Though all markets have dynamic drivers of design and construction activity, few boast the diversity and relative reliability of the MidAtlantic. Housing the federal government and its extensive portfolio of varied types of facilities and programs helps, of course, but so does the presence of many other entities in sectors that require specialized design expertise—academic, health care, research and technology, for example, as well as private-sector commercial and manufacturing. The region also has proven to be an environment in which national multidisciplinary design firms such as Salas O’Brien can thrive. The Santa Ana, Calif.-based company says its ability to offer a diverse, integrated set of services from its eight MidAtlantic offices contributed to $32.63 million in regional revenue in 2023, a nearly 66% jump from the previous year.

Ranked No. 52 on the 2024 ENR MidAtlantic Top Design Firm list, Salas O’Brien is a relative newcomer to the region, having established its presence in the late 2010s through a series of mergers, which has long been part of its corporate growth strategy. A key addition was the 2021 acquisition of Houston-based SIA Solutions. It gave Salas O’Brien an immediate presence as an engineering partner for agencies such as the U.S. Dept. of Defense, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Institutes of Health.

Srini Neralla, who founded SIA Solutions and now is Salas O’Brien’s senior managing principal, explains that the firm’s strategy aims to enhance skills and capabilities in line with client needs, whether that means designing more efficient and sustainable buildings or identifying alternative procurement strategies that let projects advance. When contemplating a merger or acquisition opportunity, Neralla says, “we don’t focus on a specific geographic area or market sector but rather what makes the most sense to support our clients. And many of those insights come from simply having conversations about the issues they’re dealing with.”

These relationships have enabled Salas O’Brien to help clients conceptualize and shape potential projects. “We may be working on one project and they’ll talk to us about something that could potentially be coming up,” Neralla says. He adds that though Salas O’Brien teams may offer ideas about how a project could be done and what might be needed, there is also the full understanding that the project may go to another firm.

Above all, Neralla adds, Salas O’Brien is a client-focused company. “We want them to trust that we’ll always put their best interests first,” he says. “And if there is an opportunity that they think we’d be good at carrying out, they’ll come to us.”

National Institute of Health’s Bethesda, Md., campus

Salas O’Brien is providing an assessment of the central utility and cogeneration plant that provides electricity, steam and chilled water for the National Institute of Health’s Bethesda, Md., campus.
Photo courtesy Salas O’Brien

Fostering Facility Management

A current assignment to conduct facility and site condition assessments nationwide for NIH is one example. The studies are designed to help optimize operations, meet sustainability goals and lower costs in the agency’s roughly 60-year-old building inventory. For example, an assessment of the central utility and cogeneration plant that provides electricity, steam and chilled water for NIH’s Bethesda, Md., campus saved $5 million in utility costs and cut annual emissions by 58,000 tons.

“We want [clients] to trust that we’ll always put their best interests first.”
—Srini Neralla, Senior Managing Principal Salas O’Brien

Salas O’Brien also has been tasked with integrating multiple NIH facilities management databases into a single workplace management system. Doug Robinson, Salas O’Brien associate vice president, says the new system will provide better tracking of facility asset data and help NIH make the most of available funding by helping prioritize needs and applying available upgrade funding to as many projects as possible.

Robinson adds that the combination of full-service engineering expertise and extensive experience across a variety of facilities make Salas O’Brien uniquely qualified for such a multifaceted effort that involves varying construction techniques and operational needs. “Because we do a lot of work for clients that are also doing construction and building system research, we can identify the latest trends and technologies for addressing NIH’s needs,” he says. “And because migration efforts are not the same for all databases, you need to understand the details and critical points to effectively consolidate them into a unified system.”


Pushing the Robotics Envelope

Perhaps no effort better illustrates Salas O’Brien’s ability to augment existing expertise with new capabilities than the Robotics Mat Sinking Technology project. Designed to support the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ revetment operations along the Mississippi River, the system will use robotic cranes and precision machine vision technology to maneuver, place and automatically fasten concrete squares into extensive mats to “armor” the river banks, stabilizing the waterway’s course and preventing erosion.

Using new technology, the final system, called ARMOR 1, will have the capability to sink 4,000 mat squares per day—twice the current rate of the Corps’ existing 1940s-era mat sinking unit and with a smaller crew and much safer work environment.

Salas O’Brien has worked with the National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC) and Carnegie Mellon University to lead a team of cross-functional engineering experts to design, build, test and commission an automated, articulated concrete mattress-sinking prototype of ARMOR 1, which is now making a transition to full-scale manufacture and assembly.

Neralla says the project put the firm’s program management skills to the test and required a rapid ramp-up of robotics expertise, from mechanical aspects to multilevel software development and integration. “We were by no means a robotics firm when this started,” he says, “but we’ve been able to put together a great team and develop good relationships with our partners, which in turn has helped us learn as well.”

Jeff Legault, NREC associate director, says Salas O’Brien has been a “great partner” in helping advance ARMOR 1 from its conceptual and testing phases to the final product, scheduled for delivery to the Corps’ Vicksburg District next year. “The collaboration they’ve fostered is present at all levels, with one goal in mind—to deliver the highest quality product to the Corps.”

Salas O’Brien’s major MidAtlantic region projects include:

WMATA Office Consolidation Program in Washington, D.C.

Salas O’Brien was program manager for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s $1-billion headquarters consolidation. The four-year, two-phase effort, completed in 2023, reduced the number of the agency’s D.C.-area office buildings to four from 10 and included three new LEED Gold high-rise office facilities. As owner’s representative, Salas O’Brien provided building systems engineering, energy modeling and commissioning services.

Woodrow W. Bolick Advanced Technical Training Center, Charlottesville, Va.

Located at Piedmont Virginia Community College, the 45,000-sq-ft center is Virginia’s first net-zero higher education building and the first Virginia Community College System facility to be powered entirely by alternative energy. Salas O’Brien provided mechanical, electrical, plumbing, fire alarm and sprinkler design for the building. It includes labs for woodworking, robotics and metals, a specialized classroom for cybersecurity training, offices, student areas and food service operations. Completion is scheduled for August 2024.

NETL Direct Air Capture Center, Pittsburgh

Salas O’Brien is providing full A/E design services as part of a design-build project to develop the Direct Air Capture Center research facility at the National Energy Technology Laboratory. The center will help accelerate the development technologies to lower quantities of CO2 in the atmosphere, supporting the Biden administration’s goal of a carbon-emission-free U.S. electricity sector by 2035 and an economy-wide net zero goal by 2050. The fully designed project is transitioning to construction with a scheduled completion target of May 2025.

Maintaining Momentum

Salas O’Brien has had similar success in keeping these skills within the company, reporting a 93% team member retention rate. More than 90% of its 130-member MidAtlantic staff hold company shares as employee-owners. Collaborations with numerous colleges and universities in the region support a robust talent pipeline.

Salas O’Brien says it had more than 130 interns and early-career graduates last year, and it expects that number to top 200 in 2024. The firm is also part of the Hiring our Heroes program, providing fellowships and career paths for members of the military community seeking opportunities in the private sector.

“We always seek to learn what [clients] want and need and then look at what can we do to help make those things happen.”
— Srini Neralla, Senior Managing Principal, Salas O’Brien

Besides career development opportunities, Salas O’Brien offers ways for employees to support local communities and charities. During the past year, the firm collected more than 400 books as for middle school students as part of Baltimore City Public Schools’ Annual Book Flood and participated in Junior Achievement of Western Pennsylvania’s JA BizTown, an experiential learning laboratory for elementary and middle school students. Other community involvement efforts include participating in the Washington, D.C., chapter of the ACE Mentorship Program and supporting fundraising events for Henrico County, Va.’s Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program.

Despite election-year, economic and other uncertainties that overshadow the region’s business outlook, Neralla is generally optimistic about the near term. “Government funding cycles always have challenges, sometimes resulting in projects being delayed,” he says, “but, overall, we feel there’s much to look forward to.”

Energy and sustainability figure prominently in that future, he adds. In addition to reconfiguring environmental capabilities to better address clients’ sustainability needs, the firm sees increased need for decarbonization; environmental, social and governance (ESG) consulting; and energy modeling.

He also sees benefits from helping clients tackle the technical challenges of artificial intelligence, including incorporating the technology into building information modeling to learn from past projects and inform current projects.

As with the previous work, Neralla says, these opportunities will likely arise from continuing the invaluable conversations with Salas O’Brien clients.

“We always seek to learn what they want and need,” he says, “and then look at what can we do to help make those things happen.”