As the owner and founder of ZDS Architects Inc., Suzanne Zahr-Fleming plans to weather the economic storm with plywood and a rosewood veneer.
Since 2002, ZDS Architects, a small firm on Seattle's Capitol Hill made up of four minority women, has been designing buildings incorporating sustainable materials that are environmentally friendly. Now that ZDS has experienced three years of growth, Zahr-Fleming stands poised to build her business at a time when many are struggling.
Her secret could lie in Washington, D.C.: President Barack Obama has created a task force aimed at increasing the nation's green economy and creating more "green-collar" jobs. She was one of many small-business owners to sign a letter to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Harry Reid requesting that funds in the stimulus package go to designing sustainable health-care facilities.
In-patient health-care facilities are the second most energy-intensive buildings in the country, which heightens health-care costs. Zahr-Fleming believes she'll benefit from the president's green policies. She already has designed medical offices in Washington, D.C.
"(The nation) needs to change the way (it is) doing business," Zahr-Fleming says.
While Zahr-Fleming expects the next quarter to be a bit slow for ZDS and has had to tighten the belt a bit, she hopes she will design the next generation of "green" homes.
For her, it is a simple issue of supply and demand.
"We've honed the skills that are now going to be more in demand," Zahr-Fleming says.
Working out of her home when she started the business in 2002, Zahr-Fleming had low overhead. ZDS was first called Zahra Design Studio. Zahra is an iteration of her maiden name, which pronounced a certain way in Arabic means "little stinker," a nickname her grandmother gave her.
Her first assistants were interns from the University of Washington where she was teaching at the time. She started hiring other architects in 2004.
She doubled her revenue from 2005 to 2006 and has since had a 15 percent rate of revenue growth. ZDS generated about $360,000 in revenues in 2008, up from $310,000 in 2007. In recent years, ZDS has taken on bigger projects and has four to six clients at a time, including some on the East Coast, in Europe, and the Middle East.
Though she did not aim to hire only women, she says there is absolutely no disadvantage in the all-female gender makeup of the firm.
Jessie Oona Nickerson, writer and designer for ZDS, has worked at other architecture firms with more male colleagues and says the atmosphere at ZDS is less competitive.
Ashley Richardson, senior project manager, agreed.
"This is a safe place for different ideas," Richardson says. "Our different backgrounds contribute to a project and complement our diverse group of clients."
Unlike some other architectural firms that pay their employees a percentage of the construction costs of the project, Zahr-Fleming sets her fees based either on the square footage of the project or on the number of hours a designer works.
"I feel in some ways (it's) a conflict of interest to take a percentage of the construction costs, especially when you are representing the owner to maintain the costs to stay low," Zahr-Fleming says.
Besides the medical offices in Washington, D.C., other ZDS clients include Habitat for Humanity and B&O Espresso and Caf, on Capitol Hill. ZDS has worked with sustainable developersO'Brien & Co., Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects, and FW Bovenkamp Venturesto design a sustainable village community in Blaine that's the largest of its kind.
The community, Horizon at Semiahmoo, will consist of 700 homes, including single-family homes, luxurious mid-rise condos, and protected wetlands. It is located near two golf courses and will soon have a retail center.
When presales of homes didn't pan out as initially hoped, developer Fred Bovenkamp brought on ZDS to design lower-cost homes. ZDS designed houses that now are marketed for around $375,000 to $650,000 for 1,000- to 1,700- square-foot homes. Other Horizon residences are listed at more than $1 million.
Zahr-Fleming says Horizon was an example of a project where ZDS had to change its designs as the real estate market dipped.
ZDS focused on efficient ventilation and insulation, and natural lighting to keep energy bills low, while still maintaining a signature modern style. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System rates ZDS houses at Horizon with a "silver" designation.
ZDS' own office space is tucked away off Boylston Street and Denny Avenue on Capitol Hill, an area experiencing change with the coming addition of light rail and the recent arrival of large developers aiming to build condos and multiuse buildings.
When talking about some of the massive condo projects being built in the area, Zahr-Fleming praised Dunn & Hobbes, a Seattle firm led by Liz Dunn, as an example of a large developer that builds projects that fit nicely into the culture of the area. Dunn & Hobbes has been constructing loft apartments over the small businesses on 12th Avenue.
Oona Nickerson says that unlike other developers that push out small businesses, Dunn & Hobbes builds projects that allow musicians and artists to remain in their low-cost spaces, a socially and environmentally responsible building concept that Zahr-Fleming applauded.
In the future, Zahr-Fleming says good design will incorporate greater attention to sustainable practices.
"I think ZDS is at the forefront of a movement that is happening now before our eyes," Zahr-Fleming says. "It is happening because there is a direct rapport with people in power."
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