Smaller can be better in the architectural world. Just ask Chris Coonan of Oculus Architecture.
THERE IS A NEW TREND EVOLVING IN THE ARCHITECTURAL SPACE — and one of the companies at the forefront of this movement is Oculus Architecture, one of the most creative, progressive and innovative architectural firms in the world today.
Oculus Architects, which has developed a global reputation as “the small firm that does big projects,” features just 20 architects and specializes in projects that range from $5,000 kitchen remodels to mammoth 10 square kilometer endeavors featuring apartments and condos, restaurants, food markets, a cinema and other retail stores.
“We do projects that firms with 10,000 architects traditionally do,” says Chris Coonan, President of Oculus, which is located in one of the most historically-designed buildings in Costa Mesa, Calif. “The special thing about us is that even though we have a small staff, all of our principal architects have 20 to 30 years of experience. Our clients prefer to work with groups like ours because it’s more personal than a big firm, which have multiple layers of hierarchy that can result in total confusion.”
At Oculus Architecture, clients deal with one individual only on a project versus 10+ people at larger firms, which is a nightmare. At larger firms, by the time a client gets to the individual who knows what is exactly happening with their project, they wind up being sent through a parade of inexperienced people who have no idea about the project, no idea who talked to city employees and no idea if the architectural designs are in the hands of the right person.
As a result, “important issues get lost in translation from one person to the next – and deadlines are missed,” Coonan says.
“Our principals work on the projects themselves. We’ve found that’s really what a client wants,” he adds.
Additionally, being smaller means less overhead, “so our fees are lower,” Coonan says. “Not only are we more efficient, but we do things quicker, there’s less confusion and our price structure is extremely attractive to clients.”
The architectural industry is suffering these days because large firms with big corporate clients cannot match the service level expected or their clients’ needs. That’s why many turn to a firm like Oculus.
Oculus’s body of work is among the most decorated in the industry. It has captured numerous awards, including its design of a state-of-the-art convention center in Yangzhou, China, and a 2.5 square kilometer City Center along the Pearl River in Shun De, China that includes a financial tower, resort, canal parkway, riverside, central park, and residential towers.
Perhaps even more impressive is Oculus’ diversity and range. In California, it is responsible for exquisite designs of the Wildomar Clinton-Keith Shopping Center, a major urban masterplan in Orange County, unique Target Stores from San Francisco to Irvine, Sundance Cinema on Sunset Blvd. in Los Angeles, and other cutting edge theaters, to name a few.
Equally notable is that Oculus’ client list includes Target and McDonalds. The Target in Silverthorne, Colo., which resembles a western lodge, was Oculus’ brainchild.
It is clear to many in the architectural industry that Oculus’ business model is establishing a trend that is expected to become enormous in the future.
“I do believe it will be a trend where experienced people at large firms wind up breaking away and still doing large projects with a smaller group,” Coonan says. “This will be a trend because large firms are going to become frustrated with the system that’s currently in place. They’ll be frustrated that their clients are unhappy and not getting quick answers and that they are not getting the value they’re paying for.
“There is an independent spirit among those in the design profession and people will gravitate toward these smaller structures.”
Coonan’s ability and desire to stay small yet tackle big projects evolved when he left the U.S. during the 2008-09 housing and economic crash to work in China.
“When the U.S. market tanked, China was on the upswing,” he says. “The world’s architectural focus was China. At the time, 51% of the world’s architectural fees were originating in China. There was also 20% growth. I was there at the peak of prosperity. I was so busy that every week there was a new project.”
As soon as the U.S. economy recovered, Coonan hustled back and took over as President and Managing Director of Oculus, which maintains an office in China to go along with its offices in Chicago, San Francisco and Omaha. The company is thriving like never before, thanks in part to its ability to embrace small projects as much as big ones, and the expertise and commitment of its staff.
“Many firms would refuse do a $5,000 kitchen remodel versus a billion-dollar project,” Coonan says. “We’ve seen a lot of developers these days that don’t have a lot of big projects right away, yet they might have a little project here and there. If you’re not there for your clients when they need something small, they may not be there for you when they need something big. That’s why if someone comes to us and wants to remodel their kitchen, we’ll do it.
“It goes to the fundamental idea that we should be able to design anything at any size. We want to do every kind of project there is – medical, industrial, housing, retail, office and even sky scrapers. There is no reason with our experience and background and the amount of projects we’ve done that we can’t do anything and everything.”
Too often an architectural firm chooses to specialize in commercial or residential, or says, “We only do housing, not retail.”
“They do that because to them it’s a formula — ‘We know how long the project takes, we’ve done a hundred of these, we just want to do what we do best,’” Coonan says. “It’s like prototyping. Personally, I think they’re selling themselves short.”