In 2009, Connell Design, a 10-person interior architecture and design firm specializing in commercial properties, got the offer of a lifetime. A longtime client, Comcast, needed retail and office space, and the company wanted a firm that could create it by combining and renovating two empty warehouses. “We’re a tiny tenant-improvements company, so we were going way past our comfort zone, but it was a great challenge and a great success,” says Alan Lambert, president of the company, who took over from founder Richard Connell in 1999. The project may have been outside Connell Design’s wheelhouse in terms of size, but the firm has always focused on renovations, and the approach has led to a loyal customer base.
Connell Design has been in the industry for 24 years, primarily building its business around tenant improvements for class B and C buildings, which tend to be older low- and midrise spaces in suburban areas. Working primarily with landlords, the company creates inviting industrial, office, medical, and retail spaces so that its clients can quickly close their leases.
Typically, the Mountlake Terrace, Washington-based firm takes a project up to the permitting stage then hands it over to a general contractor to complete. Once in a while, though—including for the recent remodel of a 12,203-square-foot class A vacant office space for Seattle-based insurance company Alexander Morford & Woo (which recently merged with Brown & Riding)—it does more. “In this case, we worked with the tenant user to help them finish the project in full form, and it brought all of our tools together, including space planning, construction planning, interior design, permit approval, and even construction-period support,” Lambert says.
For the Comcast project, Connell Design, which normally works on spaces between 1,000 and 10,000 square feet, was tasked with renovating a combined area of 80,512 square feet. “It was a challenge for us because we had to manage major structural and civil engineering services while providing the interior build-out drawings ourselves,” Lambert says.
The result was 29,800 square feet of office space, 14,300 square feet of warehouse space, and 3,000 square feet of retail space. The firm also created a 32,500-square-foot interior parking lot and helped manage significant upgrades to the site, including landscaping, the creation of a new drainage system, the renovation of an exterior parking area, and even street improvements. “It took more than a year and a half to complete—and at least a dozen meetings and follow-up coordination activities with the city and the state to get various permits pulled,” Lambert says. “It was a huge coordination effort, beyond the pale of what we typically do, but it showed we have the capacity to handle this level of work. Not too many people do what we do; most architects focus on new buildings while we work exclusively with existing buildings.”
The strategy certainly seems to be working, if repeat business is any indication. “For some projects,” Lambert says, “we’re hired by the end-user tenants, which represent corporate accounts that have been with us for years, and we follow them from space to space when they move.”