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Jerry K. Roller founded JK Roller Architects in 1984 when the firm operated out of a 500-square-foot space in Philadelphia, PA. Since then, after experiencing tremendous growth, the company expanded into a 5,000-square-foot space, where it is currently located today.
JK Roller offers a broad range of services, including residential, commercial, retail and entertainment, to its clientele up and down the eastern seaboard. The firm, which includes 31 employees, was recently recognized in the book Dream Homes of Greater Philadelphia, for its work on several residential projects in the area.
Other recent work completed by the firm includes: Oxford Valley Medical Mall in Oxford Valley, PA; Plate Restaurant in Wyncote, PA: Capital Grille in New York, NY; Gallery Place movie theater in Washington, DC; Pagano’s Gourmet in Philadelphia, PA; and Regal Cinemas in Deer Park, NY, among many private residences.
Contemporary Stone & Tile Design recently had the opportunity to meet with three members of the firm to discuss the company’s use of stone and tile in a variety of projects over the years. Participants included:
Jerry K. Roller, AIA, LEED AP
Paul A. Georges, AIA
Matthew J. Koenig, AIA
CSTD: Describe your firm and the type of work that you do:
Roller: We are a full-service architectural firm, and we have been in business for 23 years. We practice in various markets, and we have a pretty broad residential practice both in multi-family and single-family. We do a fair amount of work commercially, and we focus a lot on restaurant work. We do a lot of entertainment work, especially for movie theaters. Paul particularly is one of our experts in that field. We also do some retail and some health care. We work generally with developer clients and end users, and we practice up and down the East Coast, mostly from Massachusetts to Florida.
CSTD: So you have a pretty big market range?
Koenig: Yes, there are six different areas that we work in, and there are partners that focus on each one of those areas. Also, a lot of us cross into different areas. I do a lot of the restaurant work, while Jerry is involved in a lot of the retail. The office isn’t set up so that you are focused in just one area. We are very diversified. Any partner could have a residential or restaurant or retail project on their plate, which is kind of nice. The office has a lot of opportunities to do a lot of different things. It is a young staff. Right now we are at 31 people and hoping to grow, and I think that is one of the benefits of being at JK Roller is that you aren’t stuck doing one type of design because there is such a range of project types and scales. Some are very small and some are very large, so you really get a good experience.
Roller: One of the things we like to pride ourselves on is the ability to cross-fertilize. Knowing materials and techniques from a residential project might help you with Health Care work, for example, or some entertainment projects lead into some restaurant work.
Koenig: The three of us, as well as a couple of the partners, have been together for a long time. The firm is 23 years old. Paul is really the longest standing partner and is at 22 years, and I am at 21 years.
As far as stone and tile use, we have been able to expand our material use as the projects get better and the clients get better. We are able to do more and be more creative. For some of those earlier projects, we were limited in what we could offer, and now current projects have the budget and the complexity to get creative and to use these materials in different ways.
CSTD: Does your firm work with stone and tile often?
Roller: Yes, we use a lot of it. They have become more popular, and there are more types of materials available. A lot more is being imported, and there are a lot of different uses for it, particularly with stone materials. Everything works in a fashion. Right now, stone is in high fashion, so you see more uses of it commercially, and you see it more in high-end residential uses.
CSTD: How do you go about selecting the materials? Do you have a library?
Georges: There are different ways we find out about new materials. There are publications with articles on projects that may be introducing materials we may not be aware of, and we then go on and research the product for our own application. There is the manufactures’ literature that is sent out to us. There are product representatives that we have a relationship with who introduce new products to us. And there are also the trade shows that we attend that present different materials and inform us on what is new in the market.
Koenig: We actually have an in-house library committee that focuses some office time on redeveloping this library, and they do a great job. Each month we have a staff meeting where they bring in new products and new information just to make us aware of anything that might be different. At the AIA National Convention, the stone area tends to be pretty phenomenal as far as the booth and the stands that they create. It is pretty amazing. The Italian manufacturers tend to have these really slick, European-looking booths that are almost intimidating to go into.
Roller: The Europeans have been using a lot more stone and tile materials than they ever did before. A lot of what we are seeing is brought over from Europe, which promotes greater uses of those materials. Years ago, you never used stone residentially in the U.S., and today it is very common.
Koenig: On the residential side, though, we have a lot of clients that are doing market rate housing that have found Chinese and South American stone to be cost effective. As a result, we have been able to find cost-effective materials and get that level of quality in places where you would never even suggest using granite countertops or granite vanities. For a lot of projects and clients, [the use of stone and tile] has become the standard; it is expected.
Roller: The public is expecting it. In the marketplace, the general public is looking for things they consider luxury -- touches such as stainless steel appliances and granite countertops. They all have them, and if you’re not selling that, then you’re not competing in the marketplace, so your clients who are developing are saying: “We have to do that.”
CSTD: Are you finding that your clients are more educated now than they were 20 years ago on what materials they want to use?
Koenig: I think they are. They see their competitor’s work and they want that. I don’t think they understand what other choices are out there. There are so many variations and different types of stones beyond the standard types of marble and of granite, and we try to introduce them to those other opportunities. Sometimes we get clients that say, “I am tired of the granite countertop. Is there anything else out there?” But these clients don’t know that there are the same color variations in granite that you can get with a Corian or a Zodiaq. So you are trying to sell them something different that has a little character that maybe they aren’t aware of.
CSTD: Are clients typically receptive to your ideas? Are they willing to let you do what you want for the most part?
Koenig: On the residential end, which I am more involved in, they are interested to see it, but it is always the cost that really is the driving factor. They are curious to see if there is a new product. They say, ‘’Hey this is cool. Did anybody else use it?”
Georges: Clients are also concerned about the performance levels of materials and finishes. They want to make sure it is a tested material for the application before they commit to its use.
Roller: There is a lot of reluctance in the marketplace to try something that is new. Some people think that if everyone else is advertising those features, they need to have [those same features]. You need a marble bath because everyone else has one, and if you don’t have it, then it’s a mark against your product. It’s very driven by public opinion.
CSTD: What do you do when a client requests a thinner slab or something to keep costs down? Do you try to deter them from this?
Georges: If past experience has proven that a particular “cost-cutting” measure has failed in performance, yes, we will try to deter a client from taking certain steps to save money.
CSTD: In the entertainment area, what are some applications where you are using stone and tile?
Georges: We are finding that the use of stone and tile has many advantages. Operators appreciate the durability of the materials, particularly as a flooring and wall surface finish. They are able to take the abuse associated with high-traffic public areas. Clients are finding that in the end, it was worth installing stone or tile finishes because it helps to reduce maintenance costs.
We are also finding that clients are more receptive to putting more money into the finishes, for the aesthetics. Our clients recognize that people who come to the movies want the place and the experience to feel special, and we have found that the use of stone and tile as a finish material contributes to that special experience. The truth is you do not have to use a lot of the material to create this feel and this is what we do as designers, we show clients that even used sparingly, finish materials such as stone and tile can have a strong impact on how a space is perceived.
Roller: Paul, you have been doing some tremendous stuff with color and pattern. A lot of the tile materials today allow for some really phenomenal options that you don’t have with other materials.
Georges: Yes. One of our earlier opportunities came with a movie theater we completed in Washington, DC. A variety of porcelain tile was incorporated with unique patterns at the floors and walls as well as to highlight the entry of each auditorium.
Lately, we are introducing specialty glass pieces and iridescent mosaics. Because they are a more expensive product, they are being used as accent elements blended in with more cost-effective tile materials. Used this way, we achieve the feel of an upgraded level of finish, when in reality, the additional costs are not significant. We have a movie theater under construction in Long Island, NY, that has a wide variety of decorative tile, glass and mosaic pieces used in such a matter.
CSTD: Are your clients receptive to this?
Georges: For clients who understand and appreciate the impact a finished space can have on people, the answer is yes.
CSTD: What kind of applications are you using for the Long Island movie theater?
Georges: Marble and porcelain floor tiles; marble, glazed ceramic and mosaic wall tiles, wainscot and full height; and decorative glass trims.
CSTD: Have you seen a transformation in hospitality and entertainment design over the years?
Koenig: We do a lot of Capital Grille restaurants, which is probably one of the most expensive restaurants that we do. They have used a number of different marble and granites throughout their prototype, and they changed things slightly over the years, but that is the standard; it is expected. There is a certain premium that comes with that look and that feel. They do a lot of color and a lot of patterning to help break up some larger fields. Their bathrooms are extravagant and really over the top.
The size is something that also adds that premium feel. The standard 6- x 6- or 12- x 12-inch tile has been done. Getting into the mosaics and some of the larger-scale tiles is something that we have done effectively. For a private residence in the Rittenhouse Square section of Philadelphia, for example, we used 24- x 24- and 16- x 12-inch tiles. We broke up the field with the odd shapes. That product there was something that is more likely found in automotive showrooms, but because it has a rich premium feel and a larger tile shape, it really worked well for the space and added something that people hadn’t seen before. Even though the tile wasn’t super-expensive, the fact that it was a larger format gave the impression that the client spent a lot on the floor.
Roller: We are also starting to use tile on exteriors. The Lucky Strike restaurant [in Philadelphia], for example, is an old building with some marble. We needed to do an appliqué, and we ended up using this tile from Tau [Ceramica’s Corten Collection]. It was a whole piece of the facade. It was a major design element -- a way of putting something contemporary onto an old building -- and it worked very well.
Koenig: We are also using it for a loft conversion in Lowell Massachusetts right now. We showed it to the client -- a big national developer from Boston -- and they liked it, so we are using it inside for all the accent walls, the lobby and in the sales center. The sales center is drywall, but they wanted to do a couple accent walls. We walked past Lucky Strike, and I thought, “Wow, this tile would go great on the interior [in Massachusetts as well].” The client saw it and liked it. It is an old mill, and it has this rusted metallic effect, and it is just a great product to use here.
Roller: We have used exterior tile for some health care facilities in the past. Again, it’s a material that can adapt well to exteriors, and it gives you another module other than brick or stucco.
Koenig: The look of the tile itself is what really did it -- the finish and the feel of the tile. They have some new and different things, even with the striated tile with a pattern to it. It comes in variety of shapes, which is great as well. The linear running bond that is seen in some products is appealing. We are seeing a lot of that, because it comes in so many different shapes and forms. It is such a new product, and I think that is what really was appealing to our office. And again, I give credit to our library staff because they saw it and were introduced to it by some of the stone sales representatives.
Roller: You always have to keep up with what is out there, so we make sure that people get regular visits from the various manufacturers to see what is new and different.
CSTD: What other projects have you recently completed?
Koenig: We completed a project on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. It is an interesting block. There is a corner of Broad and Chestnut where we did a Capital Grille restaurant. In the same building, we did an Olive Garden restaurant, and then right next door to it we did a West Elm store and then Lucky Strike Bowling Lounge. So it’s a whole block of the city that we did, and each one of those tenants had a different tile application on it. The Capital Grille has a granite that we had to find a match for. It was interesting because one of the dilemmas that we have is that we will specify a stone, but the contractors go out and buy it. So I may specify a stone from a certain supplier, but the contractor can go find it cheaper from somebody else, and it cuts that supplier out of the mix.
CSTD: How much of your business is restoration?
Koenig: We do a lot. We do a lot of restoration and rehabilitation. For the Naval Square project for Toll Brothers in Philadelphia, there was a lot of granite repair work and stone cleaning. Dealing with the historic feature of the building is very difficult, because the building is a landmark building. Toll Brothers shares ownership with the Federal Government, so the local and state historical boards were really on them to make sure that the stone was cleaned in a proper manner. Any of the stonework that we did to patch and repair had to go through a lot of approvals and review.
CSTD: How do you go about replacing stone and finding materials to match, especially if a quarry has since closed down?
Koenig: It’s tough. It isn’t an easy match.
Roller: It is hard to find quarries that are still open [for historic work]. We usually rely on representatives and people who have access to stone sources and say, “Okay, this is what we are looking for. What do you have that is close?”
Georges: Part of the problem is that we are specifying to match stone that has years of weathering and aging. Should we be specifying the original stone or should we be attempting to match the appearance of the original stone after having gone through an aging process?
CSTD: So, what do you decide to go with in the end? Stone to match the current look or the original material?
Georges: We typically go with stone to match the current look.
CSTD: Have you had any negative experiences when working with stone and tile?
Georges: From a construction standpoint, I sometimes get frustrated with the quality of installation by contractors, and at times, we as architects can be at fault for that. We really need to pay attention to the installation details. Identifying how the stone or tile pieces will begin or terminate, both for field patterns and trim pieces, at all vital locations becomes important. The general public may not recognize installation errors, but we will.
CSTD: So to handle this, do you tend to spend more time on the jobsite?
Georges: Although jobsite visits are necessary for the review and approval of the installation, I think that the level of documentation and detailing in the construction drawings is more important. Thorough detailing serves to avoid potential installation problems. Generally, if a contractor has a detail to follow, the installation will follow suite.
Roller: A lot of times, you have problems with this when you are dealing with different materials, or when the gauging materials are not quite the same thickness. And you need to figure out how to make them all flat, so you don’t end up with ups and downs, which never work well.
Koenig: I think the ultimate finishing of a stone is a problem too. We have had long-term maintenance issues with a client who put the chemicals or sealants on that they shouldn’t have, and they changed the color or the overall look of the stone or the tile. Then they come back to us and say, “What happened?” We did a bowling alley on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus, and we did a whole wall of mosaic tile. But the installer did a horrible job, and it’s embarrassing. You don’t even want to be affiliated with it. It is a great product, and it would have looked awesome. But because it was put up so poorly, it is just horrendous.
CSTD: In these types of situations, are the installations left alone, or are they redone?
Koenig: Well, that is the thing. You want to take it down, but then the client says, “I have timing issues now,” or “I’ve got additional costs.” We can only have so much input. We also have had issues with staining of the marble, which may be a standard thing. It’s a porous product, but people still think that they don’t need to finish it. So sometimes even though the client wants a lighter stone, we may shy away from something that is on the lighter side because of the maintenance issue and potential complaints with owners.
CSTD: Do you spend much time speaking with your clients about maintenance?
Roller: We have had situations where clients have said, “Yes, I know all that, but that is what I want.” You get kitchen counters that have White Carrara because a client wanted White Carrara.
CSTD: Have you learned that there are certain applications where stone and tile are not suitable?
Koenig: Years ago, we did a nursing home, in Center City Philadelphia, where we wanted a pattern on the building, and we ended up using tile. In the end, it was probably the wrong choice for that building. In certain exterior applications, it creates issues and problems, and if it’s not done correctly, it just opens itself up to long-term issues.
Roller: You also have to be concerned with the movement of the substrate and where you have something that is not stable. You need control joints that you bring through the tile, or you end up with cracks.
Koenig: At one time, a lot of the restaurants that we were doing were using stone in the kitchen areas, and they have gone away from that. For some of the prep tables and bread bars, there were granite, but for whatever reason, they are doing away with that.
CSTD: For the Plate Restaurant, you used stone in the kitchen area though, right?
Koenig: For Plate, we actually put it in more places because it just looked great. We used it in some of the pick-up areas. I think that was a really good application of it because it had a modern look and feel. In some of the other restaurants we did recently, the owners specifically said, “We don’t want to use quarry tile because the grout gets dirty, and it is hard to clean.” During construction, there is a lot of drywall dust that gets impregnated in the tile, and you can’t get it out because it’s porous, so we have actually used other floors for cleaning purposes, so I am curious.
Some people just expect to use tile because that is all they have ever seen, and that is where we need to educate them. It’s not that we are trying to use less tile, but we are obligated to present them with the good and bad sides of it.
Georges: For performance and maintenance reasons, there are other kitchen flooring and wall surface finishes that are preferred by our clients. In restaurant kitchens that are not open visually to the public, and aesthetics is not such an issue; we probably are not going to spend much energy trying to talk clients into the use of tile.
CSTD: What are some current projects that you are working on?
Georges: As mentioned earlier, the movie theater under construction in Long Island, NY, will have a variety of marble, porcelain and glazed ceramic tile along with decorative mosaic tile and glass pieces. Also under construction is a movie theater in Times Square, New York City that also includes the use of a variety of tiles as a flooring and wall finish.
Roller: We just did a penthouse that features a large variety of different stones and tiles. We used a highly glazed tile and then we used the Carrara White marble countertop. We just did a whole lobby floor of a medical office. We also just designed my house, and we did the whole ground floor in 12- x 12-inch granite tiles, and it holds the whole thing together very nicely. The shower was all cleft quartzite, and then granite sills and ledges were installed.