No ‘Sea of Sameness’: Local commercial architects on their top projects, industry trends

From restaurants to movie theaters to innovative mixed-use development, the work of Traverse City’s commercial architects balances beauty with function and classic design flourishes with modern ones. One building at a time, these architects and their creative teams are reshaping the look and feel of Traverse City and northern Michigan as a whole. The TCBN touched based with three of the area’s leading commercial architecture companies to learn more about their projects, their thoughts about pervasive industry trends, and their opinions about a rapidly growing Grand Traverse community.

Environment Architects

Profile: Founded in 1978 – but called Clark & Walter at the time – Environment Architects is one of northern Michigan’s leaders in sustainable architecture and is dedicated to incorporating green design elements into its projects.

One notable example: The company designed the BATA Hall Street Transfer Center, the first LEED-certified building in Traverse City. Beyond sustainability, owner Ray Kendra and his team also define the term environment as “the circumstances, objects, and conditions that surround you.” The mission of Environment Architects takes into account both of these ideas of what being environmentally conscious can mean, and seeks to design beautiful, functional projects that have more impact on people; less impact on the environment.

Botanic Gardens at Historic Barns Park

Notable northern Michigan projects: The Botanic Gardens and the Cathedral Barn at Historic Barns Park; the Grand Traverse County Health Department headquarters on Lafranier Road; the under-construction Commongrounds mixed-use development on Eighth Street; the Grand Traverse Bay YMCA on Silver Lake Road; the Safe Harbor homeless shelter and the Old Town Parking Deck in downtown Traverse City; the visitor center at Grass River Natural Area in Bellaire; the city hall and public services buildings in Boyne City; renovations for the Garden Theater in Frankfort; the food and clothing pantry building for Benzie Area Christian Neighbors in Benzonia.

Most unique project from the past two years: “We are particularly excited about the new Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy headquarters, currently under construction on 3 Mile Road,” Kendra said. “This project is a once-in-a-lifetime project incorporating many green elements – including rainwater reclamation for flushing toilets; staggered stud walls with high levels of insulation; portions of the glass that have special characteristics to help birds avoid from running into windows; and a very large solar array that will help the building target net-zero energy consumption on an annual basis –among other exciting features.”

Trend to watch: “The biggest challenge we face currently, related to trends in the industry, involves navigating the supply chain and availability of materials,” Kendra explained. “At this time, being adaptable with structural systems and materials is important to get our clients the best value for their investment. We also always explore green elements on every project and don’t see that as a trend but as something that should be considered for any project.”

How Traverse City growth will affect the look of commercial areas: “I feel strongly that great clients make great projects,” Kendra said. “I hope the people involved in developing our community value the sense of place, and that (placemaking sensibility) is reflected in projects through quality design and quality materials – and not just a push to build as cheaply as possible for quick return on investment.”

Michael Fitzhugh Architect

Profile: A northern Michigan native, Michael Fitzhugh earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Utah before beginning his career in Salt Lake City and ultimately relocating to the San Francisco area. He returned to Traverse City in the early 2000s and started his business, Michael Fitzhugh Architect, in 2004. Since then, Fitzhugh has had a hand in several projects that have shaped the look and feel of downtown Traverse City, including the Warehouse MRKT building and the renovated State Theatre.

Intrust CPA

Notable northern Michigan projects: Warehouse MRKT; design work for the renovations of the Traverse City State Theatre and the Frankfort Garden Theater; Stormcloud Brewing in Frankfort; Traverse Cold Storage on Cass Road; Beers Family Dentistry on North Long Lake Road; Common Good Bakery; 101 North Park in downtown Traverse City (including Grand Traverse Pie Company, SHRR Law, and the building’s numerous residential units).

Most unique project from the past two years: “A recent unique project was the renovation of a two-story commercial office building for Intrust CPA at 732 Hannah Avenue,” Fitzhugh said. “The building went through a complete transformation with new exterior finishes, new windows and new interior spaces. The building was formerly beige stucco with an interior maze of hallways and doors. The design goal of the new space was to open the office for a better work environment, which meant bringing in more light and allowing for uninterrupted views through spaces. The building’s exterior received new modern finishes and large windows to complete the design.”

Trend to watch: “A current trend in commercial architecture is to find balance in a post-pandemic world,” Fitzhugh explained. “Offices will manage with employees working from a range of scenarios, so providing flexible space to accommodate those who need to be at the office (regularly) and those who only need to be in occasionally is key. This is also true for retail and restaurants, with grab-and-go takeout areas clearly defined. For example, last summer, I designed an outdoor kiosk for Stormcloud Brewing, which provides an outdoor location for placing and picking up to-go orders, making reservations, and buying souvenirs – all without walking into the crowded restaurant.”

How Traverse City growth will affect the look of commercial areas: “My hope is for this growth trend to evolve in a more organic way,” Fitzhugh said. “The ability for small businesses to utilize sidewalk and parking spaces for outdoor seating is one example. This type of flexibility not only provides added outdoor seating but also provides much needed accessible seating, which is important when considering an older building with a difficult entry situation. Organic evolution happens through less rigid zoning restrictions and by allowing individual business owners to make small changes without special approval. That’s something we encountered in Frankfort with the Stormcloud kiosk: The zoning ordinance stated that no outbuildings were allowed. We applied for planning commission approval, which slowed down the process, but the project was eventually approved and built.”


Profile: Founded by husband-and-wife team Peter and Charlotte Smith, DesignSmiths was built with a synergy of talent. He’s the architect; she’s the designer. Together, the pair “design projects ranging in size, type, and function,” according to Charlotte – with a particular liking for collaborations with “clients who are looking to create something unique.”

“We approach each potential project with an open mind, expressing the individual character of the client and business through the function and design of the built space,” she added.

Farm Club (photo by Andy Wakeman)

Notable northern Michigan projects: Architecture and designs for Farm Club and Loma Farm; a “small back porch addition” for Leelanau Books in Leland; major renovations of the American Spoon headquarters in Petoskey and the Mason’s Workshop & Showroom in Suttons Bay; an in-progress interior renovation of City Bike Shop in Traverse City.

Most unique project from the past two years: “Farm Club is our most recognizable commercial project to date and one we are particularly proud of,” Charlotte said. “We began with the concept of a traditional agricultural building, and elevated it through a carefully sited building, crafted plan, material palette and details. Refined lines and minimal trim work to create a warm, comfortable place that is both contemporary and timeless. The unbeatable site, just off the TART Trail, further helps to make Farm Club a destination for our active local community, who can ditch the car and arrive by bike – or even on skis!”

Trend to watch: Charlotte explained that DesignSmiths tends to focus “primarily on advancements in building technologies and materials, rather than architectural trends,” noting that “smart use of these elements will allow a building to adapt to changing requirements, increasing its longevity and sustainability.”

“The pandemic undoubtedly highlighted the need for good design,” she said. “By being confined, people started to truly understand their space – how it helps or impedes their lifestyle or work productivity, as well as what it lacks: the need for connecting to the village around them. It’s something designers often consider but many people for the first time understood: that their quality of life is directly affected by not only their personal space but the ‘third place,’ or the community and structure around them.”

How Traverse City growth will affect the look of commercial areas: “We moved to the area 10 years ago and it has been both rewarding and eye-opening to witness and be a part of this decade of change in Traverse City,” Charlotte said. “Recently, the excitement over the influx of people has led to a rush to build, primarily in the tourism sector, and this often favors profit margins over design and thoughtful materials. Luckily, there are great architects, planners, and community partners who are working hard to keep Traverse City from becoming a sea of sameness. We are also thrilled to see the new community-oriented Commongrounds building take shape on Eighth Street. We hope this is just the beginning, and will lead to more thoughtful commercial and residential spaces being designed and utilized in our town.”