It's not easy for an outsider to catch the folks at el dorado in an entirely serious moment. The Kansas City, Mo., firm's five partners recently used the 1980s hair band Def Leppard as a reference point in an architectural lecture. Clicking on “Mission” on their Web site takes you to a screen that says, “We don't have a mission statement.” The group's offbeat, deadpan sense of humor harmonizes with their pronounced aversion to the idea of the heroic, Howard Roark-style architect.

But when it comes to designing buildings and running a business, no one approaches a project or goal with more intensity than el dorado. Take, for example, the firm's longtime focus on in-house fabrication. The three original principals—Dan Maginn, AIA, LEED AP; Jamie Darnell, AIA, LEED AP; and Douglas Stockman, who met while working together at BNIM Architects in Kansas City during the 1990s—decided they wanted to learn more about working with steel. “We can't learn everything, so let's pick one thing and learn it well,” Darnell recalls thinking. He convinced Maginn, Stockman, and a couple other designer friends to take welding classes with him at a vocational school 45 minutes away. And after leaving BNIM he spent six weeks working at FACE, a New York City design and fabrication firm. In 1996, the five friends opened up a steel workshop, architecture studio, and art gallery in the Crossroads, a burgeoning arts district of Kansas City. Developer Brad Nicholson, with whom the firm still works from time to time, sublet a 10,000-square-foot industrial space to them for $600 per month. They invested countless hours experimenting with steel, getting to know its properties inside and out.

Around 1998, Darnell, Maginn, and Stockman felt ready to turn their casual operation into a full-fledged company. The other two designers left, and David Dowell, another BNIM alum, joined as a principal. At his suggestion the four of them took a 12-week business class at Kansas City's Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a nonprofit that encourages entrepreneurship. “It was one of the best things we did,” Maginn says. Nothing they learned in class discouraged them from pursuing the steel fabrication component of the business, so the workshop remained a fundamental part of el dorado.

material matters The firm continues to create steel furniture, staircases, railings, and other details. Much of that work is for its own projects, but it also takes on outside commissions, such as the design and fabrication of the reception desks at Steven Holl, AIA's 2007 addition to the nearby Nelson–Atkins Museum of Art. Through four moves, the shop has always stayed in the same building as the architectural office. In el dorado's current location, another old warehouse in the Crossroads that the partners bought and transformed in 2005, it occupies the ground floor. An interior window in the lobby provides a glimpse of the shop before a galvanized steel stair leads visitors to the more polished studio. There, faint sounds of metalworking from downstairs blend with the ambient rumble of trucks and trains passing through the neighborhood.

The workshop helps differentiate el dorado from other firms. And it gives the company more control over the cost of a project. But its most essential role is to direct the way the partners (and the office's eight additional designers) think about design. “You need to really understand materials before you do something to them,” Maginn says. “Steel is in every project we do. Our understanding of it on an intuitive level helps us find the clearest way to solve something using steel, in a way that works for steel. Then we tweak it just a little bit—about 5 percent. It's part of our shared language of details.” He, Darnell, Stockman, Dowell, and Josh Shelton, who became a principal in 2002, always put materials first when thinking about a design, no matter what those materials are. “We would never say, Here's my design, now what should we build it out of?” says Darnell, who is finishing up work on his own corrugated copper-clad, SIPs-framed house in the city's Westside neighborhood. “For us, the form and material work together. That's why my house is boxy—it's because of the SIPs, not the other way around.”