Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:35 pm
During James Plunkett’s long career in architecture, Disneyland opened, man walked on the moon and the Berlin Wall crumbled. Plunkett’s personal successes as a partner at Milwaukee-based Plunkett Raysich Architects LLP over the last 50 years include adopting technologies to stay on the forefront of design trends and growing his father’s business from seven employees in one location to 125 employees in three offices.
Plunkett has played a key role designing many landmark buildings in the Milwaukee area, including Waukesha Memorial Hospital, the physics and chemistry buildings at Marquette University, St. Francis Hospital, Kenosha Hospital and Medical Center, the Woodlake shopping center in Kohler, the renovation of the federal courthouse in downtown Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Catholic Home, the Riveredge Nature Center in Newburg, the Cedarburg Police Station and the New Berlin Library.
Plunkett joined his father, Henry, at the architecture firm full-time after serving as an intern and graduating from Cornell University in 1956. The firm was already 50 years old. At the time, it was called Ebling, Plunkett, Keymar, Reginato and was located at 1220 N. Milwaukee St. in Milwaukee. To land a project back then, all architects had to do was pick up the phone, Plunkett said. "People would call, we would go out and there would seldom be an interview," he said. "They would say to my father, ‘We need this addition to this school, we think you can do this for us and how much would you charge?’ And off we’d go."
Today, if Plunkett Raysich Architects waited for the phone to ring, the company would be out of business, Plunkett said. "We now have a fully-staffed client relations department headed up by Larry (Noble) and Dorothy (Snow)," Plunkett said. "They generally follow up on newspaper or magazine articles that might indicate a project offering, they follow up on capital budgets by villages or states, they help us prepare for presentations to ease us in talking to clients, they organize public events, they let the public know awards we have received and they publish newsletters, attend tradeshows, participate in sponsorships and organize advertising."
The client relations department grew over the last 20 years from a couple people to more than a dozen, as the industry embraced the idea of putting company names in the public eye. "We used to take plans to blueprint, print them up and bring them back to the office and we would have a whole bin full of plans," Plunkett said. "Now we just press a button, and we can print and distribute the plans, so a whole plan can be paper-clipped to an e-mail." In the 1970s, when Plunkett took over as managing partner, the company was named Plunkett Keymar Reginato, had 20 employees and was located at 6830 W. Villard Ave. in Milwaukee.
Plunkett introduced a separate division for construction management and a division for interior design. The firm acquired Milwaukee-based Architects III Inc. to further specialize in religious and assisted living facilities and created a civic architecture studio in the 1990s. David Raysich became a partner of Plunkett Keymar Reginato in the 1980s, and the firm became Plunkett Raysich Architects in the 1990s. About two years ago, Plunkett Raysich Architects moved from its third-floor office location in the Park Place office complex at 108th Street and Good Hope Road in Milwaukee to its stand-alone office building next door at 11000 W. Park Place.
The company now has 125 employees in its Milwaukee, Madison and Illinois offices. Architecture is an ever-evolving industry, Plunkett said. Trends that are more prominent today include larger investments in the interior attributes of a building, interior design and green architecture, which consists of components added to a building that are energy-saving and environmentally friendly, Plunkett said. When Plunkett first started working in the architecture field, the company focused on building hospitals and schools, and clients were more interested in functionality than design, Plunkett said. During that time, the interior design was done by the firm’s partner and field inspector, Herbert Ebling.
"He would go out to the job site to make sure the concrete was being poured properly and in the back seat of his car he would have colored tile samples," Plunkett said. "He would talk to the owner and say, ‘We usually use this one for the toilet rooms and this one for the classrooms. What do you think?’ It was not a complex issue and not as important as it is now." Design is now a main focus for both Plunkett Raysich and its clients, Plunkett said. The firm has 20 employees specifically working on design and interior design. The firm holds in-house training every two weeks for all of its employees to learn about design trends, new codes, products and architecture styles, Plunkett said.
"Even though we are probably the best known in our field and we are the largest, competition is fierce," Plunkett said. "If we are the best in the area, there is always someone else that is the best in the country or the best in the world, and that is what we are competing against." Plunkett Raysich adopted green architecture techniques about 15 years ago when it completed work with Riveredge Nature Center in Newburg. The company added features to the nature center that were energy-saving and environmentally friendly, a trend that has become more popular in the past five years, he said.
Today, Plunkett Raysich installs lights in corporate buildings that turn off automatically when people leave a room and window coverings that allow shade from the summer sun and heat from the winter sun, Plunkett said. Green architecture continues to evolve with technology, Plunkett said. Clients also are investing more money into the contents of buildings, which strays from the past trend of simplistic design but upgrades the trend of functionality.
Hospitals are spending more money on equipment in specific units or particular lighting in surgery rooms, Plunkett said. Corporate developers are investing in raised floors for computer network operating rooms, Plunkett said. "The buildings have become quite sophisticated," Plunkett said. The design-and-build process has also become quite sophisticated since the 1950s. Paper blueprints are now obsolete, and computer aided drafting (CAD) systems enable developers to increase the square footage of a design or move a wall without making the designer start from scratch.
Plunkett said he has accepted the introduction of digitalization and the creation of the paperless office as the way the world works. "Everyone has the same access to technology," Noble said. "You cannot rely on technology giving you any kind of edge in this day and age, because it is so readily replicable." Instead of focusing on the next cutting-edge technology, Plunkett Raysich focuses on client relations, satisfaction and the continued gradual growth Plunkett has seen over the last 50 years, he said.
"We are coming full circle," Noble said. "The technology is there, and it makes us much more efficient and it improves the quality of our work. But we are really trying to get back to a client-centered (environment), and technology is just a tool to get us there."