The four founding principals of Group 4 Design Inc. took a chance and started their architectural, planning and interiors firm in 2009, at the bottom of the design and construction market.
Karie Kovacocy, Leigh Gunn, Jamie Jaxon and Fred Cheek found themselves jobless when the Great Recession threw their employer, Memphis-based Looney Ricks Kiss Architects, into bankruptcy and the Jacksonville office was closed.
Kovacocy, Group 4’s principal architect, said the partners knew the scale and design philosophy of a “big corporate firm” would not work in a recession market.
“We were going to stay small —a boutique firm that could offer high design, which we were accustomed to being from national firms,” Kovacocy said Oct. 29 at Group 4’s headquarters on the Downtown Southbank.
“There could be high design on any budget, for any project, for any developer.”
Since 2009, Group 4 has grown to 32 employees providing architecture and interior design services for a range of uses: multifamily; amenity and wellness; recreation; clubhouses; assisted living; student housing; corporate design; hospitality; and restaurants.
Kovacocy, 45, moved to Northeast Florida in 2000. After a short stint designing buildings for health care industry clients, she was approached to open the Looney Ricks Kiss Jacksonville office.
Gunn, 48, has been working in Jacksonville since 1999 and is principal of Group 4’s interior design studio, specializing in clubhouse, fitness, hospitality and amenity spaces and multifamily interiors.
Cheek retired from the firm about four years ago.
Jaxon, 59, has been a construction contractor for more than 40 years. He works directly with the general contractors who build-out Group 4 designs.
Jaxon said he ensures what Group 4 puts down on paper can be executed in the real world.
“We have a rapport with the contractor,” Jaxon said. “They may not be able to say some of the same things that they say to other architects. ‘Oh, I can’t do that.’ Well, ‘Yeah, you can and here’s how,’”
The Group 4 principals said the firm averages 30 projects per year. According to Jaxon and Kovacocy, the firm’s market territory reaches north to Virginia, Kentucky and southern Indiana.
Group 4 has been contracted for projects by national, regional and local companies and developers like PGA Tour, Mayo Clinic, The Vestcor Companies, Arlington Properties, Birmingham-based Daniel Corp. and Bristol Development Group.
The primary driver of Group 4’s growth since 2019, despite the global pandemic, is development of a prototype studio.
Jaxon said the program helps developers and contractors maintain design quality despite the uncertainty created by increasing materials and construction costs.
“What happens to affordability when everything is custom-designed, everything is custom-priced with a very long timeline? With this program, the developer typically knows, within a few percent, what their price is upfront.”
Group 4 added 10 employees, most of them recent college graduates, to staff the studio and develop the program.
“You can do anything with a huge budget,” Kovacocy said.
“Having seamless design from site plan all the way to interiors, being able to control and marry design with budget, doesn’t get enough credit in our industry.”
Adding the prototype studio accelerated Group 4’s growth and maxed out its 4,000-square-foot headquarters at 1520 Prudential Drive to the point Gunn said people are sitting in the hallways.
The principals said Group 4 expects to close soon on its future home at 1939 Hendricks Ave. in San Marco. It will double its space to about 8,000 square feet.
Firm principals are 50-50 partners with Incipit of Florida LLC to buy and renovate the 69-year-old building in a $2.5 million project.
Kovacocy said Group 4 “plans to restore it to its 1950s, midcentury-modern glory.”
She said Group 4 understands a design firm’s office space is a “billboard” for its services.
“We know as soon as somebody walks in the front door, they’re going to look at everything from the building as they drove up to the faucet on the bathroom sink,” Kovacocy said. “That’s what they’re buying.”
Kovacocy said Group 4 takes pride in recent workforce and affordable housing projects it has designed in Jacksonville.
Vestcor contracted Group 4 to establish its Lofts-brand multifamily housing developments in LaVilla, Brooklyn and Murray Hill with more planned for Downtown’s Cathedral District.
Kovacocy said when a firm can provide a quality design at an affordable-living price, it “changes the face of the housing market in Jacksonville.”
“That’s true architecture and true design when you’re making a difference in the community like that,” he said.
The principals said they also like the design challenge posed by inserting a new-built project into an existing historic neighborhood.
They point to projects like the Lofts at Murray Hill, the 133-unit Hendricks at San Marco and the coffee shop concept Southern Grounds & Co. in Avondale, all executed by Group 4.
“We don’t want to come and plop something into a neighborhood that doesn’t fit the aesthetic or with the history,” Gunn said.
Kovacocy said “it takes a lot of faith” to add something new to an established neighborhood.