Spokane Journal of Business

Riding out turbulent times, Bernardo Wills Architects expands services

Bernardo Wills buoyed by returning customers, relationships in industry

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Riding out turbulent times, Bernardo Wills Architects expands services
-—Staff photo by Mike McLean
Principals Robert Pace, Gary Bernardo, and Robert Wills say their firm has experienced a solid demand for remodel designs.

Prominent Spokane design firm Bernardo Wills Architects PC has remained strong in difficult times by expanding its services, growing relationships within the construction industry, and cultivating its collaborative spirit in-house, its principals say.

Repeat customers and a solid demand for remodel designs also have steadied the firm, they say.

Bernardo Wills has long specialized in designing commercial structures, educational facilities, and public-works projects. During the recession, the firm added to its menu of services, exposing it to a broader market, says Gary Bernardo, a founding principal of the firm.

In the last two or three years, Bernardo Wills' annual revenues have remained 10 percent below prerecession years, although that's much better than the industry as a whole, Bernardo claims.

"One of the things that helped us get through the recession is we expanded our services," he says. "We're now a full-time interior design, landscape architecture, and land-planning group."

The group now includes for instance, three licensed landscape architects and two licensed interior designers.

In all, Bernardo Wills has a staff of 23 people, including 10 licensed architects.

The firm occupies about 11,400 square feet of space on the second floor and a portion of the ground floor of the two-story Bissinger Building, at 153 S. Jefferson.

Bernardo and Robert Wills, the other founding principal, worked together at Warren Cummings Heylman & Partners PS, of Spokane, for 12 years before leaving to form their own firm in 1991. The firm they left was later renamed Heylman Martin Architects PS.

Robert Pace, who had also worked at Heylman Martin, joined Bernardo Wills in 1994, became an associate principal in 1999, and was appointed a principal in 2008.

"I just thought we could control our own destiny," Bernardo says of the decision to leave an established architecture firm to start a new one.

Wills says the transition to the startup firm was smoother than he thought it would be.

"We doubled our staff in the first year, and we continued to add staff the following next five years," he says. "Right up until 9/11, we had steady growth every year."

Bernardo says he focuses on private-sector projects, and Wills and Pace focus on public-sector work.

"When the economy is down on one sector, the other seems to buoy the business," Wills says.

The firm also has strengthened bonds with allies in the construction industry.

In one such association, Bernardo Wills and Spokane-based Garco Construction Inc. have fostered a design-build relationship that has helped the companies win sizable government contracts during the last five years, Wills says.

Those jobs include the $29.4 million design-build contract for the new U.S. Army Reserve Center at Fairchild Air Force Base in 2007, the $19.2 million Armed Forces Reserve Center project at the Yakima Training Center in 2008, and a $20.7 million project at the Armed Forces Reserve Center, in Vancouver, Wash. in 2009.

Most recently, Bernardo Wills designed an $8 million Wanapum Dam maintenance facility project that was awarded to Garco.

"Government projects have to go through a competitive process, but we've established a good relationship, and that helps," Pace says.

Other recent design work by Bernardo Wills includes:

•Schweitzer Engi-neering Laboratories Inc. facilities in Pullman and Lewiston, involving two structures with a combined value of $17 million.

•A design role in the $14.2 million McEuen Park redevelopment, in Coeur d'Alene.

*The $4.5 million tenant-improvement project at the Meadowwood Technology Campus, in Liberty Lake, for Liberty Mutual.

•The $1 million-plus Trader Joe's store on the South Hill and adjacent remodels.

In recent years, more than half of the firm's work has been for repeat customers, Pace says. "We've been surviving off continuing relationships," he says.

Bernardo Wills also has seen the proportion of remodel designs grow in relation to designing for new construction. Wills says, though, that he can't attribute that directly to the slow economy.

"Often a remodel costs as much, if not more, than building new," Wills says.

Bernardo adds, "On the retail side, we're seeing a lot of remodel space with second- or third-generation users, and shopping centers are being remodeled."

The new generation of tenants often desires updated architectural design amenities to help them remain competitive with retailers that are new to the market or that have more modern amenities, he says.

A prime showcase for Bernardo Wills' design skills is its own quarters in the Bissinger Building.

The firm moved there two years ago from a leased space in the James S. Black Building, at 107 S. Howard, following a $1.5 million addition and renovation project that brought the 1920s-era building up to modern efficiency standards

"We had a lot of cooks in that kitchen," Bernardo says. "Everyone in the office had a sense of ownership and wanted to contribute to it."

Wills says of the building, "Gary and I looked at it two years before we decided to buy it. When we have the right solution, everything falls into place."

The project involved adding a 4,000-square-foot addition to the brick-and-stone warehouse structure. The building is named for Bissinger Fur & Hide, the original occupant, which operated a tannery there.

The most challenging part of the Bernardo Wills design called for removing large portions of interior walls to create open work areas with exposure to natural lighting, Wills says.

The project also included creating a new entrance on the west side of the building, an outdoor plaza on its north side, and demolishing the fire-damaged former Pella Corp. window warehouse on the property.

Vandervert Construction Inc., of Spokane was the contractor on the project, which earned two gold certifications under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system. One certification is for the building core and the other is for the commercial interior.

Bernardo says the project brought the firm's staff together in a more collaborative way.

"The results are spectacular in terms of staff enthusiasm," he says.

The open-office environment encourages continued collaboration and enhances opportunities for sharing knowledge between colleagues, Wills says.

"We encourage people to pursue licensing and continuing education," he says.

About 4,500 square feet of ground-floor space is available for lease.

Bernardo Wills' principals are optimistic about the firm's future.

Bernardo says the firm has some large and medium projects in the pipeline that he can't disclose because they haven't been announced by the clients yet.

"On the private side, it looks solid," he says. "Projects that were put on hiatus a couple of years ago when the economy was down have been taken out of the drawer for another look."

Adds Pace, "We're moving up, not down. We didn't fall fast, and we're not climbing fast, but we're moving the right way."

Mike McLean
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Reporter Mike McLean covers real estate and construction at the Journal of Business. A multipurpose fisherman and vintage record album aficionado, Mike has worked for the Journal since 2006.

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