A Shining Example

June 27, 2005

By Jeanne Bonner Of The Morning Call

Howard Kulp uses his office as a calling card for prospective clients.

His architectural firm is housed in a quaint stone building nestled in the flora and fauna of the Lehigh Parkway. Its three levels sport half-walls of windows that provide an up-close view of local wildlife, underscoring the relationship between man-made edifices and the world around us.

That relationship is important to the five architects who work at Howard Kulp Architects, which started in 1978. The firm relocated to the cottage-like building in 1994. Built in 1941, the building has always housed architectural offices. It contains a circa-1860s bank vault door that was removed by the previous owners from a bank and a vault where Kulp keeps the original blueprints for the building and other building plans.

"It's a landmark in its own right," said Kulp in an interview at his office earlier this month.

The top floor is home to a conference room where the architects plot out the progress of various projects. On the middle floor, Kulp keeps a library of carpet, tile, wallpaper and floor finish samples. The lower floor is home Kulp's office and to an old blueprint "plotter," which was once used to print designs, and the new industrial-sized printer that produces the computer-generated designs.

When clients see the inspiring interior and exterior of Kulp's workspace, it can help seal the deal, he says.

The firm provides architectural and interior design services. Kulp, 55, and his firm have worked on every new building and redesign undertaken in the Lehigh Valley by Rodale, the Emmaus publishing company. Howard Kulp's largest project was the 124,000-square-foot, $14.3 million Rodale Press the company constructed on South Mountain in 1996. The firm's other big projects included the renovation of Veterans Administration Hospital in Philadelphia and four local AAA buildings.

The company has also developed a specialty of designing health-care facilities. The firm has done work for both Lehigh Valley Hospital and St. Luke's, and has built numerous physicians' offices. The firm gained commissions for such work after designing private homes for several doctors.

The health-care field provides challenges for the design and interior decoration of a building. For example, the materials used for flooring in the buildings need to resist rather than absorb blood and other fluids.

The firm is often called upon to retrofit buildings. Hospitals and physicians' offices frequently buy new equipment that may need special housing. Hospitals are also evolving from large, impersonal wards that housed many patients to individual rooms designed for more comfort and privacy.

"Retrofitting is more challenging because you're not starting out with a clean slate," Kulp said.

Currently, Howard Kulp Architects is retrofitting a building in Bethlehem to house a sleep disorder center for St. Luke's. It is the second sleep disorder center the firm has designed.

"We have to be very careful with the heating and air conditioning otherwise the microphone will pick that up instead of the snoring," Kulp said.
Kulp added the rooms need to be dark to eliminate distractions that might impede sleep and the window shades need to be sound-absorbent.

The firm typically works on projects that cost anywhere from $50,000 to $4 million to build, with the occasional $10 million to $14 million assignment. The firm brings in between $750,000 and $1 million in revenue each year.

The firm's five architects work on as many as 30 projects at one time, from proposals to full-blown construction. About 85 percent of the firm's work is commercial and 15 percent is residential. The firm tends to design homes only for clients it has worked with on other projects.

Kulp's experience spans more than a quarter-century. He received his architecture degree from Pennsylvania State University. Kulp taught architecture and interior design on and off at Northampton Community College from 1978 to 2003; he stopped because he was too busy.

He worries that too many cookie-cutter housing developments and commercial strip centers are filling up the Lehigh Valley.

"We've lost the beauty of architecture because everything's the same when it comes to residences," Kulp said.
Nonetheless, he is encouraged by several recent commercial buildings that enhance the Lehigh Valley's portfolio of notable architecture: PPL's new building at Ninth and Hamilton streets in downtown Allentown, and Agere Systems' executive offices building in Hanover Township, Lehigh County. He also thinks the proposed lifestyle centers will be more palatable to the eye than other shopping malls.

Those local buildings, and others, don't only have an impact on the people who work there, Kulp said, but on everyone who lives in the Lehigh Valley.

"Architecture affects every single person every single day of their lives," Kulp said. "It is around us everywhere."