Cover Story

Unique Designs Build Success

Pictured, left to right: Jessica Nelson, Corey Brunton and Colin Jones

When you partner with Brunton Architects & Engineers to develop a new building, you can be sure of one thing: your new building will be one-of-a-kind and uniquely your own.

“We break the mold after every project. Every single project is different and 100 percent custom tailored to each community that we work in,” Corey Brunton said.

Brunton is the founder, president and CEO at Brunton Architects & Engineers in North Mankato. The company just celebrated 15 years in business and recently added a second company, Brunton Construction, to its arsenal of services. Its award-winning buildings are located in 15 states and serve a broad range of business sectors. And, despite the wobbly economy, demand for its services remains high.

“We have $150 to $200 million worth of work on the drawing boards today,” Brunton said.

The Brunton design process begins and ends with the client. Always. To accomplish this the Brunton team hones in on each client’s unique goals and history to develop a compelling narrative for each design. Next it follows a design-led, design-build process that puts the architect center stage, so the original design concept never gets lost during construction.

For this interview, Brunton sat down with two of his lead staff members – Colin Jones, director of mechanical engineering, and Jessica Nelson, director of interior design – to discuss the strategies and work culture that are the foundation of their business.

What are your roles at Brunton?
Corey: My role is to make sure that all cylinders are operating. I make sure the business development team is getting the information they need about our opportunities and they’re going after those opportunities. I make sure that the staff is being mentored, learning from lessons of the past and looking for opportunities in design. I don’t dive extremely heavy into all the details of design, but I’m always involved in the upfront work and the conceptualization, making sure the team is heading in the right direction.

So, my job is to basically hover over all the different departments within the company, which include business development, architectural, mechanical, interiors, marketing, business and administration, finance and now construction. There’s an awful lot to it. I have eight people that I directly supervise and then indirectly through them, the entire company. My goal is to empower them to perform to the required level that we expect here at Brunton. I get a real charge out of watching them perform, and, quite frankly, most of the time they perform beyond my expectations. I get out of bed in the morning because I get a chance to go and positively impact our people.

Colin: I primarily coordinate between architecture and interiors and mechanical systems for each individual project. Our mechanical team corresponds with them a lot and my main role is to facilitate that correspondence and to interject as needed in the design of mechanical systems and plumbing systems.

Jessica: I direct the interior design department. On a day-to-day basis I’m involved in and oversee all the different projects, coordinating them with architectural, mechanical, and other consultants. It’s people management, project management, and department organization. I also really enjoy the mentorship part of my role.

How exactly does an architectural engineering firm work?
Corey: The best analogy is that the architect is kind of the conductor in an orchestra. The architect has the vision and the feel for what they want. They bring in the horn section or the mechanical section when they’re needed, but not before they’re needed. Then they bring in the interiors section when they’re needed. They bring in all different aspects of the architectural feel and quality and design and they make sure that it sounds perfect together. They don’t stop until they’ve got everybody in the right place producing the right sound.

That’s a fantastic analogy. Where does the client fit in this architectural orchestra?
Corey: The client is the audience. They need to feel that their project is being well orchestrated. We involve our clients to the level they prefer. In this office, we say the best products we produce are the ones that have multiple fingerprints on them. That requires us, as designers, to check our ego at the door. This isn’t about us. This is about the client. This is about creating a custom design that meets their design vision, their intent, their expectations. It also has to meet the quality standards that we set here at Brunton. Nobody in that room is more important than the person they’re sitting next to. So having multiple fingerprints on a project is easy to sell. It’s easy to get client buy in. They appreciate being listened to. They know they’re being heard, and they can feel a part of the design. That’s important.

What services do you provide?
Corey: Brunton provides architectural, mechanical engineering, plumbing engineering, interior design, and construction administration services. We use consultants for structural and civil engineering services, as well as for the electrical needs of our projects. We’ve worked with trusted partners in those disciplines for many years with some partnerships going all the way back to when we opened 15 years ago. So, we’re very proud of those relationships and the performances that we get out of those team members.

What we’re offering here at Brunton Architects & Engineers is a design-led, design-build (DLDB) process when coupled with Brunton Construction. It’s different than traditional design build, where a contractor teams up with an architect, and the contractor controls the architect and engineer. In DLDB, the architecture and engineering firm holds control over the construction, all the quality requirements, and every subtree below it. So, we bring a different experience. Decisions are made based upon what was originally designed. We can hold everyone’s feet to the fire and make sure it gets built the way it was originally designed. We’ve all worked in the design-build world individually and know what that feels like. This is not the same. It’s a unique experience and no one else offers it here (in Mankato).

The Brunton Architects & Engineers building at 225 Belgrade Avenue in North Mankato was designed to capture the charm and character of another century, blending in seamlessly with the existing neighborhood.

Let’s talk about Brunton Construction. How does it compliment your other offerings?
Corey: In 2022, we unveiled Brunton Construction. We will only build what we design. By taking on the responsibility of the construction when clients are open to it, we control the experience from the day they walk in the door to the day we hand the keys over. We’ve found that having more project control gives us a favorable result. Having single point source responsibility and single point source contact makes it a very enjoyable and seamless experience for the client. And again, it’s always about the client.

Brunton Construction has been around since 2010, but we were waiting for the right time to introduce it to the public. I needed to have the right people in the right place. Now I do. Tom McCone is the director of construction services at Brunton Construction. He brings a unique experience to the table. We have the right people in the construction team, project managers and job site superintendents, and we’re really ready right now. We have about $15 million worth of work in the construction team right now under construction and hopefully more to come.

What sets you apart from your competitors in the architectural arena?
Corey: There are many things that we feel set us apart. It starts with our people. Your team is your greatest asset. They determine who the company is and what the company stands for. We believe we have the greatest talent in the Upper Midwest here at Brunton. We have people that push themselves harder than I could ever push them because they’ve bought into this culture and this company.

This company is being built slowly with an assumption that everybody that comes into it buys into the culture: You check your ego at the door; you work hard; design is extremely important; and the most important person in the room is always the client. There is an expectation to dig deep.
We bring projects to our clients that are high design and very affordable.

Each of our projects has a little story behind them that allows you to see just how unique it is to that community. We promise you that we’re going to spend time with you to figure out what is uniquely you and what is unique to your community …We’re going to seek that out for you. We’re going to find it. We’re going to make you proud. We do not have projects we pull off the shelf. Everything is roll up your sleeves and figure it out. Find that greater meaning. When you do that, the clients love you.

Jessica: We really take the time as a team to critically think through intentional questions. What questions can we ask to pull out the narrative of the architecture? The interiors? How can we help them to communicate what they want their facility to be? Because a client may not understand how that translates into a design until they see it.

How do you start your design process?
Jessica: It’s different for every project, and it’s custom tailored to every client. There’s a lot of programing and planning upfront. Before we start, we meet as a team and talk about the goals of the project, and then we convert and prepare those into intentional questions to ask the client. In our programing and planning phase, we meet with the client and learn their goals as it relates to function and use. If they have anything in mind right off the bat, something that they’ve seen or that they like, we take that into consideration. We also start to learn what’s important for their business. Maybe there’s a clientele that they want to appeal to. We make note of that and bring that out in the architecture and design. We try to learn about different aspects of the community. Is there a historic downtown? Are we trying to bring out any sort of history? We learn the client’s goals then translate them into design. That’s where our inspiration starts.

Colin: To build on what Jessica said, each project starts with the owner, with why the project came about. We find the stories to be told through the building’s architecture and/or mechanical design.

For example, we’re building some geothermal systems in North Dakota now. That project is trying to use natural elements to supplement or be its full energy source for its heating and cooling needs. That’s very impactful and important to the client. So, the design is starting and ending with the client.

Who are your customers and where are they located?
Corey: We work all over the U.S. We have projects right now in Pensacola, Florida, and in Lake Havasu, Arizona. We’re in Wyoming, Ohio, North Dakota, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota. I’m registered in 15 states right now. Maybe half of our work is in the upper five states and then the other half is outside of that. So, we’re definitely more national now than we were several years ago. We have quite a following in the public safety world and have created public safety facilities, fire stations, and emergency response centers across the nation. We also have a large following in the medical industry. So, we’re traveling the nation in those markets. We do community centers, schools, corporate offices, retail and manufacturing facilities. We have a lot of history in banking projects. There’s really not a lot we can’t do. When people ask us, what kind of projects do you do? I always say, how about we tell you the type of things we don’t do?

Looking forward, we have our hands on a number of really exciting projects. If you’ve been following hydrogen, we’re aggressively going after work in that market. We see the hydrogen thing in the next five to ten years becoming really hot, like electric is today. That’s coming quick. Water is another huge issue right now. We’re working in markets where they have found ways to grow plants with 97 percent less water, and we’re involved in those projects. So a lot of cool stuff is coming.

You asked what makes us different. I have worked in and been a part of leadership and ownership in a number of other architecture and engineering firms over the years. We’re different in that we look at opportunity a lot differently than they do. We’re actually out creating work for ourselves, finding people to link together. We’re not afraid of projects that we haven’t ever done before. We look at that as an opportunity to show our expertise. It’s an opportunity to get an award the first time we do that type of project.

So, we’re excited about that. The team we’ve assembled is extremely competent and they won’t stop until a project is perfect in their mind. That’s one of our core values here at Brunton, and that’s why we’re different.

Do you do renovations or are all your projects new construction?
Corey: There’s always going to be renovation. We call them adaptive reuse projects. For example, in Mankato the old Mankato Design Center was originally a furniture warehouse. The Minnesota Valley Action Council was the old Johnson Outdoors with no windows in it. Our current project in Pensacola is also an adaptive reuse project. Sometimes it does not make sense to tear a perfectly good skeleton or shell down. It makes more sense to pour the money into renovating it. Not every project needs to be a startup from the ground up. We evaluate that for our clients to find out if there is that value and make a recommendation.

Can you give me an idea of the size of your projects?
Corey: We’re working on an $82 million community center project right now, and several $30 and $40 million medical facilities. That’s unusual for a company of our size.

We’re 31 people strong in two offices. We have another office in Hopkins, Minnesota. It’s those opportunities that allow us to recruit top talent from much larger, bigger names than ours, and we’re proud of that.

Are there any projects right now that you’re really excited about?
Corey: We just finished up Newport City Hall/Public Safety, which is in a suburb in the St. Paul/Minneapolis area. They’re right on the river and it was a great project. It was a city hall, a fire station with a public safety/law enforcement component to it. It turned out great and we’re hoping it can win some awards. There’s an awful lot of work that we’re doing in North Dakota and Wisconsin that is super exciting and extremely challenging for us. Like we said before, each of these projects are 100 percent unique. They’re fun projects that offer unique opportunities for the team to dive into. I’ve never had more fun in my life.

Colin: The most exciting project I’m working on is a geothermal system out of North Dakota that’s going to be a central facility feeding three buildings off of one field. It’s focusing on a carbon neutral footprint and being able to load share between buildings. It’s a community center, a senior living facility and a medical facility. So, the load profiles will be different between those buildings. Some may be in heating while others are in cooling. We’ll share that energy from one building to another building through that central plant. It’ll be a really cool facility.

Jessica: That’s the project that I’m most excited about working on right now, too. I have three different designers who are working independently on each of the projects, and I get to work as the unifying piece … telling the story and connecting the design of the three buildings. We’re also working on a smaller renovation project at Open Door Health Center here in Mankato. It’s been really gratifying because the client is really excited. You know you’re making a difference. The work you’re doing is impactful, even if it’s not on a grand scale. So even the smaller projects are gratifying.

How many projects have you completed in the Mankato area?
Corey: You can stand at the intersection of Madison Avenue and Victory Drive and touch seven different projects. We did the 7 West Tap House, the La Terraza restaurant, and the Minnesota Valley Action Council. We do all Community Bank renovations and we’ve done several projects out at the Mankato Regional Airport, including renovations to the terminal and the flight school out there, as well as the hangar buildings. I’m a pilot. We keep our corporate airplane in the hangar that we designed back in 2008. It’s really honoring to do work locally, and it’s a lot of fun.

You recently celebrated your 15th business anniversary. How has your company evolved over the years?
Corey: I’m happy and honored to say our first employee is still with us. Christine Ahmann is her name. Our joke is she came with the furniture. She came on board with us when we started our company in October of 2007. We started with just the two of us. Now we have 35 employees, 31 at Brunton Architects & Engineers and four at Brunton Construction.

We started on the second floor of Community Bank in a small 700 sq ft storage room. It took us about nine months to outgrow that. Then we moved downstairs, and we outgrew that space in a year. That was when we got the opportunity to build this building at our current location. So, we built this in 2014 and we’ve been in here ever since. Now we’re outgrowing this space.

It sounds like you’re growing, growing, growing!
Corey: We grew through COVID, and in 2022 we are projected to increase our revenues by 200 percent. We attribute our continued growth to our client-centric mindset. The meaningful relationships we build with them fuel our passion for finding cost saving and innovative building solutions. But it’s not all roses. Our costs have gone up a lot over the years as well. Everybody’s costs are going up right now. Still, we continue to grow. We’ve added six staff members to the team in the last year. Two years ago, there were three people in the Hopkins office, now we’re at nine.

But it’s important for you to know that it’s not about being big. It’s never been about being big. It’s always about being better. And we’re not going to get bigger until we can become better. That is part of our culture here. Growing slowly and carefully is the seed for a successful future.

What role does technology play at Brunton?
Corey: We have become more sophisticated in our understanding of what our clients want and what they expect. We have absolutely embraced technology to the highest level. When the pandemic hit, we were already ready for it. We had laptops in the hands of staff members and video camera teleconferencing in place. When COVID hit, we were ready. We stayed tight as a unit, and we still met our deadlines.

We also immerse our clients in technology. We have a high level of responsibility to communicate design to them, and we utilize technology to provide that. We’ve been using Revit, a building information and modeling or BIM tool, since the day we opened our doors in 2007. It’s used as a drafting tool and it literally extrudes the building three dimensionally. Mechanical can show their ductwork and if it’s sticking through a wall, we can see it. A lot of clash detection is cleaned up with the use of that software, and we’ve been using it since day one – which is something we’re proud of. It comes at an expense, but it’s all part of enhancing the client’s experience. That’s what it’s about.

How do you keep the creative flame alive at Brunton?
Corey: We find out who our employees are and what really juices them. Then we find ways to empower them to do more of that. If there’s something they are not very good at, something they are not passionate about, there are other people that can provide that service. If we hire you and you appear to be a square peg, we’re not jamming you into a circular hole. When I do that, it empowers the staff and everyone is happier. And when they’re empowered, they’re going to push themselves harder than I could ever push them.

That, believe it or not, is the secret to building a well-founded and sustainable company. You can build fast. I can hire 50 people in a month, no problem. But if you do that, it’s like putting a stick of dynamite in an apple and expecting the apple to come out good after it goes off. Really good staff are so hard to find. Once you realize how important they are, you’ve got to do everything you can to mentor them and help them grow and feel fulfilled, so they want to come to work every day.

Hybrid work, remote work and shared workspaces are a recent phenomenon. How do these trends impact your business and the buildings you design?
Corey: Let’s address the white elephant in the room. Remote work is very difficult for our culture at Brunton and for what we’re trying to build here. Now we do it. If someone has a sick child or comes down with COVID and can still work, you take your computer home and work when you can. We’re very accommodating. But the point is, we don’t want to. I feel strongly about this, which is why I’m willing to say it. It might not be popular with everybody, but in order to do what we do at the level we expect it to be done, we can’t do it remotely.

There’s something to be said about sitting across from each other and brainstorming ideas. One could argue it’s possible online, it’s just different. It’s pretty hard to put your fingerprint on something when you’re communicating through a monitor. You can’t read body language. There’s just something about the face-to-face experience that we feel is really important. I’m not willing to give that up.

Colin: We do work hybrid, though. We’re interoffice between Mankato and Hopkins. Most of the time we start larger projects with face-to-face meetings internally at one of our offices. Then we touch base via (Microsoft) Teams or phone calls throughout the project. But it’s heavily built on having a physical presence to start and then going from there. As far as our clients’ designs, most people are still designing spaces with the capacity to operate in the office.

How are rising interest rates and real estate taxes impacting your business?
Corey: We’re well-diversified, and we’re in very safe markets right now, so we’re not impacted by those things. We work on a number of reservations and many of them make their money either in casinos or in oil. Right now gas prices are high. That means barrels of oil are high, and they are doing well. So that market is isolated. Public safety projects are in desperate need of replacement and there are capital improvement plans in place across the nation, so that also isn’t a concern. The medical sector is also strong. We work with Veterans Associations across the nation. Those facilities are not really impacted by those things.

Looking forward, what’s next for Brunton?
Corey: I’m getting some of the greatest rewards of my life working here. They say if you love what you do, you don’t work a day in your life. I am really enjoying the mentoring and the communication with the staff and watching them hit the ball out of the park. I get a kick out of that. I love design, but I love mentoring design through them more. I love to see them excel. So, I’m really, really having a lot of fun with that at both offices.

We have great projects that we’re really proud of, but for me, it’s really about the people. We’re a family. We do team building things together every quarter. We rented a yacht up on Lake Minnetonka and went out. We had go-kart races here a couple of weeks ago. We try to keep the offices communicating and doing social events together as well, because this is how important the people are. You’ve got to have that trust. You’ve got to know where their heart is. Focusing on the importance of the culture and the people and then immersing them in team building opportunities has fed our culture at Brunton and made this a great place to work.

My goal in the next four to five years is to bring partners on and then mentor them for the next five years, not to micromanage but to assist them. I want to see them continue to succeed and set this company up for long-term success.

Ralph Wells Jr. Community Center

Brunton Architects & Engineers designed the Ralph Wells Jr. Community Center in White Shield, North Dakota for the three affiliated tribes of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, or MHA Nation. Located on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in central North Dakota, the facility opened in 2021 and includes a coffee shop, full-sized gym, bingo hall with a large kitchen, cardio and weight rooms, pool, movie theater, and rec center with pool table and golf simulator.

Corey: On the Ralph Wells Jr. Community Center, the history behind the three affiliated tribes gave us a point of departure in that project.

Jessica: In times of trial, the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes banded together because they realized that set apart, they would most likely perish, but they could survive and thrive together. So that was our inspiration for the design, to tell the story of these three tribes coming together and unifying in the architecture, the interiors, and the site work.

Corey: The symbolic theme was three rivers meandering and coming together in the end, one stronger river and one stronger unit. We use those different rivers as wayfinding elements inside the building. You come into the main area and then they split off and you follow the blue river to the gym, you follow the red river to the movie theater. It really works.

Jessica: It is a continual graphic that is depicted on the floor that shows these three tribes coming together and intertwining. It starts on the exterior where there are three different colors in the sidewalk, and then it comes into the vestibule, then into the lobby. We also used a lot of natural materials so regardless of if you know the story or not, it still feels like home. It feels comforting. Then from a usability standpoint, it’s a space that was designed to help their community thrive in the future. It provides a lot of opportunities for youth …a place for kids to go after school or on a weekend.

Design Innovation

Brunton Architects & Engineers is located at 225 Belgrade Avenue in North Mankato. Brunton designed and built its current home in 2014. It is located on a charming and desirable block, but the lot itself had issues. It remained empty for decades until Corey Brunton and his team created a unique architectural solution that allowed them to fit seamlessly into the neighborhood.

Corey: This lot on Belgrade was empty since 1982 when a big fire destroyed Frost Drug. The building was pushed in on itself and the basement was nothing but rubble. Well, the problem with that is, if you don’t remove all the pieces, it’s really hard to build another building. So there it sat for 30 years. Nobody was willing to touch it.

We found a way to come in and build over the rubble, using helical piers to create a foundation system that goes all the way down to bedrock. This building is basically a bridge deck. Conceptually, if you take out the dirt below a bridge, it doesn’t matter because it’s a bridge. This is the same thing. It’s a slab that’s sitting on stilts, if you will. There are 60 of those stilts going down 60 feet to bedrock, and then there’s a structural slab on top. That is how we were able to create a building here.

Because designing buildings that fit architecturally is a core value at Brunton, we created a building that looks like it’s been here for a hundred years. The architectural style has been praised by the North Mankato planning and zoning department and various other members of the community. Our office design respects the character of the downtown district on Belgrade, so much so that we’ve had arguments with people that come off the street and tell us how impressed they were at the renovations we did. We tell them this is a new building, and they argue, “No, it’s not.” That to me, is one of the greatest honors. The fact that architecturally it blended in so well, they thought it had to have been here for 100 years.


Brunton Architects & Engineers
225 Belgrade Ave
North Mankato, MN 56003
Phone: (507) 386-7996

Brunton Construction
Phone: (507) 344-4683

Photography by Susan Bottin

Jane Laskey