Published on March 1st, 2013 | by UC&D Magazine0
MHTN Celebrates 90 Years
In nearly three and a half decades at MHTN, company CEO Dennis Cecchini has seen it all, including the recent recession that forced the long-time Salt Lake-based architectural firm to make some difficult decisions in order to stay in business.
“First and foremost we had to survive the economic downturn,” said Cecchini, a Wisconsin-native who came to Salt Lake in the early 70’s and has been with MHTN since 1979. “One of the first orders of business was to figure out how to stay afloat. We had to downsize our firm, unfortunately, and streamline our operations. We started into the healthcare market and looked at other markets that would be growing. We revamped our entire company setup, with new corporate by laws and a stockholder purchasing agreement. We had to make the company more nimble and able to respond quickly to changing market needs.”
So as MHTN celebrates its 90th anniversary in 2013, by and large firm leaders are grateful and optimistic about a future they feel is exceedingly bright. Led by Cecchini, who has been CEO since 2007, and Peggy McDonough, named President in early 2010, as well as 10 other principals, MHTN is known for its strong educational work, including the design of K-12 schools and various higher education projects, particularly student union buildings.
And the fact that the firm is smaller now than what it once was has little bearing on its ability to deliver well-designed, technically sound projects, says Kyle Taft, who has been with the firm for 34 years, including a principal for the past 14.
“We’ve come into a new era and a better way of doing things,” said Taft. “We’ve come through a recession that was very difficult. I tell people that architects are like the canaries of the construction world. We feel it first. When the economy tanked we felt it almost instantly. We had one project with a potential for $10 million in fees and it was gone, literally, overnight.
“When I began working here we had three or four owners who made all the major decisions,” Taft continued. “We have a more collaborative leadership, which I think is fabulous. We’re able to draw on the experiences of many people rather than one or two individuals. Our new leadership has allowed us to weather that storm; the way we’re organized has made all the difference in our success.”
“We adjusted our internal strategy so our people are in more collaborative roles,” said McDonough. “It’s made our firm more efficient. From a growth strategy we made a strategic decision to enter the healthcare market.”
And that decision is already bearing fruit, as evidenced by MHTN’s design of the new Ambulatory Care Center for Primary Children’s Hospital (PCH) at the University of Utah. The new state-of-the-art, $110 million facility is under construction and will finish in the fall of 2014.
“We started working with MHTN a year ago and knew they had done a lot of work on the University of Utah campus,” said Mike Creason, Assistant Administrator of Facilities Management for PCH. “We were really pleased with how things were going along so we invited them to design our North Lobby Expansion and a Ronald McDonald Family Room.
“I’m very impressed with their creativity, their programming capabilities, and their interior design is about the best I’ve seen,” he added. “They’ve taken us to the next level in terms of getting us modernized.
Their construction documents have been very good and they’re really easy to work with.”
Strong Education Experience
MHTN has long been known as a strong firm in the area of educational design, both K-12 and Higher Education facilities. In the late 90’s, Taft said the firm made real progress in the realm of high school design with two Jordan School District projects – Jordan High School and Copper Hills High School. Since then the firm has designed many K-12 projects throughout Utah. The firm has designed two prototype schools, both junior high and elementary, for Weber School District, which the District will repeat in the future.
“I’ve worked with MHTN for 12 years and the most positive aspect of their design is they want an educational facility where the design has a proper learning environment,” said Drew Wilson, Director of Facilities and Operations for Weber SD. “We go through a process with our staff and the community and they try and match the design to what is out there in the community. Their goal is to deliver whatever is best for the school district.”
“It’s not just a matter of designing great buildings, but designing buildings that identify with a client’s needs,” said Cecchini. “We want our staff to never lose sight of what a client needs, and of course, to deliver the very best architecture we can deliver.”
“People who grow up in Utah have a unique perspective on how to design in this environment,” adds McDonough. “It’s a balance of respect for the outdoor geology, that strong, physical landscape. We want to respond to that. Even though we’re creating physical buildings, which is completely opposite of nature, we want to keep that dynamic in place.”
The firm is also renowned for its design of Student Union facilities across the U.S. during the past dozen years, and even internationally, with completed projects in England, as well as Vancouver, Canada. Taft says MHTN has designed more than 50 Student Union facilities, which is his area of expertise. He says the projects go beyond just another educational building.
“The Student Union is a place where student get another kind of education,” Taft says. “We get to work with people who like building people up and like helping people become better all around. It’s exciting to work with people who are creative. Education is the best our society provides in terms of making students better people.”
Future in Good Hands
Cecchini, who served as President of the Utah chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in 2012, acknowledges that he’ll step down as CEO and retire someday. It’s a decision that he says will be easier to make given the firm’s new structure and overall philosophy.
“I want people to be responsible for themselves,” he says. “I don’t micro-manage. It’s up to them to use their intellectual capital to the best of their ability. Peggy is a wonderful officer – she’s very innovative, very detailed, and identifies with people and understands them. We’re in a stronger position than we’ve ever been before.”
“Dennis is a true leader,” said Michael Buell, Director of Marketing and Client Development for MHTN. “He allows people the opportunity to shine. He encourages and inspires people to utilize their personal strengths to be as profound as they want to be. We talk about a collaborative approach – it’s not just a buzzword. We have teams for each project and we have what is called ‘pinup sessions’ where we’re in the middle of schematic design and the entire office can come in and everybody has the opportunity to give their input. Ego doesn’t get in the way of making an idea even better. That’s unusual in the field of architecture.”
“We view the design of a project as a partnership with an owner and that permeates the office,” said McDonough. “We’re very excited about our future.”