‘Now is not the time to invent’: A seasoned architect says fundamentals are key in times of crisis

As industries around the world are disrupted by COVID-19, business leaders may be tempted to implement drastically new models for the way things are done.

But as a 72-year-old self-described “old salt architect” who has seen the ups and downs of economic disruptions before, Michael Gouloff of Fort Wayne is giving his team at Elevatus Architecture some different advice. Michael Gouloff

“I’m telling everybody: Stay focused. Follow the principles we’re all about. Do things right, and we’ll make it out of this,” Gouloff says. “Don’t try to make up new systems right now; now is not the time to invent. Now is just the time to grunt it out.”

Having lived through the economic slowdown of the 1980s and early-90s, the tragedy of 9/11, and the even more disruptive Great Recession of 2008, Gouloff has been through things like this before. His admonition to stick to the fundamentals doesn’t mean he’s against innovation. There’s no doubt the world will be a different place when COVID-19 subsides, and it will require architects to work differently.

“In 2001, 9/11 happened, and the world changed fundamentally,” Gouloff says. “This is similar to that. It’s a fundamental change in the way business operates.”

But what concerns him about changing too quickly right now is that the pandemic hasn’t settled down yet, and it’s unclear what the ultimate outcomes will be.

On top of that, many clients aren’t ready for change; they’re still craving a return to normalcy.

“Now is not the time to be terribly inventive because people are uncertain about outcomes, and when you propose new and inventive things, they can’t handle that,” Gouloff says. “It’s very difficult for our clients. They want normal, so we’ve got to get them normal.”

Elevatus designed the new and improved Boys & Girls Club in Fort Wayne.

While you might not know Elevatus by name, you've probably seen their work around Northeast Indiana. In Fort Wayne, they've taken on projects like the new Boys & Girls Club and the rising Vera Bradley boutique hotel downtown. They also do work beyond this region, as one of the nation's leading designers of justice facilities, like courthouses, jails, and state and federal prisons.

Since Elevatus tends to stick to public works projects, things have not slowed down much for their team of about 30 staff members during the pandemic, Gouloff notes. In fact, they’ve hired two additional architects in recent weeks to make up for a lull in productivity during the stay home order.

“We probably have 20 projects in the works at the moment,” he says. “We’ve very busy right now.”

A rendering of the future Vera Bradley boutique hotel in downtown Fort Wayne designed by Elevatus.

Along with their bread-and-butter projects in justice, healthcare, education, and aviation, the firm has taken on a few public-private projects, too, including the massive Electric Works campus renovation.

Despite setbacks during the pandemic, the project is still a go, poised to receive an extension on its economic development agreement until June 30 for financing commitments and Sept. 30 for closing on the transaction.

For now, Gouloff’s team is spending a few days each week in their office on Wayne Street downtown, donning masks and gloves, and working remotely the rest of the time. He says their biggest challenge is the lack of in-person meetings and direct communication.

“Communication is everything,” Gouloff says. “We do architecture, but our business is communication, and when you can’t communicate well, it makes everything more challenging.”

Elevatus's team on-site at the construction of the Vera Bradley boutique hotel in downtown Fort Wayne.

Even so, his team is pulling through, maintaining traditions like Friday afternoon Happy Hours and team meetings on Zoom.

While project discussions can be more complicated in video chats than in-person, due to the sometimes conflicting opinions of architects, Gouloff says it’s all about remembering their team’s core values of honesty and mutual respect.

“We’re honest with each other, and it cuts through all of the baloney,” he says. “That really does us well in times like this. I believe it’s culture that gets you through the tough times. It isn’t talent. Anybody can have talent, but if you’ve got the right culture, then you know what you’re about, and that’s what you do.”

Gouloff got his start in the architecture industry in the 1960s as a student architect at South Side High School, working for SchenkelShultz in Fort Wayne. He kept interning for the firm while earning his architecture degree at the University of Cincinnati, and he became a Registered Architect in 1975, working his way up the ladder at SchenkelShultz.

In 1989, he purchased the company, growing it from a small operation to a top 500 national firm with nine locations across the U.S.

Elevatus designed the MTI Center at Trine University in Angola.

Gouloff remained Chairman and CEO of SchenkelShultz, Inc., through the Great Recession until 2015 when he sold his interest and purchased the Fort Wayne office. He renamed it Elevatus Architecture to match his team’s core values, rising up to meet the needs of 21st-century clients.

While his firm remains focused on maintaining some normalcy and a positive environment for staff and clients during the pandemic, that doesn’t mean they aren’t planning for how business, economic, and educational models will evolve, too.

Elevatus designed Warrior Park at Indiana Tech in Fort Wayne.

Gouloff remembers how 9/11 reshaped public sentiment—and architecture—in the U.S. as paranoia crept into airports, schools, and other public facilities.

COVID-19 is having a similar effect, he says, stirring up public sentiment that will inevitably shape the future of architecture. Elevatus designed St. John Chrysostom Antiochian Orthodox Church in Fort Wayne.

“Our work has a huge amount to do with the way people act and react,” Gouloff explains.

As he thinks about post-COVID-19 projects, he anticipates cross-pollinating some of the health and safety procedures his firm has traditionally used in hospitals and courthouses to other large, public gathering spaces, like schools.

For example, two days after the stay-home order was in place, Gouloff was on the phone with a few mechanical engineering firms Elevatus works with, asking them how to make positive-pressure rooms into negative-pressure spaces, like surgical units, that expel air rather than recycle it to prevent airborne illnesses.

While his team has used methods like these before, they’re expensive to implement on a mass scale, he explains, so the question he’s considering now is: How might these safety precautions be scaled at a more reasonable rate?

“What are we going to do when a client calls us up and says, ‘How do I make the rooms in my jail negative pressure, so I don’t have to worry about a pandemic spreading in the building?’” Gouloff asks. “We’ve got to think through: What are we going to do in jails? What are we going to do in schools?”

Since Elevatus does a lot of work K-12 school buildings and universities alike, he imagines greater safety procedures being implemented throughout these facilities.

“We’re already starting to see some educational buildings with pretty heavy securities,” Gouloff says.

In jail buildings, his team has designed sally ports, or vestibules where the doors are interlocked, so no two doors can be open at the same time. He imagines these design features will start transferring to schools, as well.

“I think we’re going to start seeing the kind of security things we see in courthouses and jails come into play in education and certainly in airports,” he says. “The models will begin to intermingle.”

Elevatus does work for many schools, including Indiana Tech in Fort Wayne. Pictured here is the Summit Hall.

In the meantime, Elevatus is helping its clients keep surviving, day-in and day-out. After all, while tragic events in recent history like 9/11 have shaken up industries, many of them more contained and easier for leaders to wrap their minds around than COVID-19.

This pandemic is still impacting the entire world, and there’s no clear end in sight yet.

“There’s a lot of political talk about how things are getting better, but the numbers aren’t getting better yet,” Gouloff says. “I’m still waiting for the numbers to start going down.”

A rotunda designed by Elevatus in the Academic Center at Indiana Tech.

While the present feels bleak, he’s optimistic about the future, and he strongly believes that the U.S. will survive this trial.

After all, it always has in the past.

“We’ll get through it,” he says. “I’m confident we’ll come out the other end of this bite, and we’ll be stronger for it.”

In the meantime, as someone who has spent his entire career in Fort Wayne, giving back to the community in various volunteer roles over the years, Gouloff says he’s optimistic about what’s next for the city. And he’s happy to have a hand in shaping its future.

“I love my community,” he says. “I had 11 offices at one point in the pique of our company, and I could have lived in any of them—from Raleigh to Orlando, Jacksonville, or Tampa. But Fort Wayne is my home. My mom and dad raised me here. I love my city, and I’m going to do everything I can do put it on the map.”

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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