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Baltimore architecture firm looks to Rockies

A Baltimore architecture firm founded in 1977 by two Park School graduates and a friend has nearly doubled in size in the last two years, making its most ambitious bid for greater reach last month when it announced the expansion of its footprint to Colorado.

In two years, Hord Coplan Macht has opened an office in Alexandria, Va., wooed top talent to its ranks, and worked to merge with smaller Denver-based SlaterPaull.

The growth has brought employee count at the firm — which worked on Fells Point's Union Wharf apartments, Towson University's new SECU Arena, Morgan State University's Center for the Built Environment and Infrastructure Studies and the West Shore Park, among other projects — to 180, up from about 100 just two years ago.

"We didn't sit down and say, 'Let's open up an office in the Rocky Mountain region someday, but we did make a strategic decision that being 100 and some people in one region … was — not risky, but rather restrictive to us," said CEO Lee Coplan, 63, one of the firm's three founders.

The partnership with Slater Paull, which has a strong practice in education, will allow Hord Coplan Macht to expand geographically, building from Slater Paull's base into its other areas of expertise, Coplan said.

"Our strategy, if there is a strategy, is not to necessarily expand our services or to get into new building types, but rather to get deeper in our knowledge base, with additional people or research," he said.

Employment in architecture, engineering and related services peaked in 2008, with 1.44 million jobs nationwide, including 21,100 in the Baltimore region, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The local employment dropped to 19,600 in 2010 before recovering last year, when the number of jobs climbed to 21,300.

Hord Coplan Macht's mix of clients — which include health care, education, landscape architecture, multi-family apartments and senior living — helped it withstand the real estate industry's downturn, and press forward as the recovery began, in some sectors faster than others, said Rich Burns, an architect and member of the city's design review panel. It also provides a range of services, including architecture, planning, landscape architecture and design.

"It speaks to Hord Coplan Macht's business genius that they're very diversified," he said.

In 2009, Hord Coplan Macht absorbed employees from CSD Architects, which closed after 62 years as a result of the recession. SlaterPaull, which will operate in Denver as SlaterPaull Hord Coplan Macht, has roughly 50 employees.

The Baltimore region's central location on the East Coast has long served as a launching pad for architecture firms, such as RTKL and others, said Rob Brennan, president-elect of the AIA Baltimore chapter and principal at Brennan + Company Architects, based in Ellicott City.

"There is a history of small firms starting here and growing large," he said. "At some point a firm reaches a point where it has saturated a market with its presence and the only way to continue to grow is to move beyond that market."

Burns said Hord Coplan Macht, known for being attentive to clients, also boosted its reputation as a hub for top design, in part through its strategic hires, many of whom share ownership of the firm. For example, in 2008, Hord Coplan Macht hired Chris Harvey, now its design director, from Design Collective.

"We viewed it as poaching. They viewed it as being very smart and hiring the best people for the job," said Burns, who was a principal at Design Collective at the time.

Last year, Hord Coplan Macht had 250 active projects in the Baltimore and Washington markets, with two-thirds in the Baltimore area. Coplan declined to disclose the company's revenues, but Architectural Record reported in August that it had $22.7 million in design revenue in 2013, second only to Ayers Saint Gross' $29.8 million among Baltimore firms.

Warren Green, former president and CEO of Lifebridge Health, which owns Sinai, Northwest Hospital and Levindale, and worked repeatedly with Hord Coplan Macht, said the firm was not afraid to try new ideas, creating a space that reorganized emergency room care in Sinai's emergency center ER-7, completed in 1998.

"It was a really gratifying experience to be able to work with people who listened … carefully and stick their necks out a bit," he said.

As early as 1992, when Hord Coplan Macht had 18 employees and worked from an office in Charles Village, the firm looked to expand its range, temporarily merging with a larger firm based in San Francisco. Its offices are now downtown on Pratt Street.

Hord Coplan Macht made a cold call to SlaterPaull about the possibility of joining forces, said James Pedler, the Denver firm's president. After a long courting process, the firms' cultural similarities brought them together, he said.

"We came to the conclusion that we really could be stronger together than each of us just proceeding the way we were," Pedler said.

At Hord Coplan Macht the culture of self-direction stems in part from the experience of being schooled at Park, which prides itself on a progressive approach to education, said Coplan, who met co-founder Carol Macht, a landscape architect, there in ninth grade. Ed Hord, the third founder, went to school at Washington University in St. Louis with Macht and later worked in Baltimore.

Park "was progressive in its approach to education and it worked well for people who were self-motivated and didn't work well for people who needed a lot of direction and guidance," Coplan said. "We are like that — if you are self-motivated and have a desire to grow professionally, we will give you the room and resources to do that."

The new possibilities out west won't take the firm away from its Baltimore beginnings, he added: "Our roots are here in Baltimore … and that won't change."

nsherman@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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