The workload at Spokane-based ALSC Architects PS has slowed somewhat this year, following a strong year for the firm in 2008. Yet Rustin Hall, its president, says the firm's mix of design expertise will carry it through the recession.
"This calendar year will be quieter than last year, but that doesn't scare us," Hall says. "You don't want to be in a crunch mode until folks start to burn out."
Despite the economic downturn, the firm has managed to increase its staffing level slightly. It had 24 licensed architects and 30 other employees at the start of the year, compared with 21 architects and 27 other employees a year earlier. Hall attributes the modest increase to ALSC's staff-development program rather than to a growth strategy.
"We have a solid internship program and enjoy pulling out the stars and getting behind them and helping them get licensed," he says.
He declines to disclose the firm's revenue, but says 2008 was a record year.
Currently, the firm is working on 60 projects, half of which are outside of the Spokane area, including a $42 million third phase of stadium improvements at Washington State University, which is expected to be completed next year.
About 40 percent of ALSC's work is in educational projects, Hall says. The firm designed a $30 million modernization project for Freeman School District's high school and elementary school, in Rockford, Wash., that will get under way this summer, Hall says.
ALSC's other areas of design expertise include recreational and athletic, commercial, and retail projects.
ALSC occupies the 15,000-square-foot top floor of the four-story Liberty Building, at 203 N. Washington. The firm also has an office in Coeur d'Alene, where it has three full-time architects, and two of its eight principals split their time between the two locations.
The firm targets projects with construction costs ranging from $250,000 to $45 million.
"We're well diversified," Hall says. "We're somewhere between a specialist and a general practitioner."
The firm avoids speculative projects and condominiums. "That's where the floor just fell out," he says of the market downturn.
While Hall doesn't attribute last year's strong revenue to a single project, he says that municipal work, such as a $20 million project involving six city of Spokane swimming pools, was a significant contributing factor.
ALSC, perennially one of the largest architectural firms in Spokane, sprouted from humble beginnings, Hall says.
Tom Adkison planted the roots of ALSC in 1948, when he and Royal McClure opened a small architectural firm. McClure moved to the Seattle area in 1966 and started an independent practice.
By 1973, the firm here was named Adkison, Leigh, Sims, Cuppage Architects. The firm changed its name to ALSC Architects after Adkison died in 1986.
"The reason we are now here is because of his commitment to community involvement," says Hall, who joined the firm in 1993 and is serving his second year as president there. "His message was clear and powerful. His name still comes up, and I never met him."
ALSC and its eight partners are members of a total of more than 50 organizations, Hall says.
For instance, Hall is a past president of the Greater Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce and is a member of the boards of the YMCA of the Inland Northwest and Greater Spokane Incorporated. Such community involvement can enhance rapport with clients, he says.
"Architecture is all about relationships," Hall says. "We market clients, not projects."
About 80 percent of ALSC's customers are repeat clients.
"That's not unusual for an architectural firm, but it takes work," he says.
The firm does a lot of work for nonprofits, Hall says. For instance, ALSC designed the two new joint YMCA/YWCA facilities here valued at a combined $40 million.
One, an 80,000-square-foot central facility on Monroe Street just north of downtown, opened earlier this year, and the other, a 54,000-square-foot facility just north of the city is scheduled to open later this year.
"We're excited for that one, because there's nothing like that in north Spokane," Hall says.
The firm also designed the $6 million, 48,000-square-foot Spokane Valley YMCA facility at Mirabeau Point, which opened in 1999.
ALSC moved into the Liberty Building in 1996, and its boardroom overlooks Riverfront Park, the site of the Expo '74 World's Fair, for which the firm drew up the master plans.
Other ALSC projects within sight of the boardroom window range in size from the giant children's-block play sculpture in the park to the Spokane Veteran's Memorial Arena north of downtown.
The $45 million, 12,000-square-foot arena, one of ALSC's largest projects, opened in 1995.
Another downtown project that's on the drawing boards at ALSC is a planned south block expansion of the Spokane Convention Center, which, like the arena, is operated by the Spokane Public Facilities District.
"It's a multiyear master plan," Hall says of the envisioned expansion. "It's one opportunity to dream big. It's a unique, challenging project to expand the convention center."
The first part of the expansion will involve a parking development for which construction bids were due June 12.
ALSC has worked with Orlando, Fla.-based Conventional Wisdom Corp. on the envisioned expansion, which eventually could include up to 200,000 square feet of new exhibit space, 85,000 square feet of added meeting rooms, 25,000 square feet of new ballroom space, and nearly 1,400 additional parking spaces.
The recent recession-related slowdown in the design pipeline is giving ALSC's architects and designers time to train on a new building-information modeling system called Revit, which provides some of the latest advancements in computer-assisted design software, Hall says.
"We're just in the first year of it," he says. "The (stadium-improvement) project at WSU is the first project we've worked on with it."
Hall says he's disappointed with the number of projects that didn't get funded for pre-design work at the state level in the last legislative session.
"Pre-design usually leads to design, which leads to construction," he says.
He hasn't seen any major stimulus-funded projects enter the design pipeline yet, because stimulus funds are intended mostly to go to projects that are already in or through the design phase, Hall says.
He's optimistic, though, that an economic turnaround is near.
"I'm seeing a change in perception," he says of the economy. "Bond campaigns are passing, and that's a huge indicator for us. When the economy comes back, projects will come back very strong."
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