Health-care architecture is Norfolk firm’s niche

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by Lisa Antonelli Bacon

In 1975, fresh out of Virginia Tech’s architecture program, Paul Finch laid out his future without even knowing it. As low man on the totem pole in a prominent Norfolk architectural firm, he had a chance to observe up close an industry elder who knew all about designing buildings used in health services. Eventually, the two partnered on projects together. When his mentor retired, Finch continued designing health-care facilities.

In 1988, after a six-year stint at another architectural firm, Finch decided it was time to open his own design studio, with health-care architecture as its focus. Now, 80 to 90 percent of the firm’s projects are related to health care.

Twenty years later, Finch and partners Joe Trost and Sharon Szalai have a reputation that stretches from Virginia Beach to West Virginia and even Puerto Rico. And they’ve become the go-to guys in health-care architecture for eastern Virginia, raising revenues 68 percent between 2005 and 2007, from $2.5 million to $4.2 million in fees.  (2008 figures were not available at press time.)  In fact, in addition to serving as consultants in other firms’ endeavors, Paul Finch & Associates PC has provided its services to every major health system in the Hampton Roads area.

In the past year, the recession has moved a high percentage of construction projects to the back burner, but construction of health-care facilities — medical offices, hospitals, emergency departments — has suffered little as yet. Elective procedures at hospitals have declined, but people still get sick and they still age. So do medical buildings. New technologies usually require different accommodations, creating an ongoing need for new or updated facilities.

That’s all good news to Finch, whose firm also offers interior design services. “I enjoy designing health-care [facilities], because they’re more complex,” says Finch. “You can design office buildings all day long, and there isn’t too much difference. Medical is constantly changing, constantly coming up with new equipment and new procedures that make every job a little different.”
More than allaying boredom, ongoing progress in the field of medicine also guarantees change in architectural needs. And all that spells work for architects like Finch. “Getting through the downturn will come from our current clientele,” Finch says. There’s a lot to draw from. Recent projects include the new emergency department at Bon Secours Health Center at Harbour View and the ambulatory surgery center at Sentara Obici Hospital, both in Suffolk; Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters’ Princess Anne Office Building in Virginia Beach; and the patient tower at Sentara Virginia Beach General Hospital.

Paul Finch & Associates has been through it before. In the 1991 recession, the medical clientele kept the firm busy. And when the economy dipped in 2001, Finch says, “We really didn’t notice it.” The last half of 2008 made its impression though, forcing Finch to reduce staff from its one-time high of 22 employees to 17. Running lean, Finch says, the current workload stretches into summer 2009, with projects for Sentara in Isle of Wight County and Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Chesapeake.

Finch also plans to use facilities assessments as a new business tool. “Most of the medical work comes through talking to people one on one,” says Finch. By offering a prospective client a facility assessment — usually part of the design process — without a signed design contract, Finch hopes to persuade prospects to buy the firm’s architectural services.

According to at least one Finch client, a trial makes a loyal customer. David Jacques, facilities engineer at Chesapeake General Hospital, says the services of Finch & Associates are an outstanding value. “The service we get for what we pay is excellent,” says Jacques, who has worked with many architectural firms in his 30 years as a facilities engineer. “Whether it’s related to a project or not, Paul is always willing to answer questions. I feel like I can call him any time. Not everyone does that.”

2008 Virginia Small Business Success Story of the Year
Paul Finch & Associates

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