Down south in Miami, a young design & construction firm is constantly reinventing itself in new and exciting ways. Founded in 2005 by Neue Guild member Gavin McKenzie, McKenzie has evolved from a small outfit focused on residential renovations to an 80-person company serving diverse clients and tackling a wide variety of projects. In 2013, after realizing they were building more and more of the millwork for their own projects, they launched McKenzie Craft, a sister company to the main construction operation.
Their focus on quality and sustainability coupled with a commitment to their South Florida community makes McKenzie a company worth knowing and emulating. A true design-build firm, they have a multi-disciplinary staff – architects, builders, fabricators, and designers – working to ensure a smooth project delivery and a great client experience. We’re thrilled to hear from Gavin, Benji Power, Chief Operations Officer, Danielle Ungermann, Marketing Coordinator, and the rest of the McKenzie team in this member Q&A. Read below!
The Neue Guild [NG] What is your area of design expertise?
McKenzie [MK] McKenzie works on multiple design levels, for both commercial and residential clients, in response to whatever role our clients need us to play. When hired as the actual designer for a project, we are equally skilled in exploring the design of small furniture or finish pieces inside of McKenzie Craft as we are in handling the design and architecture of large design-build construction projects with McKenzie Construction. However, all of our work has some connection to design, as along with being hired to directly serve as designer for a project that we will build, we are also hired for pure construction or fabrication service roles for which we are selected because of our understanding of how to work with complex designs.
The actual design styles that we work with are quite varied, and include new construction, modern, industrial, and adaptive reuse themes, but are usually always focused on clean and simple designs that pay respect to the natural state of materials that we work with and to the tropical environments of South Florida. We explore the use of metal, concrete, and wood throughout much of our work. Our teams love working with digital fabrication whenever possible, and use it to try and engineer unique but affordable design solutions. Throughout all of our work we strive to think of the sustainability impacts of the projects we are leading, and we try and create designs that are green and that incorporate sustainable building materials whenever possible, regardless of whether a client wants their project to obtain an actual green certification or not.
We enjoy working on projects and designs that our staff can imagine themselves interacting with, and thus our designs for commercial and residential spaces are more focused on ensuring that the end-users feel good when they interact with the projects that we build rather than trying to become the most unique, but perhaps uncomfortable, space they have seen.
NG How did your company begin?
MK Our CEO, Gavin McKenzie, started McKENZIE after he built a team to work on small real estate investments in Miami. Hurricane Wilma swept through South Florida in 2005, giving him a series of residential rehab jobs to work on, which led to the birth of McKenzie Construction. The initial company structure was a pure general contractor construction model. Around 2012, the firm began taking on more complex design jobs, in which we managed outside architects in a modified design-build role. At the same time we also started fabricating our own finish millwork and furniture for our construction projects. In 2013 McKenzie Craft was born as a separate fabrication division, and along with working with McKenzie Construction, it began sometimes working for other designers and construction companies.
In 2015 McKenzie acquired and remodeled a 1938 warehouse and moved into its new 25,000 SF home. This new warehouse allowed McKenzie’s two divisions to exist in the same space for the first time ever, allowing our collaboration power to grow. It was in this year that we also established our true design-build service line, as our in-house architecture team was formed. Since our move into the warehouse campus we have been able to grow in both project volume and diversity, and we are now exploring ways to further grow our design-build service line and are exploring fun innovations in our fabrication processes as we explore bringing on new manufacturing machinery.
NG Do you have a favorite part or phase of the design process?
MK According to our CEO, Gavin’s favorite part of the design process is the initial back of the napkin session. This is where the vision takes hold and there often is the most creative expression. We’re able to help clients come up with out of the box ideas and transformative imagery that is particularly inspiring with an adaptive re-use project or renovation.
NG What’s an area of design with which you’re unfamiliar but would like to be more familiar?
MK We’re about to install a CNC machine in our workshop. Once that comes in, it’ll open up a multitude of project opportunities while freeing up some of the additional associated labor time that comes with handcrafting certain pieces. It’ll be interesting to see how the designs translate to CNC fabrication. We are also excited to explore how the CNC process will help us not just in the fabrication of individual pieces, but in the exploration of designs for large scale construction projects.
NG What inspires your work?
MK For the 80+ team members that work at McKenzie, design, construction and fabrication work are also many times our hobbies. Our Director of Craft, Vincent Federici, says, “I’m a furniture designer at heart. I enjoy figuring out the right touch, the right way to build, the right process to follow. I’m a less is more person. I like to exercise how to construct something leaner and sleeker.” Thus, we all bring our personal passion for this work as inspiration for what we do.
Many of us also believe that the built environment has a profound effect on the mood and general sense of well being of people who occupy it, and we strive to create work that helps improve this experience. People want to feel good and feel comfortable, it’s part of our nature, and our ability to create beautiful, yet comfortable spaces, is inspiring to us.
Our staff also has a strong love for South Florida and we are inspired by this. We sponsor some extracurricular efforts that relate to sustainability and the environment, with a lot of attention given to our Everglades, and we are excited for our work to have a positive impact on the future of South Florida’s natural environment. We also enjoy experiencing the growth and redevelopment of Miami, and are inspired by seeing how our finished projects positively impact places, such as restaurants, retail, art-inspired places, and neighborhoods that we interact with.
NG What has been your biggest design challenge to date?
MK We recently worked on a series of Craft projects for the SLS Brickell, a new residential / hotel high-rise project in Downtown Miami and there was some design problem-solving involved as we worked with The Related Group, the developer for the project, and the Philippe Starck designs for the project. We were challenged with building something that many contractors would have said could not be done, which was fabricating and installing nine freestanding, 2-story tall steel structure mailbox towers in their tight-spaced lobby. The manufacturing work provided the initial challenge, because we needed to create the tall structures in our workshop and store them until they were ready for installation, and then the install required finessed coordination for the erection of the towers and for the installation of the actual mailboxes into them.
A larger-scale design challenge that we are facing is on a project where we are serving as design-builder for two restaurants located in a new Downtown Miami train station. We are the Architect of Record for the developer, All Aboard Florida, working with their New York-based interior design firm, AvroKO, and are the construction company building the two projects. The restaurants are being built inside of a new construction building that is still not complete, and thus our design challenges include guiding the design firm and client’s visions into local code compliance, resolving design conflicts with the base building which is still being constructed, and managing the development of the restaurants’ designs within the client’s fixed construction budget. This final challenge extends over to our McKenzie Craft division, which is designing and building a lot of the finish pieces within the spaces, as these furniture and finish pieces all have the ability to directly influence the project’s final construction budget and thus our team is modifying the design to help create more cost-effective products.
NG What role does collaboration play in your work?
MK There is collaboration at every level of our work and life at McKenzie. One of the strongest value add characteristics of McKenzie for our clients is the high quality of communication between our in-house architects, construction PMs, and Craft team. Our new warehouse offices were designed with this collaboration in mind, and we have created large open work spaces where team work is encouraged. The effectiveness of our collaboration determines whether our jobs will be successful or not on all fronts, including the aesthetic, budgetary, and project delivery schedule metrics. Ultimately, it is this strong emphasis on teamwork and on working closely with outside partners that has led us to see our firm grow so healthily over the past few years.