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A Conversation With Matt Huffield Of Cole Architects

As the exciting new PetIQ Headquarters rises in Eagle, president of OEC, Scott Galloway, sat down with the president of Cole Architects, Matt Huffield, to discuss the project. Cole Architects was the designer of the new building and has been working with OEC to outfit the completed space with an exceptional lineup of OEC office solutions. Huffield shares about his experiences in architecture, his advice for aspiring architects, and what the firm is currently up to in Idaho.

Becoming An Architect

Galloway: Tell me a little bit about how you got interested in being an architect?

Huffield: Probably exposure. When I was a kid, two of my friends, one kid’s mom and another guy’s dad, were architects. I think going through school, I realized that the aptitude was there. You do all those aptitude tests and architect was always at the top. I think there was definitely an interest with the built environment and structures and how they go together. Every little kid is playing with Legos or those kinds of things and I think it’s just the exposure from seeing my friend’s parents, with drafting boards in their houses and things like that, back before we had AutoCAD, and Revit. Then finding an interest in it and continuing to pursue it. I told my mom when I was 10, that I was going to be an architect.

Galloway: Oh, wow. You determined that a long time ago?

Huffield: Yeah, my mom said something like, “Oh, yeah. Okay, next week, it’ll be a firefighter,” but I just went all the way through, and it has always been enjoyable. It seems, my brain works well for that kind of work that we do. I have a vision that I think suits well with the industry and dealing with the built environment.

What Makes A Good Architect

Galloway: For the youth that are interested in being architects, what skill sets, or interests or mindsets do you think are useful or may indicate to somebody “Hey, this may be a good fit. This may be a good career choice for you?”

Huffield: I think problem solving is number one, I work with the Montana State School of Architecture on their Advisory Council. And I continually work with their staff in dealing with design and problem solving as the criteria. A lot of schools out there are trying to promote the software, and I have this vision that I think the next 50 years, the software is going to almost be irrelevant. You know, 30 years ago, we were hand drafting, now we’re doing 3d modeling. The next 20 or 30 years we’re going to have some sort of headset on, and the software is going to be doing all the work in the background, and you don’t draw anymore. I think it’s going to be that much of a connection with the software that learning a piece of software is not the important part.

I think the important part is learning how to design and problem solve and be creative. As we automate our world, creativity is going to be one of the last things that is automated, it’s the one thing that a computer can’t do, or will be one of the last things that a computer can do. And so, focusing on the creative side of what we do is going to be the value in architecture in the coming years. The nice thing about the industry is there is a broad range of what a person can do, whether it’s the technical figuring out a detail or the design side. And so, for somebody who is looking at the industry, I think there’s always a place for somebody in our industry.

Finding Talent

Galloway: Where do you find your talent, and how many are on your teams?

Huffield: There’s 10 of us right now. Almost all licensed architects.” Our talent is random, a lot of times I’ll post on LinkedIn. I’ve worked for several companies that are really good working with and growing talent. I’ve worked with some that are horrible at it. And so I’ve learned ways and philosophies that I strongly believe in. We’re only as good as the people that work with us on our team. You’re only as strong as your weakest link. We spend a lot of time and focus, doing things right by our employees. This year, we were voted to the top 10 places to work in Idaho.

Galloway: Congratulations.  

Huffield: Thank you. It means a lot. We’re the only architect on that list. And that’s all-size categories, both honorable mention and award winners, which it means a lot because just this year, we switched over to an unlimited PTO policy. So, we do a lot of things like that, that try to give back to the employees that work hard.

Becoming An Owner

Galloway: Tell us a little bit about Cole architects and maybe how you came to be the owner?

Huffield: I have been self-employed since the early 2000s. Partnership in a couple of different firms. And through the recession, I ended up having to leave Boise to go find gainful employment,

Galloway: The 2008 recession?

Huffield: Yeah, and I was able to stick around till 2013. And then I left and went on a pretty fun journey. I lived in Houston, LA, and New York City, was able to work on some really cool projects, two of which have won national AIA awards.

So, I got to experience a lot from the high-end design firm, to a large 23,000 person firm. In 2016-17, I was kind of regrouping from all of that and the economy was starting to pick up. I ended up taking on some projects in Bend, Oregon, and was mostly working with consultants out of Boise (my old consulting group that I had before). I was spending a lot of time here and I had the opportunity to kind of live wherever I wanted to so chose to move back to Boise. Because of what happened in the recession, I feared everything is going to come crashing down again.

Diversifying

So, I spent a lot of time looking into ways to diversify what I was doing. And the opportunity came to purchase Stan’s firm. I had met Stan Cole a few times over the years. We kind of ran in the same circles but didn’t actually know each other. Then we got together and visited about it. He was at a point where he was ready to step back from day-to-day firm operations but still wanted involvement in design and business development, things like that. And so, it worked out really well for both of us. He gets to ski a few days a week and stay involved in projects and meeting with clients.

There were five people when I purchased firm and now we’re at 10-11 depending on the time of year. I think we’ve also been able to, take advantage of a little bit of the growth in Boise. We’ve got some great clients. I’ve had some really bad clients in the past so my goal is not necessarily focus on the project type that we do, but focus on good quality clients, people that treat us well and, and we enjoy working with.

The Right Clients For Cole Architects

Galloway: What kind of clients are a good fit for Cole?

Huffield: The ones that pay. Not only that, but it’s a respect thing. I’ve worked with clients that just have no respect for architects. And obviously, this is our profession, this is what drives us, this is what’s important to us. Ultimately, it comes down to, when a client respects you and enjoys working with you, they’re going to treat you better, they’re going to be more at ease to work with you and things like that. So, it’s finding that relationship, but so much of what we do is personal relationships.

I always tell people that about 95% of what architects do is communication, whether written, verbal drawings, etc; it’s all communication. Even a set of construction documents is in a way communication. So that’s a big part of what we try to do with our clients is spend a lot of time communicating with them, make sure everybody’s on the same page, and we know we’re moving toward the same goal.

Why Getting The Right Architect Is Important

Galloway: So why is it important for a client to choose a good architect? What, kind of difference does a good architect make in a project?

Huffield: I think it depends on the goals of the client. Certain clients want things done quickly and streamline everything. Other clients want the architect to do everything for them and be fully responsible for all of it. I think what makes a good architect is due diligence of researching, and putting together a good set of documents. This ensures that what the architect communicates and designs is constructed.

I think ultimately, as architects, it’s our ethical responsibility to improve the community, improve the built environment, do what’s right, both environmentally, etc. And our responsibility is not necessarily to the owner or to the architect, but to the project and to the to society as a whole. You want an architect that does the best for all of that. They don’t cut corners to just do what the client wants, or just do what the contractor wants.

Working On The Ronald McDonald House

Galloway: Can you give an example of a project that you’ve worked on where you enhanced the community? Explore the topic of doing what’s right not only for the client, but for the community.

Ronald McDonald House

Huffield: I would say probably the number one most recent project would be the Ronald McDonald House here in Boise. It was a very community focused project. They were able to do some really interesting things. They raised $15 million in 18 months to do that. We were able to work with the contractor and from start of design to opening doors was 15 months. That is relatively unheard of. It was a very fast pace. We all signed up for it ahead of time and said we’re going to get this done. And it took a lot of juggling to get that done. But it was very much a community involved process.

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Ronald McDonald House Lobby

Working With Boise

We had to work with the East end neighborhood district and the north end neighborhood districts to make sure that we are going to put something in their neighborhoods that fit the urban fabric. The basic concept of that building was to do something that was home-like. I think that was very important to the owner too because they are housing people. So they want it to look like a home. Their previous house was an old house that they had upgraded. They wanted something that looked residential, but you’re putting it on Main Street, across from an urban hospital. It is also mixed in with a historic neighborhood.

Then working with the city of Boise, we went through their project management process to help streamline and get us through the process faster. We were setting roof trusses the week we got our building permit. So we were able to push the envelope on speed and time to get through the process. It was a really fun, interesting, and challenging experience to go through all of that in a very short time. And it took all team members and Ian Hoffman and Stan Cole was very much involved. Mindy from Ronald McDonald house too. We also helped them with furniture selection, interior design, everything. Our interior designer worked closely with the folks at Ronald McDonald House to go through everything in great detail.

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Ronald McDonald House Toy Room

Designing The PETIQ Headquarters

Galloway: Great project example. It’s beautiful. I think we did some wooden slats in the building. Our construction division did kind of the wooden parallel posts that are somewhere up there. So let’s talk about a little bit about kind of the big project in Eagle that you’ve been working on. Talk to us a little bit about that project.

Huffield: Yeah, PetIQ approached us very similarly to the Ronald McDonald house. They had a fast timeline and wanted to do something unique for Eagle. The owners are from Eagle, want to stay in Eagle, and are very involved in the community. They approached us about doing their new corporate headquarters, which is about 55,000 square feet at the final square footage. They had a site selected in the Eagle River business development. And they wanted to do something that was a little bit more contemporary, keeping the down-to-earth, Idaho thought process.

They gave us free reign to kind of do some designs and we came up with some concepts. We ended up with a design concept that they liked. They were willing to relocate outside Eagle to keep that design concept if Eagle wouldn’t let them in. There were a lot of negotiations with Eagle to get that design concept to work. We spent lots of time with Eagle River going through their design requirements to meet the standards for all parties.

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PETIQ Rendering

What Makes PETIQ Unique

Galloway: Can you give us an example of the building that are different or unique?

Huffield: We had to go through a height variance with Eagle. They have a 35-foot height variance. They are trying to keep things shorter than a lot of communities to keep their small-town roots. We had some large overhangs but for Eagle’s design requirements you have to fit one of five styles. Contemporary isn’t one of them. They follow more of the Victorian era. With the long horizontal overhangs, it created some issues with their zoning ordinance. We were able to work with their design review council and get those resolved. We tried to provide a lot of glass and views and the brick shapes are more contemporary. Because of other projects built in the area they were able to stretch their requirements to meet our plans.

Galloway: What do you think the building will be finished?

Huffield: June of 2021.

Other Projects For Cole Architects

Galloway: What other projects are you working on that are important for your firm?

Huffield: Right now, we have under construction the new fire station for the city of Ketchum. We have a dentist office and work at Stillwater Development in Eagle. We are working with Horizon Credit Union, and a new office building we are getting ready to start in Eagle.

Galloway: To individuals interested in pursuing a career as an architect, what would you tell them about the industry?

Huffield: Every day is a little bit different. You get a lot of variety and I think creative industries tend to be a little more satisfying. I always looked at it as I don’t want to sit in a factory and stamp a piece of metal. I want to go have a little more flexibility in what I do and I think architecture provides that.

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