Pro-File Design: P/K Architecture

When you think about residential architects, often the image that comes to mind is of a sole practitioner working in a little studio at the back of her house. And this is not inaccurate—more than 75 percent of all architecture firms in the United States have fewer than 10 employees. For most, this is the sweet spot of sustainability for a sole proprietor or, perhaps, a partnership of two principals. Minneapolis-based P/K Architecture [formerly known as Peterssen/Keller] has 27 architects, designers, and staff on the payroll. Not only is the size unusual for any architecture firm, it’s especially rare for one primarily focused on residential work. 

Even at this size, the firm limits the scope of what they do on each project. They don’t, for instance, offer interior design services and they don’t want to add construction services either. The partners—Lars Peterssen, AIA; Gabriel (Gabe) Keller; and Kristine (Kris) Anderson—consider interior designers and custom builders as strong allies and sources of business, ones they wish to nurture and not undermine as competition. 

What they do offer that’s not always true of firms this size is stylistic diversity. The design staff is willing and able to work on traditional and modern houses—along with ones that play somewhere in between. No matter what the style, whether new construction or remodel, a large or small project, the work is top-notch and award-winning.

Above: The Calhoun Pavilions Residence links three “pavilion” volumes around garden and courtyard spaces. The L-shaped plan grabs views of Lake Calhoun and the downtown skyline. Photo: Paul Crosby

The Sweet Spot

The three partners have worked for large firms and small ones. And they come most recently from a previous firm led by Lars, called Domain Architecture & Design. In starting P/K 10 years ago, they sought to establish a truly collaborative practice, where work and credit is shared throughout the office at every level. In Gabe’s experience, the bigger firm size facilitates this approach because it frees the partners to concentrate on design.

“We’ve discovered that certain sizes work best. For instance, one to 12 works, but after that you have to jump up to 18 or more to make it work again,” he explains. “The things you have to do as principal when you’re small take away from design work—you have to do your own marketing, business development, office management, human resources. Once we got to 15 people, we realized we needed a goal for getting larger and for hiring a marketing manager. An in-house marketing manager helps bring in interesting work and helps us capture more of the boom times.”

At 27 people, the firm has the coveted marketing director, plus a financial administrator, office manager, and a materials resource manager. There are also project managers, designers, drafters, and several interns. The core team for each project is a principal and a project manager, says Kris. “We try to split up the work among the three of us, because we always want to be involved in all the projects and we all get to work on practically everything. One day we might be working on something modern, one day on something traditional—or a multimillion-dollar project or a tiny house.”

Says Gabe, “Every project has a principal and a project architect pushing to make it better. Some may prefer traditional or modern work, some really enjoy both. When a client comes in, we decide who the best fit is; each time it’s different.”

Above and below: The Cottagewood Beach House was designed for one of the best custom builders in Minneapolis, a testament to the team at P/K. Photos: Paul Crosby

Above: Tucked between two traditional  houses, Pelican Lake Modern shoehorns onto a tight, narrow site to secure stunning water views. Photo: Spacecrafting

Great Room

P/K occupies its own low-rise commercial building, with room to grow to 30. Everyone’s favorite space in the building is a 40-by-40-foot workroom.  “We created it when we expanded the office,” says Gabe. “The room is surrounded by industrial metal drawers with samples and worktables in the middle. We draw from showrooms across the country for the samples. It’s helped us harness a more fun design process—now that we can grab natural stone counter materials and put them together with cabinet samples, for instance. It’s revolutionized how we work.”

“It’s light-filled, with inspiring materials,” Kris adds.  “Our materials resource manager helps us track down what we need for the room and researches other sources.” The expansive space facilitates work within the office and with clients, interior designers, landscape designers, and builders. “We like to get in there and have fun with everyone,” says Gabe. “We want to make sure everyone’s voice is heard.”

As it turns out, quite a few of the firm’s clients are interior designers and builders themselves. One of the area’s best custom builders hired the firm to design his own vacation home on a lake. The partners’ willingness to collaborate is likely at the heart of that, along with its openness to all architectural styles and all levels of engagement. “We’re a full-service architecture firm that handles everything from initial concepts to construction documents,” Kris explains. “But we have a large number of people who will come to us not knowing what they want to do. We can take them through a master design phase and then pause, talk to a builder, and get a basic cost.”

Adds Gabe, “If the clients have a tight budget, sometimes the best value from us is to provide a napkin sketch. Of course, we’ll make sure liability is laid out clearly if we’re offering reduced services. But it’s up to us to allocate the clients’ budget where they can get the best value. What we’re known best for is listening to our clients. We listen to what home means to them, whether that’s very traditional or modern. Lars, Kris, and I enjoy it all; it’s part of our history, a part of where we came from.”

Above: Square Lake Cabin in Stillwater, Minn., was designed for three siblings as an easy getaway from the city; each bedroom has an equivalent view. Photo: Paul Crosby

Above and below: In deference to its neighbors’ scenic rights, Sunfish Lake Residence hugs its hilly site, yet still manages to capture sweeping views of the lake. Photo: Paul Crosby

Photo: Spacecrafting

Nice Work

It’s been a long, cold winter in the Midwest, but a busy one for the firm. For the second time in two years, the partners are taking the entire office and significant others on a retreat. Costa Rica is this year’s destination, where everyone can decompress, thaw out, and visit the site of a large project in progress. 

Says Kris, “It’s another way of us bonding together, a chance to see the gorgeous surroundings of the site we collaborated on. And it’s a thank you for all the hard work.” —S. Claire Conroy


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