James Wheeler has always had a simple business plan: Make people seek him out instead of the other way around.
At Ayers Saint Gross, a 100-year-old architectural firm that specializes in higher-education institutions, Wheeler has turned that plan into a reality.
The Baltimore company topped $35 million in revenues in 2012 and employs 140 people throughout the world. Its clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine and Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, Frostburg State University, Salisbury University, George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and Dubai National School. It also designed a visitor center in Saudi Arabia.
“I said I want us to be the Johns Hopkins of architecture,” said Wheeler, president of Ayers. “I want people to bring us the most complicated, gnarly project and show them we’ll solve it.”
Ayers, a family-owned brand, long has been peculiar in its industry, concentrating all its resources on higher-education projects since 1958, with the design of Johns Hopkins University’s Shriver Hall. The company rode the baby boom echo from 1988 until recently, taking advantage of the 20 percent boost in higher-education construction since then, Wheeler said.
Wheeler joined Ayers in 1987 and 20 years later became president, succeeding Richard A. Ayers, grandson of Richard “Dick” Ayers, an original partner. Ayers later moved into designing for cultural facilities related to higher education such as the Bronx Zoo and the Smithsonian National Zoological Park.
Ayers works on about 40 campuses at any given time, covering campus planning, student life and the technical buildings and laboratories that make up its arts and sciences division.
“Universities are small cities,” Wheeler said. “The average age of a campus is supposed to be 150 years. Architects who design for them need the ability to think long-term. You have to know how much space you will need for the future and plan where later buildings will go.”
Starting from scratch, building a university can cost as much as $100 million and take up to five years, he said.
After the Great Recession hit in late 2007 and higher-education institutions cut back on planning massive expansions, Ayers laid off 23 employees and “retooled” its strategic plan to focus more on international work and cultural facilities, Wheeler said. The move helped the company have its best year in 2010.
During the past five years, U.S. architecture revenues dropped 5.6 percent to $34.1 billion in 2012, according to IbisWorld, a market research company in Los Angeles. But revenues are expected to increase 4.7 percent in 2013.
Still, companies that focus on higher-education projects will have to contend with the trend toward more online course offerings, possibly resulting in fewer brick-and-mortar projects, according to a study by Mortenson Construction in Vienna, Va. About 53 percent of the higher-education institutions interviewed said online learning will “radically” alter how universities teach students.
Wheeler also has led his company in forging a reputation for published statistical industry analyses for 20 years. These analyses provide information on university land use, population and on-campus housing to show trends that produce the best institutions. Ayers also publishes studies on specific topics in higher-education design.
“I think architecture is a chance to make a permanent positive impact on the building environment. I want people generations from now to look back at a building we did and say, ‘These guys did good work,’ like you would with Central Park in New York City,” Wheeler said. “Things like that last forever.”
Wheeler, 58, grew up just outside of Kansas City, Kan., where he recalls sitting around and watching people build a church addition and later wandering through the site when they left.
“I was always fascinated with construction,” he said, adding that his family built its own house.
After graduating from the University of Colorado at Boulder, Wheeler spent two years building custom homes in the mountains. His second winter of standing in knee-deep snow persuaded him to look for something else, he said.
He attended Washington University in St. Louis, where a course in business architecture sparked his interest. Wheeler joined HOK, a global design firm in St. Louis that also designed Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore and worked there until his wife, Nancy Scheinman, a painter, encouraged him to take a summer trip to various metropolitan cities in the U.S. While in Baltimore, he met Ayers principal Adam Gross and started his Ayers career.
“I always had a sense of how business should be done, which is something not a lot of architects are taught. They focus on the actual design work,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler said he also has learned a lot while breaking into the international market, such as how to avoid cultural faux pas, including accidentally mistaking the holy water reserve for a latrine during a trip to Dubai and adjusting to the negative foreign perception of the U.S. throughout the years.
“American higher education is one of our greatest exports,” Wheeler said, adding that foreign institutions greatly reduce the space of their universities so Ayers must concentrate on ensuring things fit culturally.
Wheeler provides creative ideas instead of just reusing ones an institution already has, said Alan Fish, vice president of facilities and real estate for Johns Hopkins. Fish has known Wheeler since Ayers developed a master plan for the University of Wisconsin in the early 2000s. Mostly recently, Ayers assisted Fish in a master plan for Hopkins’ Bayview Medical Center.
“When in a difficult situation, he’s the calmest guy in the room,” Fish said, praising Wheeler’s easygoing manner.
Angela Fowler-Young, director of capital budget and planning at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, described Wheeler as forward-thinking and not afraid to say what he thinks. She has worked with Wheeler on the National Conference for the Society for College and University Planning and for master plans for the university. They met when their children attended the same child-care center.
“When you talk to Ayers, they’re able to tell you what’s going on across the country and tell you what they’ve worked on,” Fowler-Young said. “It allows you to put isolated ideas together and link them up for a better product. They’re an excellent resource.”
Wheeler is especially proud of Ayers’ commitment to its communities, adopting schools in Baltimore to teach design and providing food drives. He is vice chairman-elect of the United Way of Central Maryland.