Design Creativity Sets Millwork Firm Apart
Innovative designs and high-end work enable ADS to keep its parent company, Falcon Construction, one step ahead of its competitors.
By Renee Stern
A focus on often-neglected architectural elements and creative designs attracts corporate clients to Architectural Design Systems, a subsidiary of Falcon Construction. Located in the Seattle, WA, suburb of Bellevue, the company says it has gained a niche by offering unique designs.
About 85 percent of its business involves conference rooms, reception areas and lobbies for commercial accounts. The typical commercial space gives too much emphasis on soft goods — carpet, drapes and fabric — rather than architectural features, says Gregg Domek, shop supervisor at ADS. “We want to make structures more architecturally interesting.”
He credits that approach for the shop’s success. “People are looking for that aspect to be addressed,” he says. “That’s why we are making such inroads.”
This year sales hit $470,000, with a targeted 20 percent increase for next year. An average job runs between $17,000 and $19,000. Most of the company’s work remains in the Puget Sound region, but that’s not a firm boundary. Some projects are located elsewhere in Washington or out of state.
Domek started out in the ranks, putting down baseboard and hauling 2-by-4s, before following the urge to set up his own business and build “all these weird things in my head,” he says. Managing his own business, though, gobbled up his time and kept him from the hands-on work he prefers. So after three years on his own, he joined forces with Falcon, giving president Joe Bielaski an in-house design office to complement the company’s high-end residential millwork business.
“We are the ‘little jewel’ in the back that helps with things they can’t do or need help with,” Domek says.
“It gives the company a flair,” Bielaski says. “The high-end customer wants a unique product. We are not trying to take advantage of the price point, but we provide a service that coincides with what the company does.”
Bielaski also likes having ADS as a part of the company because he prefers to keep as much work as possible under Falcon’s umbrella. He refuses to subcontract any woodworking. If that also means spending more to acquire the right tools or learn a new technique, so be it.
“I don’t want a customer to get a product from us that we have no control over,” he says. “It’s our name on it.”
Innovative Construction Techniques Produce Unusual Designs
Veneering a cone “is easier said than done,” he says. After capping and biscuit-jointing poplar staves into the proper shape, he smoothed the piece on the lathe, then took it apart, veneered each stave and reassembled the cone.
Another recent residential project called for 19 interior solid-core cherry doors with multiple layers cascading down from the frame at quarter-inch intervals. Construction turned into “a real jigsaw puzzle,” Domek says. Each door was made from nine different pieces with varying angles to float together.
“We couldn’t find anybody to build the door,” Bielaski says. “It’s an example of why Falcon needs ADS.”
Having the design shop also gives Falcon a jump on competitors. About one-third of ADS’ time is spent on interior design and 3-D graphics work; constructing those designs keeps Domek and two employees busy the rest of the time.
ADS specializes in an asymmetrical, contemporary look. “Design is where my strength is,” Domek says. Because he taught himself design skills, he says that he avoids much of the conventional wisdom of what can and can’t be done. That lack of constraints shows up in his more striking creations, including the teeter-totter table that serves as his office desk — two offset pillars support a horizontal slab of wood with a piece of glass floating above it.
“Sometimes designs with simpler elements or fewer elements are harder to do than the ornate versions,” he says. Fitting together simple geometrical elements in a pleasing and functional way is harder than it looks, he adds.
Mixed in with the predominantly commercial projects that the shop handles each year is a handful of custom kitchens, game rooms and other out-of-the-ordinary residential jobs. One example is an eight-seat circular gaming table with a central podium, recently built in the shop. Another is a curved cabinet, where Domek used ABS pipe rather than wood to set up the veneer. He also built an entire veneered wall unit with no hardwood in it.
“I use very little hardwood,” he says. Unless a piece requires it for a profile or similar element, he prefers to stick with veneer. “A lot of times I don’t feel a crown moulding has to be that durable.”
Using veneers helps to alleviate much of the expansion and contraction in door pieces and end panels caused by local environmental conditions, Domek says. While using veneer takes more time up-front to engineer mouldings and other components, having more uniform grain and color speeds up the finishing process.
A Preference for Exotics
“Even if I am using non-figured wood, I will always try to opt for an exotic instead of a domestic if I can,” he says.
Flat-cut sapele, for instance, typically costs about the same as high-quality cherry. In a $10,000 table, the difference may pencil out to $100 or $200 more for exotic veneers. “It’s worth it to get a really dynamic piece for that little bit of extra money,” Domek says.
He adds that he often lets a particular veneer help design the project. “Instead of saying, ‘How can I use cherry in this table?’, I do reverse-engineering to let the size and scale of the veneer dictate what we do,” he says.
Also, if a batch of veneer catches his eye, he scoops it up with or without a specific job in mind. “I have a beautiful bundle of madrona I bought two years ago, waiting for the perfect job,” he says. He is also sitting on 4,000 feet of sapele for the same reason.
Domek typically lays up veneer on medium-density fiberboard, but some components call for other products, such as lightweight balsa plywood. For applications in marine and aircraft jobs that require very light weight, he uses honeycomb products. Finishes are either catalyzed lacquer or conversion varnish. Glasswork and metalwork, such as specialty hinges, are farmed out.
Design Software Is Key Shop ‘Equipment’
The biggest challenge, he finds, is encouraging customers to be open to new approaches and fresh ideas. His software helps meet that challenge. “Being able to visually show people what’s possible makes it less difficult,” he says.
Domek also has praise for his SCMI SI-150 sliding table saw with a 12-inch scoring saw. “We have had it from day one,” he says. Other equipment includes a Casadei K30/10 edgebander with buffing station and a 3-meter Laguna stroke sander, which is used for sanding veneers. “Once you get the feel of it, I prefer it over a surfacer because of the sensitivity,” Domek says.
A 4-foot by10-foot Vacu-Systems lift-top veneer press, with a bag accessory for producing curves, is another shop “work horse,” Domek says. However, business is growing to the point where a hot press may become more practical, he adds. Several Porter-Cable routers, a Delta shaper, a Jet bandsaw and two Jet table saws round out the shop’s equipment.
Acquiring a small CNC machine may also be in store for the future. Meanwhile, the company recently upgraded its dust collection system and is in the process of upgrading the finishing booth.
On a different note, Domek hopes that the next five years bring growth to the design shop stretching beyond woodworking. “I want to do more interior design without being interior designers,” he says, and tackle such elements as water sculptures and rock features.
“People like to play it safe,” he says. “That’s why so many things look the same.”
Domek tries to get customers to stretch their ideas, while sticking within their budget. He says that his goal is to offer clients with limited funds a chance to achieve the same inspired effects as the big-budget, Architectural Digest-type versions.
Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.