All it took was one look at the Southwest Waterfront for Austin Flajser to know he wanted a glass-walled ballroom overlooking the water.
Finding a way to make the logistics work for the upcoming Wharf Intercontinental Hotel, however, took much longer.
“We knew we didn’t want to squander that view,” said Flajser, president of District-based development company Carr Hospitality. “But it wasn’t a standard project. It required a number of creative work-arounds.”
To bring its project to fruition, Carr turned to BBGM, a boutique architecture and interior design firm that has worked behind the scenes on a number of high-profile renovations and office projects, from the interior of the Mandarin Oriental to the upcoming Marriott Marquis Washington.
At the Intercontinental, BBGM executives found a way to maximize water views while ensuring the ballroom would be accessible to kitchen and wait staff. There were other questions, too: Where would the pantry go? How would the ballroom be divided into smaller spaces without compromising the sweeping water views?
“It was a big design challenge to make everything fit together,” said Bahram Kamali, one of the firm’s three partners.
Business has grown steadily in recent years for the District-based firm, which was founded in 1987. A wave of hotel renovations in the Washington area has helped boost its bottom line, as has a move toward consolidated office spaces.
The staff of 30 has nearly as many current projects in the works, including the renovation of the storied Watergate Hotel. Previous projects include the Reston Executive Center and the rooftop lounge at the W Hotel.
“Business has been on a tear,” partner Domenic Giordano said. “Our work is very much tied to the stock market — when the market goes up, we go up. When the market goes down, we follow suit.”
Hospitality and office business all but stopped during the recession, executives say. But as corporate budgets recover, hotels and companies alike are beginning to spring for renovations and updates.
Hotels are doing away with ballrooms and business centers to make way for communal lounge areas, Kamali said. The renovated lobby at the Hilton at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport, for example, includes a large table with multiple outlets for guests to plug in their laptops and tablets. Others have scrapped restaurants in favor of cozier bars and lounges.
Office spaces are also getting smaller. The Better Business Bureau in Arlington, for example, downsized from a 20,000 square-foot space to one roughly half that size, according to partner Bruno Grinwis.
“And they did that without shedding one employee during the move,” he said.
Competition for tenants has also led to a surge in commercial real estate overhauls, Giordano said. Clients are refurbishing lobbies and adding fitness centers or, in the case of 1776 I St. NW, basketball courts.
“Landlords are needling for office tenants, so there is added pressure to renovate,” Giordano said. “Projects that used to be $1 million or $5 million a few years ago are now $40 million or $50 million.”
BBGM says business has grown 20 percent every year over the past four years. It expects similar growth in 2014.
But it hasn’t always been easy.
Back in 2008, when it became clear that financial giants such as Lehman Bros. and AIG were headed for trouble, the impact was immediate.
“Literally, the next day people started calling and closing down jobs,” Giordano said. “When you have Lehman Brothers falling apart, you don’t spent $60 million renovating your offices.”
Business fell about 40 percent in 2008. The firm made ends meet by focusing its efforts on projects in Aruba, Mexico and the Republic of Georgia.
Today, hotel projects comprise about 40 percent of the firm’s business, while residential and commercial projects account for about 30 percent each.
Even so, BBGM executives say they are not planning to add employees — or office space — any time soon.
“When you’ve been burned once before, in 2008, you’re going to be very careful about how you grow,” Grinwis said.
Read more about the Watergate Hotel, Graham Hotel and more about the company’s projects here.