For Miracle Mile-based CO Architects, which specializes in the design and renovation of health care and education facilities, the pandemic proved an unexpected boon, ushering in a period of rapid growth in work and staff.
Since the pandemic began, CO (pronounced “Ko”) Architects has expanded its staff by one-third, to 160 employees, prompting a move to a larger, 27,000-square-foot headquarters late last year.
“After the brief initial lockdown, work started flowing in and hasn’t stopped,” said Jenna Knudsen, the firm’s new managing principal. “Health care and life sciences research never really slowed down and there was pent-up demand in the education market.”
In the last 15 months, CO Architects has picked up design work on two huge projects in the health care market: the $1.7 billion, five-year Harbor-UCLA Medical Center Replacement Project in West Carson and a $1.3 billion hospital and medical complex on the north end of the UC Irvine campus.
The staff growth has been most apparent at CO Architects’ only satellite office, which is located in San Diego. It was opened five years ago with a handful of staff. Knudsen said that office now has a dozen employees and is still hiring.
CO Architects has had a longstanding relationship with UC San Diego, having worked on more than a dozen projects through the years. The firm is now in design phase for a 250,000-square-foot outpatient center on the university’s Hillcrest Medical campus and is hoping for other work on a $3 billion redevelopment plan for the entire 10-acre medical campus.
Through last year at least, all of these new projects and additional staff at CO Architects had yet to translate into additional revenue, which slipped last year to $63 million from nearly $66 million in 2020.
Nonetheless, CO Architects ranked No. 2 in local billings among architecture firms in L.A. County on the Business Journal’s most recent list, behind San Francisco-based Gensler.
The firm has grown steadily since its founding in 1986 as the Los Angeles office of San Francisco-based Anshen+Allen Architects, which in 2010 was sold to Edmonton, Alberta-based Stantec.
From the start, the firm, which is 100% owned by employee shareholders, has focused on health care and education facilities, along with other civic projects.
“Those have always been our core markets – and Los Angeles our core geographic focus,” Knudsen said. CO Architects is not alone in focusing on these markets.
“Health care projects have long been a hot market,” said William Richards, a Washington D.C.-based independent writer who has covered the business and culture of architecture and worked as a communications consultant to the American Institute of Architects. “Indeed, a lot of architecture firms have been founded just for this market.”
Richards said higher education has also become an increasingly hot sector in recent years.
“Many universities are flush with donations and ready to go with campus improvement projects,” he said.
The pandemic has also provided more work for architecture firms as health care and other institutional facilities have had to retool their heating/ventilation/air conditioning systems to improve air circulation and reduce the risk of the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus indoors.
And in California, there’s been another driving factor in both markets, but especially health care: state seismic retrofit requirements. In California, hospitals and other acute-care facilities face a 2030 deadline to ensure that they can remain operational following a major quake.
The Harbor-UCLA project that CO Architects recently joined the team for is a building replacement prompted in large part by those seismic upgrade rules.
UCLA and Paul Williams
CO Architects has also done several seismic retrofit and modernization projects on the UCLA campus. Among the most difficult were two buildings designed by famed Black mid-century architect Paul Williams: the LA Kretz Botany Building and Pritzker Hall Psychology Tower.
“Those were very challenging: Because they were Paul Williams buildings, we spent a lot of time figuring out how to be respectful of the original designs while bringing buildings up to modern standards,” Knudsen said “Especially challenging was the placement of the shock absorbers” to mitigate the jolts caused by quakes, she added.
Peter Hendrickson, UCLA’s associate vice chancellor of design and construction, worked with CO Architects on both projects.
“What stood out for me was how CO Architects was able to work on these two very complex seismic projects while both buildings were fully occupied,” Hendrickson said.
“CO Architects did something very unusual: they brought the students and faculty using the two buildings into the design and construction process,” he continued. “They went above and beyond in terms of input from the end users of the buildings to really understand what the program was. And, just as important, they incorporated the student and faculty input into the design.”
Last year, just after completion of main work on the La Kretz Botany building, CO Architects spearheaded one additional – and unexpected – project.
“In the botany building, we came across a drawing for a mural by Paul Williams that never made it into the original building,” Knudsen said. The drawing was in black and white and depicted a glass mosaic filled with plants along the bottom. “We created a mural in the building based on that original concept,” she added. That involved some of the firm’s architects studying Williams’ other works to gain insight into his color preferences.
Continued growth ahead?
Like many architecture and design firms in recent months, CO Architects has been experiencing longer lead times between when it submits its designs and construction begins. Typically, most of this lead time is spent procuring construction materials. But since early last year, soaring materials costs, supply chain issues and other difficulties have stretched that lead time to longer than six months for many projects.
Knudsen added that in response, CO Architects has been adjusting the materials its designs call for. “In many instances, the materials we now choose initially may not be the same as would have been the case three years ago,” she said.
The company has also revised its designs to accommodate the changing nature of the workplace brought about by the pandemic.
“We’re now having to adjust designs for new workplaces where many people work remotely much of the time and come into office occasionally,” she said. “That means multiple uses for outdoor spaces, different sizes of meeting rooms, and working with engineers to improve ventilation, among other things.”
As for growth, the company is not seeking geographic expansion. “We are looking at expansion of services to clients within our core markets: interior design, medical space planners and environmental graphics technology,” she said.
On the geographic front, CO Architects remains firmly focused on Los Angeles as its base market and has no plans in the near future to open any additional offices besides the one in San Diego.
Knudsen said that when project opportunities come up in other parts of the country the company works through partnerships with architecture firms local to the project area.
“Sometimes those firms will take care of the permitting and we tend to be the design architect, especially for projects in our core areas of practice,” she said.
Acquisitions are also not on the menu in the near future, she added. “We’re more focused on organic growth.”
That’s an appropriate strategy at this juncture in the architectural field, writer and industry communications consultant Richards said.
“In looking at what areas CO Architects focuses on, they are in the major growth areas: health care, education and technology.”