Olson Kundig Architects

Specialty: Architectural and interior design for residential, museum, institutional, religious and commercial projects

Management: Owners are Jim Olson, Tom Kundig, Kirsten R. Murray and Alan Maskin

Founded: 1966

Headquarters: Seattle

2009 revenues: $10.5 million

Projected 2010 revenues: $12 million

Current projects: The Lightcatcher building at the Whatcom Museum; the 25,500-square-foot Art Stable in South Lake Union; exhibit design in the 14,000-square-foot Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Visitor Center in Seattle

Photo by Benjamin Benschneider Architecture
Olson Kundig designed the Lightcatcher building at Whatcom Museum in Bellingham.

At Olson Kundig Architects, things are looking up.

Starting this year, the Seattle-based firm began to get more inquiries about starting or re-starting residential, commercial and mixed-use projects. It also is seeing requests for proposals for cultural projects.

“We’re back out of the dip,” said Kirsten Murray, an Olson Kundig owner. “We saw the worst of it in the spring of the previous year.”

Clients are cautious, however. Some are moving forward in phases, some are still looking for funding, she said.

Tall buildings return

The firm is up to its pre-recession employee count of about 80. It laid off two people in the downturn, eliminated one position and offered fewer internships.

Olson Kundig’s diversity of project types and locations and its reputation helped it in the recession, Murray said. Half of the firm’s work is in the Washington area, half elsewhere.

About 60 percent is residential, which includes custom homes and multifamily. The rest is cultural and commercial, interior design, exhibit design and educational and religious projects.

Among its jobs is revamping commercial space as landlords have dropped rents and offered more favorable tenant improvements, Murray said.

“It’s not a huge sector of our work, but it’s a sector that we did not have much of before,” she said.

Additionally, the practice is going back to the future with the design of taller buildings.

Decades ago it designed the mid- to high-rise Seattle mixed-use projects Pike & Virginia, 98 Union and Hillclimb Court. It stopped doing that type of work “when the bottom just fell out of that market, which is where we learned to not focus on the speculative market,” she said.

Now it’s designing two downtown Seattle projects: 1900 First Avenue, a Touchstone Corp. 11-story hotel/residential/retail building planned for First Avenue and Stewart Street; and Urban Vision’s 35-story multifamily/retail/restaurant building planned for Second Avenue and Pike Street. Additionally, it’s getting high-rise work in Asia.

“That’s an emerging area for us,” Murray said.

Working overseas

Olson Kundig’s 2009 revenues were $10.5 million, she said. It projects $12 million this year — about on par with 2008.

The firm received the 2009 National AIA Architecture Firm Award (as Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects) and for the past two years has been named one of the Top Ten Most Innovative Companies in Architecture by Fast Company.

It received good publicity from a 14,000-square-foot mansion it designed south of Hong Kong. The house, called Hong Kong Villa, has led to work in Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan — single-family residential, commercial and high-rise.

The practice just completed its first project in Europe, a 5,000-square-foot house and photography studio in Sitges, Spain, for a photographer. It hopes to get more jobs in that area of the world when that project gets enough “buzz,” Murray said.

The firm is pursuing fewer education projects.

“There’s so much competition in those areas and there’s so many firms that have really deep portfolios,” while Olson Kundig is more interested in and has a larger portfolio of cultural/arts projects, Murray said. The firm is cautiously optimistic, she said, but knows that some architectural practices haven’t yet seen the uptick it has.

“I feel like there’s a lot of I think despair in the industry, in our profession,” she said.

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