The Art of Placemaking

Confluence

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A confluence is, simply put, the point at which different elements come together and it’s usually used to describe two streams joining forces. But for one firm bearing the name, one word says all that and a whole lot more.

Confluence is a landscape architecture and planning firm headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa that works every day to bring together ideas and create places that engage, excite, and create a human connection to both the built environment and nature simultaneously.

“We do a little bit of everything in the world of landscape architecture and planning and keep an equal amount of work on both the public sector side and the private sector side. We work on college and university campuses, corporate office campuses, developer-driven retail, and a little bit of everything in between,” said Senior Principal Chris Della Vedova.

Since getting their start in 1998 as Brian Clark and Associates, the firm’s reputation has been built through strong relationships, consistently creative design solutions, and a passion for hard work. In 2008, the firm made the decision to rebrand as Confluence, to reflect the core philosophy they’d always held of bringing together people and ideas to create exceptional places. The firm’s leadership felt that the name Confluence better reflected that belief in placemaking – the philosophy and method of creating public spaces that contribute to the health and wellbeing of a community.

In the past 20 years, the firm has grown from a modest team of just a handful of professionals to become one of the largest landscape architecture firms in the Midwest with 47 professionals across five locations. Headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa, Confluence also has offices in Kansas City, Missouri; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; and Minneapolis, Minnesota.

As a design consultancy, one of their greatest strengths is their collaborative approach to bringing clients’ visions to life. “We’re not in it for just the one project, whatever that may be. We’re there to be the trusted advisor and we lead the project however we can, and no matter what type of project it is. We are always looking to make sure the owner gets the best they can get out of a site or a project, really balancing their goals and desires with budgets and everything else,” Della Vedova explained.

It’s easy for design firms to get caught up in the design itself, but Confluence has always been careful to integrate the design with the realities of project delivery. Their expertise in reconciling project goals with budget restrictions and the limitations of a space has been invaluable in bringing people and their environment together in spaces that are evocative, functional and responsible to both the user and the owner.

“It doesn’t matter how big or small a project is — our goal is to make spaces the best they can possibly be within the parameters that we are given.” The firm’s guidance draws on the vast experience of its team of landscape architects to achieve the greatest usability and aesthetics in each project.

Understanding that each design challenge deserves a truly unique solution, Confluence customizes each project to address the particular conditions of a site and balances those with the needs and wishes of the client. As a first step, the company employs a number of interactive tools in the planning phase to clearly defined the project goals. Using these tools to connect with community members, clients and other interested parties, Confluence can incorporate the perspectives of every project stakeholder in the design solution and put them all to good use. This approach makes it stand out among design firms.

Confluence’s portfolio of completed projects represents a diverse cross-section of work for athletic facilities, educational institutions, healthcare facilities, senior living, commercial spaces, corporate campuses, parks, open spaces, civic institutions, transportation corridors, urban streetscapes, waterfronts, and even residential developments.

Principal Matt Carlile says Confluence is successful on such a variety of projects of varying complexity because of its method. “It’s a process with us. We value the process and the input received from the client and the communities that we work with. It’s about building something that fits their particular need.”

“We view ourselves as a practice-centered business rather than a business-centered practice and by that I mean the work – the project – comes first. If we’re dedicating ourselves to the project and our clients are happy, the business side will follow,” he noted. He also pointed out that, “truly dedicating ourselves to a project often means taking an active leadership role in the project, even if we’re not the lead firm.”

Carlile recalled several projects in the company’s portfolio that exemplify Confluence’s capabilities and ability to lead. “The Krause Gateway Center in Des Moines is one example of where we took a lead role in the earliest planning for the project and even went so far as to conduct the process for selecting the design architect for the project. That’s a pretty big reversal from the norm and just goes to show the client’s trust in our abilities.” The architect for the center? None other than the world-renowned Italian architecture firm Renzo Piano Building Workshop. Renzo Piano himself was once named by Time as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

“We might be looked at as the little firm in the Midwest, and maybe we were a decade ago, but we’re not anymore. We’re doing a lot of really cool stuff and are a driving force behind the larger planning and design efforts in many of them,” he said. This includes projects such as the Little Sioux River Greenway Project, a new Minnesota Vikings practice facility, the Wells Fargo Corporate Campus in West Des Moines, several projects at the University of Iowa, reinventing the landscape for the Wichita Art Museum, and the Kettlestone project. Each of these has proven to transform the sites and cities, and it’s getting noticed – Confluence has received numerous awards in recognition of its outstanding work.

As a member of the U.S. Green Building Council, the firm is also committed to creating sustainable, aesthetically pleasing and functional spaces that contribute to the economic viability and health of a community. Confluence was ‘green’ before it was even a buzzword. With nine LEED accredited professionals on staff, specifically trained on the best sustainable practices, they can bring a great deal of expertise in sustainable building and design principles to that table on each project.

Both Della Vedova and Carlile agree that good hiring practices play a role in the company’s success. “It’s not just about great projects; it’s also about great people. We don’t just recruit people based on design talent, but how they fit, how they operate, and how they care about the client,” Della Vedova acknowledged.

To further advance the talent of its people, Confluence has a formal training program in development. “We need to make sure that we keep cross-training all of our employees, instead of just having experts,” Carlile said. This has the intended effect of, “making everybody more of a well-rounded landscape architect.”

Though Confluence operates out of more than one office, it maintains the culture of one firm. Constant communication between offices is encouraged and, once a year, a company-wide general meeting brings everyone together to share, learn and help ensure consistency across its operations. At the recent 2017 meeting, Confluence rolled out its new firm-wide initiatives, including a personal development program.

“We bring all five offices together and do a little bit of training and have a little bit of fun at the same time,” said Carlile. “Not quite every year, we try to take a summer trip to some location that has certain learning components that go along with it.” He believes that investing in those experiences helps to foster an even greater work environment.

Thanks to its dedication to their clients and recognition for good work, Confluence has enjoyed six consecutive years of growth. The plan now is to ensure this momentum is not lost to complacency, which Della Vedova explained is the firm’s biggest challenge moving forward. “We need to continue to push and grow and stay active in our communities and do all the things that got us this far. We can’t just rest on our laurels.”

Another tactic for the future will be to remain active in various areas of the market. Diversity has allowed the company to adapt to the changing market conditions that are characteristic of the industry. “I think we see a slight change on the public-sector side right now as far as their capital improvement plan budgets are concerned, and we may see that start to slow down a little bit,” Della Vedova said. “We’re seeing a definite uptick in developer-driven work in all of our markets, so our outlook is positive, and we’re busy across all of our offices.”

Carlile has noticed a shifting regional focus in the scale of projects, too. A closer examination of watershed or even sub-watershed design can lead a regional approach to stormwater management. “And all that stuff rolled into one helps the development get better.”

One thing that’s been clear – Confluence is having a measurable impact on the clients and communities it serves as it designs places that push the limits to what is possible in the built environment. “The one thing we believe here is, we don’t make great projects; great clients make great projects. We’re just here to help them get there,” Della Vedova asserted.

Industry Changemakers

The construction industry has historically been slow to evolve, drawn to tradition over technology. As the industry is in a state of rapid innovation and advancement, organizations like the Toronto Construction Association (TCA) are working tirelessly to build strong member businesses that won’t fall behind.

June 18, 2019, 7:48 AM EDT