Blue Ridge Architects project manager, Welby Lehman, a 2003 grad of EMU, talks with Eldon Kurtz (left), director of EMU's physical plant, and Ed Lehman, assistant director of physical plant, about placement of utility lines and pipes at the Suter Science Center. (Photo by Nikki Fox, Daily News Record)

EMU-connected architecture firm recognized as one of top in Shenandoah Valley

Randy Seitz, founder and president of Blue Ridge Architects [EMU class of ’87], still has a drawing board in his office, a source of much playful chiding from his colleagues.

In an industry in which computers have replaced pen and paper in the drafting stage, you’d be hard pressed to find a drawing board in 90 percent of architectural firms, he says.

But the once essential board, quickly becoming a thing of the past, serves not only a practical purpose for Seitz, it’s a daily reminder of why he entered the industry at all.

“I got into this because, in ninth grade, I took a mechanical drawing course and said, `I want to do this with the rest of my life,’ ” he said.

More than 30 years later, most of his work is computer-based, but there’s still that “white piece of paper stage,” as Seitz calls it.

Blue Ridge Architects
Ed Lehman (left) and Eldon Kurtz ’76 (center), physical plant staff at EMU, discuss plans for the renovated Suter Science Center with Welby Lehman ’03 of Blue Ridge Architects. (Photo by Nikki Fox, Daily News Record)

“To me, that piece of the process happens best with a pen or pencil in my hand,” he explained.

Certainly, Seitz and Blue Ridge Architects have made many changes throughout their time in the industry, and now the downtown Harrisonburg company is celebrating its 10-year anniversary by giving back to the community surrounding it with six events throughout the year.

A year of celebration

In February, Blue Ridge Architects welcomed nominations for local ministers to win a trip to Exponential East in Orlando, including lodging and airfare.

The prize went to local pastor Peter Eberly.

The following month, the firm hosted a three-day free film series featuring the architects’ favorite movies.

On May 3, the firm offered a free church architecture tour, explaining the history behind some of what the company calls the best architecture in downtown Harrisonburg.

The biggest event is coming up, however; Blue Ridge Architects’ official 10-year anniversary is in June, so the firm is holding a celebration June 21 at the Turner Pavilion, which it designed.

On Sept. 19, the firm will host a 10-hour pro bono design marathon to benefit local nonprofits.

To finish up the year, the firm will have 10 days of Christmas giveaways in December.

The firm is also offering its front room, equipped with a kitchen and ample meeting space, for use for local nonprofits.

The history

Blue Ridge Architects has been marked by the ebbs and flows of the industry, but it’s come out strong.

In 2004, Seitz and Ron Davenport opened up what was then called Blue Ridge Design Studio at 61 S. Main St.

“That’s kind of when the whole real estate industry was overheated,” Seitz said, explaining that architects were just overloaded with so much work.

Blue Ridge Architects
From left: Ed Lehman, Eldon Kurtz’ 76 and Welby Lehman ’03 discuss updates to the greenhouse, located near the south entrance to the Suter Science Center. (Photo by Nikki Fox, Daily News Record)

A Harrisonburg native, he wanted to move back home from Indiana.

“I looked at working for other firms, and I looked at the opportunities I would have going on my own,” he said. “It seemed to be a great time to kind of go out on your own.”

The surge in business lasted for about five years, and “then the bottom fell out,” as he puts it.

The recession hit the architecture industry nationwide, and Blue Ridge Architects was no different.

“We got through it because everybody made sacrifices,” Seitz said, adding that 2009 was the roughest year for the company.

Since then, however, the firm has gotten to the point where it has too much work – a much better problem than the 2009 situation, Seitz points out.

In 2010, the company changed its name to the current moniker thanks to a tip from a marketing consultant.

“Amongst many recommendations, big and small, one of them was, `Put `architects’ in your name so people know what you do,’ ” Seitz said.

Less than a year ago, the firm moved to its current spot at 126 W. Bruce St., a jump from 750- to 3,000-square-feet of office space.

But the business has already outgrown the place.

It started a sister construction-management company, called R+D Building Systems, to address a shift in the industry toward inclusive design and construction businesses. That company is currently housed in Blue Ridge Architects’ storeroom.

“We’re going to be doing some renovations over here in the summer to try to better accommodate it,” Seitz said.

The firm has hired seven staff members, mostly architects, in the past year, and it’s in the process of starting its first offshoot branch in Charlotte, N.C.

Bursting at the seams

About one-third of the firm’s work is large church projects in the Mid-Atlantic region, another third of the workload consists of projects for Eastern Mennonite and James Madison universities, and the last chunk goes toward a mix of residential, retail and commercial projects.

“Architecture firms of our size, particularly those that aren’t working in a metropolitan area, they need a couple areas of specialty and concentration but you also need kind of a general practice,” Seitz explained. “That combination is … the best for weathering the ups and downs of the economy.”

At 16 employees currently, the firm is still small but it’s the largest architectural company, or branch thereof, in the Valley, Seitz believes.

At any given time, the firm’s employees are working on roughly 30 active projects, ranging from a $5,000 feasibility study to a multi-year contract; the firm is looking for ways to keep that number lower.

“It feels to me like the growth that has happened recently has been sort of that, `Build it and they will come,’ kind of concept, taking a leap of faith with this space and, within a year, filling it up,” said Kirsten Parmer [1993 EMU grad], head of PR and marketing for the firm.

The business was recently named second best architectural firm in the Shenandoah Valley by Virginia Living magazine.

“We are very fortunate and feel very blessed and are glad to be where we’re at,” Seitz said.

Courtesy of the Daily News Record, May 20, 2014