Winter Holben Architecture and Design
Making gems of places where people love to go
By R. Cook
When Elisa Winter Holben and Brandon Winter tied the knot, they didn’t realize that within a short time their deep dive into matrimony would lead to a joint venture that is just as fulfilling: Winter Holben Architecture and Design.
Elisa said the couple have owned and operated their company since 2015 from their offices at Thinkyard at 7 Wallingford Square in Kittery Foreside. They are right across the street from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and right above Lil’s Café. More importantly, they are also just a short walk to their home and two young children, Elias, 12, and Sonia, 7. They have lived in Kittery for 18 years.
Before the COVID-19 crisis set in this spring, Elisa and Brandon were poised to realize tremendous growth to kick off the new decade. They had finished 2019 strong after they nearly quadrupled their revenue. They are still actively engaged in hiring more talented team members to join their nine-member team and they have remained busy during the pandemic with various projects.
This summer, Elisa said they are helping businesses redesign their workspaces and public spaces to conform with U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidelines to keep employees and customers safe from the threat of COVID-19. As many existing and new businesses go with architectural designs that will adapt to the new direction ushered in by the pandemic, Elisa said she and her team will be ready to meet that challenge. “We want to build space that is adaptable over time. You build for longevity.”
She is very proud that her business donated $5,000 to support local organizations and southern Maine businesses including the Seacoast Science Center in Rye, New Hampshire, 3S Artspace, The Dance Hall, Footprints Food Pantry, Fair Tide, and some Kittery Foreside restaurants to help them during the pandemic.
Elisa, 43, and Brandon, 44, have been married for seven years and have been together for 15 years, since they attended college. They grew up in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Elisa attended James Madison University and majored in biology with a minor in art. She wanted to be an illustrator. After she took some courses at the University of New Hampshire Isles of Shoals Marine Lab and at Cornell University, Elisa helped a professor create the first-ever illustrations and description of a water striding insect (Platyvelia brachialis) as her senior thesis.
“I wanted to find a way to meld my love of art with my degree in science, so I took some special courses in scientific illustration,” Elisa explained. “They were published, as it was the first time this particular insect had been described and drawn.”
Meanwhile, Brandon graduated from the State University of New York in Buffalo with his architecture degree. Elisa said she and Brandon were living together in 1999, and this is when she first discovered her love of architecture and design. “I got to watch his career and be part of it,” she recalled.
Elisa got her first job as a graphic designer in Buffalo “and that is where I kind of realized I had a knack for graphics and design.” The couple moved to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Brandon worked for a few architectural design firms in the city and Elisa was working for a company called Branding Partners as a creative design director to help businesses rebrand or strengthen their existing brands. “I learned that I was really good at leading complex design projects.”
She had the opportunity to work with national clients like Bank of America, which the couple has retained as one of their clients for their current business. “That’s when I really found what I really wanted to do.”
The couple had their first child, and Elisa felt like she was ready to step out and create her own business. “I was tired of working for other organizations. It was stressful because we had a family and the timing is never perfect,” Elisa said. Fortunately, they each brought a few of their clients on board including Bank of America. Brandon also brought in Great Rhythm Brewing Company. That project proved to be a breakthrough for the couple’s business.
In 2017, Elisa and Brandon won the New Hampshire chapter of the American Institute of Architects Excellence in Architecture Design Award for that project. “It was a classic example of what we’re good at. It was a really old, dilapidated building where they used to process seafood, and we really turned it into a gem where people love to go,” Elisa explained.
The brewery is located at an old Portsmouth warehouse complex. After the couple worked their branding, design, and architectural magic, the building was transformed into a dynamic experience. The award citation noted that their work, “created the entire design vision for the adaptive re-use of an underutilized waterfront industrial building to become a dynamic customer experience and state-of-the-art brewing facility. Key features of the design include a striking presence visible from over 1,200 feet away, a welcoming entrance, a tasting room with views to the outdoor environment, a brew house, and a visitor destination that complements the revitalized West End neighborhood of Portsmouth.”
The judges’ comments reflect the perfect synergy of the couple’s firm. “The light-colored wood and the monochromatic dark gray ceilings and concrete block also complement each other in color and texture and add a surprising intimacy to an otherwise open volume. Simple garage doors, when open, provide additional dramatic effect.”
Elisa and Brandon pride themselves on using the best environmental practices when they create new spaces and revitalize older buildings. “The greenest building is the one that is already built,” she observes. She also believes the Great Rhythm Brewing Company project shows how she can make a place a real experience for people that is memorable and engaging from a strategic branding point of view. Other breweries that they have designed include the York Beach Brewing Co. near Short Sands Beach, the Stoneface Brewing Co., in Newington, New Hampshire, The Wilder in Portsmouth, and The Press Room, one of Portsmouth’s most iconic drinking establishments that is a haven for Jazz aficionados.
They have also designed businesses close to home, including Festina Lente, a rustic Italian restaurant in Kittery Foreside. They were in the process of creating a new space for the USS Albacore Museum and Park located across the Piscataqua River in Portsmouth. Since 2015, Elisa said she and her husband have worked on more than 100 projects.
Looking ahead, Elisa and Brandon would love to do more projects in Maine. This spring, the couple was working on a wayfinder project at the University of New England in Biddeford and Portland. The work involves helping the private college create new signage for both campuses. Elisa believes Maine offers great opportunity for them to do work that will dovetail with the intense creative spirit that already exists in Portland and elsewhere.
“Maine has a certain style and personality that I love. It’s a beautiful place but it also has a lot of grit and strength.”