Swaim Associates Ltd. has grown to become the largest, according to Inside Tucson Business' List in this week's issue, and is one of the most successful architectural firms in Southern Arizona. The company has succeeded by diversifying its client list, staying current with design practices and forming relationships.
When Bob Swaim founded the company in 1969, he concentrated on residential designs, several of which won awards. He later decided to change directions and began placing a greater emphasis on the public sector.
"We do a wide range of work," said associate principal Kevin Barber, who has been with the firm for 15 years. Among those categories are educational, medical and military projects. "We work with most school districts in and around Tucson, some Air National Guard facilities and renovations and we do some university work. One specialty is campus health facilities," which began with the University of Arizona student health center design. That grew to include similar projects for universities around the country, from Oregon to Virginia.
A focus on environmentally friendly designs has been important to the partners for years.
"We practiced sustainable architecture before it had the great importance it does now," said Barber.
"We designed the Reid Park Zoo Conservation Learning Center. This was the first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum project in Tucson. We also have several military and school projects that are LEED-certified."
The process, he said, begins with the owner's request. The architects incorporate a number of LEED-required items in their design, which are submitted and then evaluated during the building phase and after completion. Five categories are considered, Barber explained: site, water, energy, environmental air quality and materials. Innovation of design is also judged. Points are awarded in each area and the total number of points determines the LEED level, such as Silver, Gold or Platinum.
Swaim Associates has been involved over the years in projects using recycled materials from buildings under demolition. Parts of a shade structure from Tucson General Hospital were reused on the zoo project. Steel trusses from an old Target store on Oracle Road became ramadas for a school in the Vail School District.
The firm is awarded design jobs based on bidding and relationships rather than through marketing efforts, Barber noted. Often a project will be a CM (construction manager) at risk job in which the owner selects the general contractor at the same time as the architect so they can collaborate on the design. Those assignments are generally based on each firm's qualifications and reputation.
Other times, Barber said, work goes out to bid. For those, Swaim will pursue the types of jobs in which they are experienced. "We bid not on price, but on our qualifications. That's where having a 40-year history helps. We get recommendations from contractors who like working with us. We have good relationships with contractors."
While commercial building is a challenging industry these days, Swaim has been able to retain its full staff, according to Barber. But he sees other architectural firms and contractors struggling. Many jobs are coming in under budget, he said. "It's tough for contractors and cut throat. Some are not bidding with a profit built in. We hope the economy turns around so they're not stretching themselves thin any longer."
Barber and Swaim's three senior principals-Phil Swaim, Ed Marley and Mark Bollard-like to hire University of Arizona graduates. They currently employ nine licensed architects, two administrators and six architectural graduates as interns, a majority of which are from UA. While Barber is a Wildcat, he gives Phil Swaim a hard time about being an Oregon Duck.
But Phil has immersed himself in the Tucson community for years. He and his partners are actively involved in local planning commissions, advisory boards and industry associations. Barber was on the committee for the Tucson rainwater harvesting initiative spearheaded by City Councilman Rodney Glassman.
All in all, their goal as a firm is to work together as a team, both internally and with outside associates, Barber stressed. "We give quality service, we're known by word of mouth and we have fun-in the office and with clients."