by Andi Agnew
A casual observer might not be able to tell if these young people having lunch at Babalu Tapas & Tacos are friends, or if they are coworkers. There is lots of laughter, inside jokes and camaraderie. But they are indeed coworkers, architects in fact, at Wier Boerner Allin.
Jamie Wier and Michael Boerner began the firm in 2009. For the first year, they mostly worked out of their living rooms or local coffee shops like Cups and Starbucks. Partner Jack Allin joined later on. In September of 2010, the firm moved into the first floor of Fondren Corner. Wade Thompson, associate, joined shortly thereafter in 2010.
The firm grew quickly, adding associates Brian Wiginton and Molly Frascogna in 2011, and Ryan Hansen and Russ Markle in 2013. Eric Whitfield joined in 2012 and has recently been promoted to partner.
The firm recently acquired and renovated the building near the fork where Old Canton Road meets State Street in Fondren. Some elements are still under construction, but the firm is up and running in the space. The final touch will be a roof deck, which everyone seems particularly excited about.
Despite the average age of the group hovering somewhere around 35, each architect at Wier Boerner Allin has over a decade of experience under his or her belt. Thompson thinks that their combined experience from varying backgrounds is a definite strength. “From the beginning, Michael and Jamie have recognized that as being an important element to the longevity and sustainability of the firm. It’s not just the two of them, it’s really a collaboration between all of us. We had all worked at multiple firms and in other cities, so we had lots of different experiences and strengths, weaknesses, and opinions coming together.”
“None of us are super possessive about what we’re working on – sometimes you’re going to be, because to really be passionate about a project, you have to have some kind of emotional investment,” said Wiginton. “For example, I’ve been at the firm longer than Russ, but there might be a time when Russ is the manager of a job and I’m just helping him, and vice-versa… they’re all ‘our’ projects, so we all do what needs to be done so that the project is successful.”
“That’s important for the client too, because in the end, they’re not our buildings,” Hansen points out. “I remember the first project I did: I was onsite for every line that got drawn, but the day I walked into the completed building, I still had to get clearance at the front desk to go back, because it wasn’t my building. We have to adopt that mentality so that we can design as a group and really listen to our clients.”
One way Wier Boerner Allin fosters community is by being open to designing a variety of projects for a wide range of clients and needs. “It’s very diverse from the type of client to the size and complexity of the project. When we were just starting out, there wasn’t anything we wouldn’t try, no matter how small,” Thompson says.
Wiginton recalls: “Part of that was opening a real estate construction-based business in 2009… the necessity of the market at the time forced them to develop an intricate web of connections and relationships. I think all those were good pathways to where we are now.”
“I think our most important Fondren project is Babalu, which was one of the jobs Michael, Jamie and Wade took on in the infancy of the firm. That job became a good springboard for a lot of other things,” Hansen says. With Babalu expanding across the region, their designs have been replicated over and over.
“All of the other Babalu locations have similarities, but each one has its own character. The owners didn’t want to take the same design and stamp it somewhere else, but rather to reflect the community around the restaurant,” Whitfield explains.
The firm is also particularly proud of their work on the Midtown Charter School. “It’s small and not flashy, but it speaks to the aspiration we have to do meaningful work that contributes to the community around us,” Hansen says.
These architects work hard, but enjoy having the flexibility to balance personal and work life. “From the onset, Jamie and Michael went to other leaders in the community and tried to pick their brains on what created success for their companies. One thing that came out of that was to hire people who are smarter than you – they are very intentional on finding all-star people to work for them. They look for collaborative spirit in each person. We take our deadlines very seriously and sometimes do more work than we even need to, but we have fun doing it,” Whitfield says.
There is a sense of loyalty to Fondren and belonging to the surrounding community, but also a strong sense of community within the firm itself. Wiginton recalls, “At the groundbreaking (for the new office space), the owners stated that it was important for them to stay in Fondren because, whether it was being a tenant in a building somewhere, or getting to know the people you buy lunch from three times a week, a lot about this neighborhood has supported and nurtured the firm for a long time. It was important to them to stay around.”