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Acquisition Sparks Life Science Market Push

An architectural firm with offices in Solana Beach is expanding with the acquisition of a Sunnyvale firm with a goal of making a foray into San Diego’s life science and high tech market.

AO in August acquired WHL Architects, using the acquisition to create a Science + Technology studio that “allows the firm to offer architecture and planning services for clients in San Diego’s robust and growing science and tech industries as well as attract a different pool of niche talent which will add value to the entire firm,” said Partner Rob Budetti.

“We believe San Diego is definitely a hotbed for the science-technology market and with an office in Solana Beach, we felt we’d actually be able to make some good inroads with some of our existing clients in other product types,” Budetti said. “Between San Diego and Northern California, those are very strong markets.”

Although AO is based in Orange, the company has had offices in Solana Beach since 2018 and has worked on San Diego County projects prior to establishing a brick-and-mortar presence, said Budetti. He also lives in Solana Beach.

San Diego Projects

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“AO has been very active in San Diego County for nearly two decades, completing over 40 multifamily, mixed-use, hospitality, restaurant and retail developments,” Budetti said. “Some of the firm’s most notable completed projects include Vici in Little Italy, and renovations for Westfield North County, Mission Valley and University Town Center malls.”

On-going projects include the 900,000 square-foot Watermark mixed-use project being developed in Poway by Sudberry Properties and the Inns at Buena Vista Creek in Oceanside, Budetti said.

Headed by Douglas White, WHL’s primary market was in Northern California, although White said the firm has provided design services for a few San Diego projects, such as a lab for Matrix Pharmaceuticals.

AO’s acquisition of WHL gives the firm entre into the science and technology market, in which San Diego is a key player.

A Strategy

“AO’s foray into science and technology is part of our diversification strategy and was motivated by the strength of the sector,” Budetti said. “Our acquisition of WHL enables us to leverage Douglas White’s extensive expertise and the legacy of his firm which spans more than three decades delivering state-of-the-art labs and R&D facilities to industry-leading companies nationally and internationally.”

Nationally, San Diego is ranked as the third most active market for life sciences and recent reports from commercial real estate brokerages show that investments in life science are on the rise, partly as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“San Diego is a good market to do business with a strong, diverse economy across high-tech, education, health, military and tourism sectors,” Budetti said. “But it’s the innovation sector that’s really outpacing everything else, growing at a rate of 10 times that of other sectors over the past 25 years. For AO, the San Diego regional aligns well with the comprehensive suite of architectural design services that we offer.”

As a principal in AO, White will lead the new Science + Design studio with Budetti.

White said he brings “an expansive network throughout San Diego’s life sciences, tech and pharmaceutical fields” to the venture, “in addition to consultant and construction industry connections.”

“The concept is to advance and grow what I’ve been doing throughout my career,” White said. 

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