With a single client and a fax machine in hand, Holland Basham Architects was launched 25 years ago in the basement of one of the founding partners' homes.
A risky move seven years later from a downtown Omaha office to a former synagogue offered space to grow into its current 35-person staff. Now boosted by a national Cabela's contract, other repeat clients and an economic upswing, Holland Basham again has expanded, nearly doubling its workspace and creating room for more employees.
“We've got enough people now that we can do any size project anywhere in the world,” said Keith Basham, who founded the firm with Omaha native Tim Holland. “Yet we're small enough we still run this like a small business and can be responsive to our clients.”
The firm whose reach has gone nationwide — boasting high-profile projects such as John Deere's North American sales and marketing center to smaller-scoped efforts like an outdoor plaza for Omaha Creighton Prep — will celebrate its silver anniversary with an open house for clients today at 119 S. 49th Ave.
Guests will see the ongoing evolution of the former Beth El Synagogue into a modern architectural machine marked by 28-foot-high ceilings and open spaces that promote collaboration.
They'll see the recent renovation that knocked down a wall to add 8,000 square feet to the 10,000-square-foot remodeled sanctuary that served as the main office area.
They'll see that the original fax machine has been replaced by high-tech equipment including a 3-D printer that spits out miniature models for clients to hold and examine.
It represents a growth pace that the founders hadn't fully anticipated when they started out in Holland's basement.
As they recalled, both Holland and Basham had been seeking a career change and met each other through a mutual colleague. They jointly pitched a design for a potential client who ended up offering them a $30 million life care center project. The two swiftly resigned from their jobs.
“We had no office, no equipment,” Basham said. “They gave us money to buy a fax machine, which was the hottest thing then. We took the furniture out of Tim's remodeled basement, set up desks — and it was off and running.”
Clients who had worked previously with either Holland or Basham looked to the fledgling firm for new projects. (Today the firm claims a 93 percent repeat business, meaning that share of its workload comes from past loyal customers.)
When the partners decided in 1996 to move to the synagogue, they risked offending religious leaders and further agitating neighbors who had bristled over an earlier developer's plan to demolish the sacred structure and erect apartments.
Holland Basham ultimately won over potential critics with a sensitive remodel of the 1938 brick building designed by John and Alan McDonald, a father-son team known for such Omaha landmarks as Benson High School and the Dundee Theater.
The firm didn't have enough people to fill the structure, Basham recalled, “but it sure gave us stature.”
A pivotal project that propelled the firm was the world headquarters campus near Boulder, Colo., for Level 3 Communications, a spinoff of Kiewit Corp. The 55-acre site capable of housing 7,000 employees opened in 1999.
“They were hiring people like crazy,” Basham said. “It was fascinating to be reactive to that.”
Holland Basham's staff grew from about 12 in the mid-1990s to 18 in 2008 to the current 35.
The firm today has 30 projects in the design phase, 20 in the construction drawing phase and 40 under construction, Holland said. Those ongoing projects range from a Cabela's store in Anchorage, Alaska, to a wounded warriors veterans facility in St. Petersburg, Fla.
So far this year, Holland said, the firm has designed nearly $200 million worth of buildings. And 13 people were hired. “Everything is starting to move again,” Holland said.
Cabela's represents Holland Basham's bread-and-butter, repeat business clients. Mark Nienhueser, who led the Level 3 Communications campus through Kiewit Construction, contacted Holland Basham after a career shift took him to Cabela's.
The architecture firm subsequently was hired to design the Cabela's data center in Papillion, its World's Foremost Bank in Lincoln and retail prototypes that range from 40,000 square feet to 120,000 square feet.
Nienhueser said that in his 20-plus-year relationship with Holland Basham he has found its teams to have a “can-do attitude” and to deliver a “high quality project on time and within budget.”
Also heavy in the architects' workload are designs of university buildings and renovations. Among them: the 120,000-square-foot University of Nebraska at Omaha Mammel Hall College of Business Administration and the off-campus University of Nebraska-Lincoln student housing and parking garage to be completed next summer.
The privately developed 10-story structure for UNL students is to be managed by America First Real Estate Group, which also has hired Holland Basham for numerous downtown Omaha apartment buildings, including the current Jones13 near the Old Market.
John Wilhelm, Creighton University's vice president for administration, said Creighton is a longtime Holland Basham client drawn to its expertise in the higher education industry. He said that Tim Holland, since the early 2000s, has played a key role in the Omaha campus's master plan.
“They are somebody we can rely on from a very small concept project to something as extensive as a new building on campus,” Wilhelm said.
Holland said his firm didn't have to cut employees during the recent recession, as work was steady with the 1 million-square-foot Midtown Crossing project and several Alegent Creighton Health hospital renovations. When the economy picked up, he said, the firm was ready to take available jobs.
“Demand is building,” he said. “Speculative office buildings are coming back.”
Speculative office complexes (those built without tenants lined up in advance) are a sign of confidence in the market. Holland cited a new project at 180th Street and West Dodge Road that his firm has been tapped to design for Noddle Development. Others are in the pipeline.
Also on the rise is demand for recreational facilities, Holland said, citing such projects as the Omaha Multi-Sport Complex at Tranquility Park and a recently completed football stadium in Treynor, Iowa.
Meanwhile, Holland Basham this year promoted eight people to the associate level. Years earlier, it named four additional partners: Steve Kuzelka, Susan Seidel, Curt Witzenburg and Tom Zuk.
With batting cages, a golf practice area and weight room in the basement, the founding partners said they want to promote a healthy and fun work environment.
Holland and Basham credit community support for their company's growth, and in turn contribute to numerous civic organizations and events. Holland, for example, helped lead the effort to create a football and soccer stadium for his alma mater, Omaha South High.
The firm will ask visitors today to name their favorite nonprofit organization, determining the firm's donations.
Holland is so entrenched in his work that he and his wife, Jonna, recently traded their historic home for a Midtown Crossing condo, a move that allows him to “live our design” and witness firsthand the impact an HBA-involved project has on a community.
“Sitting on my balcony and watching thousands of people enjoy the spaces we envisioned 10 years ago — that's incredibly rewarding as an architect.”