February 19, 2020

35th Anniversary for Princeton Design Guild: The “All-In-One” Architecture/Build Firm

DESIGN PLUS BUILD: “What if you were an architect and you knew how to build well, too. Wouldn’t that be a powerful combination? We’re an architectural design-build company, and we have on-site product capacity. We fabricate every piece here on-site. All the woodworking and metal work is done right here.” Kevin Wilkes, AIA, award-winning architect, founder and managing partner of Princeton Design Guild, is shown in his Belle Mead workshop.

By Jean Stratton

At the age of 9, Kevin Wilkes knew exactly what he wanted to do. And it has all gone according to plan.

“When I was 9, I had Lincoln Logs and erector sets, and I was always building things. My dad was an engineer, my mom was an interior designer, and I just knew I wanted to design and build things.”

While still a senior at Princeton University, he began building a house on the corner of Harrison and Sycamore Streets all on his own, and it still stands today, a testament to his skill and determination.

Also at Princeton, he was able to target his love of the theater by designing sets and costumes for campus shows, and he also studied scenic design. He took time off between sophomore and junior year to work full-time at McCarter Theatre as scenic artist and assistant to the technical director. He also worked in Manhattan as a scenic designer, as well as creating interior designs, such as a new lobby and a second stage for various theaters.

Master of Architecture

After earning his undergraduate degree, Wilkes served an architectural apprenticeship in Princeton, where he was involved in building a passive solar house, among other projects. His work received recognition, including an honorable mention in the 1984 Young Architects Competition in New York City.

In 1985, he established Princeton Design Guild (PDG), his own architecture-design-build company. Shortly after, he decided to enhance his education, and headed to Yale University, where he graduated with a Master of Architecture degree in 1991. During this time, his business plans continued to proceed and he established the company at 43 Reading Boulevard in Belle Mead.

Specializing in residential renovation projects, PDG is housed in three buildings in a spacious (20,000 square feet) setting, accommodating all the state-of-the-art equipment and the space necessary for the on-site design and fabrication. Unique among architecture firms, PDG builds its own products in its shop with its own full-time staff.

“We are an architecture-design-build company, and we have on-site product capacity,” explains Wilkes. “We fabricate every piece here on-site. All the wood-working and metal work is done here, and we customize all the pieces and collaborate all the time.”

Once plans have been approved by the client, the project moves into the spacious facility, where the craftsmen, woodworkers, carpenters, and construction staff get to work. Here, the cabinet makers build interior and exterior architectural elements, moldings, custom cabinets, and custom furniture in a controlled environment. Typical projects include custom doors, cornices, columns, mantels, crown moldings, floors, and more.

The finished pieces are then taken to the site, where the construction team has provided whatever services needed for the project. These can include excavation, utilities, concrete, and foundation services; framing, roofing, landscaping, grading, and site access/egress; plumbing, electrical, heating, etc.

Top-Notch Effort

The company employs 20 full-time workers, who are experts in their respective fields. Wilkes believes strongly in providing employees with the best working opportunities he can offer to ensure a congenial and productive working environment.

“An important issue in founding the company was to provide the types of jobs for carpenters, cabinet-makers, and builders and give them the kind of working conditions that white collar office workers enjoy,” he says. “Our employees have all the benefits and are on a full-time schedule. I believe in the old-fashioned way: permanent, full-time employees who are paid well. They will give top-notch effort. Our employees are not only highly skilled, but are people of impeccable integrity.”

Wilkes’ policies have proved to be extremely successful. Many of  the 20 full-time employees have been with the company for 35 years, and they often comment on the positive working conditions and Wilkes’ business ethics.

In its many years of operation, Princeton Design Guild has completed more than 500 residential and commercial projects from Florida to Manhattan, including many in Princeton and the area. In addition to the designing and building, the company manages the municipal approval and permit process.

Over the years, Wilkes has seen changes in design, technology, and clients’ choices — both in living and working situations. Initially, residential was the primary focus of his work, but now commercial projects have increased, and the work is equally divided between both. The former is mainly in Mercer and Somerset counties, while commercial projects cover a wider range, including Red Bank, Bedminster, and northern New Jersey.

Architect of Record

Commercial projects have included custom millwork for a large beverage/alcohol distributor in northern N.J., featuring custom wine-tasting stations, a commercial bar, boardroom/conference room furniture, and kitchen and lunchroom cabinetry.

Wilkes also provided trophy and display cases, wood paneling, a 40-foot bar, dining/seating booths, and doors for a northern N.J. country club; extensive millwork for a N.J. shore area restaurant/brew pub; and office/conference room furniture and extensive cabinets for a large pharmaceutical company in central N.J. — among other projects.

PDG was also the Architect of Record for “Remembrance Fountain,” a memorial fountain in South Brunswick Township dedicated to local citizens who perished in the attacks of September 11.

A very special honor was accorded PDG last year when Remodeling Magazine named Wilkes and the firm one of the “Big50.” The company was the only firm in New Jersey to have received this singular recognition as one of the top 50 remodelers in the entire country.

Over the years, residential work has been a major focus for PDG. Wilkes especially enjoys the renovation work. “Often, people say they want a new house, and then we take a look at the existing house, and we see something worth saving. We try to salvage what is important and historically significant — the legacy of the property. And we respect the area, and try to keep the design integral to the neighborhood.

“We had a project on Hamilton Avenue, a brick house built in the 1940s by a mason in town. We were able to keep the footprint and the brick, and this was very positive.”

Many older houses need substantial work to meet today’s standards, he adds. “Houses built in the 1940s and earlier and after World War II had inferior electricity and plumbing by today’s standards. So these have to be upgraded.”

Design Aspects

Lifestyle changes have influenced other design aspects, he says. “There was a very slow, late movement toward contemporary architecture. Before, it was a traditional focus, with columns, crown moldings, etc. But as lifestyles changed, for example, dining rooms began to disappear. There was more open space relating to kitchens and family rooms, and walls came down.

“The kitchen moved a 100 percent shift — from the back to the center of the house. There was a leveling of gender roles. It used to be the wife in the kitchen, preparing the roast beef, while the men are sitting in the living room, sipping old-fashioned cocktails. This has changed. Now everyone helps out, with the family all together.

“We employ a lot of strategies, including both separation and combination, to make the space feel comfortable, commodious, and cozy.”

Along with the open concept, Wilkes adds that bigger kitchens are now of major importance in new houses and renovations.

PDG focuses on larger projects, but he points out that “It can be a small house and a large project at the same time.”

Another change over the years is the continual evolution of the workspace, he notes. Over time, home offices began to accompany or even replace the traditional office setting; now the trend is toward even more flexibility.

“People’s personal work needs have changed. In the wireless age, individuals work less in a dedicated space, so there is not the same need for home offices.”

Handcrafted Artistry

The company has recently undertaken a special project, renovating a house on Drakes Corner Road. This is different from the usual client-commissioned PDG jobs in that the property was financed by investors and is now available for purchase through Callaway Henderson.

“On the market now, this house is unlike a typical spec-built house as it is being fashioned to PDG’s high standards of contemporary design,” explains Wilkes. “Handcrafted artistry is evident in the custom woodwork finishes that reflect the beauty of the surrounding woods visible through the house’s many windows.”

Throughout his career, Wilkes has been dedicated to helping the Princeton community, serving as Princeton building inspector, Princeton Borough councilman, and contributing to Princeton Future and the Regional Plan Association.

In 2004, he and his landscape design collaborator, Peter Soderman, teamed up to design and build special public event gardens, featuring local art and architecture talent in collaboration with artists, academics, builders, landscapers, and others who wanted to showcase the accomplishments of the Princeton community. Writers Block, Quark Park, and Dohm Alley resulted from their collaboration.

These parks and other projects have brought Wilkes and Soderman numerous awards and honors. Wilkes was also awarded a “Best of the Best” Excellence Award from Downtown New Jersey for his design at the Frog and the Peach Restaurant in New Brunswick. His designs have been featured in many magazines and other publications.

Special Lecturer

A current pro bono project is the renovation of the Paul Robeson House, which will include three specific elements.

“It is important to respect the history of the Robeson family,” Wilkes points out. “The project will consist of a community room; a gallery, featuring the history of the neighborhood; and transitional needs housing.

In addition to this full-time list of projects and pursuits, Wilkes has also served as adjunct special lecturer at NJIT’s J. Robert and Barbara A. Hillier College of Architecture and Design, where he was coordinator of the Second Year Studio Sequence.

As the recipient of many awards and honors, he is proud that his work has been admired, but he is especially pleased that he has been able to fulfill that 9-year-old’s long ago dream.

“I am happy to do what I envisioned, and do it the right way and keep my standards. I’m constantly invigorated by the appetite of the Princeton public for sophisticated thought and by the good will and intelligence of the Princeton community.

“I enjoy making clients happy,” he continues. “It’s a great feeling when we see people’s lives transformed because their space is transformed.”

PDG can be reached at (609) 683-1034. Website: www.pdguild.com.