Paulsen Architects

teamwork by design

NOTE: View our 2008 cover story on Bryan Paulsen.

Husband and wife team up sweeping curves, towering peaks and modern style to create stunning buildings for Southern Minnesota.

Main Photo by Kris Kathmann

The tour begins at the front desk. Bryan Paulsen points out the limestone laid into the wall, the brick columns stretching from floor to ceiling, the exposed concrete unearthed from layers of acoustic tile. He notes the lack of sheetrock, the minimal use of paint, the high efficiency lighting. He leads the way along a long, rounded corridor, bordered on one side by windows and on the other by handsome wood and glass walls. There, he says, is the main conference room. Here, he says, are the workstations.

Five days after moving into new digs at the Northwestern Office Building in downtown Mankato, Paulsen is already a pro at showing off the space now occupied by Paulsen Architects. Eight years after he opened the business by himself in a small basement suite just up the street, he realized he needed more room—and more windows. Now he has both: a 5,000-square-foot suite, more suitable for his 17 employees, that is lined on either side by panels of windows.

He also has a showcase for the kind of work his company is capable of pulling off. “We tried to use materials that are reflective of those that we work with, materials that are native to this area,” Paulsen explains. “The limestone is native to Mankato. The brick is from Springfield. You’ll see a lot of exposed steel, a lot of concrete. Those are things we work with all the time.”

Those are things that make the space, formerly occupied by Century 21, look more like a design firm than a real-estate agency. But if the structural detail doesn’t give it away, the pictures on the walls will: the Spam Museum in Austin, the Midwest Wireless headquarters, the Intergovernmental Center in downtown Mankato. They’re all buildings that Paulsen’s firm designed.

This new office, however, is a better showcase than a dozen of the 8-by-10 glossies hanging on the walls. Paulsen and his staff intentionally designed a space that would reflect both their architectural abilities and their building philosophies. “We tried to take what was essentially a standard office space and challenged ourselves to make it representative of a design firm,” Paulsen says.

Bryan Paulsen grew up in Mankato, where he met and eventually married his high-school sweetheart, Tami Norberg. The two of them left town to attend the Univ. of Minnesota, neither expecting to come back for long.

Fast forward a few years and find both of them back in southern Minnesota, happily married, with a young son at home. Both were busy building businesses of their own: Tami Norberg Paulsen took over her family’s business, C&N Sales, with her brother Tim and spent the better part of two decades running it. Bryan Paulsen had spent several years working for a Mankato-based architectural firm before stepping out on his own in 1995. In 1997, their career paths finally crossed.

“Bryan was on his own with six employees,” Tami explains. “He was becoming overwhelmed with all the business aspects—the insurance, the finances, the payroll, hiring people.”

“I was trying to do it all,” Bryan admits.

“But his love is designing and working with the clients,” Tami adds. “So he decided he needed to hire someone part-time to help with the business aspects.”

At about the same time, Tami was celebrating her fortieth birthday. Her son was about to start kindergarten, and she was wishing for a more flexible schedule to accommodate his sporting events and other activities. When her brother bought out her share in C&N Sales, she decided to go to work with her husband. “It was time for a change,” she says.

“I thought she’d be able to do it part-time,” Bryan says. “We laugh about that now. She came on board and was immediately buried with work.”

“I saw needs in areas we hadn’t thought of before—preparing promotional materials, the quality of the presentations, that sort of thing,” Tami says. “That’s what my background was.”

So while Bryan concentrated on designing buildings for a growing list of clients, Tami took over the day-to-day business and marketing efforts. Now she’s the director of business and marketing for the company, as well as the secretary and treasurer. She only occasionally runs into her husband, the president and principal architect, in the office.

“It’s worked out well,” Bryan says. “Our focuses are so different that in the course of a day we don’t have a whole lot of interaction.”

“A lot of people ask us about that,” Tami admits. “How does it work? It works for us because I can’t design a building, so I don’t even think about interfering there. And he’s more than happy not to have to deal with the work that I do.”

The people around them appreciate their easy-going rapport. Sally Obernolte, an architect intern who has been working at Paulsen for just more than two years, considers Bryan and Tami to be a great team. “They have such great offsetting aspects to their personalities,” she says. “It helps them to blend together so well. Bryan has such an easy nature; he’s so casual and laid back. And then there’s Tami, who has so much intensity; she’s kind of a go-go girl, always doing something, always laughing. They bring out the best in each other.”

As he sat in his new conference room early this fall, Bryan Paulsen counted at least 25 projects going on in various stages of production at that moment. About ten, he said, were under construction; many others were in the conceptual and planning processes.

Most of the work his company does falls under the broad umbrella of “business” architecture: corporate office sites, industrial buildings, retail spaces. The government, especially on the city level, has been a frequent client. They’ve designed medical facilities, structures for higher education, and religious buildings. Once or twice a year, they also design custom homes.

Designing your own office space, however, happens maybe once in a decade. Which is why Paulsen and his staff invested so much time in coming up with an appropriate design and in using the appropriate materials. Almost everything in the suite, for example, is a “sustainable” element, meaning it can be moved and reused as necessary.

“Part of our whole sustainable design mission was to build as few steel-studded sheetrock walls as possible, and have everything else be demountable or movable or modular,” Paulsen explains. “All these walls here in the hallway can be removed and reused—which in our opinion is one of the missions of a sustainable design. Even the carpeting is recyclable—we can take it back to the manufacturer and they can re-dye the carpet tiles.”

Although the sustainable design philosophy is one Paulsen and his staff are fundamentally committed to, it’s not one they force upon all of their clients. “We try to incorporate it whenever we can,” he says. “We suggest it in some projects, and some of our clients are more open to it than others. And in some projects, of course, it would be just impossible.”

Few projects, however, would be impossible for Paulsen Architects. They relish each challenge and opportunity set before them. “Each of our clients is unique, with a unique set of needs,” Paulsen says. “They come to us with a problem, be it space, functionality or image, and it’s up to us to sit down and understand what those needs are. We see ourselves as problem solvers. To design a building we use a ‘visioning’ process, in which we go step-by-step to thoroughly understand a client’s needs, what they do, and where the want to go.”

all in the family

Working with her husband is hardly a challenge for Tami Norberg Paulsen—and not just because she rarely runs into him in the office. Paulsen grew up in a family business and got accustomed to dinner conversations that centered around the day’s work.

“That’s how I was raised,” Paulsen reports. “I’m used to discussing business over dinner.”

The business discussed in her childhood home was C&N Sales, a North Mankato-based vendor of amusement gaming and coin-operated equipment that has been in her family for three generations. Paulsen grew up around pool tables, pinball machines, dartboards and vending machines, so it was little surprise when she decided to put her business administration degree from the University of Minnesota to use at C&N.

“I came back to Mankato after college to work with my dad and brother,” she says. “At C&N, I was very active with them in expanding the company—we quadrupled it, actually, while I was there. We had offices in three different states by the time I left.”

By the time Paulsen and her brother Tim took over the company from their father, they were already well steeped in the ways of the company—and the ways of the community. Harlow Norberg made it clear to his children that giving back to the community was an imperative part of the family business. “Involvement and support were very much stressed in my family and at C&N,” Paulsen says. “We have always been very active in Mankato.”

During her 18 years at C&N Sales, Paulsen was not only active in the community but in her industry. She has served as the first woman president for the Minnesota Operators of Music and Amusement Association, a state trade organization, and as the second woman president of the national trade organization after ten years on the board.

“We were always active in the associations,” she says.

chamber made

“This community has given us the opportunities we’ve had,” Bryan Paulsen says about his hometown of Mankato. “We feel like we just have to give back.”

To that end, both Bryan and his wife, Tami Norberg Paulsen, have been committed to the Greater Mankato Chamber of Commerce. They’ve even become the first husband and wife to each serve terms as Chamber presidents: Tami served as only the second woman president in the mid-1990s (during her tenure with C&N Sales), and Bryan is holding the office this year.

Bryan also serves as the chairperson of the Affordable Housing Task Force, sits on the Civil Service Commission, and is a member of the South Central Technical College Architectural Drafting Advisory Board. But the multiple monthly meetings his many roles entail don’t bother him. In fact, he encourages the rest of his staff to get involved as well, both in the Chamber and elsewhere, and allows them to take whatever time necessary during work hours to participate.

Tami is currently the president of the YMCA board and a member of the Minnesota State University, Mankato Foundation Board, the SCTC Foundation Board and the Educare Foundation. Staff architect Sally Obernolte serves the Chamber as a member of the Cavaliers; project manager Greg Borchert has been the area president of Habitat for Humanity and serves on the Builder’s Exchange Board. Other involvement is encouraged and supported wherever it comes up.

“It’s very important to them,” Obernolte says. “They really want to give back to the community that has done so much for them. So they encourage us to get involved too.”

the paulsen buildings

One of the first buildings that Bryan Paulsen designed when he struck out on his own in 1995 was the Intergovernmental Center in downtown Mankato. Like many of the projects that would follow, that building was added on to the existing downtown mall (only 50 feet of the structure are entirely new). The new Snell Motors building, for example, was designed using the structure of the old Mankato Menards. Hobby Lobby occupies the shell of the first Mankato Kmart; the Spam Museum in Austin likewise was built on an old Kmart.

Although Paulsen appreciates the “unique challenges” and “unforeseen design issues” involved in renovation projects, he’s also enjoyed the projects that start with nothing more than bare dirt, which represents the majority of the firm’s portfolio. The Midwest Wireless Headquarters (to which Paulsen Architects is currently designing a 53,000-square-foot addition) is one of the company’s most recognized projects—and one of its most successful.

“That building has helped Midwest Wireless to recruit top talent from around the country,” Paulsen says, “partly because they want to work in that space. While that project was being completed, the job market was very tight—and they received thousands of unsolicited resumes. That building says a lot about Midwest Wireless.”

The breadth of buildings Paulsen has designed both regionally and nationally says a lot about his company as well. The company’s clients range from very small to very large—and from very local to regional and even national.

Although the firm is well known throughout southern Minnesota for such buildings as the St. Peter Community Center, Mankato Family YMCA, Och’s Brick in Springfield, USBank Service Center in Marshall, and the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation in Owatonna, the company’s designs extend far beyond Minnesota’s borders. ABC Bus, a Faribault-based company, has used Paulsen for projects in Las Vegas, Chicago and Orlando, and AgStar Financial for five projects in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

© 2003 Connect Business Magazine. All Rights Reserved.

Sara Gilbert Frederick

A freelance writer from Mankato.