After being laid off by general contractor W.E. O’Neil Construction in late 2008, Allison Suriano went skiing—professionally. The 1987 University of Arizona College of Architecture graduate plotted her comeback from a resort in northern Arizona, where she took a job as a ski instructor during the early days of the Great Recession. Suriano, a licensed architect, had spent most of her career as an owner’s representative for school districts in Arizona, working for O’Neil and PinnacleOne (now Arcadis) throughout the 1990s and 2000s. When faced with an abrupt career change, she decided to join up with friends (and former colleagues) John Kennedy and Mark Rafferty, who had launched the development consultancy Kennedy Partners in August 2008. Once there was enough work for all three of them, she joined full-time in January 2009. “I didn’t take any pay for the first year,” she notes. The Phoenix-based firm now has almost $100 million in projects in the pipeline.
How did Kennedy Partners get started?
Mark and John are two good friends I met through PinnacleOne. The firm was started with the intent of us being owner representatives for school districts and other public clients. Unfortunately, none of them have any money for capital projects.
How did you deal with that constraint?
One of our school districts asked us, “Why can’t I do this solar thing?” We said, “We don’t know. Why not?” We spent a lot of time researching, and we found that the mechanisms were in place—exactly at that time—for public entities to do solar-energy projects without spending any money.
How can they build without capital expenditures?
We act as the developer—bringing together design, engineering, construction, and finance. We build the solar-energy project on the school site, and because we’re a private entity, we can capture federal and state tax credits and utility incentives. The school district pays us for the energy produced until the capital improvement has been paid off. Then the school district owns it.
How long is this process?
It’s 15 or 20 years. During the time we own the system, we maintain it, so there’s no cost to them. We don’t put it on the roof; we shade their parking lots, playgrounds, and eating areas. We’ve also incorporated educational opportunities—the kids learn what the system is doing.
How much energy does it provide?
We try to produce as much as 90 percent of their power. During the term of the lease, they know what their utility bill will be. When it’s the middle of a budget year and you already don’t have any money, to have your energy bill go up is really staggering for a school district.
Is that calculation part of your services?
Yes, we work with DLR Group, architects and engineers. They’ve been our partners in this since the beginning. We look at the site and the incentives available from the utility company, which can vary wildly. If the incentives aren’t adequate, the deal isn’t financeable for our investors.
How are you hired?
They’re all people we know from previous work. It’s very organic: We go to the conferences; we play at the same golf outings; we have relationships. They trust us. It’s not a solar-panel vendor coming in and putting stuff on their roof. One school district procured us through a statewide cooperative purchasing format called SAVE—Strategic Alliance for Volume Expenditures. Any member of that cooperative can now hire us without a competitive bid. It includes almost every city school district and community college in the state.
How big is Kennedy Partners now?
It’s just the three of us. I knew I wanted to do something with Mark and John, but it’s not at all where any of us thought we’d be right now.
You’re a licensed architect. What value do you bring to—and take from—this kind of work?
It’s a compilation of everything, especially knowing how schools use their buildings, the problem areas. We make shade—something we need in Arizona. I’m still in front of my clients, but they’re going to remember me because I worked with them when they had no money. Architects need to be thinking of ways to get in front of clients and help them out.