Jeremy Berg is musing about American history. He’s musing about architecture and sustainable materials, and design that reflects the people who use his buildings. He’s a licensed architect who traffics in numbers, but right now he’s wondering how to best listen to his clients — some of whom are Native American — and how to translate their stories into buildings that serve not only people, but also the land around them.
“How do you create a space that aligns with a tribal culture,” Berg asks, “and not just stamp the tribe’s color on a wall?”
“It’s hard to do,” he admits.
Tribal work and more
Berg is the president of Seven Generations, a Kalamazoo architecture and engineering firm that is owned by Mno-Bmadsen, the non-gaming investment arm of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi. Mno-Bmadsen was formed in 2012 to diversify the band’s business interests and provide wealth for future generations. Seven Generations, established the same year, supports the band’s own needs for design and construction services but operates independently from Mno-Bmadsen and serves a host of other clients.
The only Potawatomi band allowed to remain in its homeland after the U.S. government’s Indian removals in the 1830s, the Pokagon Band is descended from a small group of people, led by Leopold Pokagon, who arranged the purchase of land near present-day Dowagiac using money from previous treaty negotiations. Even though the band has been a government-recognized tribe only since 1994 (the Indian Reorganization Act of 1834 recognized one tribe in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe), it may be fair to say that shrewd business planning is part of the Pokagon Band’s DNA.
The only tribally owned architecture firm in Kalamazoo, Seven Generations has a mission of delivering sustainable architectural, engineering and construction services that are inspired by indigenous values, which include environmental stewardship. Among the firm’s projects is a cutting-edge native justice center for the Pokagon Band, currently being constructed with a design that features a circular court and an informal peacemaking round room. In 2014, the firm built a health and wellness center for the tribe, and a new expansion of the building is underway.
Steve VandenBussche, the firm’s vice president of practice, says most of Seven Generations’ work with tribes involves building new health clinics or adding to existing ones.
At the same time, Seven Generations also has a national footprint, with current projects in Minnesota, the Dakotas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Texas, and Washington, D.C. With a general focus on health care, Seven Generations often works with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The company recently designed a renovation and addition for the VA hospital in Ann Arbor.
And while Seven Generations frequently works on non-Native buildings, its work on structures like a pow wow arbor completed in 2018 for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota demonstrates what everyone at the firm agrees on: Tribal projects are where its creativity shines.
“There are 530-and-some-odd federally recognized tribes in the country,” says Berg, noting that every one of them has a different culture and history. Knowing this, Seven Generations studies the tribes they work with to design meaningful buildings that embody the history and needs of the people who will be using them.
“Almost every building that we work on for a tribe has been a long journey,” Berg says. When Seven Generations built a language and culture center for the Pokagon Band in Dowagiac in 2016, it was a project for which the band had been building political support for 12 years.
“Every new building is a symbol of the struggle that a tribe has faced and how they are moving past it,” Berg says. “It’s meaningful work, and people gravitate towards that.”
‘A cool little place’
Berg joined the company in 2014, moving his wife and their five kids, who range in age from 13 to 23, from the eastern shore of Maryland to Kalamazoo. Berg had been commuting daily to Washington, D.C., 55 miles away, into gridlock.
When the recruiter for Seven Generations first reached out to Berg, the company was located in Benton Harbor. Berg declined the inquiry but five months later got a call from the same recruiter saying the company was moving to Kalamazoo. That same day, he and his wife, Dee, had each heard a story on NPR about the Kalamazoo Promise. Mno-Bmadsen flew them out to visit Kalamazoo, and Berg, a native of Rochester, N.Y., says he was instantly comfortable.
He’s proud to say that in the last couple of years, five more people have moved to Kalamazoo to work at Seven Generations.
“It’s a cool little place,” Berg says of the city. “Once word gets out, people get interested.”
Berg was hired to run the firm’s architecture department but in six short months took over the whole company. Under his leadership the company has grown from a four-person operation with a million-dollar yearly budget to a 25-person outfit averaging revenue of $12 million a year.
Fully sustainable, Seven Generations returns all of its profits to Mno-Bmadsen.
“If we have a good year, money goes back into the tribe. I don’t get a new pool,” Berg says, laughing.
The name Seven Generations alludes to a tribal belief that today’s generation is responsible for the health and well-being of future generations.
Berg is quick to point out how much he and his team work together. He praises the firm’s tribal liaison, Scott Winchester, a Pokagon tribal citizen and licensed architect who helps Seven Generations employees respectfully phrase the cultural questions they want to ask Native American clients.
Stephanie Sokolowski, an interior designer for the company, says the word “department” doesn’t really apply to the firm. “We design buildings as a whole,” she says. “Architecture and interior design go together, so I work closely with everyone in the office.”
A sustainable space
Sokolowski guided the design of the company’s new office space in Kalamazoo’s River’s Edge district, in the building known as The Foundry.
As the last tenant to move into The Foundry, Seven Generations took on a quadrant of the building that was just a big, open box and used an earthy palette of blues, greens and grays. Sokolowski and others allowed the space to morph over time, incorporating furniture from their old office in the WMU Business Technology and Research Park.
With an exposed, soaring ceiling, the office features something the team calls “the hive,” an airy wooden structure that arches over the front of the space. Both a work of art and a meeting space, the hive was constructed using a concept called the Superdesk, which Berg and VandenBussche found online. An architectural millwork company in Portage called Board Foot cut the structure’s pieces, and the team put it together with adhesive and tongue-and-groove construction — in other words, without mechanical fasteners.
Though the office space is open, it is sleek and calm, with clusters of modern cubicles and a row of translucent rooms off to one side. It has small “focus rooms” for employees to take calls or escape noise; multiple conference rooms; and a large workroom with tack boards, a whiteboard wall, and a plotter that prints large-scale drawings.
“Our last office was small, and we were packed in like sardines,” Sokolowski says. “It’s much quieter now. We’re spread out and can essentially work where we want.” There’s even a long, white patio where employees can work outdoors.
The back of the office holds a collaborative area with a 3D printer. A small-scale model of a city block covers half of a long table. There’s a design library with shelves crafted from industrial piping, and high tables where mid-project selections perch. In the old office, Sokolowski says, she laid things out on the floor.
Above her, carved into the ceiling, is the feather used in the company’s logo, a quiet but significant choice in a space packed with meaningful choices. The shelves were moved from the old office, as were sliding doors that hang outside the workroom.
“We really tried to use as much as we possibly could,” says Sokolowski.
Sustainability is a core value of Seven Generations, and reusing furniture is one of many ways the company maintains its ethos. There’s no drywall on the exterior walls because there were insulated panels already. There are daylight-sensor lights in the main room that automatically measure the amount of light and adjust accordingly.
And while many people think about sustainability in terms of reusable energy, Berg likes to think about it in terms of durability. “So much of what gets built right now doesn’t last,” he says. On his own street in the Hillcrest neighborhood of Kalamazoo, where houses were built in the 1920s, 100-year-old structures are still standing, much the same as when they were built. By contrast, new houses have about a 20-year lifespan on them, according to Berg. If they last longer, they need major work.
He tries to build things that will stand the test of time, by pushing clients away from cheap, throwaway materials, into more sustainable — and durable — ones. Sometimes, there’s a cost associated with sustainable choices, but many times durability ends up saving money, he says.
There’s also a health component to sustainable materials. “People don’t realize that all of the things around us can be harmful,” Sokolowski says. “We want to create buildings that are healthier, not only for the environment but for the people working there too.”
Taking care of the land
A Parchment native who has lived in Kalamazoo for the past 18 years, VandenBussche thinks other regions, like the Pacific Northwest, have done a better job of adapting their cities into nature than the more vehicle-driven culture he grew up in.
“I’m always looking at what the other cutting-edge folks are doing,” he says. “Working with tribes allows us to explore at another level. I get to ask, ‘How do we take care of the land?’ because a lot of the tribes want to build structures that keep that connection to the land.”
Berg puts it this way: “The tribes have this notion that the Earth is precious to them, and we need to protect it. Every tribal project is an opportunity to heal the land. That’s how we talk about it.”
When working on a new building, the team asks what plants are native to the land where they’re building. When they’re restoring, they ask: How can we put this building back to what it used to be, before things changed?
Consensus building is a big part of the firm’s process, and it’s something that VandenBussche learned by watching architects he admired. He once had a boss who could draw upside-down while talking to a client, so the client could follow new ideas as they talked.
VandenBussche doesn’t draw upside-down, but he does use a 3D drawing application called SketchUp that empowers clients to contribute ideas. “They see how easy it is to move a door over here, change this or rotate that, and you end up, at the end of the meeting, with the solution.”
In the past, VandenBussche says, architects made a presentation at a meeting and listened, and then they would pack everything up in their shiny metal boxes and say, “We’ll be back in two more weeks.”
“That’s not really how we work,” he says. “We want to engage folks and get them to give us that information right there at that meeting, and then we react to it right there too.”
Berg jokes that his mother put the idea of being an architect into his head because he can’t remember ever wanting to be anything else. VandenBussche was also drawn to architecture but, as a highly visual person, struggled with some academic subjects, excelling instead at shop class, art and music.
He was a natural at math, however, and worked in an architectural office when he was 18. Instead of starting in the proverbial mailroom, VandenBussche trimmed the bushes and mowed the lawn. After he finished the yardwork, the architects let him come in and arrange books. Finally, they told him, “If you can carve out a space, there’s a drafting board in the basement,” and gave him drafting exercises.
He did this for summer jobs during college — first at the University of Kentucky, then at the University of Michigan, where he transferred as a junior and later went to graduate school, studying architecture with Berg. In 2001, VandenBussche moved to Kalamazoo with his now ex-wife and their two daughters, but Berg had no idea his old classmate was in the area when he took the job at Seven Generations.
He only discovered that fact when, needing help for the growing company four years ago, he did a search on LinkedIn and was shocked to discover VandenBussche living in Kalamazoo. Their kids knew each other at school.
What was VandenBussche doing when Berg reached out?
VandenBussche pauses, then laughs. “Looking for a job,” he says. At the time, he was employed at a small firm where he had worked for almost nine years, but he wasn’t happy there.
Of the work they do together, Berg says, “Steve is an amazing designer, and I’m more of a number cruncher. We make a good pair.”
VandenBussche agrees. “This is happiness for me, and this is what I wanted out of an architectural career, exactly what I’m doing right now.”