Established in 2009 by Erik Nelson, AIA, and Brian Caldwell, AIA, Thinktank Design Group is a collaborative partnership that mediates between architectural practice and real estate development. Based in Bozeman, Mont., Thinktank strategically employs its setting to establish geographical and cultural context for its work. The small office focuses the majority of its efforts on local design and development projects that range from residential work to civic and commercial projects.
Bozeman’s “sense of place and inspiring landscape for architecture” were big draws for the firm, Nelson says. Because of their focus on working within the city, Caldwell and Nelson remain attuned to the needs and wants of local residents while instilling modern ideals and contemporary thoughts about architecture in their community.
In Bozeman, like many other cities, there is a constant struggle between infill—and the compact living conditions that accompany it—and sprawl development. Thinktank’s experience as developers allows them to identify properties or infill lots that can be reinvigorated. By seeing a project through from its start to finish, Thinktank has been able to enhance the vernacular of the city. “The amount of rigor and self-restraint you need to be a successful developer is difficult to balance with the desire to constantly promote a higher quality and better vision for architecture,” Caldwell says.
Taking critical regionalism as a point of departure, Thinktank interprets trends in architecture and applies them with materials that reflect their projects’ respective sites as well as the regional climate and landscape. One recent project, Shotgun Modern, reinterprets the shotgun house typology by keeping the downtown Bozeman structure’s original form and footprint, but redistributing the program through a modern addition. Another project, dubbed Live Big Small Lot, activates its 30-foot-wide lot by placing the living spaces on the second floor to capture views of the surrounding mountains.
For Caldwell, architecture is about placemaking more than it is about making spaces for people to occupy: “It’s not merely an exercise in how cool the building looks,” he says. “So it’s very important to take that [ideal] into account as we look to the future in what we’re creating.”
These strategies have also been implemented in commercial projects such as the Lark, a motel renovation in downtown Bozeman that Thinktank both developed and designed. “It’s the first time we were able to pull our approach into a single project,” Nelson says.
The old motel, originally slated for redevelopment as a conventional office/retail complex, was rife with the potential to address “a tremendous need for hospitality downtown, where people visiting Bozeman could enjoy how great it is,” Nelson says. Thinktank carried out the project from its infancy in land development and permitting, introduced it to the creative partnerships who acquired the property, and ultimately carried out Thinktank’s design vision for a quirky, boutique hotel.
Thinktank’s architectural pedigree helps to fuel smart growth in Bozeman, often in places where the ability to think creatively gives the firm an edge: “We’ve found the ability to look at a problem from a number of perspectives is a skill set that is unique to architecture,” Caldwell says. “That is an advantage when thinking about opportunities that might otherwise be overlooked by those looking for the straightforward and simple development scenario.”
While the firm does pursue projects in other locations, it considers Bozeman its home base. “It’s a really great time to be in Montana,” Caldwell says. “We’re able help craft what its future looks like and give reasons for people who come here to remain.”