Out of the Ashes
Firm Ground Architects & Engineers celebrates 10 years of creating livable environments for clients
When the development company Tom Wasmoen worked for went out of business during the Great Recession in 2009, he and his co-workers gathered for a drink at a local bar to discuss their path forward. “It was a pretty tough time,” Tom recalls. “We had worked for a month without getting paid.” But recognizing their talents, the architects and engineers clinked their beers together and Firm Ground Architects & Engineers (Firm Ground) was born.
“The economy was shaky at the time and we wanted people to know we were on firm ground,” he says about the company’s name.
The firm celebrated 10 successful years in business in February 2019, providing architecture services for construction projects in 12 states across the Midwest. The firm is currently working to get licensed to practice in Texas as well.
The company’s rise out of the ashes is a source of pride for Tom, who now serves as the Managing Principal of the firm. Two of the original partners split off in 2011 to form their own civil engineering and landscape architectural companies that Tom partners with today to meet client needs. “Out of the development company that crashed and burned, there are three new companies that employ around 35 people total, more than our former company. We feel we’re a great success story,” he says.
In the Beginning
One of Firm Ground’s first projects that inaugural year was the renovation of a historic mansion for use as a treatment center for People Incorporated, a provider of integrated behavioral and mental health services in Minnesota. “We’ve had a project with them almost every year since we started,” Tom shares.
The firm also was asked to replace buildings for the Minnesota Renaissance Festival, the largest Renaissance festival in the U.S., attracting 300,000 annually. That led to ongoing work for the venue, including design of a zip line for the festival’s Wizard Training School three years ago.
The firm’s client list continued to build and the number of projects increased. Seven years ago, Jeff Schuler joined the firm and more than a year ago became a partner and architect, and four years ago, Gillian Cermak was hired as Business Manager. “From the day Gillian started, business has taken off,” Tom notes. “She runs the office so we can build the business.”
With eight full-time employees, the firm is still growing. “Our workload continues to increase, as does the size and complexity of our projects, but we haven’t forgotten our roots,” Tom says. Having worked for a large design-build company in town for 10 years and then for the residential development firm, Tom understands the importance of client stewardship from both sides of the fence. “We have an owner’s view on the budget,” he explains. “We provide professionally inspired design, but we want to make sure that we are good stewards in taking care of their money. Our focus is understanding our clients’ desires.”
To do that, Firm Ground uses a technique called visual listening. “We take the time to sit down and work through mood images to get a sense of the client’s design style,” Tom explains. “We show a lot of different projects, places and architectural treatments to determine if they like things classically designed, modern or somewhere in the middle. Are they drawn toward more earthy materials, bright colors or clean white spaces? We create a language we can use together and it demystifies design for our clients.”
Jeff notes that the mix of people in the office with different design styles helps with the process. “We have people who like to design historic-looking buildings and those who like modern architecture. A lot of architectural firms have a certain style, and you either like it or you don’t. You always get the same feel. We make sure we listen to what the client wants so they realize their vision with our help instead of us telling them how it’s going to work,” Jeff adds.
Firm Ground renders its designs in 3D, providing videos that show a virtual walkthrough to help clients understand the scale of space, its use and its function. “We show how it will feel rather than what’s on a piece of paper so they don’t have any surprises,” Jeff says. “By showing them how big a space is and how it will function, we often can design a more efficient building that saves the client money.”
One reason the firm has so many repeat clients is because the Firm Ground team is approachable. “No one takes themselves too seriously,” Jeff says. “We’re all friends, and we like to have fun. We’re also friends with our clients. We’re active partners with our clients.”
“We get our hands dirty,” Tom adds. “We do observational programming with our clients to talk about what works well and what doesn’t.” Tom takes that same approach with his staff, meeting each week with one staff person to talk about what’s working and what isn’t in their professional world. “I want to find out what needs to be done to help them unfold their wings and fly and take the job as far as it can go. People feel like they are being listened to.”
Tom believes that, as a result, the team works well together and is more responsive to client needs. “In a medium-sized firm like ours, our clients meet almost everyone in the firm and talk with the same people over and over—people who have heard their vision from the beginning,” Jeff says. “We always pay close attention to that vision, so by the time they get the keys to their space, every decision has been made within a consistent plan.”
“We have an owner’s view on the budget. We provide professionally inspired design, but we want to make sure that we are good stewards in taking care of their money. Our focus is understanding our clients’ desires.” Tom Wasmoen, AIA, Managing Principal, Partner and Architect, Firm Ground Architects & Engineers
Diverse, Interesting Projects
The members of Firm Ground have a long list of high-profile, diverse and interesting projects they are proud of.
One of the most unique projects is the design of Betty Danger’s Country Club in the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District. The eclectic restaurant features dining and drinking on the Danger (a vertically revolving patio), a Ferris wheel from Italy and a dog-friendly putt-putt golf course.
Firm Ground also designed a corporate office, teaching lab and client entertainment center for Gemini Medical in Mendota Heights, Minnesota. The firm distributes Arthrex orthopedic products to surgeons throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin. “The building has a warehouse and office and support space for sales, with the rest of the building for client education, including a classroom and cadaver lab to show how equipment is used. It includes a lounge with a bar so they can get to know their clients,” Jeff notes. He and his team are currently working on a similar project for a sister company, Gemini Mountain Medical in Denver.
In a project for St. John the Baptist Catholic Parish in Excelsior, Minnesota, the firm rotated the sanctuary 180 degrees and created a new worship space that blends the best of the church’s midcentury design with the functionality required for a 21st century worship center. The company also renovated and restored Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church, a historic landmark church in Minneapolis, built in 1916. Firm Ground was tasked with studying the building’s 100-year-old exterior and designing repairs to the structure. “We had to scaffold the entire building, which was more than 200 feet tall from the sidewalk to the top of the spire, and oversee removal of mortar from the limestone structure and the repair of 100-year-old stained glass windows,” Tom says.
The firm recently designed The Moments of Lakeville, a residential memory care facility for people with forms of dementia in Lakeville, Minnesota. The building is indicative of Firm Ground’s commitment to understanding client needs and meeting them through functional design. Firm Ground designed residential styles and finishes to create a homelike environment, including a show and demonstration kitchen in the common areas of each of the four wings of the building where residents, under careful supervision of staff, can bake cookies or other easy recipes for a connection to activities they did when they lived at home.
The firm also considered studies on how natural lighting impacts the circadian rhythm of the elderly for better sleep and added natural lighting features for patient areas. The two-story structure will be more than 60 feet tall, so that clerestory windows can be added to allow light to penetrate the center of the building. “Studies show that people depend less on antipsychotic drugs and painkillers when you protect their circadian rhythm and support good sleep habits. It facilitates healing and reduces pain management,” Tom says.
Jeff says he realized at a young age the impact a building’s environment can have on people. “If you spend time in a dingy windowless room, life is going to be dingy and dark. If you’re in an inviting environment that is well lit, people thrive. It makes life seem easier and more enriching,” he says. One of his favorite projects—Harriet’s Inn, a neighborhood pub located in South Minneapolis—does just that. “The client wanted a gathering spot, a place that could be anybody’s restaurant. We designed the exterior with intricate brickwork to match the historic buildings surrounding it. The building invites the whole community into the large outdoor patio and wide-open casual dining space featuring a large fireplace,” Jeff says.
Since the firm’s start, it has been helping People Incorporated with building project needs. “Every job we do for them is all about improving the lives of people who are living with mental illness. We think their work is important, and we want to support that,” Tom says.
Each year, the firm sponsors People Incorporated’s Artability Art Show and Sale, an arts program for adults with a mental health diagnosis. “Art and architecture go hand in hand. This is a way to do something that supports the nonprofit’s mission that aligns with our interests as architects. It’s a fun program, and we have several pieces of art from the show in our office that we display proudly,” Tom says.
As a member of NAIOP, one of North America’s largest commercial real estate development associations, Jeff coordinates the firm’s donations to Crescent Cove, Minnesota’s first and only hospice home designed for children and just the third of its kind in the U.S. “Crescent Cove is only 2 miles from my home and their mission, to improve the lives of children with terminal medical issues, is one I feel compelled to help with,” he says. The firm also supports the CREW Network Foundation, which is dedicated to transforming the commercial real estate industry by advancing women globally.
With Tom being a graduate of the University of Minnesota and Jeff a graduate of North Dakota State University, the firm hires interns from their alma maters to help students grow their careers. They also employ drafting students from Minneapolis Community & Technical College.
Buildings to Love
A self-proclaimed fan of Walt Disney, Tom admires Disney’s ability to create amusement parks that amaze both children and adults. One of his favorite Disney quotes is “You don’t build it for yourself. You know what the people want, and you build it for them.”
“In a way, we adapt that same philosophy to our clients’ projects,” he says. “We make our clients feel like the process is fun, and we work to create buildings that they love at the end.”