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Columbia Business Monthly

Designing the Future: McMillan Pazdan Smith

Apr 12, 2022 05:08PM ● By Amy Bonesteel

With a portfolio that includes repurposed historic properties, high-tech, sustainable buildings for schools and industry, as well as retail and residential projects, architecture firm McMillan Pazdan Smith (MPS) has a varied list of projects. 

But one thing that remains consistent is the company’s attention to their roots, says CEO Chad Cousins, and that centers on “helping clients and communities reach their potential.” 

Founded in 1955, the close to 300-person business has seven offices throughout the region, including Greenville, Spartanburg, Columbia, Charleston, Asheville, and Atlanta. The best way to know an area is to be a part of it, and these regional offices allow architects to learn more about the neighborhoods they work in. 

“We really have reached a substantial balance between depth of market knowledge, design expertise and value to clients in specific markets,” says Cousins, noting the firm’s  “strength of community engagement and involvement.”

Part of this integration with the region includes renewing and redesigning historical or abandoned structures. The firm’s offices are in repurposed structures whenever possible, with the Greenville location in the former Claussen’s Bakery Building (circa 1930), the Atlanta office in the iconic Hastings Seed Building (c. 1913) and Columbia in the onetime Unity Life Building (c. 1939).

In history-filled Charleston the company is in the renovated Harleston-Boags Funeral Home Building (c. 1880) near cultural landmarks including the Mother Emanuel AME Church. 

This focus on sustainability is another hallmark of McMillan Pazdan Smith. Adapting what has already been built, being mindful of materials and sources as well as making sure structures fit organically within the environment are all considered in the company’s designs. 

An example is the Continuum building in Lake City, South Carolina, a regional workforce education center that was once a Walmart. Using the region’s history as an agricultural center and tobacco market as inspiration, MPS architect Stuart Barber and project designer Sydney Kerschen used natural wood structures to create barn-inspired “tree” supports and even reproduced vintage soil maps from the region as wall and color designs. 

Another of the firm’s award-winning projects in Columbia exemplifies sustainability and an ecological focus. The City of Columbia’s Water Distribution and Wastewater Management building (2018) was an abandoned car dealership that the group redesigned as a water division facility. 

The “green” building, which includes a water garden and a distinctively detailed roof, received multiple awards including the Adaptive Reuse Merit Award by AIS South Atlantic Region.

A large part of the company’s designs are academic/institutional, and more and more campus dorms and buildings are being built with sustainability in mind. 

“Generationally, we see a lot more emphasis on environmental social governance,” says Cousins, including “the impact we leave on the environment and the health and wellness of the environment that the student lives and studies in.”  

It’s part of what architects do, agrees Cary Perkins, principal and Director of Design Engagement for the firm.

“Architects have always been charged with caring for health, safety and welfare,” she notes. “That is extremely relevant to not only environmental sustainability but resilience and wellness in general.” 

The firm has between 45-50 architects and designers who are either LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) or otherwise accredited “green,” she notes. “But it really also is just our commitment to community and thinking about what’s right for the greater good.” 

Several of MPS’s new projects embody these ideals, including the new Dreisbach/Anderson Student Success Center at Greenville Technical College, which opened in August 2021. The open-workspace design encourages collaboration while providing technology that melds with outdoor features and natural light. 

The firm’s work has earned many awards. Several are for projects that can be seen in the Greenville area, including the Wofford’s Chandler Center for Environmental Studies, which received the “Silver Building Team Award” from Building Design + Construction Media in 2021. (The same building also won the 2021 American Institute of Architects South Carolina New Construction Award.) 

One of the most rapidly growing areas in terms of growth and development is Charleston, and MPS principal and architect Michelle Smyth says the firm is designing the continuation of a waterfront park on the east side of the peninsula.

“It is a longtime vision of former Mayor Joe Riley,” notes Smyth, a Charleston native. “It will take advantage of the missing piece.” 

The firm’s Charleston presence extends to many of the surrounding counties, and includes a “strong K-12 education presence,” as well as many clients in the healthcare and industrial sectors, Smyth says. Like many, during the shutdowns of Covid-19 in 2020-2021 the firm’s projects were often delayed. 

But they had the advantage of being “early and prolific adopters of technology,” says Cousins, and that eliminated the pause that many businesses made to adapt. “The ability to work in a remote environment wasn’t unique to us when Covid hit.”

Deemed essential workers, they were able to travel to sites and continue to work during the pandemic, even though the number of projects dramatically decreased. 

The firm’s business is roughly half private, half public/institutional so schools, higher education and healthcare facilities “largely went forward,” says Cousins.

And while some employees needed to be temporarily furloughed, “we actually were able to retain almost our entire team,” he adds.  

The firm’s community initiatives took the form of “MPS Cares” during the pandemic, an outreach program they continue today. The service includes helping small businesses, corresponding with seniors in assisted living homes, blood drives and promoting clean water. 

All offices support the United Way in their locations, with 100 percent participation.   

A merger last year with Watson Tate Savory Architects added 10 additional staff members to the Columbia and Charlotte offices, continuing the post-pandemic growth and energy for the regional business.  

“The South is a distinct place to do business,” says Cousins. “It’s a very relational environment where a sense of community, connection and a mutual good will is very strong in the way we do business. It’s not transactional.” 

In a region where building trust and relationships is as important as great design, McMillan Pazdan Smith continues to excel.