If Core feels optimistic about the economic recovery, one reason is that they’ve seen it all before. “We started in 1991, in the other recession,” says principal Dale A. Stewart, AIA. “Our theory was that if we could survive during a recession, we’d know how to run a business.” Though Core lost some staff during the recent recession—primarily to attrition—the firm is now on the upswing, with 17 staffers, and plans to add two or three more this year.
Core launched its practice in Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle neighborhood in 1991 but moved three years later to Georgetown, where the firm has been stationed ever since. Core’s offices, which overlook the Potomac River, are located a few blocks away from the firm’s first big project, a 17,000-square-foot marketplace for Dean & Deluca, which is still a major fixture of Georgetown’s retail corridor.
As the nation’s capital and the seat of the federal government—and all its attendant industry—Washington, D.C., weathers recessions better than some municipalities. “I don’t think it’s truly recession proof, no. Absolutely no question, it’s not,” says principal Guy Martin, AIA. “I do think we’re luckier than a lot of areas. When we get these dips, we don’t dip as far as other places.” One price for the relative immunity to systemic shocks is the relative lack of access to serious booms. “We don’t go as high up, either. We don’t, by and large, have in Washington the scale of building in Chicago and New York” even in the best circumstances, he says.
Core has no specific area of emphasis: Its recent commissions include interiors for popular new D.C. hotspots such as Pearl Dive Oyster Palace and Againn as well as the ongoing renovation of the Mt. Pleasant Public Library in Northwest Washington. “It works because we have a bunch of very diverse, talented people, most of whom are multivalent,” Martin says. “Almost everybody here can and likes to jump in scale and type of project.”
Christopher Peli, one of the firm’s designers, puts it a different way. “We’re more like a band than a family,” he says. “Everyone plays multiple instruments.”
Some of the firm’s larger projects take them out of the District proper. One unique challenge that a D.C. firm faces is balancing the requirements of three different municipalities in one relatively small area. “We just finished getting site-plan approval for a 485-unit mid-rise apartment complex unit in Arlandria that also has 50,000 square feet of retail,” Martin says, referring to an area between Arlington and Alexandria, Va.
Building in D.C. is different—and not just due to D.C.’s Height Act restrictions. “Over time, they build out the box with greater density. It used to be the height limit with an 8.5 [floor-area ratio]. Over time that FAR has crept to 10, 10.5, 11,” Martin says. “There’s no room to maneuver.”
“We don’t want to get so big that we have to be departments,” says Stewart. Core’s small size is key to its diverse portfolio. “We like that somebody can work on both a restaurant and an office building.”
Stewart, 54, and Martin, 63, share an office and always have. Many principals might find that unthinkable, but the two say that the situation facilitates a dialogue about projects.
New developments in Washington have been spurred in part by forces outside D.C., which is not necessarily a bad thing. “There’s a benefit to some degree of the outside world coming in [to Washington],” Martin says, noting in particular recent efforts by D.C. Public Library chief Ginnie Cooper, who brought a zeal for architecture from Brooklyn in 2006.
As much as developers from elsewhere may take credit for the recent growth in Washington, it wouldn’t have happened were the city not undergoing an internal shift away from the traditional status quo. The city’s progressive trajectory is reflected in its new buildings and interiors—and also in its food, fashion, and culture, Stewart says. “Even in the 20 years we’ve been practicing—we started and won some awards early on,” Stewart says. “The jurors’ comments were, ‘This is very refreshing and exciting to see this kind of work happening in Washington, finally.’ ”