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Designs on Denver: Why we're a hot spot for expanding architectural firms

Smaller architecture, design and engineering firms are having their moment in metro Denver.

Several such companies have established offices, expanded their local presence or entered the market through a merger in recent months, attracted to Denver because of the area's development boom and young workforce.

"The booming population growth makes it worth the risk," said Cathy Rosset, executive director of the American Institute of Architects Colorado chapter. "Our job board postings are up 30 percent over last year and the year before."

New technologies in architecture have also made it easier for companies to expand into new geographic territories, Rosset said.

Houston-based Abel Design Group made its first expansion effort outside its home state by opening a Denver office in January, said Jeff Abel, managing principal of Abel Design Group.

Until now, the 15-year-old company has maintained offices in Houston and Austin, but it made the leap into Denver because of its central location, talent pool and business links between Denver and Houston. 

"We were looking to expand, and we knew we could take our model pretty much anywhere," Abel said. “There are many connections between the industries, the companies, and even the people in Houston and Denver. Our relationships have been the primary driver of our growth, and a big reason why we are here.”

He wanted to open the office in a city that he could reach on a flight shorter than three hours and that had enough talent that it could recruit locally.

Abel tapped Laura Swank, formerly with Denver-based Box Studios, to run the Denver office, which is staffed with the equivalent of 3-1/2 employees with plans to grow to six by the end of the year. Right now, Abel offices in a collaborative workspace but is in negotiations for a permanent office in the central business district.

Abel specializes in hospitality, restaurant and retail clients and is busy designing a studio for BIG Power Yoga, another Houston-based company that is opening a new location in Denver. 

Indianapolis-based BSA LifeStructures, which combines architecture, interior design and engineering and planning, opened its Denver office in 2015, but recently moved into a bigger office space and is staffing up in a significant way.

As of February, BSA employed three people in Denver, but by June 1 will have increased that number to 12, said Sallyanne Hulick, chief marketing officer for BSA. After that, the company plans to continue growing here, up to about 25 people eventually.

The company specializes in the health care, education and laboratory design and planning. Several new UCHealth facilities along the Front Range were designed by BSA, and the company is involved with Sterling Ranch, the master-planned residential community in Douglas County.

Nationwide, BSA has 240 employees in cities such s Raleigh, North Carolina, Atlanta and St. Louis.

"We went where the work is," said John Salisbury, regional director of BSA in Denver. "There is growth in Denver in health care and an emphasis on higher education."

Milwaukee-based Eppstein Uhen Architects recently planted a flag in Denver by merging with longtime local firm BurkettDesign, now called BurkettEUA, a deal announced earlier this month. And Atlanta-based GreenbergFarrow opened its 16th office nationwide in Broomfield.

But out-of-state companies aren't the only ones making plays in metro Denver.

Three local architects formerly with other firms in Denver this month announced the launch of their own firm, called Form+Works Design Group. 

Jessica Reske, formerly with Hord Coplan Macht, and Jane Crisler and Natalie Lord, formerly of Humphries Poli, make up the company.

All three women specialize in historic preservation and will continue to focus on projects of that type going forward. Current projects include the roof and skylight replacement at the Colorado State Capitol and work on the Paris Mill in Park County. The mill has been the subject of preservation efforts for more than a decade.

“Form+Works Design Group’s philosophy is to enliven and enrich neighborhoods with transformative, context driven projects,” Crisler said. “Jessica, Natalie and I are passionate about celebrating the unique character of the clients and the communities we work in – both today and for future generations.” 

Form+Works also has growth plans, but as a new firm will maintain its size for now, Crisler said. Eventually, they hope to grow the office to 10 people.

Molly Armbrister, Reporter
Denver Business Journal

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