magazine.

When he isn’t working, Sears said the family spends a lot of time at their cottage in Harbor Springs, where they ski in the winter and kayak in the summer. “So between work and my family, the plate is pretty full,” he said.

Despite a full plate, Sears finds time to serve on the board of directors for Dwelling Place of Grand Rapids, which he has done for eight years. “I love the Dwelling Place,” he said. “This year is its big 30-year anniversary.” He also volunteers his time and design talents for nonprofit organizations.

An old pop tune might best describe how Sears feels about his future. He sees his coming years as being so bright that he will likely have to wear sunglasses. “For our business, the sun is definitely rising versus the sun setting. I look at my practice and I look at where I am professionally, and I feel like I’m still reaching up. I’m not coasting. I’m not kind of easing down in my career. I’m still on the upswing,” he said.

“I’m feeling that the economy is definitely on the upswing because we’re busy now. It’s an exciting time to be in business. It’s exciting to be an architect. I love what I do. When I meet with potential clients, I can talk all day about what I can do for them and how I can help them with their new house, their new project, or their new resort. I absolutely love what I do.”

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