Architecture and Small Business & Startups

Former corporate architects find a higher calling

Elevate Studio works from a home-based studio and caters to churches.

February 12, 2016
| By Pat Evans |
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Elevate Studio
Elevate Studio finds that churches often are motivated to contribute everything from volunteer labor to recycled materials, all of which keeps the cost of a project lower. Courtesy JRP Studio

Jim VanderMolen often works with his dog, Jack, on his lap. Occasionally, Jack disrupts his owner and begins licking his face.

“He does that during staff meetings, too,” said Steve Fridsma, VanderMolen’s partner at Elevate Studio Architecture and Design.

The two men have a long history, dating back to when VanderMolen gave a young Fridsma advice on whether to move into a career in architecture. Now, they work together in a dog-friendly office in a modified master suite at VanderMolen’s house, which is right next door to Fridsma’s.

Both had long stints with Progressive AE, but eventually they decided to go on their own to focus on spiritual- and community-based projects. Once they did that, the Elevate Studio owners realized how much more liberating it was to work outside of a corporate environment.

What VanderMolen once perceived as a cutthroat industry has turned into being a very communal and friendly one, he said of the architecture scene in West Michigan, with firms often sharing advice and materials.

“I discovered a lot about myself outside of the corporate world,” VanderMolen said. “I don’t enjoy it — the politics, the bureaucracy. Then I discovered how great it was being a few steps from a fridge and piano.”

The office doesn’t look as though it’s attached to a house. Walk through a foyer and past a door, and it appears as an office might look in a downtown building.

That’s where the comparison ends, however. Both VanderMolen and Fridsma designed their houses, and both wanted spaces where their personal lives and work could intersect.

Because they work with a lot of spiritual organizations, meetings are often in the evening. Both have children and each felt working from home would better allow them to take breaks and be a more present father.

“They’re very flexible policies — not even policies,” VanderMolen said. “This is how we work. It’s more in tune with the knowledge-worker lifestyle. You value their knowledge and skills, just trust them and let them worry about the time.”

For the Elevate Studio founders, who they hire to work with them is important. Currently working in the office are the two principal architects, two contract architects, two interns and an office manager. There is no vacation policy: Just figure out how the work will be finished and take the vacation.

Employees at Elevate Studio understand the culture the two principals have created. For the firm to come up with a design that will be successful, it’s important the client knows what to expect. Often working with churches and other spiritual organizations, there may be many people involved who must be guided and coached through the process.

“There’s a lot of handholding and encouragement,” Fridsma said. “A lot of people have never said $1 million. For a decision a corporate board might make easily, a church committee is often frightened.”

Throughout the design process, Elevate Studio makes sure to include the organization every step of the way.

“Each church has its own DNA, its own neighborhood,” Fridsma said “We have to design a building that supports that personality, like it’s putting on its favorite outfit. When it’s funded by sacrificial giving, the congregation has to feel like they have to do it.”

VanderMolen and Fridsma have found that allowing for a more enlightened and participatory design is applicable in any market, be it corporate, civic or anything else.

The spiritual market has become lucrative for the firm, beyond the tertiary goal of money, said Mike Novakowski, president of construction firm Elzinga & Volkers, which often works with Elevate Studio.

Novakowski said Elevate Studio is often called upon in other states because of its noted work with churches of all denominations — something that isn’t particularly common in the architectural world.

“Rarely are architects so focused on one industry,” Novakowski said. “They (Fridsma and VanderMolen) have a modest overhead; they don’t have a $3 million building they’re worried about paying off. They know they can keep it simple, offer a service to a needy part of the world, and they’ll be rewarded in ways beyond money.”

The flexibility to offer the necessary coaching along with design was a reason the two decided to pursue having their own firm. VanderMolen ventured off first, in 2006. Fridsma followed four years later.

A project such as one Elevate Studio recently did to help a 150-person church move into its first home for $100,000 wouldn’t have been possible with the administrative overhead at a larger firm, Fridsma said. The process with churches “dignifies the ordinary” and may utilize recycled and inexpensive materials, as well as help from any volunteers they can find.

Another major reason for parting from the corporate world of architecture is the design aspect. For many architects, their career trajectory takes them away from the drawing table.

“We are designers at heart,” VanderMolen said. “We missed it among the meetings, meetings, meetings. I held on to it the best I could, but that wasn’t fiscally responsible from the firm’s point of view.”

It all goes back to Novakowki’s impression of the firm: It’s about more than money. VanderMolen and Fridsma agree to a point that architecture is often about ego and following the design of a building from paper and pen to the physical structure, but it’s even more about seeing the satisfaction on the faces of those they have helped.

But the ultimate goal is for the building to be right, Fridsma said, while reducing the client’s anxiety. Elevate Studio has been known to talk itself out of a job, including a client in California who wanted a new building to keep up with the Joneses.

“There has to be a degree of ego at play to make it through a day and insist on excellence,” VanderMolen said. “I want my building to be amazing. But that same commitment can be refocused on clients.

“We can be proud of our work, but it’s not enough. We want, when a church opens its doors, for them to say, ‘Well, of course, this is what it is — it fits us so well.’”

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