Veteran architect proud of his 'kids'

Dennis Yates steps over a pile of brick samples and into a room scattered with dozens of thick rolled-up papers.

"This is a 20,000-square-foot hospital," he said, pointing to one. "That's probably 20 pounds of paper."

If he had the time, he could tell a little story about every one of the scrolls. Each conjures a memory in the architect's 27-year career in Concord, and it would be like thumbing through an old photo album.

"That was the first project I had when I came into town," he said, coming across a sketch from the S&D Coffee project he designed in 1984. "Mr. (Roy) Davis was good to me."

Yates moved to Concord more than a quarter-century ago, a young whippersnapper in his early 30s, he said of himself back then. After practicing architecture in Charlotte for 10 years, he chose Concord to set up his own practice. He liked the quality of life here. He liked the trees that line the streets.

"It's been a far better opportunity than I could have ever, ever imagined," he said.

Drive around Concord, and it's hard to not see a building designed by YCH Architects, the firm Yates started nearly three decades ago.

The government center on Church Street, the new police headquarters, medical center buildings, churches, banks and at least 10 of the county's schools first saw a glimpse of reality on the rolled-up papers in his modest office on Union Street.

"I don't know if there's a project we haven't done," said Will Hughes, a partner at the firm who joined 16 years ago, fresh out of college.

"We've even done a funeral home."

Yates won't claim any favorites in town.

"They're kind of like kids," he said. "They're all different. They're unique. They all have their own personalities."

But a few of them make him proud, like the one that no one remembers he designed at all.

In 1989, YCH Architects took on the Will Young building at First Presbyterian Church on Union Street.

The project took Yates through backcountry with his old pickup truck, searching for bricks that matched the same kind of coal-and-sawdust-made ones used in the original church construction in the 1920s.

"I brought them down to the masons and said, 'Please blend them in when you're building,' " he said.

"We worked very, very hard to make that building blend in and go away."

His most controversial building also makes him proud. Even though the Cabarrus County Governmental Center caused a stir for its $9.3 million price tag back in 1990, Yates has no regrets.

"When I started designing these kinds of buildings," he said, "there were half the people who loved me and half the people who didn't care for me at all."

As he drives by, he still admires the building for its elegance, dignity and flexibility.

Architecture has changed considerably from when he first started in the business.

"There are enormous complexities that face the practice of architecture that didn't used to be," said Yates.

He has seen the switch from wood to steel construction, the change from pencil drawings to sophisticated three-dimensional software, and the proliferation of regulations that cover everything from water on site to asbestos removal.

The newest trend - creating sustainable buildings that earn a LEED environmental certification - is really nothing new to Yates, who said the firm has always built construction with efficiency and durability in mind.

"Good design has always been sustainable," he said.