Valpo architecture firm has designed landmark buildings for a half-century | Northwest Indiana Business Headlines

VALPARAISO — An architecture firm that started in Valparaiso a half century ago has gone

VALPARAISO — An architecture firm that started in Valparaiso a half century ago has gone on to design many landmark buildings in Northwest Indiana, including the Duesenberg Welcome Center at Valparaiso University, the Regional Mental Health Center in Merrillville and Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk Pavilion at the Indiana Dunes National Park.

Design Organization, now part of Shive-Hattery, has had a national impact, designing projects for the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Moody Bible Institute and the Seattle Storm. It’s in the process of designing a new practice facility for the WNBA team in the Pacific Northwest.

The firm, which has offices in Valparaiso and Chicago, marked its 50th anniversary last year and celebrated with the recent “Designing 50 Years: Architecture + Community” at the Porter County Museum’s Montague/Urschel Gallery.

Design Organization, or DO, was founded in 1971 by recent University of Cincinnati graduate Doug Pierce, who first located the firm in the old McGillicuddy Monument Sales building. The firm has gone on to help shape the physical landscape of Northwest Indiana, expand its reach across the country and rack up many awards, including prestigious honors from the American Institute of Architects.

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Senior Architect and Principal Spero Valavanis, a Hammond native, joined the firm in the early days after graduating from Ball State University’s architecture program.

“I originally thought I was going to move south to Hilton Head, but interviewed with Design Organization. When I came to Valparaiso, I loved it. I loved everything about it,” VAlavanis said. “The downtown was familiar. It wasn’t just urban sprawl. Valparaiso had a heart in the downtown. I stayed heavily invested in the community for life and never wanted to leave.”

He initially did a lot of residential, commercial and healthcare designs, including for Porter-Starke Services.

“I liked what I would call the modern direction of a lot of the buildings,” he said. “They were really progressive design-wise.”

Valavanis worked on big projects right away, including for clients like Southlake Community Mental Health Center, Captrust and Sawyer Transportation, which commissioned the firm to design its corporate headquarters. He described taking on major responsibility right away as “a baptism by fire.”

“We worked as a team and worked on things together,” Valavanis said. “It was phenomenal. Architecture has an egocentric tendency harkening back to Frank Lloyd Wright. But Design Organization was not about that. It was very collaborative where we worked on team-based projects.”

Design Organization carved a niche specializing in architectural restoration and helped preserve downtown Valparaiso. The firm, for instance, came up with a plan for renovations for the Second Empire style limestone Porter County Courthouse so it could remain in use as a judicial center while it was designing the then-new Porter County Administrative Building for the county government offices. It’s handled multiple renovation projects over the years at the historic courthouse at the center of downtown Valpo’s business district.

“We saw it as saving the courthouse as a living building,” Valavanis said. “Downtowns are not just about buildings, but buildings in combination with people. If you take the people out, who cares? We talked with the commissioners about saving the courthouse while building a new administrative center, saving 300 jobs and ensuring money was being spent downtown.”

The firm also helped save the historic neoclassical post office building dating back to 1917 by plotting out how Valparaiso would relocate its city hall there.

“Downtown Valparaiso is a special place with character,” Valavanis said. “There’s been a strong commitment of politicians in the community to downtown. People have stayed downtown. It’s the lifeblood of the community.”

The firm designed the band shell and pavilion at Central Park in downtown Valparaiso, as well as the William E. Urschel Pavilion and Ice Skating Rink that’s become a major winter recreational destination. Another landmark structure it designed in Porter County was the LEED Gold-certified Portage Lakefront Pavilion, perched on a dune bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, a scenic spot with a view of the Chicago skyline where many couples have wed.

It’s a highly symbolic building with the roof shaped to reflect the dunes and waves.

“It was a substantial opportunity on our lakefront,” Valavanis said. “We stepped up and designed the building to reflect Northwest Indiana with a series of metaphors. There’s a nautical element reflecting a boat and a fireplace with the chimney representing how industry and recreation come together on the lakefront.”

As Design Organization grew, it opened a Chicago office to drum up more business in the city. It was acquired in 2012 by Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based architecture firm Shive-Hattery, which has 12 offices, 425 employees and $63 million in revenue.

“We either had to buy a firm or be bought,” Valavanis said. “We thought we could best grow through them and there was a cultural fit, not just the highest dollar.”

The acquisition has helped fuel growth as the firm has designed healthcare facilities, higher education buildings and workplaces all over the country. It has designed buildings at Purdue University Northwest’s Westville campus, Purdue University in West Lafayette and the University of Chicago.

The firm did several buildings on the Valparaiso University campus over the years, including the LEED-certified Gellersen Engineering & Mathematics Center, home of the College of Engineering; and the Harre Student Union, which won an award from the American School & University Educational Interiors Showcase.

It’s done many projects all across Northwest Indiana, including the IBEW Local 697 union hall in Merrillville and the Lowell Medical Office Building. Its business has grown to include major corporate clients all over the country.

“We’ve gone from small projects to major projects for corporations like Exelon, Amoco, BP, Grubhub and RSM Accounting,” he said.

An early adopter of environmentally friendly LEED buildings, firm keeps up with the largest trends, such as sustainability and more flexible workplaces that allow for remote work. Office spaces are becoming more activity-based with shared work stations and collaborative spaces.

“We stay abreast of anything that’s changing and it has been changing dramatically,” Valavanis said. “It used to be that everyone was 100% in the office but that was changing even before COVID accelerated it. It’s impacted office culture at major corporate clients where they have learned to be really effective with technology. It’s a new type of culture and different type of workplace.”

The firm has persevered for more than a half-century by adjusting as needed and listening to its clients.

“We are committed to understanding our clients’ goals and aspirations, and by designing within their resources,” Valavanis said. “It doesn’t cost any more to do a good design than to do a poor one.”

The firm is working on several projects, including a new Boys and Girls Club in LaPorte, a fire station in South Bend and the transformation of a turn-of-the-century button factory into a corporate office in Iowa.

Shive-Hattery’s Valparaiso office also has been working on many healthcare projects, including for all the major hospital systems in Northwest Indiana, Valparaiso Team Leader Andy Moats said.

“We’ve been working on many of the Franciscan projects in the Region,” he said. “Healthcare is such a rewarding sector and market to be in. You’re creating workplaces that are patient-centered to better the lives of patients.”

As the sector shifts to more urgent care facilities, the firm has designed buildings like HealthLinc Valparaiso and a new micro-hospital in Granger with the latest technology, efficiency and patient care in mind.

“We make environments that reduce anxiety in patients and have a clear flow so they’re not confusing,” Moats said. “The patient experience starts at the beginning, and we want to make sure they’re not anxious.”

The firm continues to grow, Vice President and Office Director Jeff Lewis said.

“We’re in growth mode as we continue to broaden markets outside of the Midwest,” he said. “But we’re still really focusing on our local community. With the growth development and (South Shore Line) double-tracking, there’s a lot of opportunity in Northwest Indiana.”

The Valparaiso office of Shive-Hattery has persisted through a half-century and many economic ups-and-downs by remaining committed to core values, Lewis said.

“We’ve been 100% focused on our people and providing quality design,” Lewis said. “We have a strong culture that’s passionate about design.”

The company also has remained flexible and adapted as needed, which helps account for its longevity.

“It takes a little bit of risk-taking and an appetite for risk,” he said. “You essentially have to be very versatile to be an architect. At the end of the day, we’re problem solvers for any business that comes to us. Helpfulness is what’s going to make you successful. We help clients solve their problems. We’ve been able to create this architecture and be creative over this period of time, over these 50 years, because of great people and problem-solving.”