Welcome to our Interview with An Expert Series, where we ask Kahler Slater’s Thought Leaders key questions about their industry. First up is Aaron Ebent, AIA, Associate Principal, Designer sharing insights on the corporate and hospitality markets.
Aaron is an exceptional architect and talented designer. Aaron’s clients value his creativity, incredible speed and thorough understanding of their unique challenges. A skilled listener, he has led the master planning and design for several complex, highly political projects involving multiple stakeholders, providing solutions that support the project vision while pleasing several opinions and interests.
1. How long has Kahler Slater been working in the corporate and hospitality markets?
We’ve been working in corporate marketplace since our founding in 1908, going back to projects like Allen Bradley, the US Bank Tower (in partnership with SOM), Harnischfeger Corporate Headquarters (today home to the FBI in Milwaukee) and Monster.com.
Our Team recognized about a dozen years ago that the delivery of corporate projects was changing and becoming more developer based so we responded to the market and grew our portfolio by forming some great relationships with developers and the brokerage community. We still love to do end-user workplace projects but have done many of the area’s recent developer led buildings in Milwaukee such as the Global Water Center, Meadowland (in the County Research Park), 833 East Michigan and most recently BMO Tower.
We’ve been active in hospitality for about 20 years in Milwaukee and Madison, starting with early Hilton Hotel projects in both cities. One of our Milwaukee clients also took us on the road with projects like the historic Hotel Phillips in Kansas City and the Skirvin Hilton in Oklahoma City. More recently, the hospitality market really broke through in Milwaukee with new offerings like our Marriot Milwaukee which was the first new full-service hotel downtown in decades. We followed that up with the Kimpton Journeyman and The Westin, plus adaptive reuse projects like the Hilton Garden Inn, Springhill Suites, and Homewood Suites — all in downtown Milwaukee.
2. What are some of the building design trends you’re seeing?
In today’s world, resources are limited so efficiency is always a key driver. A project must be smart — both thoughtfully planned and artfully designed to maximize our clients’ investment and impact. We need to demonstrate to our clients that their money is being invested wisely, balancing the high touch areas with more sensitivity to budget on other parts of the building. From a design perspective, you often get one or two big moves. It can’t be high impact everywhere and still meet the market pressures.
Embracing contemporary architecture — a modern, contemporary, clean aesthetic is definitely a trend we’re seeing. But there are also important timeless things to keep in mind such as how the building engages with its’ context and activates the street.
Aesthetically, more successful buildings right now have a limited number of materials yet bring contrast and warmth. The very busy designs of the past are fading. We strive to simplify our designs to a unified palate, breaking them down in scale while being sensitive to the program and use of the building.
Access to daylight and connecting to outdoor amenities are also huge design trends. A design challenge going forward is balancing recent energy code changes with the amount of glass that is so prevalent and highly desirable in today’s building design.
3. What are some of the interior trends you’re seeing?
For interiors, the palette is clean and simple — also with some warm elements. Interiors are more high touch and need to feature some highly crafted elements that are tailored to that client and celebrate their unique brand or culture. Our clients have realized the power of their real estate so we have to be smart about what it can do. Sustainability is still important, but wellness and health are also really in the spotlight now.
Interior spaces need to be highly flexible to give people a choice of where they work. A hotel lobby, for example, must have places for social interaction as well as a place for working and relaxing. Similarly, office buildings need impactful lobbies, flexible work environments and access to amenities like nearby parking, training rooms, fitness, and good food.
4. What’s the most interesting project you’re working on right now and why?
That is a difficult question since it is like asking which one of my kids I like the most! I do, however, have two very interesting ones in construction and they’re very different from each other. For BMO Tower it has been fascinating to be a part of the real estate deal from the very beginning. We helped our client, Irgens, win the project and sketched some initial ideas, then developed a modern design that met all the stakeholders’ needs. When complete, it will really help reinvigorate the traditional downtown business core across from Milwaukee City Hall.
By contrast, the Brookfield Conference Center is a very different project, one that is publicly funded. It’s exciting to see how much it can transform the Brookfield Square area, repositioning them as a destination for conferences and special events by creating first class meeting and event space. We were able to do some very cool things with the design, crafting a monumental civic building that is very different from its context of the surrounding retail and entertainment uses at the mall. We are also designing the adjacent hotel for a private developer to create a hospitality campus. The two buildings are physically connected and share a landscaped courtyard for outdoor events.
5. What are some of the key criteria for successful Hospitality projects?
We must have efficiency but also create memorable Instagram Moments (an update to the term Kodak Moment we frequently referenced in our work 20 years ago). Important events in life such as weddings and celebratory banquets happen here. We want the design to reinforce the memory of key happy moments. We also must pay special attention to guest arrival and front-of-house experiences while separating those from the back-of-house spaces.
6. What new ideas or technology are you using in the design process?
There are some very fun tools that we’re using to help advance design. We’re leveraging new tools and software such as virtual reality, augmented reality, 3D printing, and parametric modeling. On one current project we’re using a profiled panel system and testing ways to produce a random pattern using scripting software. We set the rules, defined an area and the software filled in the pattern — very cool. This is an exciting profession in constant change, and we are always learning!