In its 100-year history, Clark Nexsen has grown from a design firm focused on institutional projects in central Virginia to a prominent multidisciplinary architecture and engineering firm with a diverse portfolio across the MidAtlantic and Southeastern states. During the last three decades, its size and reach has grown tenfold—from one office of 40 employees to 10 offices and a staff of about 400.
In recent years, that growth strategy has paid off. The Virginia Beach, Va.-based firm jumped eight spots, to 29th on this year’s ENR MidAtlantic Top Design Firm list, as its regional revenue increased more than 20%, to $53.94 million. As the firm navigates an uncertain market, it is seeking to draw on its broadened range of capabilities to stay the course.
In light of its success on projects ranging from higher education to transportation, ENR MidAtlantic has named Clark Nexsen its 2020 Design Firm of the Year. “It’s always been an innovative and entrepreneurial firm,” says Terri Hall, who has served as the firm’s president since 2016.
Hall helped usher in some of Clark Nexsen’s growth during her 21 years with the firm. With her husband, Greg, who is now the firm’s chief financial officer, she founded its Raleigh, N.C., office in 2003. “You can pitch an idea, like opening an office, and the firm will embrace and encourage that,” she says.
In some cases, the firm’s mergers and acquisitions have expanded its footprint and bolstered its existing capabilities, while other transactions have created opportunities in new sectors.
In 2011, Clark Nexsen acquired Technicon Engineering in Macon, Ga., which Hall says gave the firm expertise in industrial mechanical engineering. Its industrial and manufacturing services have since expanded to the MidAtlantic region. Last year, the firm finished the design and construction of a high-bay manufacturing plant in Virginia for a industrial client, whose name Clark Nexsen declines to disclose. That project drew on members of Clark Nexsen’s construction services group, which was launched in 2015.
The firm recently created a building science group that focuses on occupant health and well-being as well as reduced energy consumption and operating costs. The group used energy modeling in product and system selection for the $82-million, 260,000-sq-ft Ferguson Headquarters 3 project in Newport News, Va. Scheduled to be completed this fall, the Ferguson project is predicted to have a 70% reduction in energy use, compared with baseline.
The project for Ferguson, the largest U.S. distributor of plumbing supplies, is an example of Clark Nexsen’s multidisciplinary approach. It is providing architecture, civil, electrical, fire protection, interior design, landscape architecture, structural and mechanical and plumbing design services.
As it continues to move into new lines of business, the firm aims to bring as many of its capabilities as possible to every project. “I believe there is incredible value in having everything under one roof,” Hall says.
With expertise spread across multiple geographic regions, Hall says the company has worked hard to emphasize collaboration among offices, while continuing to encourage entrepreneurship. She says that in the past, an individual office might focus its business to boost its specific revenue, but now the firm is structured so that different offices benefit from working together. She says managers try to break down internal office and market silos, noting, “We want to bring the right people to the team to benefit the client, regardless of the location.”
Clark Nexsen’s multidiscipline approach is an asset, says Dan Buchta, vice president at Barton Malow, who has worked with the firm on projects for more than a decade. Buchta appreciates Clark Nexsen’s collaborative approach. “They are very practical because of their engineering background,” he says, “as opposed to firms that are purely architecture.”
The two companies are currently working on the McCormick Road Residence Houses renovation at the University of Virginia. Besides architecture, Clark Nexsen is providing electrical, fire protection, interior design, structural, mechanical and plumbing services. The $100-million project, which spans six buildings, is scheduled to be finished this summer. Buchta says his team worked with Clark Nexsen early in the project to shorten the schedule by a year. “They were helpful in the phasing studies so we could deliver this faster,” he says.
Transportation has emerged as a growing market for the firm in recent years. In December 2018, construction was completed on the $120-million Lesner Bridge replacement in Virginia Beach. Clark Nexsen and FIGG Bridge Engineers designed the 1,575-ft-long dual-span superstructure to withstand some of the strongest tidal and storm surge currents in Virginia. The bridge features LED lighting, sculptures and new pedestrian and bike paths.
Other significant transportation projects include the 18th and 19th Street Corridor Improvements in Virginia Beach; the Nansemond Parkway Expansion in Suffolk, Va.; and continuous contracts with the Virginia Dept. of Transportation Hampton Roads District for bridge inspections.
Whitney Duffy, a Clark Nexsen transportation department leader, has seen the firm significantly raise its profile in transportation since she started with the firm 16 years ago as an entry-level engineer.
At that time, transportation was part of its civil engineering practice. In 2012, it became a full practice. Duffy says that provided a better showcase for its work and commitment to transportation. “These projects have a uniqueness to them that is far beyond just civil,” Duffy says.
Duffy is also co-leader of the recently established Vienna, Va., office, where she sees significant opportunities for expansion. “We’ve always had a presence here, but not necessarily in a lead role on transportation projects,” she says. “There’s a lot of work in northern Virginia, and we committed to getting out there and figuring out what the needs are.”
The firm also gives back to its communities through charity efforts. The Clark Nexsen Foundation contributed more than $200,000 to several organizations last year, including the American Heart Association, Junior Achievement, Virginia Beach GrowSmart and the Virginia Arts Festival. Since 2004, the firm has raised more than $120,000 to support the Multiple Sclerosis Society, primarily through teams participating in Bike MS rides.
During the last 15 years, Clark Nexsen donated more than $100,000 worth of goods to food banks through CANstruction—a charity art exhibition and event in which architecture and engineering firms compete to design and build themed art structures assembled from canned food.
Although the construction market is facing uncertainties during the COVID-19 pandemic, Hall says the company remains committed to meeting its future growth goals.
The firm, which reported $93.1 million in total revenue in 2019, aims to reach $120 million by 2025. “It’s still a vision of ours to get there,” she says. “We will have to continue to adapt, be agile and look for opportunities to procure more work. Being open-minded will be important.”