Architect Lyle Murtha knows what it’s like to run a small start-up company from home. Boredom sets in and so do distractions like laundry. Options for meeting clients consist of your living room, a noisy coffee shop or an expensive executive suite like he had to rent when he first started out, he said.
These days, he’s president of Stateline No. 7 Architects in Casper with an office in a renovated vintage building attached to a 102-year-old railroad warehouse near downtown Casper.
In the 5,000 square foot basement in the original 1917 Chicago and Northwestern Railroad rail yard building, he last week opened a cowork space called Basement Shift, where small companies, upstarts and anyone who needs a place to work can make use of the space outfitted with desks, small private offices, conference rooms and meeting spaces, along with a fax machine, printer and even office supplies.
It’s a place where people can network, learn and share knowledge.
“For instance when I was a start-up, I didn’t understand who do you use for a lawyer, who do you use for an accountant or who do you use for this or that,” he said. “Having other people around who have done it, have gone through it, it’s so much easier. So really the idea is that the people in your cowork space sort of mentor each other, and they’ll help each other out.”
The architect firm works in Wyoming and South Dakota and is known for projects including Casper’s Art 321 building renovations, Fire Rock and David Street Station, plus a current project for a state office building as well as Jonah Bank buildings in Casper and Cheyenne.
The firm’s own office that Murtha and his crew renovated in the century-old rail yard warehouse and 1930s addition in the front is a case in itself for renovating old buildings with historical character as a valid alternative to tearing them down and building new, he said.
During open houses to showcase the possibilities in older buildings, many people would tell him they’d like to work there.
“So people kept coming in and asking me, ‘Ooh can I just work here? It’s so cool in here. You won’t even notice I’m over here in the corner,’” he said. “And I’m like ‘No, crazy, you can’t work in here.’”
Then he thought, “Well, maybe they can.”
Cowork spaces are a new concept in the past five or 10 years. A friend of Murtha’s designed one in Rapid City, and a few in Wyoming have cropped up in Cheyenne, Gillette and Sheridan. One might even arise in Sundance.
“I can’t believe somebody didn’t beat me to this,” he said.
A cowork space isn’t like executive suites popular in the 1980s, where workers would rent an office and share a secretary.
“This is different in that we’re trying to get people to collaborate with each other,” Murtha said. “So they’re not sharing a secretary. We don’t even have a secretary here. It’s them networking and sharing experiences together.”
It’s drawn interest from people in a variety of fields, including a lawyer, its first client, as well as photographers, a graphic designer, a job coach, a general contractor and an oil field company moving to Wyoming.
“It’s just a wide array of professional-type people that are either working from home or are start-ups that are coming to town,” he said.
Old building, new ideas
Instead of a concrete foundation, the builders of the railroad warehouse used brick all the way through the basement, Murtha said. Paint removed during the basement renovation exposes the red brick for a similar look to the upstairs office.
“This is a 102-year-old building, so it has a lot of built-in character,” Murtha said.
The Basement Shift, like the upstairs, merges the original building with modern industrial style featuring exposed conduit and duct work. The space features exposed ceilings, concrete, beams, columns and brick. Plants grow in a large steel planter box along a back stairway.
“We aren’t hiding the fact that you’re in a basement — In fact, it’s built right into the name,” Murtha said. “But we did a lot of things to make you not feel like you’re in a basement.”
They rebuilt and opened the back stairway to allow light from a large window to flood through, for instance. Eight offices sit behind a wall of polycarbonate usually used in greenhouses.
“It doesn’t feel like you’re really enclosed,” Murtha said. “So you get privacy, but you get light transmittance through the wall.”
Most of the renovations were done in-house, he said, though they had to hire help to remove stubborn paint from the brick walls and woodwork and to polish the concrete floors.
Desk frames on warehouse-style work benches can be adjusted to heights for sitting or standing. The dark walnut desktops tie in with darker woods in the building and help add warm tones, while chairs and colorful standing marker boards in a common area at the center of the space add a pop of color, he said. He pointed out yellow touches in the carpet that match color in some of some of the office chairs and wood through the space. Soft coffeehouse music is piped in to add a little energy so it’s not too quiet, he said.
The center offers space for collaborations and meetings as well as a variety of seating from chairs and sofas to a giant beanbag. The space can even host small conferences with a speaker system and microphone.
Basement Shift offers memberships for day- to monthlong use of desks that come with lockers or private offices. Members can sign up for conference rooms, which also are available for one-time use. Members have 24-hour access to the basement and the building’s restrooms and a kitchen area with Keurig coffee, microwave and dishwasher. Discounts are available for nonprofits or those who pay ahead for six months.
“It’s set up to be like your gym membership. You pay a membership fee monthly basically and you get access to all of these perks.” Murtha said. “And just like your gym, you may not use every perk but you have access to all of it.”
For Murtha, Basement Shift was a perfect solution to what to do with the empty 5,000 feet of downstairs space in his building and to people wanting to work in his office, he said. And he wants to fill a need for beginning entrepreneurs like he himself once was.
“I know how expensive it was to rent that office suite, but I knew I had to get out of my apartment because of all those distractions,” he said. “But it was expensive to rent the whole suite and have the conference room sit there for 99 percent of the time wasn’t being used. But you’re paying rent, you’re paying for that conference room to sit there and do nothing all day and then you have all the expensive stuff like buying printers and copiers and fax machines. So I understand when somebody else wants to come along and wants to do a start-up there’s a lot of expense in there. so I’m sympathetic to all that so I want it to be different for somebody else.”
“So for me, it’s just the perfect solution to the problem of a big empty basement,” he said, laughing, “and my problem of people coming in here asking me to let them work in here.”