CO architects ride health care and education facilities are growing during the pandemic.

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For Miracle Mile-based CO Architects, which specializes in the design and renovation of healthcare and educational facilities, the pandemic has brought unexpected benefits, resulting in rapid growth in work and staff.

Since the pandemic began, CO (pronounced “Co”) Architects has expanded its staff by a third to 160 employees and moved into a larger 27,000-square-foot headquarters late last year.

“After the brief initial lockdown, the work started pouring in and hasn’t stopped,” said Jenna Knudsen, the company’s new managing principal. “Healthcare and life science research has never slowed down and there is a lot of interest in the education market.”

In the past 15 months, CO Architects has undertaken design work on two major projects in the healthcare market: the $1.7 billion, five-year Harbor-UCLA Medical Center replacement project in West Carson and the $1.3 billion hospital and medical complex on the north end of the UC Irvine campus.

At CO Architects’ exclusive satellite office in San Diego, staff growth is most evident. It opened five years ago with a handful of employees. Knudsen said the office now has a dozen employees and is still hiring.

CO Architects has had a long-standing relationship with UC San Diego, working on more than a dozen projects over the years. The firm is now in the design phase of a 250,000-square-foot outpatient center at the university’s Hillcrest Medical Campus and hopes to do other work on a $3 billion improvement plan for the entire 10-acre medical campus.

At least in the last year, all these new projects and additional employees at CO Architects have yet to translate into additional revenue, which last year fell from $66 million to $63 million in 2020.

Still, CO Architects ranked No. 2 by location among architecture firms in LA County in the Business Journal’s latest list, behind San Francisco-based Gensler.
The organization Founded in 1986 as a Los Angeles, San Francisco-based office of Anshen+Allen Architects, it was sold to Edmonton, Alberta Stantech in 2010.

From the beginning, the company, 100% owned by employee shareholders, has focused on health care and educational institutions, along with other civic projects.
“These have always been our core markets — and Los Angeles is our core geographic focus,” Knudsen said. CO Architects is not just focusing on these markets.

“Healthcare projects have been a market for a long time,” said William Richards, a Washington, D.C.-based independent writer who covers the architecture business and culture and works as a communications consultant for the American Institute of Architects. “Indeed, many architecture firms were founded just for this market.”

CO Architects designed the City of Hope Outpatient Center in Duarte.

Hot sector

According to Richards, higher education has been an increasingly hot sector in recent years.
“Many universities are full of donations and ready to go with campus improvement projects,” he said.

The pandemic has also given architectural firms more work, as healthcare and other institutional facilities have had to retrofit their heating/ventilation/air-conditioning systems to improve ventilation and reduce the risk of spreading the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus indoors.

And in California, there was another driving factor in both markets, but especially health care: the state’s seismic retrofit requirements. In California, hospitals and other emergency medical facilities face a 2030 deadline to ensure they can continue operating after a major earthquake.

CO Architects recently joined the team for the Harbor-UCLA project, largely because of those seismic retrofit laws.

UCLA and Paul Williams

CO Architects has worked on a number of seismic and modernization projects on the UCLA campus. Among the most difficult were two buildings designed by the famous black midcentury architect Paul Williams: the LA Kretz Botany Building and the Pritzker Hall Psychology Tower.

“Those were very challenging: because they were Paul Williams buildings, we spent a lot of time figuring out how to respect the original designs while bringing the buildings up to modern standards,” Knudsen said. ” she added to reduce the confusion caused by earthquakes.

Peter Hendrickson, UCLA’s associate vice chancellor for design and construction, worked with CO Architects on both projects.

“What stood out to me was how CO Architects was able to work on these two complex seismic projects with both buildings fully occupied,” Hendrickson said.

“CO Architects did something very unusual: they brought students and faculty into the design and construction process using the two buildings,” he continued. “They went above and beyond in terms of input from the end users of the buildings to understand exactly what the program was about. And, as important, they incorporated student and faculty input into the design.”

Last year, after major work on the La Kretz Botany building was completed, CO Architects spearheaded an additional – and unexpected – project.
“We found a mural by Paul Williams in the plant building,” Knudsen said. The picture was in black and white and on the bottom it shows a glass mosaic filled with plants. “Based on the original concept, we created a mural in the building,” she added. That was when some of the firm’s architects studied Williams’ other works to gain insight into his color choices.

Continued growth ahead?

Like many architecture and design firms in recent months, CO Architects is experiencing long lead times between submitting designs and when construction begins. Typically, this lead time is spent purchasing building materials. But since the start of last year, material costs, supply chain issues and other problems have stretched to many projects taking more than six months.

Knudsen added that in response, CO Architects has been fine-tuning the materials the designs require. “In many cases, the materials we first choose now may not be the same as they were three years ago,” she said.
The company has revamped its design to accommodate the changing nature of the workplace caused by the pandemic.

“We need to adapt designs for new workplaces where many people work remotely most of the time and rarely come into the office,” she said. “That means working with engineers to improve outdoor spaces, meeting rooms of different sizes and ventilation.”

In terms of growth, the company is not looking for geographical expansion. “We are looking at expanding services to our clients in our core markets: interior design, medical space planners and environmental graphics technology,” she said.

On the geographic front, CO Architects focuses strictly on Los Angeles as its core market and has no plans to open any additional offices in San Diego in the near future.

According to Knudsen, when project opportunities arise in other parts of the country, the company works in collaboration with architectural firms located in the project area.
“Sometimes those organizations take care of the permit and we become the design architect, especially for projects in the main functional area,” she said.

Acquisitions are not on the menu in the near future, he said. “We are more focused on organic growth.”
That’s the right strategy in the architectural field right now, says Richards, an author and industry communications consultant.

“When we look at the areas where CO Architects are focusing, they are in the main growth areas: healthcare, education and technology.”

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