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Omaha Magazine

Disruption Prompts Innovation as A&E Firms See Growth

May 27, 2022 01:38PM ● By Scott Stewart
jeff lamontagne in conference room

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

Something didn’t sit right with Nancy Pridal when she was asked whether her industry is trying to do more with less.

“I wouldn’t characterize it that way,” said Pridal, president and CEO of Lamp Rynearson. “We’re learning how to work differently.”

The pandemic was a push for the architectural and engineering industry to explore new ways of working together, even when meetings required physical separation.

“Some of those lessons we learned during the pandemic are really benefiting us now,” Pridal said. “We can maximize the efforts that we’re making.”

Those innovations are helping firms address the labor shortage in the industry, supply chain disruptions, and the potential for another spike in coronavirus hospitalizations—which create uncertainty in project prices and timelines that would have been unacceptable before COVID-19.

Jeff LaMontagne, a project engineer for E & A Consulting Group, said the prices for plastic and ductile iron pipe—integral to finishing many projects—have skyrocketed.

“We have seen price increases on these materials jump over 20% in one year,” he said.

High prices don’t come with a guarantee of availability, LaMontagne said.

“We have been seeing more and more schedule delays due to the availability of plastic pipe, reinforced concrete pipe, and manholes,” he said. “Probably one of the most significant issues that we hear is still yet to peak is concrete mix for paving roads, parking lots, sidewalks, and trails.”

Garage doors have even been in short supply, keeping homes from being finished, Pridal said. 

“We live in a different world than we did a couple years ago,” Pridal said. “Supply chain disruptions have become a way of life in our industry.”

Fortunately, clients are generally more understanding and will work through disruptions when communication is timely and straightforward, she said.

The irrevocably changed world also means that clients’ priorities are shifting.

“As an example, land availability, labor shortages, limited materials, and difficult access to entry-level housing have sparked a renewed interest in housing affordability,” Pridal said. 

Lamp Rynearson is working with Habitat for Humanity of Omaha to build 88 single-family homes at the former site of the Wintergreen Apartments near 51st Street and Sorensen Parkway. Pridal said the firm is helping the nonprofit with platting and planning a subdivision.

“They’re actually developing a community,” Pridal said. “We’re also working with some clients who are doing affordable housing apartment complexes.”

LaMontagne said there’s a need in the community for “missing middle” housing options, such as apartments or row homes with two or three bedrooms, aimed at families who cannot afford the higher market prices for single-family homes.

“I can see the missing middle architecture on housing continue to evolve,” LaMontagne said. “We’ve seen some nice affordable options for attached housing units that can provide three bedrooms, a two-car garage and a nice private deck or patio—all in the same private space.”

A lot also happens behind-the-scenes. Pridal said her firm is building the conversation around affordable housing with clients, such as discussing the City of Omaha’s housing plan.

Hoppe Development is building more than 400 units in a neighborhood with a mix of rented and owned housing to address Fremont’s workforce needs, leveraging a sanitary and improvement district with grant funding through national housing programs. Pridal said her firm worked with them on creative ways to add density to the project.

"In creating that increased density, it’s also looking at what does open space look like, what do amenities look like,” she said, stressing the importance of connecting a community with assets in the community, whether that’s jobs, public transportation, or other resources. “We have some developers who are really thinking about that.”

The goal of those projects is helping people thrive and build wealth, not just building upper-scale apartments that are a relatively safe financial bet for the developer. The result can be built spaces that promote equity in infrastructure.

“There was a point in design where neighborhoods weren’t connected with through streets,” Pridal said. “That doesn’t really build the community, and that doesn’t build equity in neighborhoods.”

Lamp Rynearson is using the Envision rating system to look at the social sustainability of projects in a similar way that LEED system rates energy and environmental sustainability. 

Among Envision’s criteria for long-term quality of life is wayfinding—the ability for people to navigate through the built space. Pridal said that could include putting up multilingual signs, instead of assuming what’s always been done before would work for future residents.

“If you’ve ever been on a campus and you’re completely lost, and you don’t know where to go, and there’s no way to figure it out, if you have any kind of handicap or language barrier, then that just makes it even more difficult,” Pridal said.

Intentionally considering how people will use a space can help promote equity, and it can also help avoid pitfalls for a project, as can the use of technology to help clients better understand their projects. 

LaMontagne said E & A Consulting recently adopted software to provide 3D renderings of developments early in the design phase.

“The end product is a short video fly-through of the development, similar to what a drone would provide, if, in fact, the development was already completed,” he said. “This gives clients a chance to review how their residential and commercial lots are graded in 3D without needing to understand grading contours on a 2D plan sheet.”

Scanning technology also helps map sites that might otherwise be dangerous or hard to access, which is why Lamp Rynearson has invested in scanning equipment, Pridal said.

“Hand-hand and stationary sensors are our most versatile equipment to produce 3D point clouds that can be used to create 3D representations of the scanned environment,” she said.

Avoiding pitfalls also helps control costs, which is critical as inflation is expected to continue to climb, energy prices remain high, and supply chains complicate pricing. Despite those hurdles, Pridal said the future is bright for the architectural and engineering industry.

The Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act, for one, provided the largest increase in federal funding in more than six decades. 

“Forecasts for industry growth remain strong,” Pridal said. “Overall, even with headwinds in this recovery period following the COVID-19 recession, 2022 is expected to have a solid economic outlook.”

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