Originally published in Business Digest, June 1997

Three of a Kind Makes a Full House

by Craig C. Bailey

The principals of Guillot-Vivian-Viehmann Architects Inc. (GVV) joke that their firm's incorporation on April Fool's Day 1996 might have some ironic symbolism. Don't believe it. With an active project list that includes the Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd. job, one of northern Vermont's most significant and talked about building projects in years, these three are a far cry from court jesters -- even if they do crack themselves up now and then.

From a comfortable living room on the first floor of Frank Guillot's looming Victorian on South Union Street, just across the hall from the small, oddly shaped workspace the Burlington firm calls home, the trio recalls the firm's evolution.

When Guillot purchased the house in 1985, it was after working in downtown Burlington office space for more than 20 years, since he moved to Vermont with his pediatrician wife, Ann, in 1974. With an early life that included bouncing among New Jersey, Connecticut, and Japan -- all before he graduated from high school -- and an architecture degree earned from MIT in 1970, Guillot first worked for Anthony Adams AIA Architect in Burlington. Five years later, the two formed a partnership: Adams/Guillot Architects Ltd.

It lasted a year, until Adams took a planned six-month sabbatical. "A year later he called and said he wasn't coming back," Guillot exclaims, "so I was on my own!" Consequently, in 1980, Adams/Guillot became Frank Guillot Architects Ltd., and moved into Guillot's home five years later.

[Doug Viehmann, Frank Guillot and Ann Vivian] The principals of Guillot-Vivian-Viehmann Architects Inc. in Burlington, (left to right) Doug Viehmann, Frank Guillot and Ann Vivian, pulled together a team that landed the Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd. job in Milton eight months ago. They assembled the team and submitted their initial proposal in less than a week. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

"I was a little bit concerned about being able to tell the difference between when I was at work and when I was at home," Guillot says of that office arrangement, competing with the cries of the office cat, who has wandered into the room as if on cue. "I established this signal that I would wear a necktie when I was at work, and when I was at home, I took my necktie off." The method was sufficient to communicate to Guillot's three children, now 20, 16 and 12, when their father was at "the office" and when he was "home."

"I've really felt like it's an overall advantage to have the office at home, because it's less disruptive to the family if I have to spend some time in the evening working, particularly with my wife being a doctor and occasionally having to go out on call," he says. "I can still work and be available to the kids."

The casual nature and convenient location of the office works well for Ann Vivian and Doug Viehmann, as well. The couple's two boys, 7 and 12, often stop by the office after school, located just moments away, and Vivian says she can enjoy the five-minute bike ride to the office from the family's Burlington home. (Further investigation reveals the "bike" in question is a new, red Suzuki GS500, a revelation that results in teasing cries of "Mid-life crisis!" from her partners.)

Vivian and Viehmann met in 1974, while studying architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in Providence. Viehmann, a native of Vermont who grew up in Andover, Mass., went on to run Conservative Builders in South China, Maine, for two years following graduation from RISD. In 1978, he moved to Vermont to join Vivian, a Boston native who grew up in Arlington, Mass., and first worked in Vermont as a draftsperson/designer for Parallax Inc. in Hinesburg, following her graduation.

"I wanted to go north, because I really liked to ski. Once I got up here, it was obvious that I didn't want to leave," Vivian says. "We just decided this was a great place to think about raising a family. To start with, we couldn't think of any other place we'd rather be. This really felt like home, so we stayed here."

Vivian and Viehmann were married in 1980.

[Ann Vivian and Doug Viehmann] Ann Vivian and Doug Viehmann (pictured) are in the process of equipping their home office. "We hope to get the CAD up and running," says Vivian, "and then a modem, so we can send things back and forth between the offices." Partner Frank Guillot, whose home hosts the firm's headquarters, says interest in electronic transmission of architectural documents is on the rise. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

The pivotal moment in GVV's formation occurred some 15 years later, when Viehmann determined, after 11 years as a project architect at JG Architects Inc. in South Burlington, that he needed a change. At the time, Vivian was an associate and project architect with Guillot's firm, her second stint with Guillot after a four-year period from 1978 to 1982.

Vivian and Viehmann planned on venturing forth on their own, under the name Vivid Architects, a name they'd used on the side since 1987, which would effectively remove Vivian from the roster of Guillot's firm.

"I didn't particularly like the idea of that kind of change," Guillot says understatedly. Faced with losing Vivian, Guillot proposed a three-way partnership. "I thought that we had an adequate chemistry that we clearly demonstrated over time," Guillot says. "The only wild card was Doug," he continues with a chuckle, "and I figured if Ann could put up with him, I could."

"He's a good marriage counselor," Vivian jokes of Guillot, who witnessed his partners' vows back in 1980.

"I also very much liked the kind of experience that Doug had in market areas that we hadn't been in," Guillot continues, "school work and bank work and things like that."

While the firm doesn't specialize in any particular type of architecture, Vivian says everyone has favorites. "Church work is often different than a lot of other work in that it's built hopefully to last for a long time," she says of her favorite. "It has real meaning for people, too."

"In sacred spaces, light can be a tremendous animator and decorative element in the space -- much more than most any other kind of design," says Guillot, who also lists affordable housing and medical office space as pet projects.

While many of the firm's assignments, residential and commercial, come from repeat clients, many times the process begins with Viehmann, who scours the newspapers for "requests for proposals." GVV's involvement with a project goes from initial consulting with the client and subsequent presentation of a variety of solutions to the proposal, right on through choosing which plan to implement, selecting a contractor, and construction, depending on the specifics of the job.

"All the way along, it's dealing with people," explains Guillot.

"The real strength of our firm," says Vivian, "is we really enjoy working with owners and clients or an owner's team in a real collaborative way to come up with a solution that's best."

"Our whole training is problem-solving. And sometimes the solution to a problem isn't a building or a renovation," adds Guillot. "Sometimes it's something else entirely. And that's part of our training -- is to be able to sit down, listen to what the client's needs are."

"Sometimes you end up saying, 'No, you don't need our services. Go try this instead'," admits Viehmann.

"Different furniture," adds Guillot.

"Change the carpet," says Vivian.

"There's sort of a perceived glamour to architecture," says Viehmann. "The moment of coming up with a concept that actually is the one that's the right one," he adds. "On most jobs, you get about 15 minutes of that," compared to upwards of 3,000 hours of the less glitzy process of implementing the idea.

"One of the reasons I think I went into architecture was because I knew that I wanted to be able to mold space in ways that would help people," he continues. "And maybe 90 percent of all people who go into architecture school have that kind of philosophical bent. 'Oh, yes, I'm going to make the world better.' And then you come out and you face reality," he adds with a laugh.

On a serious note, Viehmann says clients are becoming more and more in touch with such philosophical notions -- the concepts and theories behind architecture and its effects.

"There's starting to be real hard data research in terms of people getting better in hospitals when they have a view of water," Guillot cites as an example. "People are realizing there are techniques for stress reduction that are design dependent -- that can be designed into workspace so that people working in an otherwise stressful environment can be more productive longer just because of the environment that they're working in."

[Frank Guillot] Frank Guillot's worked in Burlington since 1974, long enough to see a building he designed, a Merchants Bank branch on College St., torn down after only 10 years to make room for a parking garage. "It made me feel old!" he jokes. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

For Husky, and consequently for GVV, the trick seems to be how to plan for a future that will be determined only by an uncertain market. A Canadian manufacturer of heavy equipment used in manufacturing plastic products, Husky is in the process of constructing a facility on a 700-acre site along the east shore of Lake Arrowhead, just north of Milton, pending Act 250 approval.

The Husky site would initially employ 240 people, a number that might eventually grow to 2,000, making the firm one of the largest private employers in the state. Compared to the size of most of GVV's jobs, this is a monster assignment, which makes it all the more unbelievable that neither Vivian, Viehmann nor Guillot seem to remember how they learned of the opportunity in October.

Viehmann begins, "We read an article in ..."

"Something," says Vivian.

"Something," confirms Viehmann, "that said Pizzagalli had been chosen as the construction manager for the permit process. I had some contacts with people there, and I called up one of them and asked about it, and he said, 'Well, no, there's not much architecture there. And you don't really want it. It's not much of a job.' And I said, 'Why don't you send me the information.' So he did, and it was due the following week. I guess it'd been on the street for about a month.

"We looked at it and realized that they were really looking for somebody with high power," he continues. "This was an international corporation with really big goals, and if we were going to keep up with them, we need to collaborate with somebody who had that some kind of image."

GVV turned to Centerbrook Architects & Planners, an international architecture firm in Essex, Conn., consisting of about 60 people and a half-dozen partners, a couple of whom Vivian and Viehmann knew from college. It also added landscape architect Chris Dunn of Dunn Associates in Burlington to the three-way team it assembled in a scramble to meet the deadline. Altogether, the team formed and submitted the required materials in less than a week.

"That's short notice," Viehmann adds. "The proposal that went in was about a half an inch thick. It was a mad dash at the last minute for Frank to get there for the deadline. We were the last in the door."

With about 30 other U.S. and Canadian teams competing for the job, GVV's team was selected as one of three finalists that were then paid a stipend to develop a master plan over five weeks for the Husky site.

"One of the things that we've been talking about is how much we enjoy the collaborative design process," says Guillot. "The process that we were forced to work under by the design competition approach was just the opposite to that. There wasn't any give and take. We had to make our own assumptions." It was a state of affairs that would change entirely, once the firm was awarded the job.

"We thought we had a really good team, and we thought we were very well prepared," says Viehmann, "but it's always a crap shoot. You just don't know what they're looking for. You just hope they're looking for what you're presenting."

As it turns out, they were.

[church] The GVV Architects active project list includes three churches. "Church work is often different than a lot of other work in that it's built, hopefully, to last for a long time," says Ann Vivian. "It has real meaning for people, too." Pictured: Second Congregational United Church of Christ, Jeffersonville. (Photo: Carolyn Bates)

Before GVV could make it back to Burlington from their 45-minute presentation Dec. 17 in Ontario, Husky had already called and left an answering machine message that revealed no secrets. But if the wait until the next morning to discover the good news was difficult, it was nothing compared to what the team would go through over the next month. "We had to sit on it," says Guillot. "Couldn't tell anyone until the presentation was made to Milton."

During that period, "We spent a lot of time in Bolton, Ontario, back and forth," according to Viehmann.

"There are some people who figured it out," Vivian adds.

But landing the Husky job by no means secures GVV's future. Only the first building of the site has been laid out in any detail. The rest of the site, according to Viehmann, "depends on what their market demand is. ... All we've done is really identify areas where certain size buildings can go for certain types of manufacturing. No one really knows what's going to happen in those buildings or what the buildings will look like."

"I would describe that as the biggest challenge," adds Meg Lyons, an architect with Centerbrook in Connecticut working on the project.

Furthermore, while the town of Milton has given Husky thumbs up, the Canadian firm still has to receive Act 250 approval before building can begin. According to Viehmann, Husky needs to know by June so it can build a facility before orders start backing up. If the deal fails, Husky will look for another site, and GVV's role in the project will be uncertain.

"Everything has fallen into place so far. And I think one of the biggest things that gives me confidence in the process is Husky's approach to the process," says Guillot. "They've been absolutely up front, absolutely honest with what their needs were, what their goals were. I've been really impressed with how when they say something, that's what they mean. There isn't any game-playing."

"It feels pretty good today," adds Viehmann, "but we're only half way through the Act 250 process."

It looks like all three partners of GVV might have to learn how to work with crossed fingers until the verdict comes in.

Addendum

On Thursday, May 29, Husky Injection Molding Systems won the permit to construct its first building. The District 4 Environmental Commission indicated that more permits for additional buildings will be granted, if Husky helps create a plan to protect open space at the site. Less than a week later, voters in Milton voted to grant Husky a fixed tax rate. The rate will be $1.95 per $100 of property, and will remain the same for 10 years.

On Saturday, June 14, Husky president Robert Schad, formally announced that his firm will locate the plant in Milton, with construction to begin in July.