Ford, Powell & Carson Architects and Planners Inc. has grown alongside San Antonio as the city changes.
SINCE LEGENDARY ARCHITECT O’Neil Ford arrived in San Antonio in 1939, Ford, Powell & Carson (FPC) Architects and Planners Inc. has evolved with the times – even when that called for a complete overhaul of the executive leadership team. It’s a matter of survival in the competitive Texas construction landscape, and FPC is well aware of what it takes to succeed.
“The thing that sets us apart from our competitors is that the firm is always renewing itself,” says Michael Guarino, principal of FPC. “We’ve just announced a completely new leadership structure for the firm, and even our best friends are a little startled at how young our new leadership is. But they are full of the kind of energy and creativity that has helped the firm weather wars, a depression and the greater changes of society as a whole.
“We’re working differently now, but the basis is always the same – caring about what we’re doing,” Guarino adds.
Ford founded FPC when he moved to the Alamo City from Dallas to take over the design and construction supervision of La Villita, an “artists’ village” of craftsman’s work shops and galleries on the banks of the San Antonio River. For this project, Ford took a collection of 18th- and early 19th-century houses and restored them into what is still a tourist attraction of shops linked by shady courtyards with fountains.
Despite his reputation as a modern designer, Ford maintained a passion for history, and the firm still reflects this dynamic, according to Guarino. Even for historic preservation projects, FPC relies on contemporary designs, innovation in the use of structure and climate-appropriate design.
“We’re best known for urban design and master planning, historic preservation and frequent collaborations with other firms, some of them overseas,” Guarino says.
FPC always has worked from the philosophy that anything is fair game for thoughtful design, so the company sees itself as a generalist with specific focuses and interests, according to Guarino. This is especially vital when working in San Antonio due to its complex and long history.
“We deal with historic preservation as a matter of course, even in work involving completely new design and construction,” Guarino says. “In San Antonio, historic structures are everywhere, and we work with a lot of them.”
For example, FPC has been responsible for the restoration and conservation of all the Spanish colonial mission churches in San Antonio, including the Alamo. The firm also has completed restoration work at San Fernando Cathedral as well as historic hotels in San Antonio and Galveston.
“While we are often associated with San Antonio and the many landmarks the firm has created here over 76 years, the firm has done work across the country, in South America, Europe and the Middle East,” Guarino says. “We’ve been collaborating on planning projects in China and are again looking at work in South America and Africa.”
Domestically, FPC has targeted colleges and universities to grow its business. The company’s higher education practice has planned campuses and designed buildings for more than 22 institutions after starting with elementary schools for baby boomers.
“We’ve watched university campuses evolve as learning has changed – they’re more collaborative now and students are more likely to open a laptop or tablet than a book,” Guarino says. “This is having a huge impact on the design of libraries in particular – San Antonio has the world’s first all-digital libraries, no books. We’re contemplating projects to renovate libraries for group study using digital media, and we’ve already incorporated these kinds of spaces in our new campus designs.”
Ahead of the Green Trend
While many architects caught on to the trend toward green and sustainable design in the 2000s, Guarino boasts FPC was supporting this work before the turn of the millennium.
“We’ve always been careful about siting buildings to minimize solar gain and capture breezes,” Guarino says. “We’ve been designing solar water heating systems since the 1970s, but we’re far beyond that now.”
In fact, FPC recently won San Antonio’s first Low-Impact Development (LID) Design Competition for a proposal to integrate water conserving landscapes with denser housing and multimodal transportation options at a repurposed military base.
“The LID Competition win is exciting for us and gratifying that we are recognized as being on the cutting edge of this type of design approach,” Guarino says.
Planning a Plaza
FPC recently completed the Plaza de Armas Buildings, a program developed by the city of San Antonio that included two new broadcast studios separated by a sound isolation wall system that weighs several tons. The project also included a gallery for rotating exhibitions curated by the city’s arts administration, and most of the circulation space in the building is designed as supplementary gallery space.
All of this had to be inserted into a row of 19th-century commercial buildings withmassive load-bearing masonry walls and water penetration problems from an adjacent creek. In other words, it was the ideal job for a multidisciplinary architectural firm like FPC.
“This represents a perfect cross section of our skills and interests, the blending of historic preservation with concerns for urban design and vitality, and the integration of technology with completely contemporary design,” Guarino says.
The Plaza de Armas Buildings, named for one of San Antonio’s original colonial plazas where the buildings are located, form the west side of the plaza along with the Spanish Governor’s palace.
The steel structure for the studios had to be structurally independent to float inside the existing historic buildings for purposes of sound isolation, according to Guarino. The studios are supported by twin control rooms and editing suites. One studio and its support spaces are being made available to the public to produce content for San Antonio’s cable news channel.
The city’s arts organization and its communications department are headquartered in the building, and at the west end is a café offering healthy food options, including locally produced olive oil.
To accommodate the café and lighting upgrades, the client was able to add to the project budget during construction, which necessitated modifications on the fly like changes in gallery lighting and the insertion of grease traps and exhaust systems for the full-service open kitchen in the café.
“It might have been a nightmare, but the design/builder was exceptionally gifted at moving the work ahead in parts of the project while work was being adjusted in areas affected by late changes,” Guarino says. “As the designers, our part of the team collaboration was to generate details and drawings on a nearly daily basis during constructionand to be on-site far more than would be typical in new construction.”
As FPC ushers in a new generation of leadership, the firm also is altering the way it conducts business. Guarino says the company will relocate into a landmark historic building with an open-plan office space designed for collaboration and sharing. FPC also plans to advance the younger employees in the company through promotions and raises as it considers expansion into new geographic markets.