B end native Scott Steele wanted to be an architect since he was in junior high school, and after 20 years of running his own firm, he’s as enthusiastic as ever. “I love coming to work every day,” said Steele, 55. “I’m one of those people; I don’t know if I’ll ever retire.”
Steele is the owner of Steele Associates Architects, one of the larger firms in Bend with 16 people, including Steele. During the last development boom, Steele made its name by designing prominent mixed-use buildings like Franklin Crossing downtown and Steele Associates’ former headquarters, a 16,000-square-foot building in NorthWest Crossing that Steele sold to Central Oregon Pediatric Associates. The building was the first commercial building in Bend to receive the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, gold-level certification.
At one point, the firm employed 28 people, Steele said. While Steele Associates is growing again — Steele hired four people this year — he said growth is not his main focus. “Our goal is to provide the best design and service in our region,” he said.
Steele competes with similar-size firms like BBT Architects, founded in 1976, as well as smaller firms that began during the last downturn as big firms laid off architects. The Oregon State Board of Architect Examiners lists 30 active firms headquartered in Bend, and 18 of those were licensed in 2009 or later.
Steele sat down with The Bulletin to talk about the business of architecture today. His responses have been edited for length and content.
Q: Have you changed anything about the way you do business since the Great Recession?
A: There were a lot of new developers (during the last boom). Some of those people weren’t really legit. If I meet a brand-new developer, we check up on them and make sure they’re legitimate. Fortunately, we’ve got a tremendous amount of repeat clients.
Q: You were an early adopter of LEED certification. How popular are sustainable designs these days?
A: Now you don’t hear people talk as much about LEED. There’s Earth Advantage. We do a lot of that. We do all kinds of Earth Advantage and Energy Trust of Oregon work. We think those are all great programs. What we’ve seen in terms of LEED, especially the public agencies, like school districts, every one of our projects is sustainable, but most clients don’t want to pay for third-party certification.
Q: What’s the smallest building you’ve designed?
A: Chicken coop. We had a client in the Sisters area we did an indoor riding ring for. He was an ex-high-tech person, and he wanted us to do a chicken coop for his kids. And it wasn’t your typical chicken coop. It had a really cool rooster sculpture on the roof. It had fiber-optics to the hens’ nests so they could tell if there were eggs there.
Q: Have you taken on any projects that are a first for your firm?
A: We’ll design anything. Industrial buildings — some architects may think, ‘Those aren’t interesting.’ I beg to differ. We are doing industrial buildings for two developers in Central Oregon. They are shed roof, contemporary modern style, and they are as cost-effective as an ill-proportioned, unattractive engineered building.
Q: Do you disagree with any of the current trends in building design?
A: It used to drive us crazy when people asked us to design craftsman-style office buildings. Craftsman style’s a residential style. It was so the rage; too much of anything’s not good.
Q: You talk about the importance of providing good service to building contractors who rely on your plans. Did you ever work in the trades?
A: I was a carpenter’s apprentice (between college semesters). I was working on those huge highway interchange rails. When I was young I worked helping build pole barns. I respect contractors and the trades greatly.
Q: How do you win contracts in the Willamette Valley or other states, especially when you’re competing against larger firms?
A: The stuff we’re doing in Montana, Arizona, Washington and everywhere else, those are clients that know us, and they want us to do their projects they’re doing elsewhere. So typically, we’re not going to Salem or Arizona or Montana and marketing to try to win jobs.
Q: Do you foresee opening any branch offices?
A: There’s a couple markets we’re interested in, but we’re going to let our clients help decide that for us.
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