Manatee architecture firm is growing

mjohnson@bradenton.comFebruary 24, 2014 

Fawley Bryant principals Steve Padgett, Mike Bryant, and Rick Fawley talk with Jenna Kiser in the company's Lakewood Ranch office. The firm, which started in downtown Bradenton 20 years ago, is working on a major portfolio of projects in 2014.

LAKEWOOD RANCH - Block and stucco.

When Rick Fawley moved from Vermont to Bradenton in 1983 to open an architectural firm, he saw these calling cards of Florida architecture everywhere. It wasn't much to look at, especially since most of the buildings going up at the time were vacation homes, low-slung retail stores and strip malls.

But he understood the goal: Design buildings that were cheap, and that could go up quickly.

"When I came here in the '80s, it was like the Wild West," Fawley said.

What the architecture lacked in style, it made up for in attracting people to Florida. Cheap housing brought more people and accelerated the building boom. By the time Manatee High School started planning a new, $22 million building in 1993, Bradenton lacked an architecture firm large enough to keep the design work local. That's where Fawley and another Bradenton architect, Mike Bryant, came in.

Over a beer at the Lost Kangaroo Pub on Old Main Street, Fawley and Bryant, decided to be that firm. Fawley Bryant Architecture was born.

This year, Fawley Bryant is 20 years old. In that time, firm architects have designed some of the area's iconic buildings. The list includes the 300,000-square foot Manatee County Judicial Center in Bradenton, Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine School of Dental Medicine in Lakewood Ranch, and a redesign and renovation of McKechnie Field.

And, yes, Fawley Bryant did win the Manatee High School contract.

The company doesn't have a signature style, but some of its more well-known designs feature combinations of rectangular shapes intersected with banks of glass and trimmed with metal. Other projects may include some or none of these aspects. Form follows function for every project, Fawley said, citing the Mediterranean-themed Bradenton City Center the firm designed 15 years ago.

Fawley Bryant-designed office buildings in Lakewood Ranch, including the Energy Court Corporate Office Building where the firm is located, glisten against the pastel-and-clay backdrop of the predominant Mediterranean Revival structures surrounding them. For clients, Fawley Bryant buildings stand out.

"They think out of the box. We think they have a different edge," said Juila DeCastro, director of commercial leasing for Lakewood Ranch Commercial Realty. The company leases out space in Fawley Bryant-designed buildings, as well as Lakewood Ranch Main Street buildings for which the firm was hired as a paint color consultant.

It hasn't been a straight shot to success for the $2.9 million company. Today, Fawley Bryant employs 17 people, almost three times as many as it started. But when the construction industry collapsed during the Great Recession, the firm laid off its entire administrative staff. It was one of the lucky firms: It stayed in business while firms across the state closed or merged.

"That area was taking a very hard hit relative to other regions in the state," said Nathan Butler, president of the Florida chapter of the American Institute of Architects. "If you weren't diversified, the pain was exponentially greater."

Fawley Bryant was diversified. As the recession hit, the firm's principals added interior design to its services. Even as its regular work on education and government projects dried up with dropping property tax revenues, interior design tapped into a surging remodeling market. It now accounts for about 20 percent of the firm's revenue.

These days, the company is back to designing buildings, along with its other design and planning services. Projects include golf club facilities, public parks, more work at McKechnie Field and IMG Academy's new 40,000-square-foot fieldhouse.

The firm hired seven people last year and plans to hire up to four more this year. Eighteen months ago, Fawley, who is 64, and Bryant, 59, shored up the company's future leadership by making Steve Padgett, 39, a partner. Padgett started with the firm in 2001 as a project architect.

Bryant said the firm is also looking to do more sustainable building projects such as the 33,000-square-foot Schroeder-Manatee Ranch corporate headquarters building it designed in 2006. It was the first commercial building constructed to Florida Green Building Council standards.

He's just sorry the Florida market wasn't ready for that sort of project in 1993.

"We wanted to do stuff like we do now back then," Bryant said.

Technology is the key to such designing. While pencil drawings on vellum can still be found lying on desks around firm's 5,400-square-foot office, its 3D computer designs bring buildings to life. Starting in 2007, Fawley Bryant began investing several hundred thousand dollars in design and 3D rendering equipment, software and staff training.

Firm architects now build walls, ceilings, windows and doors in a 3D environment, and can add paint colors, furniture and lighting. It helps them see if building elements fit a project's intended purpose, Bryant said.

They can also fix things that don't work, things that don't clearly show on a flat drawing.

Imported to an iPad or a smart phone, digital mock-ups provide a virtual walk-through experience. Fawley Bryant clients need only move the screen around for an almost-photo-realistic 360-degree view of a room or building.

The future for the firm lies in "a diversity of projects," Padgett said, including business incubators, sports performance projects and medical parks. Fawley said he also anticipates a wave of remodel and addition designs for schools that allowed maintenance and updating projects to languish during the recession.

Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.when

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