Nbbj's Home Run -- Seattle Architects Build Up Sports Specialty
Seattle Times Business Reporter
Five days after Seattle architecture firm NBBJ won a coveted contract to design the Mariners' new stadium, remnants of the three-week, sleep-deprived flurry of preliminary designs are still evident in the firm's Pioneer Square offices.
Architectural drawings cascade over desks, newspaper articles about the stadium line the tables, and a bulletin board wall is papered with notecards analyzing NBBJ's competitors.
Building a better ballpark is far from the firm's only goal. But the same fastidious strategy that won the stadium contract has made NBBJ the second-largest architecture firm in the country with 500 employees and billings of $70 million last year.
Nonetheless, the selection of NBBJ to build the Mariners' stadium was a surprise to some. Though the firm has designed gymnasiums, track-and-field complexes, the Kingdome and KeyArena, its first major baseball-field contract came just a few months ago when it won a competition to build the Milwaukee Brewers' stadium.
But having already become the largest health-care architecture practice in America and experts in retail, criminal justice, graphic design and corporate architecture, the multispecialty firm made it a goal to become the leader in sports as well.
After only three weeks of planning, NBBJ's team of 16 designers, engineers and consultants presented enough ideas, creativity and energy to overcome the firm's relative lack of ballpark-building experience and its image as the local guys, said David Hoedemaker, the partner overseeing the stadium project.
Thus the second-largest architecture firm in the country and fifth-largest in the world walked off with the kind of dramatic, high-profile public job it loves to do - and one practically next door to the Jackson Street offices it designed 13 years ago.
NBBJ's affinity for the challenging can be spotted along the Seattle skyline. The firm's hand spans the decades, from the KeyArena to the Kingdome (once heralded as a heroic accomplishment), Two Union Square, numerous buildings at Swedish Hospital and the original Seafirst Tower on Fourth Avenue, sometimes called "the box the Space Needle came in."
Ten years ago, NBBJ was basically a Pacific Northwest firm, said James Jonassen, its chief executive officer. But today the firm is well-known nationally and continues to expand into Asian and other international markets, with about 20 percent of its work this year to be done abroad.
NBBJ can boast many high-profile projects across the nation, from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., to the Burger King corporate headquarters in Miami to the new National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.
The total construction value of the firm's ongoing projects this year is more than $1 billion, Jonassen estimates.
That's a big jump from the early days during World War II, when Seattle architects Floyd Naramore, William Bain, Clifton Brady and Perry Johanson came together in 1943 to get a contract to expand the Bremerton Naval Shipyard. They went on to found the firm of Naramore, Bain, Brady and Johanson.
"Our mission statement is to be the best design firm in the world, and we take that very seriously," Jonassen said. "Either you get better and more important in the world scene or you shrivel up and die."
Today NBBJ has dual headquarters in Seattle and Columbus, Ohio, and offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and North Carolina. The work is divided geographically, with the Seattle office responsible for the West Coast and Asia, the Columbus office for the East Coast and Europe.
But the firm is still a local favorite.
Over half a century, NBBJ has designed at least a dozen buildings at Swedish Hospital's First Hill campus, including a southeast wing addition and new entrance now in progress, said Don Audleman, vice president of properties for Swedish Health Services.
"They do a remarkably good job of managing their projects," Audleman said. "Beyond building good buildings, they are very good at helping the client organize themselves and the management that is needed for these big projects."
"Their record is excellent," he added. "If we didn't have them to keep us organized, on budget and on schedule, I don't think we'd have done as well as we've done."
This high regard for NBBJ might seem a little strange to some who remember the 1950s and '60s, when the firm was respected but hardly considered a champion of innovative design.
"I joined the firm because they had all the work, and there was an opportunity for young designers," said Hoedemaker, who came to NBBJ in 1962. "Like a lot of firms in town, the design work it was doing was just average, or a little above average."
Before the 1960s, Hoedemaker said, NBBJ had won only one design award from the American Institute of Architects, compared with some 100 it has garnered today.
Although the firm's design work has improved, its continuing goal is to become better, Hoedemaker said.
"We never let up on that," he said. "We're gettng better every year, but we still have a ways to go."
NBBJ has also been lauded for its innovative management style, which breaks the large firm into self-managing, 30-person studios, each operating independently and focusing on specific design markets.
That has helped NBBJ uphold a relatively high standard of design for a firm so large that it easily could become mired in management, said Doug Kelbaugh, a professor of architecture and urban planning at the University of Washington. He also sat on the selection committee for the Mariners' stadium.
The smaller units also allow the studio members to work together consistently and focus on their clients. But the firm's larger framework offers them expertise and resources unavailable to small design firms, Hoedemaker said.
NBBJ also prides itself on an open and democratic management culture. There are nine partners - down from an unmanageable high of 19 in the 1960s. But the principal architects run day-to-day operations.
With the exception of the partners' personal financial statements, NBBJ's financial information is accessible to almost all employees, Hoedemaker said. That has helped create a work environment that has been praised by trade associations and magazines.
Sixty-five percent of NBBJ's profits go to non-partners, Jonassen said.
"Everyone here has a significant amount of say in their own destiny," he said. "People really feel ownership of their work, which helps create a pride in their projects and an allegiance to clients."
The partners themselves - four in Seattle, one in San Francisco, and four in Columbus - try to visualize the future of the firm and strategically move it toward its goals, Hoedemaker said.
The same strategic analysis of clients and competitors that helps NBBJ get its accounts has helped it stay alive and well in what has been a difficult era for architects in America.
To avoid being too focused on one market or one star architect, Hoedemaker said, the firm tries to specialize in many areas and help younger architects grow.
"They've been able to handle the transition of leadership and ownership over the years and adjust to the changing needs in architecture," said Jerry Ernst, president of competing Seattle architecture firm TRA.
Hoedemaker, who served as managing partner from 1976 to 1987, said NBBJ has always studied other firms, learning from their successes and failures. But today NBBJ is so large that there are no successful models anymore.
"So now we feel we really have to be on our toes," he said, adding that the partners try to read and discuss interesting non-architecture-related works that talk about changing society.
"We try to understand where the world is going and what NBBJ needs to do to be a player," Hoedemaker said. "The critical thing we all think about is, with a firm this size and with things going on as fast as they are, if you miss a turn in the road it can be fatal." ----------------------------------------------------------------- NBBJ designs
Here are 10 major projects:
-- Downtown retail core, Fifth and Pine block, (under design)
-- Swedish Hospital, (ongoing)
-- KeyArena (renovation), 1995
-- Masan Samsung Hospital, Seoul, Korea, 1995
-- Zymogenetics steam plant (laboratories), 1994
-- Starbucks corporate headquarters, 1993 (ongoing)
-- Sun Mountain Lodge (renovation), Winthrop, Okanogan County, 1992
-- Two Union Square, 1989
-- Four Seasons Olympic Hotel (renovation), 1982
-- St. Mary's Hospital Surgeries, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., 1980 ----------------------------------------------------------------- Top 10 U.S. architecture firms: .
1. Gensler & Associates/Architects, San Francisco.
2. NBBJ, Seattle and Columbus, Ohio.
3. Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, New York.
4. The Hillier Group, Princeton, N.J..
5. Callison Architecture Inc., Seattle.
6. Schenkel & Shultz, Fort Wayne, Ind..
7. FRCH Design Worldwide, Cincinnati.
8. Kaplan/McLaughlin/Diaz, San Francisco.
9. Smallwood, Reynolds, Stewart, Stewart & Assoc. Inc., Atlanta.
10. Shepley Bulfinch Richardson & Abbott, Boston
Building Design & Construction, July 1995.
Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.