Full Toolbox At The Ready
O’Brien & Company gets creative with design-build solutions
O’Brien & Company is an Oregon design-build firm founded in 1981 by Pat O’Brien.
Originally called O’Brien Constructors, the company began with a mission to not only develop superior construction projects, but also to be an advocate for its Oregon and Southwest Washington clients throughout the building process.
Pat’s son, Keeley O’Brien, first began working for his father’s company to earn money for college. Working under some of the firm’s toughest superintendents, he had access to their expert knowledge.
He then spent over a decade working for international engineering-construction and development companies, gaining a broader perspective before returning to Oregon with well-rounded wisdom, ready to lead. He had found both a career and geographic area he loved. “They say once you see the rest of the world you always come back to the Northwest,” Keeley says.
Keeley founded O’Brien & Company in 2011, with his father now working for the firm as a Senior Project Manager.
O’Brien & Company’s full-service design firm subsidiary, Open Concept Architecture, provides the design part of the design-build equation for clients, and turnkey services overall.
O’Brien & Company specializes in design and construction of hospitality establishments such as hotels and restaurants; fermentation facilities like wineries, distilleries, CBD-extraction facilities and breweries; along with custom homes. The company serves as general contractor on large public works projects such as schools and fire stations.
But the O’Brien team also finds inspiration and accomplishment in projects that take it beyond its comfort zone.
Headlands Coastal Lodge & Spa, on Oregon’s coastline in Pacific City, is a project Keeley says brought with it a formidable challenger: Mother Nature. Extreme winter weather did not make construction of the beachfront property’s 33-guestroom luxury lodge easy, he says, but points to it as a project of which he is most proud. Built in 2018, the lodge features views of Haystack Rock from each room, with heavy timber beams and rustic wood throughout.
Another star structure in the company’s portfolio is a job from which many other companies politely declined. Located on Nazina Avenue at Cannon Beach in Northwest Oregon, the site afforded spectacular views normally perfect for a luxury home. But Keeley says the property was a hillside—deemed unbuildable for decades.
“It was a site no one would build on, but we took it on. We are demented that way,” he quips. “We like challenges. They get us excited and it’s what we do really well with—figuring out the details needed to solve problems and create something great.”
With each floor of the home maximizing the water view, the goal of the design was to produce a restful retreat. The contemporary home design and construction brought Keeley great pride in his team, not to mention an Oregon Home Structure and Style Award in 2019.
The Cost/Value Equation
Keeley sees the design-build delivery model as the way of the future—with all services provided under a central clearinghouse—as not only more convenient for clients, but also, by nature, a project model enveloped in accountability maximized by technology and collaboration. In a design-build effort, all parties work for the same organization, after all.
“Everything is integrated,” he says. “When you think about it, there’s no one else to blame. It is all here on one team. Reducing any conflicts means reducing delays. Architects and contractors are working together on the design, providing the most value to the client’s budget.”
Keeley believes the design-build structure is one that sets his firm apart from competitors who offer general contracting services only. He says that his customers save 15% to 25% when they opt for a design-build approach as opposed to a design-bid-build option. This is due to the structure of the design bidding process, Keeley says, with the client’s budget considered before any design work takes place.
Creative, but with a Framework
In a general contracting scenario, the design of a new structure or renovation is done as a separate creative element, says Keeley, often segmented from the rest of the project; then it goes out to bid. So, designs can easily be produced that exceed the client’s budget.
“Then, it’s back to the drawing board,” says Keeley, calling that scenario one that is no fun for anyone. “It’s a depressing process when beautiful design concepts get slashed.”
A design-build project, however, gives the team and clients more control over expectations and encourages creativity in a different way, allowing for promotion of more sustainability, higher-end aesthetics or better guest experiences with those efficiencies, he says.
“We design and build toward that—maximum value to the client,” using budget as the starting point and not a later consideration, he says.
Though the company does offer separate general contracting services as well, as a firm already integrated with the larger industry network of the region, Keeley sees its design-build abilities as a feature that sets it apart and paving the way for it to be an industry leader in the Northwest. Eighty percent of the company’s business is repeat business, he says, signaling a pattern of happy customers.
“We work our little butts off to keep clients happy,” Keeley says.
Pandemic Hits Hospitality
Voted one of the Best Winery Contractors in the U.S. and one of the Best Pub Contractors in the U.S. this year by GC Magazine, O’Brien & Company serves the hospitality niche well, designing and building spaces where people gather. These clients become friends over time, Keeley says, which has made it difficult to for him to see them struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on revenue and employees.
Design and construction work in this sector slowed as a result, according to Keeley. The firm has had to reduce spending on growth and technology.
“We were geared up for $70 million in gross revenue and might do $40 million this year, leaving us heavy on overhead and doing all we can to keep top teams together,” he says, noting the company is doing its best to ride out the pandemic as best it can, while looking out for its people.
The Breadth and Depth of an Iceberg
Keeley says the company sees its 102 employees like icebergs, with what happens at work just the visible part, above the water. But each team member has family that relies on them as well, with things like health conditions and children and pets that round them out as whole, complete, multifaceted human beings.
“Our sub-trade partners are a huge part of our success,” he says. “If they succeed, we succeed.”
Making safety a core value to everyone is part of this employee-focused culture, Keeley says. The company invests in safety certification programs, spends significant time helping sub-trade partners, and is laser focused on fall-prevention training among other precautionary measures more in line with a larger firm’s practices to ensure workers go home in the same way in which they started the day.
When it comes to safety rules, O’Brien & Company makes absolutely no exceptions. The company regularly recognizes employees for proper personal protective equipment (PPE) usage on its Facebook page and educates them and their communities on the importance of safety not only on the job site but at home.
O’Brien & Company was an industry leader putting COVID-19 protocols into practice to keep team members safe, says Keeley, for example, instituting social-distancing requirements at work sites and coming up with creative new ways to build while having monitors on job sites to help with the new work methods. “In the construction industry, we’re used to challenging changes and coming up with new solutions,” Keeley says.
While waiting for design-build demand to return to its previous levels in the hospitality market, Keeley looks forward to the future of the company and the industry. He foresees growth and innovation continuing to thrive with technology revolutionizing the building industry.
O’Brien & Company just opened a Central Oregon division, in Bend. With one employee so far, Keeley says the division is building its team and project schedule, with jobs such as the renovation of the Les Schwab Amphitheater in Bend.
O’Brien & Company will also begin to be known as O’Brien Design-Build in the fall of 2020, to emphasize its strengths and skills in offering this total package to its clients.
Industrywide, advanced tools are making it easier for construction clients to visualize designs, Keeley says. “Our designs now have values such as quantities that link to real-time costs as we design.” He mentions sending virtual-reality goggles to France to tour a winery design in real time as avatars—or graphic representations of computer users—with the wine makers making changes as the project team walks through the virtual building, for example.
“We are already machine-cutting all our lumber from our designs before they arrive on-site, and pretty soon we’ll be doing all our finish carpentry, cabinets and even drywall that way. It’s pretty amazing. We can change the way construction is working now,” Keeley says, “opening up more opportunities for clients in terms of what is affordable for them to accomplish in their home or business design scheme.”
Doing more with less is a principle the firm stands behind in terms of environmental impact, as well. An advocate of sustainability, the company is a sponsor of Solar Oregon, which works to incorporate solar design into standard construction projects as part of a clean-energy economy. In August, O’Brien & Company sponsored a virtual tour of three of Oregon’s top solar-powered wineries organized by Solar Oregon.
“Sustainable use of solar and reclaimed resources is the way the industry should progress,” he says. “It’s all about the future.”