By MEGAN HART

Topeka Capital-Journal

TOPEKA -- Architecture firms don't always start in impressive surroundings.

The firm that would become HTK Architects started in a farmhouse near the corner of Southwest 29th and MacVicar in 1958, said Chuck Smith, who is one of four partners now running the business. At that time, the surrounding roads weren't paved, he said.

"There was a dirt road that came back to our office," said Smith, who is working with Hays USD 489 on a possible bond issue and renovation of district buildings.

At that time, it had only two partners, Glen Horst and Joe Terrill. The third partner, Gary Karst, joined in 1965, giving the firm its current name. Smith would later join in 1990, and the other current partners, Mark Franzen, Don Pruitt and Keith Blackburn, joined in the 1980s.

The early partners built an office building in 1966 at 2900 Southwest MacVicar, where HTK would stay until it moved to a second-floor office at 900 S. Kansas in November 2013, Smith said.

The early projects mostly focused on school buildings, such as Sunny Elevation Elementary, which is now part of the Auburn-Washburn USD 437 offices, Smith said. They designed many of Topeka USD 501's buildings in the 1960s and '70s, though they also designed some commercial buildings and the Manhattan Country Club, he said.

Growth took off in the 1990s, when HTK began going into higher education and military contracts, Smith said, and the company now has between 30 and 40 employees. It takes time to move into different markets, because employees have to develop expertise and contacts within the industry, he said.

"The most important thing is finding someone in your firm who's passionate about the market," he said.

The company opened an Overland Park office doing similar work for markets to the east in 1997. That helped HTK make new contacts that benefited both offices, and they work together on some projects, said Elizabeth Johnson, spokeswoman for the company.

"There are times when one office is busier than the other, and we can share that work," she said.

Diversifying helped somewhat through the Great Recession, though some well-timed school construction bond issues that passed shortly before the market crashed in 2008 also helped HTK keep going when many firms suffered through the credit crunch, Smith said. The early 1990s actually were at least as difficult for HTK as the Great Recession was, because school construction slowed and forced the company to look for other markets, he said.

"We were kind of insulated from the steepest part of the decline in 2009 and 2010," he said. "We weren't as insulated back then (in the 1990s). That's probably the biggest thing we've tried to do strategically since the mid-90s is to diversify."

They also kept busy with smaller maintenance projects when fewer schools and businesses needed new buildings or significant renovations, Johnson said.

"We've been fortunate to have a lot of long-term clients," she said. "During the slow times, they still need their roofs redone."

Technology has made communication with clients and the other office easier in recent years, because they don't have to mail hard copies or floppy disks to share a design, Smith said. It hasn't changed the early stages of the process, though, because architects still start by taking the clients' thoughts and sketching ideas, he said.

The architects still draw the initial plans on paper, but they then load them into a computer to create three-dimensional renderings for the client, Smith said. While a good architect could probably draw one view of a proposed design as quickly as a computer can, the computer saves time because it can draw multiple views at the same time. It also has the advantage of allowing the architect to quickly make changes within the design instead of having to make a whole new drawing, he said.

"Technology doesn't have the creativity to it," he said. "It still takes the creativity and the subjectivity to come up with something that's inherently human."