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Building on Their Reputations Keeps Architectural Firms Busy

Several companies on the San Diego Business Journal’s Architectural Firms list have taken the economic downturn in stride and are forging ahead with an assortment of jobs.

Signs of growth are apparent at the No. 2 ranked ETC Building and Design. Not only has the Sorrento Valley-based company hired several employees during the last month to bring the total to 60 local employees, according to company President Michael Essrig, but it’s also opening a 4,000-square-foot office in San Francisco in several weeks to keep up with its workload between Santa Cruz and the San Francisco Bay Area. That’s where one of its largest jobs is taking place, an elaborate redesign of one of the top burn units Saint Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco.

Specializing in medical facilities from health care to life sciences, ETC Building and Design is actively involved in multiple local projects such as the Helen Bernardy Center for Medically Fragile Children at Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego, a roofing project for Scripps Health, and a library project for Sharp HealthCare. A remodel of 82 patient rooms at Sharp Chula Vista is just getting underway, Essrig said.

‘Sowing the Seeds’

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Essrig said the firm has tons of work locally, but that wasn’t always the case, with a lull during the economic downturn.

“We all held on, held our breath and kept sowing the seeds,” he said. “The minute the economy started to turn, we were first in line.”

What sets his company apart from others in the field is its offering of a complete design-build package, he says. Their work includes project management, estimating, construction and programming in addition to architectural expertise.

“We not only do the design, but we do the construction and follow it all the way to the close,” said Essrig, explaining that the process limits change orders and improves control over the schedule. “We self-perform most of our work. The reason it’s so great for the client is there’s one person to answer to.”

Avenues of growth at the No. 3 ranked firm, Little Italy-based Architects Delawie Wilkes Rodrigues Barker, are in hospitality, the military and education, said Principal Michael Asaro.

In addition to performing work for Native American gaming establishments, the firm is actively involved in hospitality work in San Jose, Orlando, Dallas, Seattle and South Korea.

Examples of its current military projects are bachelors enlisted quarters at Naval Air Station North Island and additional bachelors enlisted quarters at San Clemente Island.

Along with working on projects in the kindergarten through grade 12 arena for San Diego Unified School District and Los Angeles Unified, the firm is currently finishing the design of the Math and Sciences Building at San Diego Mesa College. Scheduled to break ground this summer, the 200,000-square-foot, $92 million Math and Sciences Building is set to be completed in January 2013.

Another large local job Architects Delawie Wilkes Rodrigues Barker is involved with is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s high-tech marine research center at The Scripps Research Institute. Delawie, Wilkes is the associate architect on the project that performed interior design work in collaboration with GouldEvans, which did the exterior design. With Rudolph and Sletten Inc. as contractor, the 124,000-square-foot lab space with 90,000 square feet of underground parking is under construction now and is set to be completed as early as the end of November. Fitting the structure into the site as a low-profile facility was a challenge for the designers, Asaro said.

“It’s in a very prominent location on a hillside above La Jolla,” he said. “There was a challenge in the design phase because it’s a very constrained and difficult site to build on.”

Asaro said diversity allowed the firm to weather the downturn and now that things are getting back on track they’ve seen a return on most everything except industrial and office work.

“We’re still doing some work in the industrial and office arena, but I wouldn’t say it’s increased in the last two to three years whereas other markets have,” he said.

Asaro said the firm recently hired several people on a temporary basis and it’s “very probable” that it will be adding more staff before the end of the year.

Strong Competition

“We’ve grown in volume of work but profitability is still lagging behind,” he said. “There’s downward pressure on fees and competition is still very strong for the work that is out there.”

A large project under way by the No. 4 ranked downtown-based HMC Architects is a second-story expansion of the psychiatric wing of the VA Medical Center. Still in the design phase with construction estimated to start Aug. 1, HMC Managing Principal and Partner Steven Prince says the $8 million project has a residential tone yet provides an institutional level of care and security. As part of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design qualification process, consideration was given to how various groups would be using the facility.

“We spent a lot of time with the users to define how they operate and designed the project to wrap around their program,” Prince said.

Founded in Ontario in 1940, HMC Architects has branched out with offices in California, Arizona, Nevada and Santiago, Chile. At the San Diego studio, where the focus is on education, health care and civic/justice projects, the employee count increased from 38 to 41 during the past year. Prince says that the firm has already met a projected growth of 20 percent for the year. To accommodate the growth, HMC Architects is looking to move from its 7,500-square-foot studio to a facility up to 11,000 square feet.

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