There are a lot of skills they don’t teach you in college; chief among them is how to run a business. This is especially true of architecture school, where the emphasis is on design thinking and not profits and pro formas. Lucky for design/builder Rob Carlton, AIA, that his postgraduate training was at the entrepreneurial architecture firm, Looney Ricks Kiss in Memphis. LRK has always led the way among firms that work with developers, with one eye on design rigor and the other eye on market forces. They design real world projects for real people, and it was a solid education for a young designer right out of school.
“Working for Carson Looney taught me a great deal about the housing market from the perspective of commerce,” says Rob. “The homebuilding industry was a foreign thing to me before I got there. And it was exciting to be a part of their developing architecture for new urban communities.” Ultimately, though, the interlude was a cul-de-sac on Rob’s path to a career in custom residential design and construction—albeit an important one. Not only did he acquire a few of those skills not taught in school, but he made significant professional contacts that pay dividends to this day (and some personals ones, too).
It was a time of great opportunity and bounty in the early 2000s, so Rob moved on to a town and to architectural work that were more in keeping with his zeitgeist (“I had sworn I would never live in Memphis,” says the Tennessee native). The place that beckoned was the mountain town of Asheville, North Carolina, and the small generalist firm, Samsel Architects. “I was looking for residential and they had a growing portfolio of residential work, but honestly it was the city that hooked me. It has great culture, a very creative environment—it’s not your typical Southern city.”
The Road Ahead
He got there right before 9/11. But, he says, given this decade’s Great Recession, the dip in the economy back then felt more like a blip in his forward trajectory. Indeed, the next few years were boom times in Asheville. The development of Biltmore’s vast landholdings was moving full speed ahead, along with other high-end communities around the nearby mountains and lakes of South Carolina. Rob was in the thick of it, expanding his list of connections among developers, builders, and other influencers. He was helped along by his wife, Dawn, a property manager at the time with her own relationships with developers and builders.
Thus around 2005, Rob felt it was the right time to go out on his own. Oops. “I could see all this building going on. I knew all these builders, I had all these relationships, and I had just passed my licensing exam,” he recalls. “I knew I loved this work, and I wanted to do it every day. The seed was planted, and it felt like there was no failing. Had I known what was around the corner, I might not have done it. But it was great for a couple of years.”
Having survived some intervening years of struggle, business is great again, although Rob notes that market exuberance is more rational these days. He feels the firm is better anchored now against rogue waves the economy may spawn. During the slowdown, he picked up his contractor’s license, so he’s able to build many of the houses his Asheville office designs—capturing more dollars on each project and maintaining quality control. And he’s expanded the business cautiously into Memphis (2013), with former LRK alum Jeff Edwards at the helm there, and into Nashville (2016), with Matt Zink, AIA, who interned in the Asheville office 10 years earlier. Jeff brings a great residential client base in another region, and Matt offers an additional revenue stream in restaurant design. They are each design directors in their locales, and Rob’s office supports them on the business side. Only the Asheville office offers construction services.
“The past recession was certainly a backdrop to these decisions to diversify—geographically and into design/build,” says Rob. “We want to be ready for the next big thing, but we’ll only move toward these opportunities if they’re about delivering good design.
“Adding construction services was definitely born of necessity, but also a desire to be close to the work and close to all aspects of the decision making,” he continues. “By its nature, architect-led design/build is integrated project delivery. It’s the buzzword in the industry now, but it’s just the nature of how we go about our work every day: a builder sitting next to an architect, hearing phone calls—both good and bad. The awareness of what’s happening on your project is instantaneous—instead of the lag and draw down of time and energy that’s so inefficient.”
Given how much and how fast the firm has grown in the last few years, efficiency is very much on Rob’s mind. Foremost on his to-do list is refining how the office collaborates—in Asheville, with the other offices, and with clients. So, he’s investing in the best tools and technology he can find. “We produce our drawings in Revit. But we’re also adopting BIM360, so we can be more collaborative inter-office and intra-office. Day in and day out, we use Enscape to study the details—the visualization it affords is irreplaceable,” he explains. “Enscape will export to an Oculus headset, so we can get clients into the space. It’s great for explaining concepts and resolution at a level we could never do before—it gets them more engaged in the project. And I’m very confident it will save money on change orders.”
The virtual reality (VR) tools have had the unexpected benefit of supporting Rob’s burgeoning workload as both a designer and managing principal. “I’m 46, and already a dinosaur versus the 24-year-olds in my office,” he says. “I’m probably not going to learn Revit, but I will engage with VR and it enables me to stay on top of the details.”
After rolling out VR tools in the Asheville office, Rob is moving ahead with their deployment in the other offices. “To attract and keep the best talent, you have to have the best technology,” he says.
It’s clear the young people coming to his firm will receive the same first-rate education in business management he did back at LRK. Looney Ricks Kiss grew too big too fast, forcing a Chapter 11 reorganization at the nadir of the recession, so Rob applies those lessons, as well, by taking proactive measures while times are good: diversification into different revenue streams, different markets, and acquiring the right tools to trim waste. It’s all a means to a single end, however—delivering good design.
Selected Projects by Carlton Edwards
[Project information provided by the firm]
Balsam Mountain Preserve
The site for the Balsam Mountain Preserve residence provides clear views to the West and North. The placement of and approach to the house were influenced by a ridge that runs through the middle of the lot. The owners wanted large expanses of glass to maximize the views and to give them a constant reminder of their environment.
This modern lake house is located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The residence overlooks a mountain lake with expansive mountain views beyond. The design ties the home to its surroundings and enhances the ability to experience both home and nature together. The entry level serves as the primary living space and is situated into three groupings; the Great Room, the Guest Suite and the Master Suite. A glass connector links the Master Suite, providing privacy and the opportunity for terrace and garden areas.
The Windsor house is located on a steep site in a developed neighborhood in North Asheville, just below Reynolds Mountain. The shed roof contrasts the site topography forming a modest entry that opens up to the expansive mountain views at the rear of the home. The living, dining, and outdoor areas are placed to capture these views of the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains. The interior is wrapped in cypress and European beach and is accented with darkened steel elements to fashion a warm modern interior design. Energy modeling during the design phase, along with LoE windows, foam insulation and a geothermal heat pump create a very efficient home.
Located in downtown Memphis, Wagner Place is one of Carlton Edwards largest projects. Located in a historic building once used as a warehouse this 12,000 square foot residential conversion was designed to balance the historical with the modern. The living spaces and roof structure were designed to allow for a seamless transition between indoor and outdoor; opening towards views over the Mississippi River and the Memphis skyline. A primary ambition of the project was to connect the different spaces in a meaningful way; from the custom designed lower level wine room, to the the entry foyer, to the two-story library and mezzanine. These elements are arranged around a bright white central atrium and staircase, an ideal backdrop to the client’s evolving art collection.