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May 20, 2011

Construction Q&A: Ken Coleman


Company: Compass Construction

Title: President

Seattle native Ken Coleman’s first job out of the University of Washington was working for architect Robert Chervenak, an AIA fellow whose firm was known for churches.

But Coleman, who graduated with a degree in environmental design, said he found the work frustrating. He wasn’t familiar with detailing, construction or materials, so he left after a year and went back to the UW.

He worked in the UW wood shop as a teaching assistant, and soon began a new career with the contractor Howard S. Wright, doing some architecture on the side.

Compass Construction, which Coleman founded in 1998, also has a dual focus, serving as a general contractor and construction management company. Its projects are primarily mixed-use.

The company received a Build Washington award for the Chloe apartments, a 117-unit mixed-use building on Capitol Hill.

Colman said he enjoys bringing both an architectural and construction perspective to his work. “It’s a real help in my business.”

What draws you to your work?

I like seeing the ultimate culmination of the pre-construction design stuff into a 3-D form, and detailing. I love things that fit and go together well, and it’s fun to put the puzzle together. It’s great to work with genius, clever, successful developers who have a vision.

Tell me about a challenge you face.

Trying to stay creative in the confines of a budget is always a challenge. Trying to come up with clever approaches that are affordable but unique and different is a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity.

Anything else?

The permit process is a bit cumbersome, and really costs owners and delays starts. If there’s any way that can be accelerated and improved, it puts a real bind on the process.

Which project are you most proud of?

The Chloe is a gem. I think it’s just the essence of Capitol Hill. It’s a great space with a little retail component that works. I think the other one we’re quite proud of is the Alley24, which was integrating an existing brick structure with just a fun kind of a mixed-use project.

How could the industry improve?

Everyone is competing so hard to get projects that the quality of the (design) documentation sometimes doesn’t get completed. So that would be something I’d like to see improve. Somehow being able to allow the designers to have more resources to complete their work.

Is business picking up yet?

Oh, yeah, absolutely. It is just crazy right now. 2010 was dead. Between the lenders and everyone just trying to figure out where things were, it just stopped. It was brutal for mixed use.

A lot of the larger generals kind of sailed through with their big projects. I think they’re starting to hit the walls, but we are seeing a tremendous amount of interest in apartments in this area.

Are we headed for another bubble?

You might think that, but rumor has it that there’s a focus on the mobile younger generation in Seattle. I think there’s an attitude that … the younger generation isn’t quite so tied to the concept of owning a home. They’d rather spend it on fun things and quality of life than just hanging onto a nest.

What do you do for fun?

I actually started in art, was told by my mother that wasn’t practical, drifted into architecture and then ended up in construction. Eventually I want to go full circle and go back into art.

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