Still, the firm had to craft a résumé that would meet the necessary qualifications to be considered for government work. It expanded its institutional portfolio by pursuing more nonfederal design-build projects, including the $80 million Oakland Hall at the University of Maryland in College Park.
“Design firms have to be smart about this,” Lowe says. “The Army Corps [of Engineers’] provisions say you have to have relevant projects within a certain time frame to qualify. That can be a significant barrier to entry to firms like us. If you don’t have that experience, you won’t get past the first step in the selection process.”
Ultimately, it was the strength of relationships in the private sector that gave WDG its big break in the federal world. The firm had worked extensively with Maryland-based developer Foulger-Pratt on commercial and mixed-use projects since the late 1960s. Three years ago, WDG began discussions with the developer’s construction division to team up and pursue federal work. The plan paid off in the fall of 2008, when the duo was awarded a design-build contract for the Army’s $33 million Missile Defense Agency Headquarters building at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia. The 99,000-square-foot administrative building is scheduled for completion in 2010. This past spring, the two firms followed up with a design-build contract for the new $50 million, 141,000-square-foot Army Test Evaluation Command Headquarters in Maryland, which is scheduled to be completed in 2011.
In August, the firm landed its biggest federal commission yet: a prominent role in construction of the new U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, the largest stimulus-funded project to date. Four architecture firms are part of the design-build team, all led by contractor Clark Construction Group of Maryland — another long-time partner of WDG.
Building off a concept originally conceived by Perkins+Will before it was bridged over to the new team, WDG serves as architect of record for the 1.3-million-square-foot project. St. Louis—based HOK is providing interior, landscape, and sustainable design; Quinn Evans Architects will handle historic preservation duties; and McKissack and McKissack is architect of record for a 1,000-car garage and central utility plant. Completion is slated for 2013.
“This win is a stabilizing force that enables us to confidently move forward over the next couple of years, even as architects in general continue to face so many challenges in this market,” Liebmann says, noting that, after cutting staff in early 2009, the firm is now hiring back some positions. He adds that federal work is helping keep the firm afloat. “Most of our private sector clients are on the sidelines,” he adds. “They are positioning for the future, but that doesn’t pay the bills today.”
Although WDG has seen numerous federal-sector wins in short succession, Lowe notes that transformation can’t be made overnight. “Just because you’re a successful architect doesn’t mean you can go in and just start doing this type of work,” he says. “It’s a process. It’s about understanding the [federal agencies’] programs, knowing how to match that with your strengths, and having a good partnership with a contractor that knows how the game is played and how not to make mistakes.”