Who Is Watts Leaf Architects? Get To Know Kaas Wilson’s North Carolina Acquisition

KWA News

26 Jan, 2024

North Carolina

26 Jan, 2024

In June of 2023, Kaas Wilson Architects acquired Watts Leaf Architects, PA, a boutique multi-family architecture studio in Charlotte, North Carolina. We’re thrilled about this acquisition, as it will enable us to offer a wider range of services and expertise to our clients and expand our presence throughout the eastern United States.


In this blog, we’re giving you a peek into who Watts Leaf Architects is, their history, and how things have been going since the acquisition. Read on to get to know the newest members of the Kaas Wilson team!

Who Is Watts Leaf Architects?


Watts Leaf Architects was founded in 1997 by Charley Watts and Chip Leaf, AIA-licensed architects with over 90 collective years of experience in the industry. 

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While the firm has concentrated their work in the Carolinas, they have completed over 140 multifamily projects across the country with both regional and national developers. They’ve been recognized for their outstanding design work as well as the community enhancement their buildings have provided.


Prior to forming Watts Leaf, Chip and Charley worked together for many years, beginning in the 1970s at a multi-family firm led by a gentleman named Reg Narmour. Several of the architects from that firm went on to form their own firms, including Chip and Charley.


Charley says, “We have a friendly competition amongst the group. It’s been an interesting thing to realize that we all came from this one tree: These branches came off and went all across the country…all starting from that one group.”


When Watts Leaf was founded, Charley had his own small firm, and Chip was working independently. They collaborated on an apartment project Chip had brought in, and it went so well that they decided to make their collaboration permanent. 


Watts Leaf moved into their current facility in 1999, after outgrowing their previous office. Charley jokes that he only remembers that date because it was within a couple of months of the Y2K scare, and he remembers thinking, “Will we still be in business tomorrow?” The building is a renovated church, with matching office buildings alongside. Their offices, like the staff who work in them, have a friendly feel that employees and clients alike enjoy.


After 26 years, Charley and Chip decided it was time to find another group to join, not only to create a successful exit strategy for their retirement, but also to provide for their staff and clients. They wanted to ensure their clients would be well taken care of and their staff would continue to have opportunities to expand on their work.

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Charley says, "Joining forces with Kaas Wilson Architects has been an exciting opportunity for us.". 

Kaas Wilson and Watts Leaf: A Perfect Match


Speaking the Same Language


When the teams at Kaas Wilson and Watts Leaf first connected more than a year ago, they quickly realized they were doing the same kind of work, just in different geographies. 

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Link Wilson noted, “Housing is the common language that [our teams] speak. We may use a different dialect at times, but we’re definitely speaking a similar language.”


Charley Watts remembers being amazed by the similarities in their work when he was first introduced to Kaas Wilson. He and Chip had been looking for a firm that could do similar work to theirs, and they truly found that in Kaas Wilson. As Charley says, “I’ve been pleased that we can find common ground and be very much on the same track to get to the same finish point…it’s not difficult to do that when we’re both speaking the same language.” 


Link, who moved down to North Carolina in May of 2023 to immerse himself in the culture and get to know the Watts Leaf team, has found the culture at Watts Leaf to be very collegial. As Charley Watts puts it, “We’ve always been close-knit. We function as a family unit, we’re there to help each other out when needed.”


Charley tells a great story that perfectly encapsulates the feeling of family at Watts Leaf:


“Jay Rhodes was my first major hire. He was graduating from architecture school at the University of Washington on the west coast, and his wife was here in Charlotte. I ran an ad in the paper, and she responded to it and came in with Jay’s portfolio. 


I asked her a bunch of questions, then said ‘I’d really like to talk to your husband.’ So I got him on the phone and we had a great conversation. I hung up, and his wife was still there, so I said, ‘You know, I’d like to hire your husband,’ and she said ‘He’ll be here in two weeks.’”


And to solidify the family experience, there is a track record of longevity when it comes to the staff of both firms — each have team members who have been there for more than two decades! As Charley puts it, “People come and they just don’t leave.”


Building a Cohesive Team Through Our Team Member Exchange Program


It’s been a bit more than 6 months since the acquisition, and the two firms are already bonding nicely.


One way we’ve helped our teams get to know one another and learn each other’s methodologies has been through our team member exchange program, where members of each firm have traveled to spend some time at the other firm. 


It’s been a great way to put faces to names and to get to know each other a little more than what is possible over a virtual call. This “exchange program” has also allowed the team members to learn more about their respective regional cultures (the Minnesota team has especially enjoyed the North Carolina BBQ while the North Carolina team absolutely loved their tour of MN that ended on the North Shore).


One fun similarity we’ve found is that there are a lot of hikers at each firm. So when team members take part in the exchange, they’ve been able to explore the area through their shared love of hiking.


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Designing Buildings and Creating Community

Another important similarity between Kaas Wilson and Watts Leaf is their mutual love of multi-family housing. Both Charley and Link agree that the most rewarding part of building multi-family housing is that it gives them a chance to affect the wider community. 


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As Charley says, “you’re creating a community of people who all live close together…and it’s not just the buildings, it’s also the space between the buildings and how the buildings function as one community.”


Link adds that the community that a multi-family project creates “goes beyond even the people who live there. I’ve really come to enjoy the community of general contractors, developers, subcontractors, and engineers…it’s a community within itself. It’s the community of people who live in the places and spaces we design, but it’s also the community of the specialized technicians on the construction side, the engineering side, the design side…and we just keep collaborating together again and again and again. It’s really rewarding.”


Charley agrees. He says, “We’re all in this together. The client, the contractor, and the designers are like the three legs on a stool — you have to have good support for all of them or it doesn’t work.”


Building a Better Client Experience


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One big benefit of this acquisition is the expanded client experience it creates.


For instance, some of Kaas Wilson’s Minnesota clients are already showing intent in doing projects in the Carolinas. As Link said, “that’s our hope — that we can bring some of our clients out here. The fact that we already have clients looking at starting projects here after only five months is really exciting.”


Charley mentioned that he’s received several messages from clients excited at the prospect of being able to work with the team on more projects.. For a long time, he’s had to turn work away because they didn’t have the capacity to do those projects well. Now, he’ll be able to accommodate those clients who are eager to give them more work.


Looking Ahead to a Bright Future


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This acquisition will benefit both firms, our clients, and the wider community of professionals we work with. 


When it comes to planning for the future, at Kaas Wilson we strive to set ourselves up for success and protect our entire team in the event of a recession or other major event that has the potential to affect our work. 


To that end, we’ve worked to expand our operations across the U.S., beginning in southwest states like Colorado, Texas and Arizona, and now in the southeast with this acquisition. And while we made the choice to acquire Watts Leaf primarily out of a cultural fit, we also wanted to expand and diversify ourselves geographically and protect all the great people in our organization. 


This expansion also helps us strengthen our skills and continue to learn how to do our work better. As Link puts it, “as long as we’ve been doing this, you never want to consider yourself an expert” — there’s always more to learn! It’s beneficial for all of us to learn from one another. 


One of the things Link is most excited about are the up-and-coming leaders on our staff. “We all have to think about fostering great young leaders here in our offices and finding a way to let them run the business, teach them everything we know. That’s what I’m looking forward to — that next chapter, the next generation of people who will run this office [Watts Leaf] and the Minnesota office. I’m excited to share my perspective on the world and on running a business with them, and then seeing them take off…and I have all the confidence in the world that they will.”


Looking to build a multi-family housing project? The newly expanded team at Kaas Wilson is ready to help you bring your ideas to life. Contact us today to get started.