Pro-File Design/Build: The Raleigh Architecture Company + Raleigh Construction Company

Craig Kerins, AIA, and Robby Johnston, AIA, may have the perfect template for going into business together: a strong shared foundation, followed by separate paths leading to the same destination. They were close friends through a formative experience in the School of Architecture at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. After graduation, they headed off for different cities but stayed in touch regularly. 

Craig moved to Austin, Texas, where he worked in design/build for the noted multidisciplinary firms Jay Hargrave Architecture and TOM HURT Architecture. It was his post-graduate education in design and construction. Meanwhile, Robby stayed in North Carolina, honing his skills in the office of modernist Michael Ross Kersting in Wilmington, along with Raleigh’s Clearscapes Art + Architecture and the design/build firm Tonic Design & Construction.

Along the way, each remodeled his own personal dwelling, learning firsthand how to transform a space for the better. “We practiced the slow flip,” says Craig. “We developed our own homes—one room at a time.” Adds Robby, “You really learn about space by living in it.”

Doing it for themselves—controlling the direction, design, and craft—made a powerful impression and established the ultimate trajectory for their careers. So when Craig decided to return to North Carolina and join Robby in Raleigh, where they both grew up, he secured his contractor’s license right away. (“Architects are good test takers,” he quips.) And he sold his house back in Austin to help seed their new joint venture—a design/build firm in the rapidly growing Research Triangle region. 

Newly minted as Raleigh Architecture Company (RACo.) and Raleigh Construction Company (RCCo.), the two embarked on the usual array of small remodeling jobs for clients, but they had bigger plans in mind. 

Entrepreneurial architects long ago figured out that underwriting their own design opportunities can pay off in myriad ways. To catapult their new businesses forward, Craig and Robby knew they had to show what they could do, unmoored from the constraints of clients’ budget and program needs. 

To that end, they searched for a piece of property in downtown Raleigh with the goal of designing and building a house for Robby. The property they located could, with some ingenuity, accommodate two dwellings with a shared courtyard space, but they needed another client/buyer to make the finances work. They found that buyer through social media. Completed in 2013, the project, dubbed the Edentwins because of its location on East Edenton Street, promptly earned state and regional AIA awards. 

And it impressed renowned regional Modernist Frank Harmon, FAIA, who wrote a letter this year in support of the firm’s winning Kamphoefner Prize application. The prize, which Frank had won in 1995, is bestowed by AIA North Carolina for sustained contribution to Modern architecture in the state. 

“I first noticed the work of Raleigh Architecture Company before I knew who they were,” wrote Frank in his recommendation. “Driving down Edenton Street in Raleigh one Sunday morning in 2013, I noticed a pair of Modern houses on a slight hill above the street. To me these houses […] spoke to the fundamentals of Modern design. They were handsome standing on their own, but clearly part of the city context. When I later learned that the designers were a local firm, I realized that Raleigh had a new voice in architecture.” 

For RACo./RCCo., developing some of their own projects became an important means of expressing that voice. Says Robby, “Edentwins was our first new, ground-up project. And we weren’t sure if we were going to weave development into our overall business plan, but it fortifies all the rest of what we are doing. Developing gives us a way of completely understanding the construction of a project. And that allows us to speak intelligently about how our clients approach the process—because they are investors and developers, too.”

The quest to understand every element of design and construction is core to every good design/build firm, but not everyone invests the time and money in learning how make it a viable business. Craig and Robby have sought mentors and good advice from the get-go. And they’ve been careful to maintain fruitful relationships with architecture school classmates, who’ve dispersed and achieved across the country, as well as former employers who’ve been generous with guidance and peers in the profession. They’ve also hired paid consultants.

“We’ve used business coaches for years,” says Robby. “But what sets us apart is that we really prepared for this. We went our separate ways to separate places and learned different things. Being apart allowed us to be together and understand how to work together.” 

They’ve had the good luck, as well, to ride the upswing of the Triangle region, where there’s no shortage of smart, savvy potential clients. “There are 8 to 10 universities near here and among the highest percentage of Ph.D.s in the country,” Robby notes. “And there’s also a strong design lineage and tradition of Modern design. There was already a movement in process here when we started, and the tech industry has continued to build here. We had more of an opportunity to help represent that movement here than a place like Austin, Texas.”

Among their clients—especially on the light commercial side—are other entrepreneurs and creatives. The firm has adapted several older buildings into vibrant, award-winning retail and gathering places, including the repurposing of a notable Midcentury bank building by F. Carter Williams into The Vault, a bottle shop and community space, and Hartwell, a former neighborhood market, into a maker and event space. Their own building, 716 Offices, was a mechanic’s garage they transformed into a light-flooded collaborative workspace, filling the former garage bays with operable glazing.  

New custom homes and substantial remodels still comprise an important place in the portfolio—including another duplex house project for Robby—but they’ve been joined by larger-scale townhouse and multifamily work in a roughly 50/50 percentage. It’s enough to keep the small company, which is capped at about 10, very busy. “We’re intentionally small, because we want to run a practice where everyone can participate,” says Robby. “We have two staff for Raleigh Architecture and six staff for Raleigh Construction, plus ourselves.”

Adds Craig, “We don’t want to get too big. We want to retain direct control of all the pieces so we can stay on track with a project in real time. If I have a structural question, I can call my engineer or my framer. It’s not just about finances, it’s about all the pieces. That’s how we hone the craft.”

As they wrote in their Kamphoefner award entry: “The best builders have a great eye for design and understand architecture. Similarly, the best architects understand how to build.”