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Wednesday, 01 January 2014 23:55

Father-son team launches new GR-based architecture firm

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Tom and Evan Mathison took advantage of a recovering West Michigan economy and a handful of other factors and founded their own architecture firm in Grand Rapids. The company will focus on residential and educational projects. Tom and Evan Mathison took advantage of a recovering West Michigan economy and a handful of other factors and founded their own architecture firm in Grand Rapids. The company will focus on residential and educational projects. COURTESY PHOTO

After years of talking about plans for a new business dedicated to a unique blend of architectural design, one father-son duo have decided the time is right to hang out their own shingle in Grand Rapids.

Tom Mathison, formerly the senior principal at Kalamazoo-based TowerPinkster, and his son Evan Mathison, most recently of Maryann Thompson Architects of Cambridge, Mass., have formed Mathison | Mathison Architects LLC to take advantage of a rare opportunity to start a business in the competitive service industry.

“We’ve been kicking this idea around for the last five to seven years, ever since I finished school in Cambridge,” Evan Mathison said. “It was always sort of on (my family’s) radar to move back home, and I’ve always wanted to start an office. My dad had the same aspirations, but over the last five years the number one thing that was stopping us was the economy.”

Now that the economy is relatively stable and the West Michigan economy has experienced steady growth, both Mathisons agreed that their window of opportunity to start the firm had finally arrived.

They plan to focus on a mix of residential and commercial projects — both large and small — as well as bring new concepts to market in West Michigan. Namely, they want to show residential customers the range of design options possible with the use of pre-fabricated materials, which are mostly unavailable in the middle of the country.

“I think primarily it seems the market here wants single-family homes, but they end up buying in a development where everything looks the same,” Evan Mathison said. “A lot of people we’ve met like the community and the neighborhoods, but are looking for higher quality spaces and materials...If we can raise the level of awareness of what’s possible and also (offer) an affordable solution, that could really change the way people think about housing at a young age.”

The ultimate goal is to help people realize they can mix pre-fabricated elements with custom home design, he said. The pre-fab systems may not work for all design solutions, but they offer “a kit of parts and a resource for designers and builders,” Evan Mathison said.

Both Mathisons believe that pre-fab product partners can help expose better design to more midlevel markets.

“The sensibilities that exist on either coast are what we’re talking about bringing here, and we think West Michigan is ready for that option,” Tom Mathison said. “We think it will be somewhat of a differentiator for us.”

Defining the focus

Prior to Tom Mathison leaving TowerPinkster, the duo went to work on a “quick and dirty” market study in the spring to see if their concept for the new firm could take root in the region.

“We interviewed several people that I know to sort of test the market,” Tom Mathison said. “We decided that yes, the kind of work that Evan was doing and that I had been doing really could come together and kind of create our own market.”

While Evan Mathison’s background is steeped in residential and smaller private commercial and institutional projects, his father brings a depth of knowledge in larger projects with a focus in K-12 and higher education.

Starting with the residential market, the two hope to marry their insights into a flexible firm that can move between the various scales of the built environment.

“We’re starting primarily in residential projects to begin with, along with some small commercial projects,” Tom Mathison said. “There are three residential projects we’re working on now, but our goals would be to take the same principles we’re focused on in residential and apply them to another area we’re both familiar with, which is education.”

Other civic and institutional projects can’t be ruled out, Evan Mathison added.

Opportunity doesn’t knock twice

To realize their dreams of starting a business, both men had to give up their existing positions. Evan Mathison and his family picked up and moved back to West Michigan from New England, while his father told colleagues at TowerPinkster in July that he planned to start his own firm.

“We started seeing this cultural shift happening in Grand Rapids, a lot of it having to do with community appreciation for art and design growing and a lot of young people starting to come back to the city,” Evan Mathison said.

They launched Mathison | Mathison in December as a three-person studio based at Tom Mathison’s home.

The elder Mathison describes the chance to take on the next phase of his career with his son as a surreal experience.

“When Evan and I were talking about coming together as a father watching his son growing and practicing in architecture, it’s natural to think, ‘Well, maybe we should work together some day,’” he said. “But as long as he was in Boston and I was here, it seemed more theoretical than practical.”

So when a number of factors aligned to create the window of opportunity to start their own firm, he knew he had to take the chance, he said.

“(TowerPinkster) was very gracious about me leaving,” he said. “They wished me well and we had about four months where we worked on making the transition with existing clients.”

While TowerPinkster is losing one of its leaders, President and CEO Arnie Mikon said the transition period and Tom Mathison’s efforts to mentor professionals over the years put the firm in a good position.

“(Tom) has brought up a number of young people in the company, and I don’t think we’re going to miss a beat,” he said.

Nor should the two firms compete since they’re focused on different markets, Mikon said. In fact, TowerPinkster and Mathison | Mathison have agreed to partner on select projects, he said.

Mathison | Mathison anticipates the firm will outgrow its home office this year, and when that happens, it will look for a location in downtown Grand Rapids, the founders said.

“We don’t know when that will happen, but right now we’re just working on making sure we have steady cash flow and making sure we can meet our obligations,” Tom Mathison said.

It’s a unique collaboration, Evan Mathison said.

“I don’t think you see many offices that can operate at such different scales and try to merge their ideas together to make a new brand,” he said.

Read 5119 times Last modified on Thursday, 02 January 2014 10:39

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