Best AEC Firms: MHTN Architects nine decades of dedication to Utah

This 65-person design firm has served Salt Lake City and the state of Utah for the better part of 90 years.

A project undergoes design review at MHTN Architects, a 65-member firm based in
A project undergoes design review at MHTN Architects, a 65-member firm based in Salt Lake City. The “Best Firm to Work For” has a long record of service to its home city and state.
May 07, 2012

MHTN Architects, an integral member of the Salt Lake City business community since 1923, has designed many iconic structures throughout Utah over the past nine decades. In recent years, the 65-person firm—one of the largest architecture firms in the Beehive State—has worked on such notable projects as the Zions Bank Tower renovation, the Utah Valley Convention Center, and the Salt Palace Convention Center Expansion, as well as projects for the University of Utah, Weber State University, Brigham Young University, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

While Utah is its base, MHTN has also designed scores of projects across the nation—for example, the Morgan Stanley Riverwoods (Ill.) Corporate Campus—and abroad, notably at the University of Oxford, England. “We’ll go wherever our clients want us to go,” says CEO Dennis Cecchini, AIA. MHTN is best known outside of Utah for its higher education work, particularly student unions, the Auburn University Student Center and the Rendezvous Center at Idaho State University representing two outstanding examples.

No matter the location or project type, the firm, with $12.6 million in revenue in 2011, emphasizes a collaborative design approach, taking pains to solicit ideas and contributions from all team members, even the most junior. MHTN’s commitment to training and professional development, green design leadership, and strong organizational support for volunteering in community organizations and charitable giving are among the factors that have made it a Building Design+Construction “Best AEC Firm to Work For.”

NEW LEADERSHIP MODEL DIVIDES CORPORATE RESPONSIBILITIES

Two years ago, when then-president and CEO Bryce Jones, AIA, assumed emeritus status (he retired in 2011), MHTN divided management duties among three leaders—Dennis Cecchini, CEO; Peggy McDonough, AIA, LEED AP, President; and Lynn Johnson, CFO—to enable the firm to keep pace with new trends and better meet its mission.

“Splitting the responsibilities this way allows for more focused leadership in specific areas,” says McDonough. As CEO, Cecchini is responsible for operations, IT, quality control, training, construction document standards, and human resources. As President, McDonough’s focus is on marketing, business and community development, design quality and implementation, and professional development. As CFO, Johnson is in charge of finance, contracts, accounting, and collections.

“Dennis and I share administrative ideas and strategies, and we are still able to practice architecture,” says McDonough. “We find that many lines are blurred, and we are able to exchange perspectives and make contributions to each area.”

The reorganization was designed “to make the firm a little more flexible and transparent,” adds Cecchini. McDonough says the management team has “been rethinking how we do most things,” including involving more of the firm’s nine other partners in setting strategy and running the firm.

Inclusiveness is a big part of the firm’s project management approach. Teams are arranged in nonhierarchical “project wheels.” The design process is fueled by good communication to build consensus. “No one has a top-of-the-heap position except the principal-in-charge,” Cecchini says. “Everybody’s ideas are important. They might not all be used, but they contribute to a better result and a more creative experience.”

Many projects undergo a collaborative review process coordinated by the firm’s two design principals, McDonough and Brian Parker, AIA, REFP. The firm holds design pin-up reviews for select projects in the early design stage. This process, the firm says, promotes mentoring, innovation, sharing and evolution of design strategies, and increased awareness of trends from various market sectors. Brief, tightly focused collaborative sessions can be held any time to discuss specific design questions. Useful insights from these sessions are posted for all to see.

When forming project teams, managers encourage people to test unfamiliar waters. “We make sure that our people have the opportunity to stretch themselves, and push themselves forward,” Cecchini says. That way, he says, the work stays challenging and nobody gets stuck in a rut.

MHTN used to have a traditional studio alignment with each studio focused on a particular market sector, but that model has been largely set aside so that designers can have more flexible career paths. “We still have areas of expertise by sector with a principal-in-charge, but people can change among them if they want to, or they can focus on being a thought leader in one area,” McDonough says.

The firm prefers to promote from within rather than shopping for outside talent. This year, for example, rather than trying to recruit from outside the firm to enhance its healthcare practice, MHTN opened the search to in-house applicants. Six applied, and Mike Wilcox, Assoc. AIA, was chosen to work under healthcare director David Daining, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, NCARB. “The others will be woven into healthcare teams as those projects come on line,” says McDonough.

DEMONSTRATING LEADERSHIP in sustainability

Utah is known for its picturesque landscapes, as well as its population’s love of the outdoors. MHTN is doing its part to ensure that this treasured environment is preserved for future generations by being a green design leader. Five years ago, the firm remodeled its corporate office to LEED-CI Gold, making it the first Utah-based design firm to achieve that distinction.

“It’s really Gold-plus,” says McDonough. “We were just one point short of Platinum.” The impracticality of replacing the existing HVAC system was the main reason the project fell just under the highest LEED certification mark. The office has lived up to its promise as a learning environment for clients, engineering and construction partners, and the public. “We’re quite proud of achieving LEED Gold in a 1970s-era building.”

The project’s sustainability features and results include:

• Automatic light dimmers

• 55% reduction in water use from a high-efficiency plumbing system

• 38% reuse of furniture

• 40% reuse of building components

• 40% reduction of electricity use

• 5% use of rapidly renewable materials

• 100% use of low-VOC materials

• Diversion of 85% of construction waste from landfill

Seven MHTN designers worked mostly full time on the project, although the design team had plenty of input from the whole staff. The result was an open office environment, with just three private offices, that fosters collaboration in a setting flooded with natural light.

The project led to an unexpected bonus—the development of Early Eco, a proprietary cost analysis software tool to help designers choose green components that yield the best value. “It’s like having a shopping list of items in pre-design that you use to figure out cost and payback,” says Cecchini. Now, the tool helps MHTN designers present sustainable design options to clients with data on payback costs in years.

Early Eco, whose development can be traced largely to Glen Beckstead, ASPE, the firm’s full-time cost estimator (a rarity for a 65-person architecture firm), gives MHTN a competitive advantage with clients such as K-12 school systems that may not be familiar with financial aspects of green features. In one case involving a new school in Ogden, Utah, the Early Eco tool helped MHTN provide the school district with a more detailed understanding of the costs and paybacks of LEED sustainable design points. The project went on to become the first public school in the state to earn LEED-NC certification.

STRONG SUPPORT FOR TRAINING AND PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT

MHTN’s formal professional development program spurs individuals to set their own goals, and the firm provides the means to achieve them. MHTN sets aside an hour every Monday for companywide training on such topics as design, consultant relationships, operational topics, and marketing. An intensive half-day training session on building client relationships is held every six months. Staff members brush up on presentation skills, meeting management, and other topics related to interacting with clients.

A robust mentoring program provides guidance for budding and seasoned professionals alike. All staff members, at both the principal and nonprincipal level, are assigned mentors. “That gives them someone they rely on who grows to understand them over time,” says Cecchini. “When we have a professional development meeting”—MHTN’s version of an annual review—“the mentor comes to the meeting with the individual whose development is being discussed.” This process allows the mentor to assess how to help the individual achieve the agreed-upon goals.

MHTN is accredited for in-house training by the AIA CES Discovery continuing education program and offers about 30 programs a year. The firm encourages staff to get involved with AIA and other professional associations, allowing paid time off for attending committee meetings. Several staff members play prominent roles in the local AIA chapter, including Robert Pinon, a member of the AIA Young Architects Forum. Cecchini is president of the state AIA component.

MHTN was an early adopter of BIM, having first used it eight years ago. Today, all projects use Autodesk Revit, and all project teams have a full-time data leader dedicated to managing and monitoring each project’s BIM model across all disciplines. This “orchestra leader” is charged with coordinating the information added to the model and checking accuracy and relevance. As for integrated project delivery, the firm sees it as often going hand in hand with BIM, and that IPD is critical to balancing the needs of the many stakeholders in large-scale projects.

PROMOTING SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY AND INTRAMURAL COLLEGIALITY

MHTN is participating in Architecture 2030, the national effort to achieve a 70% reduction in fossil fuel impacts from new construction and major renovations by 2015, and net-zero by 2030. MHTN was the first company headquartered in Utah to join the U.S. EPA Climate Leaders program for organizations to complete a corporate-wide greenhouse gas inventory and set a reduction goal.

MHTN participated in Utah’s 2010 Clear the Air Challenge, a contest among professional firms to reduce their carbon footprints. One employee, design leader Brian Parker, earned the distinction of reducing emissions the most among all contestants in the state. “It’s a good way to help people understand their environmental impacts and get practice in reducing their carbon footprint,” says Cecchini.

A “Wall of Exchange,” a showcase of unusual and innovative projects, is housed in a prominent location in the office. This venue allows staff to share design concepts with their peers and promotes informal collaboration. “We want our staff to be well-rounded individuals,” Cecchini explains.

The firm offers flexible working hours for those with special family circumstances. If an individual has a family emergency or health concern that requires extra time off, there is a bank of time from which they can borrow. Unused paid time-off hours are pooled and are available when the need arises.

For Kimberly Johnson, senior marketing coordinator, who needed to have unplanned surgery last year, “It was great knowing that resource was available.”

Every employee’s time card has space for paid community service and professional organization service. MHTN staff volunteer for the United Way, the Utah Food Bank, Habitat for Humanity, the LDS Church Humanitarian Foundation, and many other charities. For years, the firm has provided pro bono design services to the Salt Lake CAP Head Start Program. Last year, MHTN volunteers replaced the landscaping at the Safe Harbor Crisis Center, a women and children’s shelter. The firm supports the University of Utah College of Architecture + Planning, participating on juries, and several staffers have served as adjunct faculty members.

Strongly rooted in its community with a rich history, MHTN is well positioned to serve Utah and beyond for many years. Its early adoption of BIM and green design demonstrates a vision to embrace the future. Under its new leadership structure, the firm’s next chapters look as promising as its past. BD+C

         
 

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