Ratio building go-to reputation: Convention Center expansion latest notch in firm’s belt

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As the Final Four approaches, it seems fitting to relive in basketball terms how Ratio Architects Inc. came off the bench in dramatic fashion to save a high-profile downtown project after the star had fouled out.

The Indianapolis-based architectural firm played that role in 2004 after sketches from the original out-of-town architect designing the downtown headquarters of Simon Property Group Inc. failed to impress corporate executives. Ratio had one week to deliver, and did.

But while the firm’s portfolio is full of prominent work, its ability to outshine larger, national rivals might have helped it land the starting assignment on perhaps its most prestigious yet-the expansion of the Indiana Convention Center.

“If we have local talent that can do the job, we wanted to recruit local talent,” said John Klipsch, director of the Indiana Stadium and Convention Building Authority. “We believe that there are a handful of firms in Indianapolis and Indiana that have come of age, and Ratio is one of them.”

To be sure, Ratio’s work has left an indelible mark on the city. A few of its more notable projects include Conseco Fieldhouse, the Indiana State Museum and The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis Dinosphere, for which the firm in 2004 earned the Outstanding Indiana Architecture Award from the state chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Yet the convention center expansion might rise above all others, if only for its link to the construction of Lucas Oil Stadium, a state-of-the-art arena whose retractable roof could help Indianapolis land the Super Bowl. The two projects combined are estimated to cost $900 million. Once the stadium is finished in 2008, the RCA Dome will be demolished to make way for the convention center expansion set to open in 2010.

The Capital Improvement Board chose Ratio from roughly 20 competitors last May to serve as lead architect, giving the firm responsibility for the design of the center’s exterior. Ratio President Bill Browne expects plans will be finished later this spring.

Three local firms are assisting as associate architects. BSA LifeStructures is designing the interior, and Blackburn Architects Inc. and Domain Architecture Inc. are participating in planning and design.

The addition of more convention space should improve upon the city’s image and further cement Ratio’s reputation as one of the state’s finest architectural firms. In terms of size, its $11.2 million in local billings in 2006 rank it as the third-largest Indianapolis-area firm.

“This is the culmination of what we started in 1982,” said Browne, 51, referring to the year the firm was founded. “I really feel that we have been preparing, for the past 25 years, to do this project.”

On the map

Indeed, Ratio has built a formidable practice since its first foray renovating the Century building on South Pennsylvania Street. At the time, Browne and developers Cornelius “Lee” Alig and Harold Garrison owned Mansur Development Co. and HDG Architects, the predecessor to Ratio.

Browne, an Indianapolis native, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture from the University of Illinois and the University of Florida, respectively, before helping to launch the firm at age 26.

Having the two companies enabled the trio to control the development and design of their projects, which in the beginning slanted toward historic buildings. Meanwhile, Browne became president of architectural operations in 1985 and bought out his partners two years later, prompting the name change to Ratio.

The split was a natural progression of the partners’ priorities, Browne recalled. Alig, who today is chairman of local developer Mansur Real Estate Services, and Garrison, who is CEO of local commercial real estate investment manager HDG Mansur, had become mere investors in the architecture business.

Mansur currently is working with Ratio to redevelop the former Herron School of Art building at Pennsylvania and 16th streets into a charter school.

“He has done a fantastic job building a company,” Alig said of Browne. “I’m very proud of his success and the mark he has made on Indianapolis.”

Ratio, which had roughly 25 employees at the time of the split, remained in the Century building and simply changed the name on its door. But the scope of its work began to evolve.

The firm served in the late 1980s as associate architect on the design of downtown’s Market Tower, a development led by Mansur, and a project that gave Ratio valuable experience. It helped the firm in 1987 receive an invitation to participate in the design competition of a corporate headquarters for Columbus, Ind.-based Arvin Industries Inc., now called Arvin-Meritor Inc. The firm prevailed.

“That put us on the map,” Browne said, “because we were the first Indiana firm to have a building on [Columbus’] architectural tour.”

In 1991, Ratio landed the design of the Christel DeHaan Fine Arts Center on the University of Indianaplis campus, the first new building it sketched.

Under pressure

In the meantime, Ratio’s higher-education component has grown to constitute 30 percent of its work. The firm has completed projects for several universities nationwide, and purchased a small practice in 2004 in Champaign, Ill., home of the University of Illinois, to take advantage of opportunities there.

Yet 9/11 took its toll on the construction and design sectors by causing commercial building to slow. The downturn led Ratio to eliminate five of its 20 licensed architect positions. The firm started feeling the effects of a slowing economy toward the end of 2000, Browne said, and 9/11 just added to the uncertainty.

One of its university projects, a $35 million, 750-student housing complex on the campus of IUPUI, helped sustain the firm during the difficult period. Ratio since has rebounded with the economy and now employs 24 licensed architects.

Its private-sector portfolio includes the headquarters of local corporations such as WellPoint Inc., Emmis Communications Corp., Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance and, most recently, Simon.

The shopping mall developer unveiled a headquarters design by Atlanta-based Cooper Carry Inc. in September 2004. But a second design by Ratio followed in December after local architects and planners objected to the first one.

Browne became involved after a phone call from John Rulli, Simon’s chief operating officer for operating properties, requesting he meet with him immediately. Upon digesting the details, Browne asked, “What do you want me to do, change the design?”

Told “yes,” Brown and his colleagues went to work, even though the footprint of the building already was in place and the steel ordered.

“You’d have to put a new dress on an existing infrastructure,” Ruhle recalled in explaining the situation to Browne. “But we decided that if they could very, very quickly put together a new design, we would change our direction, and they came back with a very interesting design.”

Roughly two weeks later, Browne presented the plans to Simon CEO David Simon during a break in budget meetings.

“We caught the 200-mph train going down the track,” recalled Brown. “It was a big puzzle, but it was fun.”

While the pace of the convention center schedule is less demanding, there’s no doubt the project will be more influential.

Said Klipsch: “We are going to get rid of the RCA Dome and replace it with an expansion of a convention center that is the largest expansion the city has ever done. We wanted a firm that understood the urban fabric.”

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