Big Red Dog helps reshape Austin’s development scene

From the Austin American Statesman:

Big Red Dog, an Austin-based engineering and consulting firm, got its start in 2009, when the U.S. was in the throes of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Not only did the company weather the recession, but it has been on an upward trajectory since 2011, thanks to a strong economy propelled by the continued job and population growth in the Austin area.

Now with offices in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio as well as Austin, and having completed nearly 450 projects in 36 cities, Big Red Dog is among the fastest-growing companies in Central Texas. It recently was ranked by Zweig Group as one of the fastest-growing engineering and architecture firms in North America.

The ranking adds to the firm’s numerous accolades, which include being named one of the top design firms in Texas and Louisiana by Engineering News-Record for the past three years.

Big Red Dog provides civil, mechanical, electrical and plumbing engineering and related consulting services for commercial, residential, retail and industrial projects across Texas. The firm also is involved in land planning, helping developers select sites for their proposed projects and obtain the permits and approvals required to build them.

In six years, the firm has grown from its three founders — Bob Brown, Brad Lingvai and Will Schnier — to 105 employees, with projected annual revenue of about $15 million this year.

The company expects to have as many as 600 employees and annual revenue of $100 million by 2024.

Big Red Dog has a long list of high-profile projects to its credit. In Austin, those include Greystar’s Lamar Union mixed-use project on South Lamar Boulevard; the newly opened South Congress Hotel; Hotel Van Zandt; Live Oak Brewery; and the Waller Creek redevelopment project.

Elsewhere, projects include the Halliburton Eagle Ford Shale complex in San Antonio; Lake Highlands Town Center in Dallas and The District at Memorial in Houston.

Derek Brown with Greystar said that, after working with Big Red Dog on numerous projects over the years, including several current projects, “I can comfortably say that they have set the standard in terms of an engineering consultant.”

“Greystar was the first major mixed use developer that starting working with Big Red Dog, and now they’re doing the vast majority of the mixed use and infill projects in Austin due in part to the successes that we’ve had together,” Brown said.

Matt Ryan, a partner with the construction law firm of Allensworth & Porter whose clients include Big Red Dog, said that, “while the leadership figures in the firm may be relatively young, what I’ve seen demonstrates a business savvy and client service ethic that are top shelf in all regards.”

Recently, Lingvai and other members of Big Red Dog’s local leadership team sat down with the American-Statesman to talk about the company’s growth, its projects and other topics in their East Fifth Street headquarters.

In addition, Lingvai; Schnier, the firm’s CEO; Ricky DeCamps, vice president of the Austin office; and David Johnson, vice president of the mechanical, electrical and plumbing division in Austin, responded collectively in writing to the following questions:

American-Statesman: What is fueling the company’s growth?

Big Red Dog: The main drivers are the excellent demographics in Texas. Anecdotally speaking, we understand that there are over 1,000 people a day migrating to the state of Texas. And this is a trend that has been going on since 2005. And those 1,000 people are primarily locating in places where Big Red Dog has offices.

Austin tops many lists for ‘best of,’ but Dallas Houston and San Antonio top plenty of lists of their own. Houston is poised to pass Chicago to become the third- largest city in the country. Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio are all in the top 11 of the largest cities it the country. Statewide employment is beating the national average and the unemployment rate in Austin is under 4 percent.

On top of that, city regulations are not getting any easier, and the demand for housing stock, both multifamily housing and single-family subdivisions, continues to increase. Right behind the housing comes the services — car dealerships, fast food restaurants, shopping centers, grocery stores, banks — all of these things are required when the population increases dramatically. As an engineering firm who caters to those markets, we are well-positioned in each city.

What are a couple of the firm’s most challenging projects, and how did the company surmount the challenges involved?

Lamar Union was a very challenging project. It was a 10-acre redevelopment site in the heart of South Lamar. We worked diligently with the adjacent neighborhood, and with city staff, to create a really amazing project. The site went from an underutilized strip center with a surface parking lot to become the one real shining example of what a vertical mixed-use project can be in the Austin urban core.

What are some challenges of working in Austin?

In Austin specifically, it’s never a good idea to be an out-of-town developer’s first engineer. A client working here for the first time will have unreasonable expectations on what is possible, what the schedule should look like, and what the cost should be. The city review process represents a very high barrier to entry for non-local developers and engineers, especially those working on their first project. We like to say, in Austin, it’s always best to be somebody’s second engineer. Because the first engineer could have been perfect and for factors outside of his control the client may think him incompetent if he’s being evaluated based on similar experiences in different cities.

What is your strategy for surviving during an economic downturn, or lean times?

Our strategy for dealing with that inevitable downturn is, No. 1, to be honest about it with our staff. No. 2, we are diversifying our geographic locations, our service lines, and our client base. Number three, we strive to include all of our team members in our operational processes, and our marketing, branding, and client relationships. The stronger all three of those are, the better off the firm will be during a recession.

What are some of the principles that guide decision-making at the firm and inform its day-to-day operations?

We run a very open-book company. Everybody in the office can read our business plan. As owners and managers we have an obligation to answer any question about our business that we can to our staff. We try to let decisions be made at the lowest level they can. We really try to empower our team members to make the right decision for our clients using their best judgment. Approximately 10 percent of our staff are owners in the company, which is a ratio that we want to continue.

What is your take on all the growth the Central Texas region is seeing?

Austin’s lack of density, and its history of failing to invest in the necessary transportation systems, will ultimately come back to haunt us.

For a long time, Austin had an attitude of ‘if you don’t build it, they won’t come.’ Well, that didn’t work out. Today we’re in an environment of ‘if you build it, build only 25 percent of what you really need so that we can protect our environment and single-family neighborhoods.’

While other Texas cities lose construction jobs, Austin holds steady

From today’s Austin Business Journal:

While some Texas cities such as Fort Worth and Houston are among the 153 metro areas in the U.S. that have seen a drop in construction jobs in the past year, Austin’s construction industry has held its own.

According to federal employment data released by the Associated General Contractors of America, Austin gained 100 construction jobs between August 2014 and August of this year. The Austin region had 52,000 people employed in construction that month.

The oil price slump has had a big effect on the local economy and construction projects in Fort Worth, which lost 6,000 construction jobs in the past year to top the national list, followed by Houston, which lost 3,700 construction jobs, the report found.

Other metros with significant job losses included Akron, Ohio; New Orleans; and the Bergen-Hudson-Passaic country area in New Jersey. Meanwhile, Santa Fe, New Mexico, saw the highest percent loss in construction jobs, losing 22 percent of its construction workforce, or 600 jobs.

Ken Simonson, AGCA’s chief economist, attributed the job losses to the difficulty in finding qualified workers and to the ongoing oil slump impacting the Gulf Coast and other regions.

“The fact that fewer than half of metro areas added construction jobs at a time when there were gains in nearly three-fourths of the states suggests that contractors in many more metros would be hiring if they could find qualified workers,” Simonson said in a statement. “In addition, the steep downturn in oil and gas drilling has hit construction hard in cities such as Fort Worth, Houston and New Orleans, even as downstream projects gain steam in places such as Beaumont-Port Arthur, Texas.”

Still, of the 358 metros studied, more are adding construction jobs than cutting them.

Jobs increased in 163 areas, led by the Denver area, which added 10,400 jobs over the year, and the Weirton-Steubenville regions of West Virginia and Ohio, which increased construction jobs by 28 percent.

Beaumont, east of Houston, increased its number of construction jobs in the past year by 16 percent.

Earlier this month, AGCA released a report that showed that more than 80 percent of construction companies are having difficulties finding qualified workers. The association added that the shortage is raising the cost of new projects.

Miller IDS Supporting Austin’s Architects

The Miller IDS team is very excited to be a sponsor of the American Institute of Architects Austin Summer 2015 Conference! The conference will be held August 20th and 21st at the Norris Conference Center.

Our own Stephen Coyle is offering a class on “Why Color? Benefits of Printing in Wide Format Technical Color” for AIA CE credits on Thursday, August 20th at 2:30 pm. We will also be exhibiting during lunch both days and will be sponsoring happy hour on Thursday, 8/20.

Registration is still open and we hope to see you there!

Hotels to the Rescue

The Chicago Motor Club building in downtown Chicago once bustled with the excitement of travelers picking up TripTiks before they embarked on cross-country journeys in their Edsels and Packards. The classic Art Deco building, designed by the architecture firm Holabird & Root and erected in 1928, inspired travelers with its sleek, clean design, and the giant U.S. map mural in the lobby revealed the opportunities of the open roads. Continue reading

Posted in AEC

Robots in Architecture

RobotBuilderRobots have long been used in manufacturing – it’s probable that your car, computer, and dozens of other possessions were at least partially built by robots.  And now you might even find a robot at the drawing board next to yours!

Well, not exactly. The robots aren’t being used to create drawings – CAD does that well enough – but they are being used to create precise structures that would be beyond the abilities of a normal human builder.

There’s even an organization that promotes the use of robots in design and construction: the Association for Robots in Architecture http://www.robotsinarchitecture.org/. The group sponsors the Rob/Arch conference, which introduces architects to the capabilities of robots. The next conference will be held in Sydney, Australia on March 15-19, 2016.

So what do the robots do?

They are being used for complex, tedious projects involving masonry, wood, foam, and other media. These projects could conceivably be done by an extremely careful human, but a robot can do them more quickly and accurately.

“The use of robots, combined with digital design tools, means a new aesthetic becomes possible, with novel shapes and patterns that would be nearly impossible to achieve without the automated machines: industrial manipulators that are extremely precise and good at repetition,” wrote Markus Waibal in blog about automation. Read the entire blog, and see some examples of these robot-made projects, here: http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/industrial-robots/robots-in-architecture

The robots being used are the common robot arms that have been refined over the past two decades or so. They are generalists – that is, they can be programmed to do an endless variety of tasks precisely and tirelessly. This makes them perfect for stacking bricks in intricate patterns, carving exact shapes into acoustical panels, or countless other construction tasks.

In addition to operating Rob/Arch, the people behind the Association for Robots in Architecture have developed a new controller plugin for Grasshopper, a visual programming tool that works inside the 3-D CAD modeler software Rhinoceros.

Swiss architects Fabio Gramazio and Matthias Kohler are leaders in robot construction. They used a large robot to create a curving, 100-meter brick wall in an architectural exhibit in Venice. The bricks were unmortared, and a straight wall would have been dangerously unstable. The robot, on the other hand, was able to precisely place the bricks in such a fashion that the wall was completely stable.

Robots have countless uses in modern society, so it’s no surprise that they’ve made their way into architecture and building, too. Look for a robot at your next worksite!

 

Posted in AEC

Bikes to the Rescue

Amsterdam, Bicycle CityBuilding apartments without parking is not the only way to encourage pedestrians and discourage drivers, of course. Danish architect Jan Gehl, a champion of bicycle use in cities as an antidote to heavy traffic, has advised several large cities – including Mexico City, Beijing, and New York City – on how to enhance bicycle usage.

In addition to the obvious emissions advantages of bicycle riders, Gehl believes that encouraging bicycle use and walking improves social interactions in cities. Good bike baths allow many more people to access urban areas – people who don’t own cars, people who are too young or old to drive, and people who simply prefer bikes. In an article about Gehl’s philosophy, Louise Kielgast wrote:

“In contrast to motorists, cyclists and pedestrians share the characteristic of moving at a moderate pace, making them visible in the cityscape. Cyclists are also flexible in the sense that they can quickly shift from being cyclists to being pedestrians. This creates the conditions for people to see and meet each other in the city. It is equally important to highlight that both cyclists and pedestrians are physically present in the public spaces – in contrast to motorists who are essentially isolated from their physical settings.” (Read the whole article here: http://denmark.dk/en/green-living/bicycle-culture/the-cities-of-the-future-are-people-friendly-cities/)

Whatever strategy a community uses to get people out of cars – allowing buildings with no parking or building extensive bike paths – the result is a more people-friendly environment.

Posted in AEC

Austin’s old power plant downtown now stunning creative office

What was once a dark uninviting space is now illuminated with natural light and bright colored accents.
What was once a dark uninviting space is now illuminated with natural light and bright colored accents.

The massive Art Deco-inspired Seaholm Power Plant in downtown Austin has long captivated the imaginations of locals and visitors alike, and now after many years of dreaming and planning the retrofitted building is almost ready for its new occupants.

About 70 employees of Athenahealth — a software company — will move into the building near Cesar Chavez Street and Lamar Boulevard on Feb. 9. The Austin Business Journal was given a private tour of the facility, which is one component of the $100 million Seaholm LLC redevelopment.  Read full article>>

Is it Worth Your Time to see the Chicago Architectural Biennial?

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Big architecture shows are hardly news these days, but the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial (October 2014 – January 2016), is the first time the city of big shoulders has officially showed off its skyscrapers, bungalows, and other architectural gems since the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893!

But does that fact make it worth a visit? No, but here are a few reasons why a trip may be warranted, and a couple why you may want to skip it:

Reasons to Go

  • First, this isn’t just a Chicago show, it’s the “largest international survey of contemporary architecture in North America,” according to press releases. The show, which will run until January 2016, will include installations about established and emerging architects from throughout North America and beyond. So if you want to see what’s new in architecture all in one place, the show’s worth it.
  • Second, the architectural installations will be complemented by art installations and public programs curated by Theaster Gates. If you’re not familiar with this Renaissance man who believes art can transform neighborhoods, check him out here: www.theastergates.com. His involvement ensures that the Biennial will not be boring, nor will it ignore the people who really make up the fabric of a big city.
  • Third, the event promises to be more than just a collection of cool buildings. Here’s an excerpt from the city’s press release about the event:

“More than a profession or a repertoire of built artifacts, architecture is a dynamic cultural practice that manifests at different scales and through various media: buildings and cities, but also art, performance, film, landscape and new technologies. It permeates fundamental registers of everyday life—from housing to education, from environmental awareness to economic growth, from local communities to global networks. The State of the Art of Architecture will take stock of the extraordinary ways that architects, artists, designers, planners, activists, and policy makers from around the world are tackling such challenges today.” Read more here>>

  • Finally, if you love architecture, Chicago is simply a cool place to be. You can see the big name stuff – Mies van der Rohe, FL Wright – but also the street-level gems that make gritty city life better.

Reasons to Skip It

  • Ironically, the greatness of Chicago’s architecture is one reason you might want to skip the Biennial – you can see the best of Chicago’s architecture any day. Sure, the installations, tours, and other events will only happen during those months, but if the Robie House will still be there when the crowds leave.
  • Furthermore, visiting during the Biennial won’t be cheap. Even when nothing special is going on, finding a decent room in Chicago under $200 a night is not easy. Few schedule details about the Biennial have been released, but you can figure room rates will jump once news about the bigger events, such as the opening, are announced.

What the Heck…

In the end, you’ll probably be happy if you came. You’ll meet tons of people, see a cool city, and hopefully get inspired to do better work. Even if your wallet is a little lighter on your way home!