For CO Architects, based in Miracle Mile, specializing in the design and renovation of health and education facilities, the pandemic proved to be an unexpected boon, ushering in a period of rapid growth in work and staff.
Since the start of the pandemic, CO (pronounced “Ko”) Architects has expanded its staff by a third to 160 employees, prompting a move to a larger 27,000 square foot location late last year.
“After the brief initial lockdown, work started flowing and it didn’t stop,” said Jenna Knudsen, the company’s new CEO. “Healthcare and life science research has never really slowed down and there has been pent-up demand in the education market.”
Over the past 15 months, CO Architects has begun design work on two major projects in the healthcare market: the five-year project to replace the $ 1.7 billion Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in West Carson and a $ 1.3 billion hospital. dollars and a medical complex on the north end of the UC Irvine campus.
Staff growth was most evident in CO Architects’ only satellite office, which is located in San Diego. It opened five years ago with a handful of employees. Knudsen said the office now has a dozen employees and is still hiring.
CO Architects has a longstanding relationship with UC San Diego, having worked on more than a dozen projects over the years. The company is now in the planning stages for a 250,000-square-foot outpatient center on the Hillcrest Medical university campus and is hoping for more work on a $ 3 billion redevelopment plan for the entire 10-acre medical campus.
Last year at least, all of these new projects and additional CO Architects staff had yet to translate into additional revenue, which last year dropped to $ 63 million from nearly $ 66 million in 2020.
However, CO Architects ranked second in local billing among Los Angeles County architectural firms in the Business Journal’s most recent list, behind San Francisco-based Gensler.
The company has grown steadily since its founding in 1986 as the Los Angeles office of Anshen + Allen Architects based in San Francisco, which in 2010 was sold to Stantec, based in Alberta, Edmonton.
From the beginning, the company, which is 100% owned by employee shareholders, has focused on health and education facilities, along with other civic projects.
“Those have always been our main markets and Los Angeles our main geographic focus,” said Knudsen. CO Architects is not alone in focusing on these markets.
“Healthcare projects have long been a hot market,” said William Richards, a Washington DC-based freelance writer who has covered architectural business and culture and worked as a communications consultant for the American Institute of Architects. “In fact, many architectural firms were founded precisely for this market”.
Richards said higher education has also become an increasingly hot sector in recent years.
“Many universities are full of donations and ready to undertake campus improvement projects,” he said.
The pandemic has also provided architectural firms with more work as health care and other institutional facilities have had to reorganize their heating / ventilation / air conditioning systems to improve air circulation and reduce the risk of spreading the SARS coronavirus. CoV-2 inside.
And in California, there was another driving factor in both markets, but most importantly in healthcare: state seismic adjustment requirements. In California, hospitals and other acute care facilities face a 2030 deadline to ensure they can remain operational after a major earthquake.
The Harbor-UCLA project that CO Architects recently joined the team for is a building replacement required in large part by those seismic upgrade rules.
UCLA and Paul Williams
CO Architects also carried out several seismic modernization and modernization projects on the UCLA campus. Among the most difficult were two buildings designed by the famous mid-century black architect Paul Williams: the LA Kretz Botany Building and the Pritzker Hall Psychology Tower.
“They were very challenging: as they were Paul Williams buildings, we spent a lot of time figuring out how to respect the original designs while bringing the buildings to modern standards,” said Knudsen. “Particularly challenging was the placement of the shock absorbers” to mitigate the shocks caused. from earthquakes, he added.
Peter Hendrickson, Associate Vice Chancellor for UCLA Design and Construction, worked with CO Architects on both projects.
“What struck me was how CO Architects was able to work on these two very complex seismic projects while both buildings were fully occupied,” said Hendrickson.
“CO Architects did something very unusual: they brought the students and teachers who use the two buildings into the design and construction process,” he continued. “They went above and beyond in terms of input from the building’s end users to really understand what the program was. And, just as important, they incorporated the input of students and teachers into the design. “
Last year, shortly after major work on the La Kretz Botany building was completed, CO Architects led an additional and unexpected project.
“In the botanical building, we came across a drawing for a Paul Williams mural that never entered the original building,” said Knudsen. The design was black and white and featured a glass mosaic full of plants along the bottom. “We created a mural in the building based on that original concept,” he added. This involved some of the firm’s architects studying other Williams works to gain insight into his color preferences.
Continue growth in sight?
Like many architecture and design firms in recent months, CO Architects has encountered longer lead times between the moment it presents its designs and the start of construction. Typically, most of this lead time is spent on the purchase of building materials. But since the beginning of last year, rising material costs, supply chain problems and other difficulties have extended the lead time to more than six months for many projects.
Knudsen added that in response, CO Architects adapted the materials required by his designs. “In many cases, the materials we initially choose may not be the same as three years ago,” she said.
The company has also revised its designs to accommodate the changing nature of the workplace caused by the pandemic.
“We now have to adapt projects for new workplaces where many people work remotely most of the time and come to the office occasionally,” he said. “That means multiple uses for outdoor spaces, different meeting room sizes and working with engineers to improve ventilation, among other things.”
As for growth, the company is not aiming for geographic expansion. “We are looking at the expansion of customer services in our core markets: interior design, medical space planners and environmental graphics technology,” she said.
On the geographic front, CO Architects remains firmly focused on Los Angeles as a core market and has no plans in the near future to open additional offices beyond the one in San Diego.
Knudsen said that when project opportunities arise in other parts of the country, the company works through partnerships with local architectural firms in the project area.
“Sometimes those companies will take care of the permits and we tend to be the architect of the design, especially for projects in our core business areas,” he said.
Acquisitions are also not on the menu in the foreseeable future, he added. “We are more focused on organic growth.”
This is an appropriate strategy right now in the field of architecture, said Richards, writer and industry communications consultant.
“Looking at which areas CO Architects focuses, they are in the main growth areas: healthcare, education and technology.”