Just as repeat visitors to Central Florida's theme parks typically find new rides and attractions alongside old favorites, the region's contractors and subcontractors are finding the current uptick in activity similar, yet different from post-downturn periods of the past.
To be sure, the market's typically strong segments—multifamily apartments and condominiums, hospitality and health care—are once again leading the way, along with some government and sports initiatives.
But it's how these projects are being executed that is defining this current construction environment. Most notably, say regional players, the latest trends indicate more owner engagement and design-build integration, more focus on life-cycle design issues and an increasingly measured approach to pursuing new opportunities.
For a veteran firm like Altamonte Springs, Fla.-based Tri-City Electrical Contractors Inc., ENR Southeast's Specialty Contractor of the Year, the new landscape has so far proven more beneficial than burdensome.
"Owner involvement is a good thing because it gives you a chance to show your abilities," says Jack Olmstead, company president. "They get to see how you operate, how you move people around to get a job done, and that it's not just about price, but also value. That's a better situation for us."
It's also a better situation for owners weary of the intra-team battles that can arise from hard bids.
"If you get the contractor and trades in the same room with the owner and a designer with the right mind-set, you can do a lot of good things," says Scott Lyons, regional manager for DPR Construction, Orlando, who calls Tri-City a "go-to firm" for large projects. For DPR, recent assignments for Tri-City have included a five-story, 1.45-million-sq-ft parking structure on Disney property and the 19-story 275 4th Avenue South Residences apartment tower in downtown St. Petersburg.
"They have great operations people, and they know how to plan elements of complex projects using BIM and other virtual planning tools that are becoming increasingly prevalent," Lyons adds.
A well-versed specialty contractor is also essential in a new market, says Randy Simmons, a vice president with R.R. Simmons Construction, Tampa. He says Tri-City regularly brings "a definite focus on quality" while at the same time keeping operating costs in check. The general contractor has employed Tri-City on such recent projects as the 55,000-sq-ft Brandon, Fla., headquarters for LifeLink, which coordinates organ and tissue donations across Florida and the Caribbean.
"They show confidence in providing suggestions and trade-off options for saving money up front and over the long term," Simmons says. "Sometimes you have to buy extra, but owners understand the added value and dependability they'll receive. And that is critical for an operation like LifeLink."
Growing With the Region
High-tech tools and intricate facilities seem far removed from the days of 1958, when 19-year-old H.L. "Buddy" Eidel started the company. With the help of his father, Charles, and a used Southern Bell van purchased for $350, Eidel wired the new houses that had begun to spring up in the Orlando suburbs of Altamonte Springs, Casselberry and Fern Park—the three "cities" behind the company's name.
After an assignment for a car dealership opened the door to commercial projects in 1967, Tri-City began to add offices and personnel. Today, the company employs approximately 650 workers from offices in Altamonte Springs, Tampa and Fort Myers. Though no longer an owner or involved with day-to-day operations, Eidel is consulted on all major business decisions.
Some of Tri-City's recent projects include the 584,000-sq-ft, $170-million Four Seasons Resort at Disney; the city of Orlando's $383-million, 65,000-sq- ft Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts; and the 514,375-sq-ft Pinellas County Safety Complex.
Those were just some of the projects that helped make 2013 a banner year for Tri-City, which earned $128 million in regional revenue, a roughly 45% gain over the prior year.
Though Tri-City strives to maintain a balanced project portfolio, multifamily remains its largest division. Despite a scarcity of projects during the recession, the segment remained fundamental to the firm's coping strategy.
"We knew the recession wouldn't last and that multifamily would come back," explains Chuck McFarland, Tri-City's chief financial officer and a senior vice president. "We wanted to be ready for those projects, so we went after government work in order to retain as much of our staff as possible."
The strategy paid off, positioning Tri-City to immediately take on projects such as the 23-story SkyHouse Orlando apartment project and Plaza on University, a five-building, 364-unit University of Central Florida student housing project with retail and a nine-floor parking garage.