Buro Happold: At a Glance
New York City
Building environments, planning and operations, building fabric, specialist consulting, and strategic consulting
What first attracted you to legal work within the construction industry?
Orin Ketyer: My first job out of law school was as a staff attorney for a major insurer, ultimately with a specific focus on construction litigation. Initially, I started to focus on this field simply because it formed a portion of my caseload, but I grew to have an affinity for the intricacies of design and construction. My passion showed through in the quality of [my] results, and that’s how I ended up on that track. I did this for over eight years and then joined the Design Professionals Practice Group at L’Abbate, Balkan, Colavita, & Contini. In addition to litigation work, I was providing strategic risk-management and business advice to design professionals, including Buro Happold. The regional manager for Buro Happold’s North American operations expressed interest in adding me to what was then a small but growing American company. I joined in 2006.
That means the 2008 downturn wasn’t far around the corner for you.
OK: Exactly. When I joined Buro Happold, we were turning work away, growing at a rate of 30 percent per year. Coupled with that rapid growth, there were a lot of challenges within my position because I was not strictly consigned to legal issues. I was heavily involved in day-to-day management issues while at the same time learning the front end of the design-practice business. When the construction industry started to contract in 2008, we had to treat it as a painful but valuable lesson in cost management, budgeting, and getting the most out of the employees while continuing to be economical with our resources.
So versatility was key during this transition?
OK: It really helped working with a variety of capable people who were able to address and reform various aspects of the business. The actual working environment and office space at Buro Happold complements this as well. We have an open space with no offices, cubicles, or dividers. That’s the ethos of the business. It’s extremely transparent, and the various business heads all had a role in shaping the business prior to, during, and after the downturn. Structuring things in this way gives us the ability to know our strengths and weaknesses and more acutely define our strategic goals. This continues to be essential. We’re providing a service and a product to clients, and we not only need to deliver with a high degree of skill; [we must] also remain mindful of the economic needs of our clients.
Does this versatility translate into your everyday work?
OK: I have a stable of recurring responsibilities and projects that keep me busy: maintaining business and engineering board licenses for the 35 states in which we currently have projects; internal reporting for the local, regional, and main boards at Buro Happold; risk-management duties; claim and litigation management; and, of course, contract negotiations. As a result of the downturn, there’s been a higher volume of smaller-scale projects, which means a higher volume of legal attention is required. I also get a lot of walk-ups. I don’t have an office; no one does. My clients are the people that sit all around me: principals, project leaders, engineers, HR, marketing, finance, and administrative staff.
In what ways does this perpetual “open door” complement Buro Happold’s North American efforts to diversify?
OK: Our firm in the United States has always been active in the civic, cultural, and higher educational sectors, but our wide skill sets naturally led to wider project diversification. We’ve had a lot of exciting new commercial and development work that includes sports venues, high-end retail, gallery spaces, corporate headquarters, and laboratories. We work at multiple scales, from individual buildings to large master plans. We also specialize in projects that are especially complex or unique, such as the High Line in New York; the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, DC; and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. Our projects also include numerous art installations—most recently Levitated Mass in Los Angeles.
Sounds like your diversification efforts have been fruitful.
OK: Even though the market still isn’t in full recovery mode, we’re growing, and a major reason for this is that we offer a broad spectrum of services. Our multidisciplinary background informs all of our work and has helped us to develop specialties in façade engineering, fire engineering, lighting, sustainability, and computational analysis. Not many of our competitors can offer integrated suites of services like Buro Happold, and it adds a lot of value to the work we do for our clients and the built environment. ABQ