For nearly 70 years, DWL Architects + Planners has been designing structures in the Phoenix metropolitan area. “These people are a pleasure to work with,” says Russ Betz, senior vice president, LSW Engineers.

Betz and others in the industry praise the firm not only for its architectural skill but also for being nimble and technically skilled. The result, Betz says, is a group that can deliver big projects through partnerships with larger firms while remaining small enough to maintain strong relationships.

“It takes a strong architect and a skilled architect to make the whole package a success,” says Betz.

Over the decades, the firm has evolved from its original incarnation as a residential designer into one that creates such iconic projects as Arizona State University’s Charles Trumbull Hayden Library and Pedestrian Mall, Wells Fargo Arena and the Burton Barr Central Library.

Most recently, the firm designed the $590-million modernization of Sky Harbor International Airport’s Terminal 3, which has been praised for its modern take on airport design. The bare-bones renovation transformed the space from a concrete bunker into a light-infused calling card for the city. The first phase earned a Best Projects award from ENR Southwest in 2017. The second phase is due for completion later this year.

The Terminal 3 project marked the continuation of DWL’s decades-long relationship with the city of Phoenix and Sky Harbor Airport. Repeat work with clients and project team members is a hallmark of the firm and a virtual mission statement. Over the past two decades, the firm has also designed campuses for Midwestern University in Glendale, Ariz., and Downers Grove, Ill.

“The DWL team brings innovation and ideas to the planning process while listening to the university’s needs for careful use and application of space and equipment to meet the needs of our academic community,” says Kathleen H. Goeppinger, president and CEO, Midwestern University. She adds that DWL has worked with Midwest University for 23 years.

As a result of its commitment to architectural excellence and the community, DWL has been named ENR Southwest’s Design Firm of the Year

Size Matters

Over the past couple of decades, medium-size firms have been acquired by larger national firms. Rather than accepting such offers, DWL has chosen to remain independent and at a size that allows the firm to stay relevant and attractive to clients, says Steve Rao, CEO and president.

Rao and other firm principals say DWL’s independence allows it to provide superior service, quality design and quality relationships. And while the firm has a solid reputation in the airport and education markets, it has avoided getting stuck within a specific market niche.

“Many firms have gotten into specialities,” says Sandy Kukla, senior vice president. “We are flexible and nimble, and we learn the [client’s] operation and get into their business.”

Being at this sweet spot, Kukla says, allows the firm to stay on architecture’s cutting edge. The firm was the first in the Phoenix metropolitan area to embrace full use of Revit, adds Michael Braun, executive vice president.

“We are never catching up, we are leading,” says Mark Dee, senior vice president.

Being a leading firm allows the firm to embrace partnerships on major projects such as Terminal 3 at Sky Harbor with major players such as Corgan and SmithGroupJJR, Dee says.

“We position ourselves to be a strong and attractive teaming partner for the right projects,” Dee says.

Having a less hierarchical structure gives DWL an edge in attracting quality talent by offering work-from-home opportunities and flextime. The firm also empowers associates to develop their talent and ambition.

“The profession is changing, and the demographics are changing,” Dee says. “When looking at the talent and life, that opportunity to have both a professional career and a family is essential. That is part of the reason why flextime is so successful. You shouldn’t have to put your career on hold because you want to have a family.”

Rao and Dee say beyond the day-to-day attention to projects, cultivating and identifying the firm’s future leaders has been a prime goal of the current senior leadership, which is the third generation since the firm’s founding.

“Preparing the next generation as time goes by is the prime goal,” Dee says. “Most firms can make it to the second generation. The third is where it can fall apart. If you can make it to the fourth, you are in a good place.”