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January 10, 2020

Seattle's Encore Architects strives to balance growth and small-firm culture

  • The 7-year-old firm has grown to 27 employees as it has broadened its portfolio.
    Journal Staff Reporter

    Rendering provided by Encore Architects [enlarge]
    One Marymoor Park will have 450 apartments across from a future Redmond light rail station.

    Photo by Built Work Photography [enlarge]
    Bogtown Flats apartments in Seattle won a NAIOP award.

    When Vince Ferrese left Mithun to start Encore Architects in Seattle in 2013 his goal was 15 employees maximum.

    Today Encore has 27 employees, 40 projects completed or underway and clients that include Alliance Residential Co., Continental Properties, Pastakia + Associates and LMC.

    Ferrese, Encore's founding principal, started the firm with Chris Nagamine and Andrew Hoyer, also Mithun alums, to focus on multifamily, student housing, office buildings, houses and private schools.

    Encore has two student housing projects under its belt, did some work on houses and a private school, but just recently got its first commercial project. Design of mid-rise apartment/mixed-use projects locally has propelled its growth as developers have pushed to capitalize on urban living.

    Eighty percent of Encore's work has been urban infill apartments in Seattle, Nagamine said.

    But in the past year or two, the shift has been to the Eastside (Bellevue, Kirkland, Redmond) where apartment development is on a roll. Now 60% of Encore's apartment work is there.

    “When we started, everything was Seattle and there was nothing on the Eastside at all,” Nagamine said.

    Principal Bryan Bellissimo said Eastside jurisdictions are “ahead of the curve” in creating density near future light rail stations through rezones.

    For example, Encore is working on One Marymoor Park, which it said is the first major multifamily project in Redmond's Marymoor neighborhood. The LMC project will have 450 apartments in three buildings across from the future Southeast Redmond light rail station in a historically industrial area that now allows multifamily.

    Encore continues to design apartments in Seattle — a market it said is still thriving — but is seeing more 100-unit 5-over-2 developments rather than the 200- and 300-unit projects of recent years. “If our clients are looking on that scale it's on the Eastside or it's vertical,” said Bellissimo.

    There are few Seattle sites left for those larger mid-rise projects, he said. “What is left is a lot of high-rise downtown or smaller sites in the core neighborhoods.”

    Seattle City Council voted in 2019 to allow taller buildings and denser construction around 27 neighborhood hubs while requiring developers to contribute to affordable housing. That has made some previously stagnant smaller sites more viable for development, Bellissimo said.

    Encore is breaking into low-income and senior housing, commercial, hospitality and high-rise, with the expectation that it will first design smaller office buildings. It also wants to do more retail and office fit-outs and student housing.

    Principal Andrew Hoyer led design of a 900-bed student housing project for Michigan State University in East Lansing completed in 2016, and of 7000 Campus Living, a 216-unit student housing development at Shoreline Community College in Shoreline, which finished this year.

    Encore's first low-income housing project is 60 apartments and 60 shelter beds in Olympia for the Low Income Housing Institute.

    It also is designing a ground-up retail community hub in Cle Elum for a private developer, and it designed Marina Square, a 120-bed hotel, 134-apartment project under construction on the Bremerton waterfront for Sound West Group.

    It is in early design on an approximately 145-unit, 22-story senior independent living building in Bellevue near the future East Main light rail station for Alliance Residential Co., which it has worked for previously.

    Last year, the 85-unit Bogtown Flats apartments at 9039 Greenwood Ave. N. in Seattle — an Encore-designed project for Rush Cos. and Pastakia + Associates — won multifamily residential development of the year (under 100 units) from NAIOP, a commercial real estate development association.

    Privately held Encore does not release revenue figures.

    Thirteen staff members own a stake in it, a strategy designed to encourage better projects and client relationships and more long-term thinking.

    Nagamine took over as managing principal in 2017, as Ferrese works on a long-term transition to retirement. The 70-year-old now does marketing studies and quality control.

    Ferrese said Encore's overhead is low, with no in-house accountants and marketing staff, but there's lots of gray hair at the firm and Encore pays for that expertise, and works to accommodate employees.

    The work-hard, be-treated-right culture is not easy to maintain as a firm grows. “A company that's owned by a 100 owners would have to operate very differently than a company that has 25 or 30 owners,” Nagamine said.

    Ferrese said Encore does projects right and offers Nordstrom-level service. While architects often have the “it has to be LEED Platinum or we're not going to touch it” attitude, he said, Encore figures “if a client wants to try something, go for it.”

    All that — and the busy market — has led to lots of clients. Or as Ferrese said, “It's nice to be recognized.”

    However, lately the firm has turned away some big projects to keep the quality and the work culture, he said.

    It is mulling the right number of staff, but Ferrese acknowledges it isn't 15, which didn't reflect the serendipity that would drive the Seattle market.

    “Amazon was going bonkers, everyone was hiring and people moved here and needed services,” he said. “I look at that and I think the stars just aligned.”


    Lynn Porter can be reached by email or by phone at (206) 622-8272.

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