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While the recession has brought pink slips at many design firms, Corgan Associates of Dallas says it has not laid off a single employee. While the firm has diversified by geography and market niches, it is still honing its reputation as a global leader in aviation and data center markets.

Career Oriented John A. Dubiski Career High School in Grand Prairie, Texas, boasts floor-to-ceiling windows. A palette of bronze hues and dark wood add to the school’s professional look.
Photo by Chuck Smith, Charles Davis Smith
Career Oriented John A. Dubiski Career High School in Grand Prairie, Texas, boasts floor-to-ceiling windows. A palette of bronze hues and dark wood add to the school’s professional look.

“We have grown organically, and it has carried us through this recession because of an ability to find work in some markets that were sustained and a little more recession-proof and the flexibility of our staff to move to those projects,” says Bob Morris, Corgan president and CEO.

Aviation projects at Dallas Love Field and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport as well as terminal replacement projects at Sacramento International Airport in California and Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport have kept revenue flowing at Corgan.

The demand for major mission-critical data centers by financial companies and Internet retailers also has remained high. It’s a niche market that Corgan began serving 25 years ago, developing know-how while designing nearly 200 of the computer centers. It currently has data centers in design or construction in 17 states and three countries.

“People often don’t think of data centers as architectural projects, but they are big problem-solving opportunities, and the inherent design challenges in designing a data center perfectly fit an architect’s problem-solving talents,” Morris says. “It’s more project leadership and problem-solving than the aesthetics.”

Corgan, with joint venture partner HDR, snagged the largest health-care project in Dallas—Parkland’s $1.27-billion replacement hospital.

“Health care is a relatively new discipline for us,” Morris says. “We were working organically into that market and had done our first stand-alone hospital a few years ago [Wise Regional Hospital in Decatur, Texas]. When we were contacted by HDR to team on the Parkland project, it seemed like a great opportunity.”

The project features a unique design, with separate towers for women and infants and for acute care intersecting each other and shared service components, such as dietary and central supply. Construction manager BARA, a joint venture among Balfour Beatty Construction, Austin Commercial, H.J. Russell & Co. and Azteca Enterprises, all of Dallas, broke ground on Parkland in October 2010.

“Corgan has been a standout partner during two years of intensive planning for the New Parkland Hospital,” says Walt Massey, senior vice president for Balfour Beatty Construction and BARA project executive. “Working alongside the owner, dozens of consultants and my construction management team, they have worked through numerous challenges and are always willing to go the extra mile.”

Massey notes that “one of the most impressive dimensions of their work is their deep understanding of Dallas history and its architectural context. Corgan’s thoughtful planning has ensured that this new public building will be featured prominently in the community, but responsibly, tastefully and enduringly.”

Diversification has been key

Corgan’s commitment to market diversity dates back more than three decades, when leaders realized that most of the firm’s revenue came from one school district, and saw the risk that presented if the client stopped building schools. “We added market sectors over time as we saw opportunities to move into those sectors,” Morris says.

These days, the firm continues to branch out while successfully pursing the small amount of work moving forward in the school and private markets. Corgan recently was awarded two $80-million-plus high-school projects by two Texas school districts: Northwest Independent School District (ISD) and Frisco ISD

The firm has secured some private projects during the recession. KDC Real Estate Development & Investments of Dallas hired Corgan to design a new 12-story, 320,000-sq-ft local headquarters building in Legacy, Texas, for Encana Oil & Gas, based in Calgary, Alberta. The firm’s interiors division is working on a 485,000-sq-ft interior design for clothing designer Fossil in Richardson, Texas, and a 90,000-sq-ft, three-level renovation of realtor CB Richard Ellis’ Shared Services Center of Excellence in Dallas.

“The fact we were not having layoffs and continuing to achieve success gave clients a good degree of comfort and trust in us,” says Mitch Paradise, Corgan vice president and director of business development. “That has really set us apart. With our current workload, we are constantly sought after for our perspective on market trends and construction costs.”

Corgan also has reached out geographically, opening offices in Houston, Miami, New York, Phoenix and Beijing. The international location is working on airport projects, bank data centers and mixed-use master planning.

“When we work in China, we export expertise from the U.S. in the context of the high-end expertise we have in aviation and mission-critical data centers. But local presence in a place like China is increasingly important as the workload picks up,” Morris says. “We believe there is a future for us in China as it relates to aviation and mission-critical work, and with the right people in China, there are a number of other projects we can be doing.”

Shaping a ‘ homespun ’ culture

Jack M. Corgan founded Corgan in 1938, designing drive-in and indoor movie theaters. A pilot, he flew his own small plane to reach out-of-the-way places throughout the Southwest. The company has since expanded, adding six offices, but has not forsaken its close-knit, homespun culture, which attracts and helps keep talented professionals. For instance, Morris has worked at Corgan for 33 years. Many of the firm’s associates have been at the firm for 20 or more years. The firm employs about 323 employees, 212 in Dallas.

Corgan donates money and time to local causes. Morris calls that “part of our culture.” Employees uncover nonprofit opportunities, such as repairing and refurbishing homes in downtrodden neighborhoods for nonprofit Hearts and Hammers and collecting clothing and household items for Goodwill Industries of Dallas.