A Stimulus Success Story
Long-term planning pays off for a D.C. firm
When President Obama signed the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) into law in February 2009, hopes ran high that architects would get a boost. While many have found ARRA opportunities limited, one firm that has benefited is WDG Architecture, which was chosen last August to play a key role in the largest stimulus project to date: the new $435 million Coast Guard Headquarters. Earning this commission is the result of years of strategic decisions by the firm, and indeed, its long-range plan offers lessons for other firms wanting to land government contracts.
Founded in 1938 and based in Washington, D.C., WDG has long been known as a preeminent architect among private developers of commercial and multifamily projects. In recent years, the firm, which has 75 people in its D.C. office (and 20 in its Dallas office), has built such award-winning projects as the 1.2-million-square-foot Arlington Gateway in Virginia and the 12.5-acre Rockville Town Square in Maryland, both mixed-use developments.
Even as the residential and commercial development boom was at its peak in the early 2000s, WDG saw the need to diversify, particularly with regard to the public sector. In 2003, it launched an initiative to hire leaders for its government and higher-education practices. “We knew it wouldn’t pay dividends right away, and that was okay,” says Eric Liebmann, AIA, a managing principal and director of design. “It was R&D for the future.”
The firm’s early efforts looked promising but yielded few results, admits John Lowe, AIA, a principal who in 2004 was wooed away from Gensler’s D.C. office to lead WDG’s federal pursuits. Many projects from agencies such as the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) didn’t procure funding and stalled.
Ever determined, the firm chose to focus on the well-funded Base Realignment and Closure Act of 2005. The multiyear, multibillion-dollar BRAC program includes relocating numerous federal agencies and departments to new or renovated facilities on military bases. After failed attempts to gain federal IDIQ (indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity) contracts on its own, Lowe says the firm homed in on design-build work, where it could leverage its existing relationships with contractors to better position itself in the bidding environment.
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Still, the firm had to craft a résumé that would meet the necessary qualifications to be considered for government work. It expanded its institutional portfolio by pursuing more nonfederal design-build projects, including the $80 million Oakland Hall at the University of Maryland in College Park.
“Design firms have to be smart about this,” Lowe says. “The Army Corps [of Engineers’] provisions say you have to have relevant projects within a certain time frame to qualify. That can be a significant barrier to entry to firms like us. If you don’t have that experience, you won’t get past the first step in the selection process.”
Ultimately, it was the strength of relationships in the private sector that gave WDG its big break in the federal world. The firm had worked extensively with Maryland-based developer Foulger-Pratt on commercial and mixed-use projects since the late 1960s. Three years ago, WDG began discussions with the developer’s construction division to team up and pursue federal work. The plan paid off in the fall of 2008, when the duo was awarded a design-build contract for the Army’s $33 million Missile Defense Agency Headquarters building at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia. The 99,000-square-foot administrative building is scheduled for completion in 2010. This past spring, the two firms followed up with a design-build contract for the new $50 million, 141,000-square-foot Army Test Evaluation Command Headquarters in Maryland, which is scheduled to be completed in 2011.
In August, the firm landed its biggest federal commission yet: a prominent role in construction of the new U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, the largest stimulus-funded project to date. Four architecture firms are part of the design-build team, all led by contractor Clark Construction Group of Maryland — another long-time partner of WDG.
Building off a concept originally conceived by Perkins+Will before it was bridged over to the new team, WDG serves as architect of record for the 1.3-million-square-foot project. St. Louis—based HOK is providing interior, landscape, and sustainable design; Quinn Evans Architects will handle historic preservation duties; and McKissack and McKissack is architect of record for a 1,000-car garage and central utility plant. Completion is slated for 2013.
“This win is a stabilizing force that enables us to confidently move forward over the next couple of years, even as architects in general continue to face so many challenges in this market,” Liebmann says, noting that, after cutting staff in early 2009, the firm is now hiring back some positions. He adds that federal work is helping keep the firm afloat. “Most of our private sector clients are on the sidelines,” he adds. “They are positioning for the future, but that doesn’t pay the bills today.”
Although WDG has seen numerous federal-sector wins in short succession, Lowe notes that transformation can’t be made overnight. “Just because you’re a successful architect doesn’t mean you can go in and just start doing this type of work,” he says. “It’s a process. It’s about understanding the [federal agencies’] programs, knowing how to match that with your strengths, and having a good partnership with a contractor that knows how the game is played and how not to make mistakes.”
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