The American Institute of Architects (AIA) reported that the latest Architectural Billings Index increased from 55.6 points to 56.6 points between August and September. ABIs greater than “50” represent gains in nonresidential construction activity. In fact, ABI performance in the last eight months is reportedly “among the highest ever seen” following recession periods, underscoring “just […]
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The American Institute of Architects (AIA) reported that the latest Architectural Billings Index increased from 55.6 points to 56.6 points between August and September. ABIs greater than “50” represent gains in nonresidential construction activity. In fact, ABI performance in the last eight months is reportedly “among the highest ever seen” following recession periods, underscoring “just how strong the bounce back has been this year.”
When asked about the state of architecture in the metro, DLR Group Principal, AIA architect and LEED Accredited Professional, Matthew Gulsvig, referenced the billings index. “This indicator represents a positive outlook for future work in the region,” he said.
“The architecture profession is experiencing many of the same dynamics that other industries are experiencing related to the pandemic; for example, construction material and labor availability have a direct impact on the outcome of a building.” While no one can anticipate material availability with absolute certainty, Gulsvig continued, teams setting project budgets and schedules need to consider the potential challenges and setbacks of “on demand” approaches.
Gulsvig also addressed the “state of aesthetics” in the built environment. “Omaha has many great buildings and vibrant spaces to experience; however, like other cities, there are also areas that could be improved,” he said. “There is a tendency to seek out a comparison with other cities or buildings, which makes me think of a quote, ‘If the grass is always greener in your neighbor’s yard, it might be time to tend to your yard.’ Ultimately, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In my eyes, Omaha’s architecture is uniquely beautiful.”
Omaha vs. the RestWith a higher per capita count of architecture firms than most places, Principal Architect Curt Field of Prochaska & Associates said Omaha has always been an extremely competitive market.
“We are fortunate to have several of the top 10 firms headquartered in town, and this means there are job openings for many graduates,” he said. “It also means that a restless practitioner may wish to either change jobs or to start a new firm.”
In fact, he added, many startups sprang from larger, nationally-known brands. “The larger firms have been actively pursuing work beyond the Omaha market, and even beyond the Midwest markets, but have also been extremely competitive locally,” he said. “Also, there has been, until very recently, very favorable economic conditions in Omaha conducive to new projects, and both personal and corporate capital expenditures.” “Exciting trends,” according to Field, abound in the firm’s niche of public and municipal projects – replacement or remodel of schools, police and fire stations, courthouses and correctional facilities. “We are somewhat dependent upon the public potential to see infrastructure expenses as necessary and timely, as many of our projects require financing via passage of a public bond,” he said. Additionally, neighborhoods such as North Omaha, Midtown-Blackstone, north downtown and West Farm-Boys Town have enjoyed a resurgence and reinvestment. “Projects planned for these neighborhoods must often fit aesthetically with older iconic structures, and yet be appealing,” Field said. As its work has involved historic rehab and adaptive reuse, Field noted they have sought to understand how these projects appeal to the public; for instance, a new hotel in a redeveloped near-downtown neighborhood.
The Future is BrightBrian Akert, architect with Holland Basham Architects summed up the market with an enthusiastic, “Extremely busy!” “There are multiple exciting urban redevelopment projects coming out of the ground right now with the redevelopment of the Crossroads Mall, the Riverfront and Gene Leahy Mall,” Akert said. He added these projects are spurring others along the peripheries. “There are also a lot of urban infill projects happening within Dodge Street’s new Transit Oriented Development (TOD) corridor that is served by Metro’s new ORBT rapid bus transit line,” he said.
A fair amount of work is going into designs before they are made public. “There is still groundwork happening to get many more projects off the ground that will be released in the following few months,” he said. Akert attributed this ramp-up to low interest rates and “pent-up demand from 2020.” He was upbeat about the new infill multi-family developments in the I-680 corridor and along public transit lines, as well as the “large urban development projects” ability to spin off more activity. HDR’s Managing Principal and Architect Matt Whaley referred to a rebound from this time a year ago. “There are substantially more opportunities on the horizon across multiple markets,” he said. “Many of these projects are already in design or construction and will make a significant impact on the quality of our community when complete.” While he acknowledged the impact of the pandemic on work volume, in many cases, it “simply caused owners to defer investments.”
“We are seeing many of the delayed projects starting up again,” Whaley added. “There are a significant number of new projects emerging from the planning stages.” Trends worth talking about, for Whaley, included owners moving forward with return-to-office strategies. “Some clients are reviewing the impacts from the past 18 months and are taking the opportunity to retool their approach,” he said. “This is leading to a lot of innovation and a meaningful evaluation of existing workspace needs.” With no shortage of growth and redevelopment in the city, Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture’s Seraphim Carlson Mullins concurred that it’s an exciting time to be in design. “Much of this design is pushing boundaries and looks markedly different than architecture of the past,” said Mullins, who is tasked with APMA’s employee engagement, career development and corporate culture activities.
She referred to opportunities that align with the firm’s tenets of putting people first, advancing design and building communities.
“Within our own firm, we see new ideas generated as leaders emerge,” Mullins said. “Our team is passionate and dedicated to the things that have gotten us to where we are today. As an Omaha native, it’s fun to see different neighborhoods coming to life in new ways and Omaha attracting people from other places.”
Designers’ HandiworkDLR Group’s Gulsvig offset three notable projects/design achievements: Omaha’s Kimpton Cottonwood Hotel, the RTG Medical Office Building in Fremont and the General Fire and Safety Building of Omaha. Kimpton presents not a “recreation” but a “celebration” of the spirit and heritage of the original 1915 Blackstone Hotel. As one of the first Kimpton franchise properties, Gulsvig said the firm blended old and new across its renovation and new construction spanning 46,000 square feet; for instance, retaining its original flooring and design details. At the time of this writing, the new corporate headquarters for traveling health care staffing firm, RTG Medical, was around 75% completed. Gulsvig referenced the incorporation of indoor fitness, yoga studios and refresh zones, with each feature reflecting a different geographic experience — from coasts to mountains — to guide the visitor through the building. Additionally, the 50,000-square-foot mixed-use space is reportedly flexible to allow for strategic and rapid 30% to 40% growth.
Lastly, General Fire & Safety’s new building, in part, incorporates what Gulsvig described as the latest industry technology; for instance, a hydro room for testing water pressure and a hoist beam to move heavy equipment, safely. Additional features within the 15,600-square-foot space include a training room that doubles as a learning lab, with examples of components to educate employees and guests.
Over 20 years ago, Prochaska & Associates began working for counties on law enforcement centers. And, last year, Field said they completed the largest facility for Washington County in Blair: a 120-bed jail, new sheriff’s offices and district courts, with an extensive remodel of the historic courthouse. Current work includes a larger 154-bed Adams County facility in Hastings. Joint police and fire facilities, such its 2019 joint space in Marshalltown, Iowa and police/fire/ municipal office in McCook, represent a trend. While, more recently, in-house engineers have worked on engineering-only projects and a long-running Omaha Parks and Recreation relationship led to a highly visible relighting project for the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, according to Field.
“Since then, we have been approached by other municipalities considering similar projects,” he said. A void in educating younger students who require skilled nursing care led to a three-facility initiative in Omaha with Children’s Respite Care Center (CRCC), while educational projects more broadly have developed into a “serious niche” for the firm. For example, Florence Elementary School presented “an unusual opportunity” to assist with the addition of a new Boys and Girls Club to the neighborhood, he said.
Last, but certainly not least for Prochaska & Associates, its work with Vietnam War veterans who desired a memorial in the metro area. “[They] needed from our firm a more altruistic approach, as this group began with no source of funding,” Field said. “Since then, the group has secured a nice piece of land in Sarpy County adjacent to Werner ballpark and the new veteran’s cemetery, and has secured a great deal more funding, and favorable publicity.” A groundbreaking is slated for next spring.
Most-Watched ProjectsAmong projects isolated by Holland Basham’s Akert, the Micah House Daycare, Heartland Family Service Campus and Kids Can Community Center reflect three nonprofit spaces to support the community. Of course, “everyone knows the corner of 72nd and Dodge,” he said, referring to how the former Crossroads Mall site presents one of the most-watched potential projects for at least the past couple of decades. When asked about why he highlighted such projects, Akert referred to their potential to make a lasting impact on the local community, which he said has always been important for the firm. He also noted local clients are working with Holland Basham in municipalities outside of Omaha; for instance, Fort Worth, Texas. Notables highlighted by HDR’s Whaley are in the health care, construction and education spaces Children’s Hospital & Medical Center Hubbard Center for Children; Kiewit’s Global headquarters and the Kiewit Luminarium.
“Over the last decade,” Whaley explained of Children’s, “the hospital reached capacity in their existing facilities and decided to grow — in scope and space — to continue to meet the needs of children and families in the region.” The result: An “ambitious” expansion that transforms a confined urban site into a 10-story hospital — double the size of its predecessor with 100 more beds, and new services and features. Kiewit’s new headquarters, according to Whaley, reaffirms its community commitment and was built in the north downtown to encourage neighborhood development. The facility spans seven stories and 180,000 square feet, and supports 650 employees. The Luminarium was characterized as an “innovative community space and learning environment for hands-on experiences” in STEM for children aged 6 and older. Opening is slated for 2023. Mullins highlighted APMA’s Joslyn Art Museum addition that will house the acquired works of the Phillip G. Schrager Collection of Contemporary Art. Its design reorients the museum’s entrance (increasing visibility from the street), extends the atrium, and interweaves the landscape, such as its sculpture garden. The multi-phased Millwork Commons project in NoDo (North Downtown) includes renovating historically significant structures, new mixed-use spaces and multi-modal transportation infrastructure. To create an active neighborhood, the district is poised to feature park and plaza spaces, anchored by a community green. APMA’s work with Southeast Community College is to “reimagine and reinvigorate” its student services areas at the Lincoln main campus (including 100,000 square feet of new and renovated space for growth and expansion). The University of Nebraska at Omaha is poised to be the only institution of its kind in the world with a museum dedicated to the works of Samuel Bak. The $23 million Bak Museum and Academic Learning Center will reportedly be housed in the former College of Education building, Kayser Hall. The 88-year-old painter is a Holocaust survivor whose
8,000-plus works visually illustrate and explore associated realities, trauma and even hope for humanity. At UNMC, APMA is partnering on the $45 million renovation and redevelopment of the former Omaha Steel Works facility. The 140,000-square-foot Catalyst Innovation Hub is reportedly designed to transform innovation technology ideas into marketable ventures.
On the HorizonIf architects stay busy, Holland Basham’s Akert said adding great talent will be the challenge. “With the unemployment rate as low as it is in Omaha right now, coupled with how many projects are being designed, there are plenty of job opportunities for architects and designers in the Omaha metro,” he said.
Field said Prochaska & Associates has always promoted itself as a “well-oiled machine,” valuing experience, competency and innovation, while keeping abreast of newer design and technology trends. “Often, this means we must recruit new graduates or simply replace those in our firm who retire,” he said.
It's optimistic the “double-punch” of the pandemic and scarce building materials will be overcome as the public realizes expenditures must be made in renewal, and renewal remains feasible due to low-interest rates. “Our office, like most, has not really hired significantly in the last couple of years,” Field said. “But we believe this will need to change in the near future.” Field said if one travels to nearby communities outside of the Omaha-Council Bluffs metro area, examples of new construction and neighborhood renewal continue despite the public health crisis — with Minneapolis, Kansas City and Des Moines undertaking “very ambitious downtown-based projects.” In Nebraska, he indicated Norfolk’s downtown renewal successes have garnered positive attention. He summed up: “We perceive these trends as facing the greater difficulty of overcoming initial developer hesitancy. And, once public opinion appears to be solidly in favor or a particular neighborhood enjoys a degree of success, many other developers appear to be motivated to consider similar (or smaller) projects.”
HDR’s Whaley expressed similar sunny local and regional outlooks, given considerable strength surrounding us. “We are seeing consistent growth in most markets,” he said. “Given the positive outlook, we are continuing to invest in opportunities across the Great Plains region.” Job-wise, opportunities are at all levels. “It is a demanding field,” he said. “But it is incredibly rewarding to develop meaningful designs that solve complex problems and impact peoples’ lives on a daily basis.” According to Mullins, as APMA is aiming to hire new talent, the firm is guided by a people-first approach and employees and new hires alike are supported with flexibility and professional growth amid an evolving workplace.