The new football practice facility at Northwestern University is one of a half-dozen big projects that HOK has recently completed. HOK served as associate architect to Perkins + Will, the architect of record. (Courtesy HOK)

HOK Sports, Recreation and Entertainment is in transition mode. The sports architect has made two hires to help fill gaps left by designers who have departed the firm. It has also opened a new office in Dallas, where other HOK divisions have been in place since 1973.

Robert Burns has joined HOK as director of business development. Burns will remain in Dallas, where he worked for sports designer HKS in a similar capacity. At HOK, he’ll oversee the development of a sports studio and grow the practice over the next six to 12 months, said Nate Appleman, director of the sports practice.

Robert Burns and Andrew Elmer.

In addition, HOK hired Andrew Elmer as a project architect in Kansas City. Elmer specializes in landscape design and project management in the college space. His work over the past 10 years at Populous and HNTB includes projects at Baylor, Kansas, Penn State and Syracuse.

The new hires come after HOK completed several high-profile projects over the past few years, including Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta; Little Caesars Arena in Detroit; Hard Rock Stadium near Miami; Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta; Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind.; and Northwestern’s football practice facility in Evanston, Ill., where it supported Perkins + Will as associate architect. Those six projects alone kept HOK in the spotlight as one of the busiest firms in sports architecture. Now that they have opened, the firm has seen some attrition, which is typical with design firms as they regroup and pursue new business.

For HOK, it started with the retirement of principal George Heinlein at the end of 2017. Heinlein was among the four owners of 360 Architecture who sold the firm to HOK in January 2015. The remaining three principals — Brad Schrock, Bill Johnson and Tom Waggoner — are still with HOK, although Appleman has taken over the director’s role from Schrock over the past two years and Chris DeVolder replaced Waggoner as managing principal in Kansas City.

Others followed Heinlein to the exits. Over the past six months, veteran architect Bill Crockett retired, Kent McLaughlin left HOK to rejoin Populous and Chris Lamberth, who filled HOK’s business development role, took a job working for structural engineering consultant Erleen Hatfield.

“We had a really good run and a lot of notoriety when it comes to Mercedes-Benz Stadium and Little Caesars Arena in particular,” Appleman said. “Those projects were revolutionary in a lot of ways.”

“But there’s not a wealth of those [projects] sitting out there to flow through,” he said. “We’ve gone through a little bit of retooling with the retirement of some guys and others that wanted to move on to different opportunities.”

The opening of the office in downtown Dallas' Arts District is part of HOK’s plan to expand its presence across the country locally beyond its current shops in Kansas City, San Francisco and Columbus, Ohio. Elsewhere, HOK plans to open a New York office, Appleman said.

HOK, a global firm that does work across multiple building types, has offices in Dallas and Houston, but until now the sports side has not been a part of those operations. In Dallas, that dynamic changes now that Burns has come on board and HOK makes a push to compete against Dallas-based HKS and its tight grip on sports developments in the North Texas region.

“What we realized is that outside of having a few really strong relationships, such as Bill Crockett with the Spurs and our relationship at SMU, it was really tough to penetrate that market without being in the market,” Appleman said. “That was a lesson we had to learn after a couple of swings and misses. Until we’re on the ground here and viewed as a Texas firm, it was going to be real hard to do the work that we want to do there. That’s why it’s important to find the right person to anchor us and begin to build that studio around them so we can serve our Texas clients from Texas.”

Burns will work closely with Appleman, regional leader Algen Williams and Amy Chase, HOK’s marketing principal, to build the Dallas location. HOK has some sports deals in place in Texas but to this point officials can’t disclose those agreements, Appleman said.

“We do have opportunities that will make the foundation for growing that practice,” he said.

Overall, the sports market is as active and competitive as ever. HOK’s pursuits expand internationally to include the Nippon Ham Fighters’ $500 million retractable roof stadium in Japan, where it’s competing against HKS, Populous and an all-Japanese design team.

Separately, the trend of big league teams partnering with healthcare facilities to develop practice facilities has worked in HOK’s favor. The firm has a strong presence in the health care, workplace and science and technology industries, and part of Appleman’s job is focusing on those multidiscipline developments. The Emory Healthcare Courts, the Atlanta Hawks’ new practice facility in a partnership with the local health care provider and an HOK project, is one example.

“We’re certainly seeing that crossover … with a lot of fusion on these different building types, which has created a vibrant list of new opportunities that weren’t necessarily in the same lanes we were following before,” he said. “It’s almost got to the point where you question, ‘Is this a sport project, workplace, health care or all three?”