Court Atkins Blog

Growing Up

Court Atkins - Wednesday, October 28, 2015

At one time or another you were probably aware of where your children fell on the “growth chart.”

Naturally, as parents, we wonder (or worry) if our children are normal. Are they falling behind? Or, are they jumping too far ahead of those curves? We think up horror stories of how they will not fit in… or measure up.

At the same time, we are thanking God that they are simply healthy. And sometimes they are not. That's when the real soul searching begins. All of these things change our lives, and (almost) always for the better.

For children, Growth is inevitable. It does not always happen when and where you want it (or expect it), but it is there all the same. And most importantly, growth is never limited to size.

“When I grow up I will be tall enough to reach the branches that I need to reach to climb the trees you get to climb when you're grown up.” – Tommy (When I Grow Up, lyrics by Tim Minchin)

I remember that day, vividly. The questions…

“So, tell us why we should select a larger, busier, more established firm? We see your projects everywhere. How are you able to handle so many jobs at once? Who would really be doing the design work on our home?”

I was sitting across the table from a couple (who also happened to be a prospective client). We were in the sales office at Palmetto Bluff. There was nothing unusual about the day. The weather was not notable. The setting was very familiar. The time of day was normal. The introductions went the same way they always do. Even the coffee tasted, well… as I had expected.

The clients’ had their usual, familiar mix of questions about design, planning, budgets, and local knowledge. Every one of my answers was honest, and came easily. In all regards, it was the perfect interview.

Right up until then, the moment those questions came, the realization that followed. We were no longer the small, hungry, upstart company that we once were.

It is not as though the questions weren’t valid, or fair.  They were. And the perspective clients were well within their right to ask them. Still, for some reason, they had hit me much harder than I expected.

In fairness, we had (by then) been practicing as Court Atkins Architects for years. We had developed a great team. No, it was an amazing team. We had successfully navigated the recession better than most. We were fully back on our feet. We had been blessed with fantastic clients. We had developed a beautiful portfolio.  We had a sound business plan. We were very proud of our accomplishments. In fact, we had… become the “larger, busier, more established firm.”

We had Grown.

We lost that job. As an aside, I hate losing jobs, especially good jobs. But this one was a blessing.  This job had taught us to look at our surroundings and understand what (or more importantly, who) are strengths truly were.

“When I grow up I will be smart enough to answer all the questions that you need to know the answers to before you're grown up.” – Tommy and Reginald (When I Grow Up, lyrics by Tim Minchin)

This past summer my children (like many others) traveled. They traveled without their parents. They attended amazing summer camps. And more importantly, they learned from people who were not their teachers, or their parents.

My eleven-year-old daughter is roughly the same age as our studio. She left a week before the end of her school year in May and did not return to her own bed until August, roughly a week before 6th grade started.

She (like many others) was nervous, and shy, and at ease, and outgoing… all at once. She had experienced life (both planned and unplanned) all without the safety net we normally provide.

She returned home… different. She had Grown.

“When I grow up I will be brave enough to fight the creatures that you have to fight beneath the bed each night to be a grown-up.” – Jenny (When I Grow Up, lyrics by Tim Minchin)

A studio is very much a living thing… Each year it is different. It changes, it grows.

For example, the make-up of our current studio is often very similar to that of a 6th grade classroom. We are (at times) nervous, and shy, and at ease, and outgoing… all at once. As we grow, we have developed a personality, a juvenile sense of humor, a rich culture, and a sense of vibrancy that cannot be duplicated.

We have team members that range in age from 20 to 75 years.  Each of us is still growing, and that growth is unmistakable. The truth is, at Court Atkins the “studio” is no longer just about William (Court) and James (Atkins).  In fact, it has not been for a very, very long time.

For our clients… It is about the Project Managers that stay late on Fridays to make sure every last weekly report gets emailed. It is about the Project Leaders and Designers that obsess over the details and coordinate with consultants to make sure our clients and contractors have what they need in real time. It is about the Design Directors and artists that help shape the character of every project we touch. It is about the best Administrative team in the world, scheduling tirelessly, offering friendly advice, answering questions, finding directions, and (sometimes) even making reservations for dinner.

Oh, by the way, our studio also has feelings (boy, does it ever have feelings).

“When I grow up I will be strong enough to carry all the heavy things you have to haul around with you when you're a grown-up.” – Eric and Alice (When I Grow Up, lyrics by Tim Minchin)

Fortunately, or unfortunately, I think all parents are (at least a little) OCD. I am by no means an exception to this rule. If anything, I am its poster child.

We worry, which seems to come quite naturally. We read books on what to expect and when to expect it. We rely on our parents for advice and our friends for counsel. We pray for guidance. And when all else fails we either “Google” for the answer, or simply make it up as we go along.

With our children, we lose our tempers. We act irrationally. We raise our voices. We make bad decisions. We don’t listen to advice. We hurt feelings. And then… we often Learn more from the experiences than they do.

And still, our children want to learn from us. They hunger for information. They want to understand what lies ahead. When everything seems unreasonable, or everything is stacked against them, they need something to ground them. They need something that is bigger than the world around them appears to be. They want to know that there is someone who is smarter, more capable, and more loving. And they want it to be us.

This is the harsh reality of Growth. They want to grow (ALWAYS too quickly) and we want to slow the process down (usually too much).

I do not want to leave you with the impression that I am somehow the “grown up” in this parable, or that I am the one teaching.  It is very much the opposite.

Whether it is when we are acting as a Father, or as a Mother, or as a Son, or as a Daughter, or as an Employer, or as an Employee… I hope we are still growing. I hope we are still learning. But it is hard work.

“Most people don't grow up. Most people age. They find parking spaces, honor their credit cards, get married, have children, and call that maturity. What that is, is aging.” – Maya Angelou

This month we are officially opening the doors of our new Interior Design studio. The 501 South Studio is a beautiful space and it is a reflection of the ongoing design talents of Deb and Adrienne.  We are very proud of it, but… we are more proud of them. You see, our “studios” are not really about the physical spaces, or their locations. They are about the people that occupy them.

For that reason, this month we are also going through a bit of a name change…

We have the greatest Group of dynamic, creative energy one could hope to find, anywhere. Sometimes it is hard to step back and absorb how we have grown. I will leave you with this:

The definition of synergy is the interaction of multiple elements (people) that produce an effect that is FAR greater than the sum of their individual parts.  I honestly believe that is how our group has been able to “grow up”.

If you have not already met us, I would like to introduce you to the Court Atkins Group.  

Learning to Read

Court Atkins - Wednesday, April 29, 2015

"... but then, after a while, you don't even notice the letters and all you see are the words?"

So when we revamped the website, I decided (and reluctantly agreed with myself) that it was time to start a blog. 
Now, typically speaking, blogs annoy me. Architecture blogs quite often even infuriate me. The fact that food blogs are really the only tolerable exceptions will not surprise anyone that knows me (and even those can be insipid). In fairness, I feel compelled to tell you (the gentle reader) that I suffer from some form of ailment. My wife (a doctor, no, a psychiatrist) refers to it as an acute case of pessimistic sarcasm (not a medical term). Point in fact, it is probably a text book case (if there ever was one).        
So the idea of sending everyone we know an update about the latest trim details we come up with for some house scares the hell out of me. The idea of being responsible for putting everybody to sleep in the middle of the day is frightening to say the least. So, as we began our 11th year and celebrated our 10th anniversary, I hoped that I would not fail (miserably) at this “self-imposed” task. After all, the search engine robots (whoever they are) love all that new blog content, right?
Well, now I am 13 months in to this new phase of life and I am currently sitting down to write blog post number 2. Maybe not such a great record?     
I can honestly tell you that I love writing... but it comes remarkably (and painfully) slowly. On the creative side (even in architecture) I have always had to "force" myself to be one of those people that knocks out an idea quickly. Acting quickly means leaving things unresolved. Leaving the dirty, raw edges that make designs attractive as a rough "Genesis." I tend to labor over them instead… and the computer has made my ailment worse (not that I am any good at using a computer to draw). 
I LOVE people that work "the idea" quickly. Their freedom fascinates me. Anyone who has had the good fortune of sitting with Amanda Lamb (and a role of sketch paper) in a design charrette or client meeting will appreciate this. No one has ever seen a better watchmaker.   
In truth, working quickly is difficult. It requires a willingness to press ahead (withOUT total resolution) and the ability to make decisions. 
Decisions… now that I can do quickly. I can make decisions with great ease despite the fact that I suffer from a blessedly lovely case of obsessive-compulsive disorder (which overtakes many aspects of my life including the use of paper towels – sorry, only our office and my friends/family can appreciate this). 
OCD aside, I can chart a course… convey its purpose… and help people see the need to act.  That I can do quickly
Writing a blog?... not so much.
In college, as a part of my architectural thesis (way back when people typed on WordPerfect instead of Word), I wrote an essay relating architecture to literature and cited Italo Calvino's Six Memos for the Next Millennium. One story about the merits of “quickness” in design hit me like a ton of bricks, Apparently It sticks with me to this day:
“Among Chang-tzu’s many skills, he was an expert draftsman. 
The king asked him to draw a crab. 
Chang-tzu replied that he needed five years, a country house, and twelve servants. 
Five years later the drawing was still not begun. 
‘I need another five years,’ said Chang-tzu. 
The king granted them. 
At the end of ten years, Chang-tzu took up a brush.
In an instant, with a single stroke, he drew a crab, the most perfect crab ever seen.”  

That, in sense is acting quickly, isn’t it? It is often not so much about time but learning to use time. 
In that same vein, I was recently asked to write a bio as part of the launch of “Moreland” a new residential development in Palmetto Bluff. Our office has been involved with architectural theming. And, of course the request came with a generous deadline, still…
There I sat on the morning of the deadline, a notorious procrastinator (like all good architects – if you don’t believe me, look up the definition of charrette). I was staring at the email I was about to send, confirming that I would indeed be sending the “yet to be written” bio… very shortly. 
2 hours to deadline and not a line had been written. I was locked in the conference room with a cup of coffee (maybe not in a single brush stroke, but still…)
Here are a few excerpts of what followed:
“I love having the opportunity to brag on our team. This is the single most talented group of people I have ever had the opportunity to work with. Together, we have become a blessedly dysfunctional family. 
Court Atkins is first and foremost a creative Team. As a result, there is not ever a ‘single person’ that designs a home at Court Atkins. 
The studio is a young, talented and enthusiastic group of professionals who truly make the difference between creating great architecture and creating a great experience for the client. 
We create stunning, custom homes and award winning interior designs with a sense of history and tradition. The process of getting there, however, requires Listening.   
Every home we work on is tailored to reflect each client’s unique perspective and individual character. To accomplish that, we focus on design, schedule, budget, and above all, maintaining open, responsive lines of communication.
We work extensively in Palmetto Bluff, and throughout the coastal lowcountry, to help create and define the character of the communities where we live, work, and play.” 
Why was it easy to write that, and more? Well partly because it is all true. After all, Court Atkins has turned into so much more than “Court” and “Atkins”. But also… maybe it isn’t as much about the single stroke of the brush as it is about the 10 years. What do you think?    
Let me finish with another quote:
"It was like.. learning to read… 
You know how, in the beginning, all you see are the letters and you have to look at all the parts and sound them out to figure out what they mean –  but then, after a while, you don't even notice the letters and all you see are the words?"
Jennifer Ziegler.

Blessedly, at Court Atkins… we are seeing the words. 
See you next year (or sooner). 

Ten Years?

Court Atkins - Monday, April 28, 2014

It is not hard to remember making “the leap”. That part is easy. I remember the planning (Fred, it was strangely fun, and still is). I remember starting in one of James' guest bedrooms (as our de facto “new” office) and landing the first residential contract at a Starbucks (Engin and Taryn, thank you). I remember the support our previous firms gave us (Tom, Rob, and Joe, thank you). I remember my wife (pregnant for the first time) asking if I was planning to pay myself (ever).

It's not hard to remember “the ascent”. That part was crazy. Who can forget 2005, 2006 and 2007. Everyone was busy. Our clients were fantastic. We moved into new communities. We learned to expand our office (very well). We learned to hire (as well as you can when everyone is already hired). We learned to manage people, instead of just draw (well, not very well). In short we became a fast growing family (and maybe just a little dysfunctional).

“Except when you don’t
Because, sometimes you won’t

I’m sorry to say so
But, sadly, it’s true
That Bang-ups
and Hang-ups 
can happen to you.” – Dr. Seuss

It's not hard to remember “the drop”. Who reading this doesn't remember 2008? The writing was on the wall (only in retrospect). We all felt it (I think). I was thankful at the time for our planning and financial diligence (we are still here because of it). I will never forget the day we downsized (never). Those who have done it know what I mean. I do not remember sleeping or eating for days (and at the time, I didn't care that it saved the company). For those of us that remained (7 in all), we struggled. We worked long hours (for less money). We marketed. We pushed. We stayed together. And most importantly . . . we continued to design.

It's not hard to remember “the turn”. Although pinpointing it is impossible (we were gun shy). We could not believe it was happening (and it was not happening for everyone). It was hard to say “we are busy” to anyone (so many of our friends still were not). We stayed conservative for so long (just to make sure). We quietly kept our heads down (and worked on long term relationships). We made do with less. And most importantly . . . we made a name for ourselves.

It's not hard to remember “the ascent” (again). Hell it was yesterday (it seems). We have fantastic clients (still). We continue to move into new communities and help define the character of the ones we already work in. We learned to expand the office (this time a little smarter). We learned to hire (again). We learned to manage (this time a lot better). In short we are still a family (bigger, but still blessedly dysfunctional!).

So here we are. One decade has passed (and nearly 1,000 projects). We have built amazing relationships (thank you to all of you). We have built amazing designs. Not one single project would have been completed without the overall efforts of an amazing team (I will put our studio team up against any studio, or firm in the country).

In short, we look forward to the next ten years.

"That you are here – that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse" – Walt Whitman 

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