Before becoming realized in concrete, steel and glass, many of modern Utah’s most distinctive buildings began life on the drafting tables (or design programs) in the offices of VCBO Architecture.

Since its founding in 1973, the Salt Lake City-based practice has put its stamp on a multitude of projects ranging from office towers to elementary schools to libraries, higher education facilities, recreation centers and houses of worship not only in the intermountain region but also across the country and internationally.

In 2023, the firm—which celebrated its 50th anniversary with the completion of landmark projects like Intermountain Health’s Primary Children’s Hospital campus in Lehi, Utah, and the start of construction for the Spencer Fox Eccles School of Medicine at the University of Utah—posted record regional revenue of $50 million.

“We look at the past 50 years as collateral for the next 50,” says Derek Payne, VCBO president and principal. “We have a new generation of leadership poised to continue our success, and some of the major projects we’ve gotten in the past few years are the things that are going to launch us into the next 50.”

Recent projects include the flagship building for the newly launched College of Veterinary Medicine at Utah State University and a master plan for Brigham Young University’s Hawaii campus in Laie that includes designs for the replacement of three key buildings. Two VCBO employees staff a satellite office near that campus.

The firm’s work for clients like Utah Tech University, Intermountain Health and the Washington County School District prompted VCBO to open a five-member St. George office five years ago.

Founder Niels Valentiner says the firm has come a long way from the one he started.

“I graduated from the University of Utah, got licensed right away and opened for business. It was just me and a draftsman at the time,” says Valentiner, who grew up in Copenhagen, Denmark, before emigrating to the U.S. to attend school first at Brigham Young University.

The firm, which was ranked No. 5 on ENR’s Interemountain Top Design Firms list, operates as a limited liability corporation with 15 principals and 112 employees. A five-member board of directors includes Valentiner, and Payne leads a five-member executive team with Melissa Wood as principal and chief operating officer.

The firm’s nine design studios include among their projects K-12, higher education, sports and recreation, ecclesiastical, mixed-use and retail, interiors, health care, industrial and civic.

One Utah Center

One Utah Center in Salt Lake City was a major project that set the newly formed partnership of Valentiner, Brunjes, Crane, Onyon (VCBO) on a trajectory of strong growth.
Photo courtesy VCBO

Nowhere to Go But Up

The firm grew for 20 years, reaching a demarcation point in the late 1980s when selected to design One Utah Center, an office tower in Salt Lake City. The 24-story, $102-million tower, clad in polished red and gray granite and surrounded by an extended street-level plaza, helped revitalize a prominent but deteriorating corner of downtown.

Valentiner says even with the landmark project, work was coming too slowly and “the smartest thing I’ve ever done for the business was to reach out and find other smart people.”

“The smartest thing I've ever done for the business was to reach out and find other smart people.”
— Niels Valentiner, Founder, VCBO

He did not have to look far. Architect Sean Onyon was already working for Valentiner and led the One Utah Center project. Architect and sculptor Peter Brunjes was also an employee, and Valentiner offered the fellow U of U graduates partnerships. Another classmate, Steve Crane had been leading his own firm. The two reconnected and decided to merge their firms. Crane had a strong portfolio in K-12 projects, and the new firm took on the initials of the partners, VCBO. “We were the young guys, and we didn’t have anywhere to go but up,” Valentiner says.

“K-12 is now a legacy market sector for us,” Payne says. “It’s one of the studios we’ve cultivated for a long time, and it has served us well.”

“VCBO has the ability to make you, the owner, feel that your project is the most important project the firm is working on,” says Bryan Turner, director of architectural services for the Davis County School District, one of the largest in the state. Turner has worked with VCBO on more than 50 projects during his time with the district and says the firm has been instrumental in helping the district reach its goal for net-zero buildings.

“They were able to develop a very energy efficient building, [a new prototype for elementary school buildings that] could reach the net-zero goal. Now net-zero is our standard,” he says.

The LDS Temple campus

The LDS Temple campus outside of Rome was another pivotal project for VCBO. It was significant for the LDS faith, and the commission helped sustain the firm after the 2008 economic slowdown.
Photo courtesy VCBO

Strength in Diversity

Valentiner says taking on a range of projects and having partners with varied specialties has been a winning formula. “The diversity has been the strength of our firm,” he says, and decisions about what market sectors to focus on was made early and deliberately. “We looked at a few basic things,” Payne says. “Kids will always need to go to school. People will always need medical facilities. Cities want mixed-use developments, and demand for recreation centers [will] keep going.”

“Inevitably, any market sector will go through different periods. Having a diverse portfolio gives us the ability to adapt to the needs of the market,” says Celestia Carson, VCBO principal. “The most important thing I think is hiring and fostering good, talented people, making sure we’re pursuing the right projects and taking care of clients. Really, if we’re doing great architecture, the work will come.”

Some of the work that’s come includes complex civic projects like the restoration of the Utah State Capitol and the main branch of the Salt Lake City library, which again had Valentiner searching for partners to create a successful team.

“Having a diverse portfolio in a number of different sectors gives us the ability to adapt to the needs of the market.”
—Celestia Carson, Principal, VCBO

For the library project completed in 2003, VCBO turned to Boston-based AIA Gold Medal architect Moshe Safdie. “We hadn’t done much library work frankly, but we wanted to go after the job so we knew we had to team up with someone. Steve knew about the work Moshe had done, and we were able to get him on board within our team,” Valentiner says.

The building drew on elements from Safdie’s design for the Vancouver, British Columbia, library with its expansive glass lens and curved and canted walls and has become the anchor for a corridor of civic buildings stretching four blocks east to west.

In 2000, VCBO was selected to direct the restoration and seismic base isolation of the historic Utah State Capitol. The team included Ohio-based architecture firm Schooley Caldwell, specialists in historic preservation and civic buildings, as well as San Fransico-based Forell Elsesser engineers, which worked locally with Reaveley Engineers in Salt Lake City to develop the seismic base isolation system.

While VCBO’s headquarters is located only a few miles from the Capitol, the complexity of the project, which spanned nearly eight years, required the design team to set up a dedicated office on the site.

VCBO was able to call on experience from that project in 2018 when the firm was selected to design the North Capitol building, a new facility on the campus that maintains the look of the historic building.

The VCBO founders

The VCBO founders reunited for the firm’s 50th anniversary last year. Left to right: Steve Crane, Sean Onyon, Niels Valentiner and Peter Brunjes. Valentiner is the only remaining practicing partner, while the others have retired to pursue other interests.

Religious Niche

VCBO has designed temples in several states as well as Mexico City and Honduras for the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 2008, the firm was commissioned to design the LDS temple in Rome. The temple’s site includes an expansive plaza with a visitor center, genealogy research center, guest housing and administrative buildings. Valentiner says the team referenced traditional Italian Renaissance and Baroque architecture while distinguishing the building as part of the LDS church.

Payne contends that while the project was significant for its location and meaning for the LDS church, coming during the economic crash of 2008, it also helped sustain the firm while the economy recovered.

 

Future Building

As VCBO celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2023, the firm embarked on a journey to reimagine its brand while positioning itself for the next 50 years. The result centers around the theme of “creating spaces for people to thrive,” and the firm is in the process of developing a new strategic plan to map out the next 50 years.

“We have some ideas of how we want to grow internally and externally,” Wood says.

Growth in 2023 included the groundbreaking of such high profile projects as the Scott M. Smith Engineering and Technology building on the campus of Utah Valley University in Orem, the L.S. Skaggs Integrated Wellness Center at Westminster University in Salt Lake City and three recreation centers for cities along the Wasatch Front. VCBO was also commissioned to design a city hall and library for the city of Lehi, a baseball stadium for the U of U and new master plan for Utah Tech University.

Developing the staff and the next generation of leadership for the firm is also a top priority. “We are continuing our focus on our staff and our clients. We think good quality work for our clients comes from staff who are happy and invested and passionate and care about what they’re doing,” Wood says.

A mentorship program whereby individual principals work closely with small groups of staff members is helping to build a strong company culture, Wood adds.

Valentiner says he continues to enjoy helping shape the future of the firm, finding challenging projects and organizing teams to take them on. “That has been my role for a while: to bring in work, put together these teams, get the design going and then step away,” he says.