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November 29, 2018

Survey: Weber Thompson

Image from Weber Thompson [enlarge]
Weber Thompson is designing Watershed, a Living Building Pilot Program office project under construction in Fremont. It will have bioswales that clean up toxic runoff from the Aurora Bridge.

Specialty: Architecture, interior design, landscape architecture, community planning

Partners: Blaine Weber, Kristen Scott, Jeffrey Reibman, Amanda Keating, Elizabeth Holland

Founded: 1988

Headquarters: Seattle

2017 revenues: $12 million

Projected 2018 revenues: $15 million

Projects: Watershed office building, Fremont; Othello Square mixed-use development, South Seattle; Nexus condominium tower, Denny Triangle

Weber Thompson’s five partners — Amanda Keating, Blaine Weber, Elizabeth Holland, Jeffrey Reibman and Kristen Scott — responded to questions about the firm’s projects, the local market and how they’re responding to rising construction costs.

Q: What are the most interesting projects you’re working on?

A: We have a very broad spectrum of projects in design at the moment. We’re working with Plymouth Housing and Bellwether to address Seattle’s housing crisis by pioneering the city’s first workforce/low-income residential high-rise, and we’re very proud of the work we’re doing at Othello Square with HomeSight and their partners, including the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic.

We just completed the design for a massive Eastside mixed-use, “destination” project that will contain two innovative residential towers, a five-star hotel, and over 75,000 square feet of top-shelf retail. We are also working on two 600-foot-tall towers — one that is residential over hotel, and another that will be residential over commercial office use.

Another of our most interesting projects is Watershed, a new Living Building Pilot Program office building that will be constructed adjacent to a series of bioswales designed by our landscape architecture design studio.

And last — but not least — our interior design studio has been receiving major kudos for recent design on two of our tower projects: Stratus and Helios.

Q: Has development activity in Seattle peaked? What will the next couple of years bring?

A: The Urban Land Institute recently suggested that Seattle is headed for a “plateau” (i.e. a period of leveling off) as opposed to a peak. We all know that there will be a slowdown at some point, but it is difficult to imagine at this juncture, as our design studios are at full capacity and we have a very strong backlog.

Last year, GeekWire featured a story entitled “Silicon Valley tech workers lead migration to Seattle, which now ranks 2nd in U.S. for software engineer salaries.” The story claims that Seattle in particular will continue to see strong in-migration of high-skilled tech workers, engineers and scientists that chose Seattle over Silicon Valley, Boston and New York City.

One manifestation of this is the deeply sustainable commercial office projects we are designing for developers that are very cognizant of a new priority on employee health and wellness via certifications such as Living Building Challenge, LEED and Fitwel.

We pay attention to jobs and in-migration as key indicators of Seattle’s continued growth, leading us to believe that we will not see a slowdown for another year or two.

Given Seattle’s lengthy “barriers to entry,” some of our clients have stated an intent to continue the entitlement process even if there is a slowdown — with the intent of having downstream projects queued up for the next market cycle.

Q: How are you helping clients respond to rising construction costs?

A: Construction prices are indeed the most salient challenge facing our developer clients at the moment. Escalation in labor and materials appears to be increasing at about 8-10 percent per year, which makes it ever more difficult to get a project’s pro-forma to “pencil.”

We work collaboratively with our clients, their general contractor and all of our design consultants to value-engineer during the entire design process. We also spend more time researching materials that may be more cost-effective, and we find ourselves focused on design solutions that are more efficient and less complex.

Virtual reality is an emerging technology that our architecture and interior design studios are utilizing to help our clients and their contractors better visualize design, understand VE implications and make informed decisions. We are just scratching the surface of this tool and are already seeing swift, positive results in our design process as a result of its deployment.

Q: Which market variables are having the biggest effects on your bottom line?

A: Perhaps the biggest “bottom line” challenge we face is the fact that commercial office lease rates continue to rise here in Seattle. Another is the cost escalation and “planned obsolescence” of the cutting-edge technology that we employ in order to remain competitive and relevant.

Lastly, when the economy is really cooking and design professionals are running at full capacity, finding and retaining top talent can be a challenge, but we are fortunate to have a very talented crew and a very high rate of retention. Maintaining the right culture and work environment, and ensuring that we are competitive with other firms in terms of compensation and benefits is crucial in this regard.

Q: What’s another architectural firm doing work you admire?

A: We admire the amazing work of BIG — Bjarke Ingels Group — which is based out of Copenhagen and NYC. This firm is consistently able to humanize massive projects in ways that enrich the lives of each project’s end-users, with design that is consistently innovative and sometimes whimsical.

We are also impressed by the work of Sir David Adjaye. His thoughtful and poetic design work has earned international acclaim for a broad spectrum of urban projects of diverse scales and complexity.

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