A sour economy may mean dwindling opportunities for new construction, Griff Davenport, one of DLR Groups managing principals, says, but some sectors are consistently ripe for capital-improvement work, including healthcare, higher education, and hospitality.

A sour economy may mean "dwindling opportunities" for new construction, Griff Davenport, one of DLR Group's managing principals, says, but some sectors are consistently ripe for capital-improvement work, including healthcare, higher education, and hospitality.

Credit: Jonathan Chapman

Since the mid-1960s, capital-improvement projects have been a core business for the national design firm DLR Group. With over 500 staff members in 21 cities in the U.S. and in Shanghai, DLR has become a leading criminal justice design firm in the world—designing courthouses and detention centers—and it also has a strong track record in hospitality, education, and collegiate sports facilities, according to Griff Davenport, AIA, a managing principal at the firm. Now helming DLR’s nationwide firm management from its Minneapolis office, Davenport ensures that the firm has a steady flow of capital-improvement assignments by helping to secure funding and pursuing energy-efficient design. Architect spoke with him about how DLR wins, manages, and designs these kinds of projects.

Sell your expertise.
DLR’s expertise is based on the sheer volume of its work and the breadth of its experience, Davenport says. “That’s what owners want and hire when they’re looking for project architects for capital-improvement projects.” Consider education: DLR “has done so many schools, of different scale and type and location, we can market that diverse experience.” And that spills over to other sectors as well. “We bring it all to the table,” Davenport says.

Adaptive reuse is the new normal.
Don’t even think about freestanding projects. In today’s market, “there are dwindling opportunities for new construction,” Davenport acknowledges. Now it’s all about renovating and adaptive reuse of existing building stock. “This will be monumental,” Davenport says, predicting that up to 95 percent of construction dollars in the future will be in this sector.

Target clients who want toupgradefacilities.
These clients want to change how they use their buildings. Courts need increased security, for example, and detention centers are adding medical units for an aging prison population. Also, “schools are rethinking how kids learn and teachers teach,” Davenport adds, as well as modernizing for new technologies.

Check out hotels, too.
Improvement and renovation is a big part of the hospitality sector because owners need to continually reinvent their properties. In this frugal economy, “renovation is the majority of work” in this sector, Davenport says.

And stay in school.
Especially promising are places of higher education, which have been hit by sinking endowments and state funding cutbacks, and thus frequently can’t build new. “These institutions need to be more competitive to attract students, so they want better facilities,” Davenport points out. Adaptive-reuse clients in this sector tend to be repeat customers: DLR regularly gets jobs to improve educational facilities that the firm originally designed years, or even decades, ago, Davenport notes.

Follow the money …
“Work with owners to help secure financing,” Davenport suggests. This means locating tax rebates and chasing government subsidies for energy efficiency. Advise clients on how to push through bond issues, get a referendum passed, or build community consensus—public-relations work, yes, but owners are looking for such help. “We’re doing more of this than ever before,” Davenport says.

… but be cautious about stimulus money.
Much of the stimulus money released by the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has already been assigned, but there are still some projects and some funds available. Because there’s no compensation unless your firm is selected for the job, however, be very careful about how many stimulus-based projects you pursue, as they can be costly in upfront staff time and resources. “Evaluate them on a case-by-case basis,” Davenport advises.

Establish your green street cred.
LEED and sustainable design continue to gain momentum, especially with capital-improvement projects for higher education and U.S. General Services Administrationfunded facilities. Make sure that you have staff trained in the language of sustainable design and comfortable working with eco-design options, Davenport says, adding, “Without a doubt, the need for this skill set is changing who we are and whom we hire.”

Find partners and pitch together.
Don’t sit around and wait for RFPs—be proactive. For large projects, it’s best to find other architects and contractors in order to pursue projects as a team, Davenport says. The advantage? A hybrid set of professionals is more attractive on big projects—and even on smaller ones.

Spread the word.
“We show owners how to do more with less and how to operate their facilities more efficiently,” Davenport says, noting that you can talk clients out of what they think they want. “We say to them, look at the infrastructure you have and what you can do with it before going with more costly new construction,” he explains. As a result, retrofitting and energy-efficient design are a big part of DLR’s current client services.