Synergy At Work: How Zerr Berg Architects And Gehrtz Construction Services Have Created A Competitive Advantage

Written by: Fargo Inc Staff




the interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects.

Walk into the office of Zerr Berg Architects and Gehrtz Construction Services and you’ll be greeted by a front desk. Go to your left, you’ll walk into Gehrtz’s office. Take a right, you’ll find Zerr Berg. While it might be a simple thing, it makes all the difference in why this partnership between the two companies provides a competitive advantage.

Their Competitive Advantage

Imagine you’re working with an architect on designing your next office. You meet with them, discuss everything you want in your new space and they begin work on the design. Being an architect is all about collaboration so they work closely with numerous groups, including a construction team. What may take several days of back and forth emails and phone calls at other firms, take minutes at Zerr Berg. All the architect has to do is take a left at the front desk.

“What we do with our firms is pretty special,” said Brian Berg, Principal Architect at Zerr Berg. “Having a construction management service in-house is a unique feature. There are other people that provide similar services, but the firm that Steve and I came from pioneered that model, not only here but nationally. We have really thrived in that environment. There’s a synergy that happens between an architectural firm and a construction management firm when it’s done really well because of the support that we provide for each other.”

A synergistic bond is a great way to describe the two companies’ relationships. However, that synergy isn’t something that’s just created. It’s developed over years of hard work.

Taking from what they’ve learned from their previous workplace, Berg, Gehrtz and Tim Zerr launched Zerr Berg Architects and Gehrtz Construction Services in 2001 and have been serving clients throughout North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota ever since. Specializing in schools, churches and commercial buildings, they have become a regional pioneer in the space.

There are several reasons why this partnership  works so well, but besides the proximity, their seasons also mesh well together.

“Steve’s busiest season from a construction management standpoint is in the summer. We do a lot of work for schools so he’s often working hard to get construction completed before the school year starts,” said Berg. “Our busiest time of year is typically during the late fall and winter while we’re preparing projects for bid and trying to get things ready for the start of the construction season the following spring.”

Synergy is defined as “the interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects.” It perfectly sums up how their relationship combined with their years of experience, make them one of the top regional leaders in their field.

“We’ve worked together 25-30 years and we’re still good friends. That tells you something,” said Gehrtz. “Zerr Berg Architects does work with other construction managers and Gehrtz Construction Services has worked with about 10 other architectural firms. The sweet spot is when we’re working together because we know how each other think. It’s the synergy that Brian’s talking about. We know what they expect of us and they know what our expectations are in terms of the quality of drawing and response. It really is a pretty smooth-running machine.”

The Budget Dilemma

Everyone’s heard that construction projects will always go over budget. That’s not the case when working with Zerr Berg and Gehrtz. Because of their experience and how closely they work together, Gehrtz is very good at putting together detailed schematic estimates. This means that, with nothing but a basic floor plan, they’re able to put together an accurate schematic budget. As the plans become more detailed, so too does that budget. Both firms have an excellent record of aligning budget to scope. They work extremely hard to make sure they meet the owner’s budget expectations.

“We take that fiduciary part of our job very seriously to protect the owner’s resources. A lot of times, budgets are finite,” said Berg. “It’s absolutely critical that we establish accurate budgets early on so that the owner has good information to base decisions on. That’s a critical part of our role.”

Since much of their work is with school districts and government agencies, those projects are often publicly bid. Their goal is to have the project estimate be five to 10 percent below the average bid.

While meeting a budget is great and experience is fantastic, it all means nothing unless they’re able to put together plans that meet the client’s needs. That’s something that Zerr Berg Architects and Gehrtz Construction Services takes very seriously.

“As architects, we help a client take intangible ideas and turn them into tangible space,” said Berg. “You have to work hard to understand your client, putting yourself in their shoes and understanding why and how they do what they do. Architects, by nature, need to be good listeners. Our main role as a designer is to listen, ask the right questions and to understand.”

And each project has its distinct challenges and needs. For example, if they’re designing a school, an elementary classroom functions differently than a high school science lab. It all starts with the right questions but then evolves from there as they get to work.

“Before we do any design, we end up with a list of spaces and square footage, relationships, adjacencies and all those kinds of things,” said Berg. “From that, once we have a program that everybody agrees on, we start talking about what the space will look like and how it can be organized and how that intangible idea can be transformed into a physical space.”

The Future

Fargo-Moorhead and North Dakota, as a whole, continue to grow. Zerr Berg Architects and Gehrtz Construction have also experienced recent growth and transition. It’s an exciting time as new leadership has recently been introduced. Tim Zerr stepped down last year as Principal Architect. He continues to mentor young professionals and provide architectural services at the firm. Tony Wolf, Principal Architect, and Dan Kleist, Principal Construction Manager, have recently come on as next-generation leaders in the company.

“It’s an honor to be part of the group in the next generation,” said Kleist. “I started here right out of college. They took a risk on me and they were new so I took a risk on them. It worked out really well. We’re like one big happy family.

“I want to reiterate what Steve and Brian said in that the effectiveness that we have with each other’s firms, you can’t overstate how effective it is. We’ve worked with a lot of other architects. To draw the answers for the questions we might have, we can nail it down within a day here whereas when you’re working out of the office, it can take a week. We’re a well-oiled machine.”

While they’re very focused on their clients’ needs, it doesn’t just end there, though.

“The thing that really stuck with me was how dedicated they are, not only to the projects, but the staff,” said Wolf. “I think it’s really important to keep that in mind that not only do we provide a service for our clients, we provide for our staff and families and be very family-oriented and flexible with schedules. Those are the things that stuck in my mind about why I wanted to stick around here.”

Tony Wolf, Dan Kleist, Steve Gehrtz, and Brian Berg
(Left to right) Tony Wolf (Principal Architect), Dan Kleist (Principal Construction Manager), Steve Gehrtz (Principal Construction Manager) and Brian Berg (Principal Architect)

They’ve worked with schools, churches, government agencies and businesses across the region, and each comes with its own challenges and joys. However, at the end of the day, what keeps them going is simple.

“For me, what drives me is the challenge,” said Gehrtz. “The best parts of the project are when you’re digging in the ground and you smell fresh dirt and when you’re cutting a ribbon and the client says, ‘You guys as a design and construction team really listened to us. You got our project completed under budget and we have money left over.’ The icing on the cake is when your clients become your friends because you’ve worked together for the last 18 months.”  

Friends Outside of Work

Berg, Gehrtz, Kleist and Wolf aren’t just business partners. They’re good friends. This story showcases what makes the relationship between Zerr Berg Architects and Gehrtz Construction Services:

All four owners are diehard Bison fans. Not only do they spend all day at work together but they tailgate at all Bison games and sit next to each other. They will share texts. A couple of years ago, Gehrtz was in Italy during a Bison game. He went to bed around halftime and woke with over 300 texts talking about the game.

That friendship translates into a strong working relationship and the success of Zerr Berg and Gehrtz.

Quick Fact

Between Zerr Berg Architects and Gehrtz Construction Services, there are 31 employees at their office in Downtown Fargo. 

Industries they work in

  • Education
  • Medical / Health Care
  • Churches
  • Housing (multi-family, dorms)
  • Commercial
  • Office
  • Senior Housing
  • Community
  • Military / Governmen

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