When Mark Culotta met Knox Tumlin, the problem solving began. Mark was a junior in high school when he went to work one day with a local engineer, Mr. Alfred Dyer, M.E., at the Superdome. Knox, who was working for the city at the time, also knew Mr. Alfred Dyer.
Over the past few weeks prior to that day, everyone had been trying to figure out how to suspend the giant scoreboard in the center of the Superdome based on the proposed plans. That day Mark came to work and everyone met at the 50 yard line scratching their heads. Mark, who was still in school, said “Well, it’s purely a math issue.” and was able to prove, mathematically, why the proposed way of hanging the scoreboard wasn’t going to work. So, the gondola was created and the scoreboard was hung and the problem was solved, much to every Saints fan’s enjoyment.
Since then, Mark and Knox have crossed paths in life and today, they are celebrating 30 years of Pascal Architects. Learn more about their story in this Q&A.
Q: Tell us about the beginnings of Pascal Architects. How did you two decide to go into business together and why?
Mark: Pascal Architects was a product of me getting a fresh start. I was previously involved with another business and the partners and I had a difference of opinions. After that, I left and rushed back to New Orleans where I started Pascal Architects on October 30, 1991. Upon founding, I was adamant about not having any partners, but things change.
Knox: I met Mark through a mutual friend, Pat Gootee, while working for the City of New Orleans in the early 90’s. At the time, Mark had landed some city projects and I got to know him and really liked the way he worked and organized things. His drawings were always very thorough (as opposed to some of the other architects that the city was hiring) and he was very knowledgeable about his business and his projects.
Mark: As I grew, I hired Knox as a consultant to help manage areas including marketing and consulting on projects. In 2005, Pascal Architects had landed some pretty significant jobs and I needed to bring in a partner. Knox was the logical choice. So, in September of 2005, we went from a 4 man shop, to an 18 man shop, brought Knox into the fold and expanded our services to include construction management, project management and disaster relief work.
Q: Historic restoration has been the focus of the firm for over 30 years. Why so?
Mark: When you walk through a city like the City of New Orleans and you have the opportunity to grow up with the French Quarter as your backyard, you gain an understanding and appreciation for why things were built the way they were built. These historic cities have tremendous value to our country and strong historic value in their architecture.
Take a city like Chicago, for instance, which has gone through two great fires that destroyed a lot of their cultural fabric. This has resulted in what we would call a new or rebuilt city. I am not saying that everything in New Orleans is of historic nature, but it’s a really positive and strong dynamic that exists in this city. From the French to the Spanish influence all of these buildings included wonderful, thoughtful design, completed by true craftsmen that allowed these buildings to last over 300 years before restoration was ever needed. For this reason, we believe as a firm that we need to restore these historic buildings properly so that they last for another 300 years.
Knox: I grew up in Savannah, GA, which is also a historic city, but upon attending Tulane University in New Orleans, I really fell in love with the City of New Orleans. Having grown up around historic architecture, you learn to appreciate it. There are also very few architecture firms who can execute a historic restoration project correctly.
Q: Why does Pascal focus on forensic architecture in their processes?
Mark: In the mid to late 90s all of us were tired of hearing the term “sick building syndrome” across the city. This is when a building has inadequate ventilation or contaminants that compromise the integrity of a building. We knew that what would truly solve the problem was to identify WHY the problem was happening in the first place. When you think about it, so many elements apply to architecture, so when working on a historic building (or any building really) you have to take a holistic approach. While Knox and I were in school around the same time, there was a book floating around that focused on the idea of problem seeking and that meant that you had to identify what the true problem was in order to solve it. So, we kind of took this approach and made it a foundation of our business.
Unfortunately, when it comes to restoration, a lot of projects don’t take this holistic approach. It’s kind of like when you go ask the insurance man how to fix your problem, he’s going to tell you that you need more insurance or when you go to the doctor, he’s going to tell you that you need more medication, when really you don’t even know what the problem is! But that is what they know and what they do for a living.
We have always felt that there are so many elements that come together to create architecture (mechanical, electrical, plumbing, etc.) that you’d have to analyze each individual element separately and complete a building analysis to get to the bottom of what’s causing the problem. Forensic Architecture takes a lot of fieldwork, a lot of documentation and a lot of testing in some circumstances, but we always get to the bottom of the issue and create a better solution for our clients in the long run.
Knox: If you’re looking to reuse an existing building, you have to look behind the walls, in and above the ceilings and understand why the building was put together the way it was and what, if anything, needs to be modified for it to function properly.
Mark: And you know, we haven’t always worked on projects that were on the National Register. Much of what we worked on in the late 90s to early 00s was mid-century modern. So these weren’t necessarily adaptive reuse, but they were all built at a time when architecture wasn’t fully addressing the climate that the city of New Orleans provides.
Q: How has Pascal Architects changed throughout the years?
Mark: I would say that the single biggest add since 1990 would be the addition of construction management and project management to our services. In 2005, due to Hurricane Katrina, our construction management work exploded as did our need for personnel.
Knox: The fact that over the years, more and more, we were being brought in at the beginning by clients who were wanting our advice on a building remodel shows that we have become noted for our expertise in adaptive reuse and historic restoration.
Q: What has been the biggest achievement of Pascal Architects in the last 30 years?
Mark: I would say that our biggest achievement is that we have lasted the test of time for a firm that started out as well, just me. I think that is the biggest achievement that we have made over the last 30 years and we are still expanding. The notion that we have an office in midtown Manhattan, in addition to our home office in New Orleans and Fort Worth, is huge.
Knox: I want to talk about one of our initial historic restoration projects, because I think this was our greatest accomplishment. When we were brought in to the Ritz Carlton restoration project, we were brought in to fix a problem that the previous architects had created. The project was less than half finished and a lot of the construction was faulty. There were days that we thought that we could not salvage the project due to the damage previously created. But, we persevered and executed the project, which mind you is on the National Registry. It was this project where we built a lot of the longstanding relationships that we still have today.
Mark: Yea, a lot of architecture firms don’t stand the test of time. More importantly, they don’t necessarily have a relationship with a client for as long as we have. Some of our clients have been like family for over 20 years – it’s very rare for us to not be long term friends with our clients.
Doing what you say you’re going to do, performing the job responsibly, professionally and accurately have all helped deepen these relationships. Also, we’re really adamant about having a principal involved in every project–that’s a big one for us.
Q: What is your favorite memory over the last 30 years at Pascal Architects?
Knox: Getting to work on the Superdome project is probably my favorite memory. We were making history, doing what had never been done before in an enclosed building of that size. We were pioneering not just one but dozens of things, including rewriting the Louisiana Building Fire Marshal Code. We had to come up with creative ways to put the necessary life safety procedures, requirements and equipment in place.
Mark: Absolutely, even down to changing the way that the players interacted with the field of synthetic turf on concrete–that had never been done before. Probably my favorite part was getting to prove that George Rawling’s cable design didn’t work. We rewrote the cabling system and instituted a gondola system to raise and lower the screen in the building – a screen of that size had never been done in an enclosed building before.
Q: What is your favorite part about what you do as an architect?
Mark: Thousands of people are impacted by my decisions daily. The fact that one of my decisions can impact the environment of thousands of people does not go unnoticed.
Knox: I love improving people’s lives through the built environment.
Q: What is your hope for the next 30 years of Pascal Architects?
Mark: I hope that we are a strong enough company to have successfully trained the next generation of principals. I hope that we will continue to be a teaching firm and take the quality and quantity of the work that we do to the next level. I hope that the next generation makes the same commitment that we made to the young architects that interned with us and then became staff members and teach them everything we know. This firm has the ability to be around for many many years with that kind of self- perpetuating attitude.
Knox: I echo exactly what Mark said, but I hope to be retired long before then.