Journey to the Final Frontier: An architect’s account of the design and construction process (part 1)

Architect’s Log Star Date 12.12.12

I have been working on projects with Bass Pro Shops since 1993 – it all started with a commission to design a cool Adirondack style lodge at Big Cedar Resort.  I was a young architect, recently licensed and full of energy. Over the past 20 years I have been involved with countless projects ranging from small remodels, dozens of new store projects, adaptive re-use of an old Zenith plant for corporate HQ and distribution center and the ongoing improvements at the ‘mother ship’ in Springfield, MO.

Every project was unique and had it’s own ‘once in a lifetime’ moments. And with John Morris’ (founder of Bass Pro Shops) vision, along with Tom Jowett’s (VP Design & Development) design direction and endless sketches, each project sucked me deeper in the vortex that is the essence of a Bass Pro Shops retail experience – all encompassing and exhilarating.

Over the last few years our involvement with new store development had dwindled with the economy.   We had submitted several proposals for new stores only to be beaten on price.  Of course it seems that over the years we were always the ‘go to’ firm when it came to difficult projects, so imagine my disappointment when I found out we were the ‘low bid’ on the new Memphis location (to be built inside the Memphis Pyramid), but another firm was selected based on a cool outdoor themed hotel they had designed. Ugh.

When I received a call about a month ago , Tom Jowett asked if I liked cold weather.  ‘Sure’ I said, being the outdoor kind of guy – ‘I like all kinds of weather!’.  That’s when he said we’d be receiving an RFP for the Anchorage project. And (of course) competing with one other firm for it. ‘Ugh.’  I said to myself.

We received the RFP on Friday the 16th of November at 5 pm or so Central Time.  Next week was Thanksgiving, and the proposal was due Monday following Thanksgiving weekend.  Right away the sense of urgency set in – the RFP stated they wanted to open Phase I of the store June 1, 2013.  It was at that precise moment I knew I had been training 20 years for this assignment. And the adrenaline started pumping.  Over the course of the next week and over the Thanksgiving weekend I made dozens of calls and hundreds of emails to put together a partnership with other firms to prepare a proposal for this project.  Including a partner team in Anchorage to be our boots in the ground, and Architect of Record since we were not licensed in AK.

The main criteria of the team selection process for me was ‘Who REALLY wants to be up for this challenge?’ Of the firms I talked with RIM Architects stood above the rest.  And they had assembled an all-star cast for local site / civil engineering and structural engineering.  One little hiccup occurred over the holiday weekend – the site civil team announced they could not be on our team. The reason;  They had previously been hired by Bass pro Shops’ arch rival to help with their new store, also in Anchorage. So the roller coaster ride began.  We had to secure another site / civil team by the time the proposal was due on Monday at 4 pm.

Headed to Anchorage to get the project started!

Headed to Anchorage to get the project started!

We submitted the proposal at the requisite day and time, 4 pm on Monday November 24th.  By 10 pm, I received notification that we were awarded the project, and there was a meeting scheduled on site on Wednesday 8 am Anchorage time. My adrenaline was pumping so hard, I tried to go to sleep, but simply could not, so I spent several hours that night arranging travel to Anchorage and planning in my head how we could actually accomplish the June 1 opening date.  I felt, well, giddy, anxious, scared and excited all at once.

That was two weeks ago. Since then, we have already gone through 5 design options were actually presented, and countless others on sketch paper already in the garbage can. Each of the previous designs having some encroachment on utilities, wetlands, fire truck access, or some other obstacle.

On 12/11/12 we finally arrived at a solution that meets almost every criteria for approvals – both with municipality and Bass Pro Shops founder.  Just in the nick of time, too, as we will be submitting a site amendment zoning application on 12/13/12 that has to be approved by the municipality in order for the store to expand the footprint of the existing buildings we intend to re-use for the project.

This week I decided it would be fun to chronicle the process of opening a store like this in a compressed time frame, and in Alaska.  So follow me on this journey, which I know will be yet another once in a lifetime project.  For me, it’s not so much about the actual architecture as it is the process, the people you meet and work with, the daily challenges that come up, and the satisfaction of solving them, one at a time, on the path to creating a retail destination like no other.  And then, ultimately, watching people file in the door on opening day. Jaws dropped. Smiles on. And wallets in hand.

northern lights

Red eye flight photo of a phenomenon known as the western lights

11-27-12 AK Trip 101, Bass Pro Shops - Anchorage, Alaska

Reading material for the long flights to/from Anchorage