President of Grace Hebert Curtis Architects, an architecture and interior design firm that is still experiencing substantial growth in size and reputation after more than 50 years.
By Liisa Andreassen
There are many things that Gerald “Jerry” Hebert is proud of, but leading GHC (Baton Rouge, LA) in bringing the region’s school architecture into the 21st century tops the list, professionally at least. Personally, it’s all about people.
Having joined the firm in 1987, he’s seen ups and downs and many changes along the way, but he says there’s one constant that has and should remain the same – how people are treated.
“As a kid, my dad always taught me to treat people with respect and integrity,” he says. “I try to recognize when people need help and learn from people all the time. I’ll never forget the time someone in need complimented my dad on his coat. He took it off and gave it to him. That’s always stayed with me – personally and professionally.”
For example, Hebert recalls he had a staff member who was really struggling. He called him into his office to find out what was going on. He quickly learned that the young man hated drawing and preferred construction. Once he was moved into a new position, he became a fantastic employee.
“It’s all about listening to people,” he says.
In addition to his dad, he’s been lucky to have several great mentors over the years – two specifically, were during his college years. One was a great technical architect who taught him how to understand the nuts and bolts of the building process and the other also taught him the value of treating people well.
“It builds bonds when you’re invested in people,” he says.
Opportunities spring from challenges. That’s likely why the company has a great retention rate and also why clients keep coming back. GHC spends a lot of time working to develop trust with its clients and telling the truth is the main way it does that. Its open-book policy and transparent way of doing things instills confidence in its clients.
“We don’t hide anything,” Hebert shares. “We work together to find a solution. I try to see challenges as opportunities and have the same philosophy when working with our contractors too.”
One such “opportunity” presented itself about 18 years ago when the company had a primary focus on criminal justice projects. There were four projects lined up. Two died and one fell through, leaving the company in a bit of a pickle. Hebert knew it was time to make a change and seized the opportunity to start diversifying. They worked on growing their education and healthcare markets.
“Through failure comes success,” he says. “This challenge (opportunity) caused us to rethink how we were doing business and resulted in us being a much stronger and more nimble company.”
That diversification is another reason for the company’s solid retention rates. The variety of projects that people are able to work on as well as the use of cutting-edge technology provides leverage with clients, making it easier for staff to do their jobs well.
GHC’s holistic immersive design is now evident in an array of markets, and education is one where it’s really making an impact. Hebert says the community had really not updated the schools in the region to keep pace with 21st century learning. As a result, GHC worked with people on all levels – from the school board to school maintenance staff to develop a model for the future.
“We’ve transformed education in our community,” Hebert says.
Liberty High School in Baton Rouge is one such example. It supports 21st century learning and project-based instruction and is inspired by and reflective of the school’s innovative approach to education. It encompasses three specialized academies: Biomedical, digital arts, and STEM. A multipurpose Commons Building combines the identities of the three academies and houses shared functions. Together the four areas comprise 250,000 square feet of learning space to serve approximately 1,200 students.
Continuing the theme of innovation and out-of-the-box design, traditional classrooms and hallways have been replaced by a network of flexible learning spaces. The spaces can be configured for a variety of uses to support and encourage interdisciplinary collaboration and cross-curriculum instruction. Specialized learning labs called WOW! Spaces in each academy also give students a chance to explore real-life applications of newly acquired skills and knowledge. Visual connections throughout the instructional spaces increase student engagement in the learning process.
“I’m also quite proud of the fact that my son who leads the education group at the company has had the opportunity to be a part of this,” he says. “He can look back and say, ‘Hey, I was part of that when it all started to change.’”
Hebert says that in addition to innovative projects, there are other factors that influence positive retention rates. They include Monday lunches where there’s time to socialize and kick back, “Lunch and Learns,” and an internal project management training program. GHC is also holding its first company-wide retreat this year.
“I’ve very excited about this,” Hebert says. “We’re holding this two-day retreat in Baton Rouge and all five offices are invited to attend. It’s a great way to relay the vision of the company and to communicate culture and just have some fun.”
Future reflections. So, what’s in store for the future? Hebert says he’s got a few things on his mind. They include recruitment, sustainability, and client education.
While Hebert says GHC has really been blessed to have a wonderful staff, many people are starting to approach retirement age and he doesn’t see a big influx of interest from the younger generation. GHC partners with area universities, talks to alumni, and works with interns to spark excitement in the industry and is always looking to recruit the best and brightest.
“It’s challenging out there right now,” he says. “But we’ve seen it before – specifically in the ‘80s. There’s inflation and we need to focus on cost control. Interest rates will also have a big impact on the industry. We need to be prudent and keep working to generate an interest in the field, to work with young people and help them to understand the field. For me, that’s one of the most pressing issues right now.”
Hebert says that client education is also key.
“There’s a sustainability push across the country,” he says. “We need to figure out ways to educate clients about the built environment and instill the importance of protecting nature across the board.”
There’s no doubt that GHC is actively anticipating and adapting to lead the next generation of design and delivery.