Half of the enclosed malls opening in the United States this year are creations of KA Inc., Architecture - a Cleveland-based firm with origins in the attic of a junkyard owner's son.

The firm started as a one-man operation with one local mall project in 1962. Four decades later, five new malls in locations spanning both coasts demonstrate that the company has become an industry leader. Despite the growing pains and market fluctuations it has endured in its history, the firm is anything but complacent as a new generation of owners takes the reins.

Over time, KA has proven that a successful design firm concerns itself with more than architecture. The toughest part of designing a mall, according to founder Keeva Kekst, is keeping both the department stores and the developer happy. "The complexity of these malls had nothing to do with architecture," he says. "The key job of the architect is to satisfy these many masters." Balancing those conflicts became part of the firm's art.

KA's roster of 1999 mall openings reflects projects designed not only for the firm's longtime customers but also for newer ones. The open-air Promenade at Temecula in Temecula, Calif., is a mall for Forest City Enterprises Inc., a Cleveland company for which Kekst once designed apartments and shopping centers. And the botanical-themed Jersey Gardens in Elizabeth, N.J., was created for Glimcher Realty Trust of Columbus, a developer KA has collaborated with since 1984.

KA also stamped finis on Rivertown Crossings, a Grand Rapids, Mich., mall for General Growth Properties of Chicago; Arbor Place Mall, a 500,000 sq. ft. mall in the Atlanta suburb of Douglasville, Ga., for CBL & Associates of Chattanooga, Tenn.; and Plaza del Sol, a 411,213 sq. ft., Latin-themed mall in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, for Ventures SE of West Palm Beach, Fla.

These new constructions could spur even more business for KA when shopping centers near new malls update their properties to remain competitive, says COO Thomas Milanich.

A risk well taken In 1960, Kekst took a risk when he accepted a commission from a Cleveland developer to design a 13-story apartment development. Because financing for the project couldn't be obtained without complete drawings in advance, Kekst's employer, the now-defunct firm of Fulton, Krinsky & Delamott, declined the job. Kekst was told he could do the job, but not with the firm. "How do you start an architecture firm?" he asks today. "You get fired." Kekst did the speculative work on his own time, launching KA from the attic of his suburban home.

The firm got its first taste of mall design in 1962, when the late Edward DeBartolo of Edward J. DeBartolo Corp. in nearby Youngstown, Ohio, asked Kekst if he could design a mall in the Cleveland suburb of Richmond Heights. "I said 'yes,'" Kekst recalls. He would also say "yes" 29 years later when asked to update his original design on the Richmond Heights Mall by its new owners, Simon Property Group of Indianapolis.

Within two weeks, the DeBartolo job snowballed into another opportunity for KA - a commission from Forest City to design a new mall in Bowling Green, Ky. The six-member firm was about to begin its baptism by fire. "I hired anyone who could walk," Kekst says.

By 1989, KA had grown to 185 people. Then the credit crunch hit and dried up the firm's key source of work. Within a year, KA closed its Los Angeles office and sliced its staff to 65. In the interim market of the early 1990s, KA used its size and experience to tap a new market. The firm bided its time designing suburban corporate office projects until the market rebounded. The tide turned in 1994, when KA suddenly had four malls to design.

With a renewed influx of mall projects, KA remains fresh by tapping a number of different influences. Darrell Pattison, who serves as director of design and has been employed with the firm since 1977, heads a design staff of 14. Half of the design staff are registered architects, the rest a collection of engineers and draftspeople. KA also enlists outside consultants, such as engineers, rather than building in-house capabilities, because it brings more varied experiences to bear, Pattison says.

Kekst says he always sized up job candidates on the basis of whether they were likely to be competitors within five years. If he decided such was the case, he would do everything possible to hire them. To keep the best people, Kekst gave them shares in the firm. The hiring policy meant that a half-dozen Cleveland firms have been founded by people who left KA with Kekst's blessing.

In 1996, ownership of KA passed to a new group of 16 shareholders from the firm, now led by a six-member board with James Heller as president. The transition became final early in 1999, when Kekst, 67, stepped down as chairman emeritus to become a consultant to the firm. Now, with a staff of 80 employees, KA has more than 50 malls under its belt and more in the planning stages.

Ego-free design Sometimes discounted by other Cleveland-area firms as a production-oriented firm rather than a design-driven shop, KA takes a practical approach to design rather than a design-is-king philosophy.

"We create a backdrop for retailers to showcase what they sell, like a museum shows its displays," Pattison says. "We're never trying to design something out in front that grasps all the attention for itself."

As Heller says, "We are designing a project based on the theme of the project, with the developer's interests at heart. We design for the developer's goals, not our goals. If the developer likes the design, it satisfies our ego."

Theming a mall allows the architect to tie together disparate parts of the mall, Pattison says. KA's recent theming work includes Polaris Fashion Place, which will resemble a country club to reflect Columbus' emphasis on golf, and Rivertown Crossings, which features a nautical theme to recall the riverfront origins of Grand Rapids.

The bevy of grand openings is deja vu for KA president Jim Heller. In 1989 he attended grand openings for seven regional malls the firm designed, right at the apex of the 1980s development surge. "We don't see that anymore," he says, due to changes in the retail industry and growing scarcity of mall sites.

Nevertheless, Heller and the firm's new principals are pursuing the glory of days gone-by. KA is moving into the next century with eight malls to be opened between 2001 and 2002.

Chasing developers At the company's downtown Cleveland headquarters, the term "client" usually means developer, for developer-oriented work provides most of KA's revenues today, as it has from the company's inception. Kekst says developers promised to become repeat clients and had a valuable directness: "There's no (hidden) agenda. They just want to work so they can go on to the next job."

The firm's principals continue to court developers. "We don't chase a product type as much as we chase a client," Milanich says. "We chase developers. We try to think like them, act like them, get into their head, and try to act like an extension of their office."

Through these practices, KA has built solid relationships with some of the industry's most prominent developers.

Herbert Glimcher, chairman and CEO of Glimcher Realty Trust, gives kudos to KA for reacting to developer needs. When designing a site, "they're very astute in terms of how they put it together," Glimcher says. "You can work with them and get the lowest price (for the site) because they understand the overall project." Glimcher's company is currently working with KA on the 1.5 million sq. ft. Polaris Fashion Place Mall to be built north of Columbus, Ohio.

James Ratner, president of Forest City's commercial construction unit, says KA's architects "understand the very complicated issues of development."

They know how to marry quality and reality," he says, "two difficult things to do in this business."