From Seinfeld to ophthalmology: Interview with Andres Ulises Cortes, Partner, Agencie Architects
He was a young architect just starting out in a post-9/11 New York City-not the most propitious of beginnings. But his first project as a member of a large team was a $44 million renovation for comedian Jerry Seinfeld's Long Island estate. He followed that with projects for noted architecture critic Paul Goldberger, cosmetics queen Estée Lauder, architect Kevin Roche, film actress Rachel Weisz, and Condé Nast travel photographer Brigitte Lacombe. Then he surfaced in mid-2008 with a design/build office project for the NuVision ophthalmologic group and finds that healthcare design is drawing him more and more into its realm. Recently, Andrés Ulises Cortés, partner with structural engineer Sarrah Khan in the Manhattan-based design/build firm Agencie Architects, discussed his career progression in an interview with HEALTHCARE DESIGN Editor Richard L. Peck.
Richard L. Peck: Would you elaborate a little on the career path that brought you to the NuVision project?
Andrés Ulises Cortés: I was raised by a family of builders-my father in Bogotá, Colombia, and my mother in Miami, Florida, and I've done everything starting from working as a laborer to installing finish millwork. When I finished architecture studies at Columbia University, it was post-9/11, when the market was terrible. Fortunately I managed to find a job working with a team on Jerry Seinfeld's estate in the Hamptons on Long Island. It was a 12,000-square-foot, two-story residence, with drawings detailed down to the doorknobs. I found myself spending a lot of time on the phone coordinating with subs during construction and decided, from that experience, to get into construction management on my own. One of my first projects was a conversion of a former water-distillation warehouse in Manhattan into luxury apartments. My combined experiences in design and construction allowed me to get smaller “boutique” design/build projects, including one for architectural critic Paul Goldberger's office at the Parsons School of Design. In 2005, I founded Agencie Architects with Sarrah Khan, an architect and structural engineer who has been chief structural designer on various high-profile cultural projects for architects Herzog & de Meuron, Moshe Safdie, Hoberman Associates, and others. Agencie has since completed a number of projects, among them a duplex for Condé Nast chief travel photographer Brigitte Lacombe, and a renovation of an 1890s tenement house for actress Rachel Weisz and her husband, director Darren Aronofsky.
Peck: Goldberger, Roche-you've had some pretty architecturally challenging clients there!
Cortés: Well, I'm always a little “paranoid” when I first meet clients, but they were great people to work with.
Peck: So how did NuVision get into the picture?
Cortés: My partner and I are drawn to the highly technical demands of healthcare work-the special requirements for HVAC, lighting, thermal controls, finishes, ancillary support spaces, and the demanding programmatic requirements. Also we're drawn to the healthcare client's emphasis on evidence-based design to support design decisions.
Peck: How did the NuVision project exemplify this?
Cortés: Executive Director Matt Pruitt had a progressive idea of what this space should be. He had specific ideas about making doctor-patient flows more efficient and making the environment interesting for patients; more of a spa environment to help differentiate them from the overall market. We did a lot of work on acoustics and on visual elements that would make the space look brighter and bigger-using airplane hangar paint on the floors to improve the quality of light in the space, using engaging lighting fixtures, and opening up the space with interior windows exhibiting the diagnostic and treatment areas, showing patients the high-tech equipment that was available to them (although curtains are drawn, of course, when these are in use). We also worked hard to make the space handicapped-accessible, going beyond ADA requirements, with large turning radiuses for easy wheelchair access to exam rooms and surgical suites, especially with a quadriplegic market in mind. In general, we had to do a lot with your conventionally tight New York space.
Peck: Has this inspired you to take on more healthcare projects?
Cortés: Another physician office is a prospective project. We've already worked on four physician residences and I have to say it's very interesting working with physician clients. They tend to be more sophisticated than most clients, maybe because they've gone to school for a long time and are used to communicating with wide varieties of people. They read drawings well, are decision-
oriented, and are very efficient; things tend to move along at a smart clip-at least that's our experience. So we're very drawn to the client demographic and we're just beginning to explore healthcare.
Peck: One last question: How did you get the NuVision clinic done at $50 per square foot?
Cortés: There are a few factors. To begin with, instead of taking the aggregate of bids, consolidating them, and putting our overhead on top, we detach our construction management fee from the hard costs of construction at the start. This frees us up to have an open-book process where we engage the client in the value engineering of the project; we can chisel down the hard costs as much as possible because we have divorced our own financial interests from this process. We also have worked with a number of the same vendors and subcontractors on projects over the years and have established a level of trust where people feel free to explore unusual materials and unconventional ways of doing things. All of this helps us keep square-foot costs down-a long way from the Seinfeld project which, as I recall, came in at over $1,000 per square foot! HD
For further information on Agencie Architects, phone 917.463.9504 or visit http://www.agenciearchitects.com.