Many firms endured the economic hardships of the 2008 recession with varying degrees of success, but Fort Worth-based Huckabee took a novel approach: It retained staff and boosted its expertise while work was limited, waiting for the right opportunity to help clients start building again.

This strategy helped make Huckabee a “preeminent educational planning design firm focused on innovative learning environments in the state of Texas,” says Jerry Hammerlun, Huckabee’s CFO.

The firm has exclusively served educational clients for 49 years and will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2017.

For its commitment to employees, clients and enhancing learning environments across the state, as well as its dedication to the community, ENR Texas & Louisiana has named Huckabee its 2016 Design Firm of the Year.

In a growth surge five years in the making, Huckabee saw a major increase in contracts in 2015, increasing its regional revenue by nearly 90% over 2014—which had been the best year in the firm’s history. The revenue increase also propelled Huckabee up nearly 150 spots in ENR’s Top 500 Design Firm list, to 213th.

The firm has grown its revenue since 2013, posting $60.54 million in 2015 versus $32 million in 2014. That increase was made possible by devoting several years to focused planning, to hiring the right team and to developing new solutions for its educational client base, says CEO Chris Huckabee.

“What we were experiencing back in 2015 really sort of came to life at our annual planning retreat in 2011,” says Hammerlun. During and after the downturn, from 2008-2010, “and to a great extent in 2011, we were blessed to have a nice solid foundation. So from a revenue stream standpoint, it was fairly solid, but clearly we weren’t experiencing significant growth in that period of time. But it gave us an opportunity to kind of stabilize our team and stabilize our environment.”

In 2011, Huckabee’s team helped move clients forward to meet pent-up facility infrastructure needs on hold due to the economy, Hammerlun says.

“In 2012 and 2013, we were really building the foundation for what started to come to reality from a design standpoint in 2014, 2015 and continuing into 2016,” he adds.

The firm recruited top talent across Texas, Chris Huckabee says. “At the same time, we focused our energy into really understanding the challenges that our clients faced.”

That led the firm to add specialists and build teams for educational research, technology design, security design, bond communications, public relations and learning and strategic development, Huckabee says. “In addition to those services, we have written proprietary software applications focused on the educational market that help assess, develop and manage large bond programs,” he says. “The response from the educational community has been tremendous.”

Once the new system was in place, the firm began in 2014 to see clients moving forward with projects, “and we’ve been doing that the last three years,” Hammerlun says.

The firm also upgraded its own workspace. “In 2014, 2015 and continuing in 2016, we’re making investments not only in the design work that we’re doing but also in our office facilities that our people live and work in on a daily basis,” Hammerlun says. “Our environment is as important as our clients’, so we made those investments.”

Huckabee opened an Austin office in 2014, relocated and redesigned its Fort Worth office in August and expanded its offices in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio last year as well.

“From sit-to-stand desks, to a full-time barista and state-of-the-art training facilities, we have focused on developing office environments and perks that fit our amazing team,” Huckabee says.

Broader Design Focus

Huckabee designed its first school in 1967, and school projects have remained at the core of the firm’s portfolio, but now it also does more complex educational work.

The firm’s Austin office is helping to prepare a bond program for the Georgetown Independent School District, while leading design on the district’s new 167,000-sq-ft middle school.

“They’ve taken the time to get to know our community; they know our history; they were attentive to the fact that our community had adopted a strategic plan that asked for a new learning model; and they focused their services on the direction they knew we wanted to go,” says Fred Brent, superintendent, Georgetown ISD.

Other notable work includes the Rockwall ISD Career and College Academy in Dallas and the 355,000-sq-ft Montgomery ISD High School in Houston, which just started construction.

Konrad Judd, Huckabee’s director of design, says that the firm stays abreast of new educational models. The old stand-and-deliver method of teaching is a thing of the past. Students need far more interaction in the classroom than before.

“Educators today have to figure out how to provide instruction and environments that allow not only flexibility and adaptability but also choice, so a teacher can choose to allow students to break out into small groups to work individually and to team teach across multiple classes, anywhere from 75 students to three or four students,” Judd explains.

Georgetown Middle School, for example, is designed with open, collaborative learning pods that can be easily reconfigured. “It gives a lot of flexibility and adaptability,” Judd says.

Huckabee also has longtime clients such as Killeen and Mansfield in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Huckabee has worked for Mansfield ISD for more than 24 years, says Jim Vaszauskas, the district’s superintendent. The district’s Huckabee-designed Charlotte Anderson Elementary School will be complete in fall 2017.

“Huckabee’s commitment continues through the construction, and most importantly for a client, the post-construction phase of every project, years after completion and years after warranty expiration,” Vaszauskas says.

Huckabee also helped the community of West, Texas, after a fertilizer plant explosion damaged three of the city’s four schools. “We spent a lot of time with that community, providing them with a temporary situation with portables, building up to the current construction of a brand new high school and middle school combination,” Judd says. Huckabee also helped the district find portable buildings to provide temporary facilities for West’s students.

Huckabee has helped districts manage changes in the 2015 International Building Code, which prescribes that schools in north Texas build tornado shelters. “Huckabee was the first firm in Texas to design a shelter based on the code as part of a school,” Chris Huckabee says.

Huckabee teams researched the logistics and operation of tornado shelters, “so we got ahead of the industry. Now we are truly the experts in this particular focus on shelters, which required a lot of engineering and operational attention,” Judd adds. “

Community Outreach

Huckabee has a two-pronged approach to community outreach—first, the company allows monthly paid time off for staff to volunteer locally. In addition, the firm has established The Huckabee Community Excellence Fund, a donor-advised fund that serves educational and children’s needs. The firm-wide goal is to provide more than $150,000 annually, and it has given $2 million since 2005.

“Last year alone, we were in the $350,000 range as far as contributions back to our clients, and that’s something we have a legacy of and something that I’m extremely proud of,” Hammerlun says.

Huckabee’s team is studying further geographic diversity and looking to expand its presence in higher education. “At the end of 2015, I asked our leadership to contain our growth at a 10% rate for 2016,” Chris Huckabee says.

The firm is on track to hit that 10% growth target and perhaps surpass it.

“Our backlog and planning projects for 2017 are already shaping up to be another record-setting year,” Huckabee says.