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Firm grows with strong clients.

When the stock market crashed in 1987, Berger Rait Design Associates, a corporate interior design and facilities planning firm, was barely on its feet. Partners Larry Berger and Michael Rait found, however, that with one or two strong clients one can weather the storm.

Berger Rait Design Associates opened its doors in 1985. In October of 1987, their newest, and biggest, client was Shearson Lehman Brothers, which was beginning to have its own share of problems. Still, they stuck by their client, bided time during various acquisitions and absorptions and, in less than a year, were back to work for Shearson Lehman designing new offices spaces on the World Trade Center's 100th floor.

"Later, when the recession hit in 1990," added Berger, 40, "bidding went crazy. Building stopped and larger design firms, with so many projects on hold, came into our market. It became impossible to outbid them without sacrificing quality."

At that point, he explains, he and Rait realized it was wiser to spend time and energy on existing clients.

"And," he beamed, "as they turned around, so did we."

Since then, Berger Rait has grown steadily in New York and, they have done work in more than 20 states in the nation. Recently, they announced plans to open offices in Los Angeles and Philadelphia. Among their long-term clients are NYNEX, Sony, Prestige International, B. Dalton and Zaros Bakeries. All this, while other design firms are downsizing, struggling and, in some cases, even closing shop.

"Our first job for NYNEX" said Berger, "was a 400-square-foot office."

"Granted it was the chairman's office," added his partner Rait, 35, "but it was still just a small, one-office renovation job. We took it, though, and used it as a foot in the door, a chance to prove ourselves."

Today, NYNEX is one of Berger Rait's foremost clients. In fact, they were recently called in by New York Telephone Company, a division of NYNEX, to design video-conferencing spaces in four New York schools for an innovative educational program that will offer otherwise unavailable courses from a central location to remote classrooms. And, by the project's end, Berger Rait will likely be designing 46 more video-conferencing spaces in selected high schools and Manhattan Community College.

"With every client," said Rait, "you have to first prove yourself" This philosophy has opened some rather unexpected doors for Berger Rait. Besides the New York Telephone video-conferencing program, Berger Rait has lately made a strong showing in the retail market as well. Clients like Barnes & Noble and Zaros Bakery, who originally called upon Berger Rait for design and renovations in their corporate headquarters have, as the need arises, been asking for help in setting up new retail spaces as well. This year alone, Berger Rait helped open 10 stores throughout the country for B. Dalton Booksellers, a division of Barnes & Noble.

Further, it's been to Berger Rait's advantage that they remain somewhat small. "Since we need to spend less time managing our business than, say, some of the larger architectural firms, we spend more time managing our clients," said Rait.

Other recent projects include designing offices for the French Governmental Tourist Office in Rockefeller Center; the relocation of CCM Inc., an advertising agency, to new 10,000-square-foot offices at 470 Park Avenue South; and the redesign and expansion of existing offices for Prestige International, a long time client, at 712 Fifth Avenue.

Times Changing

When asked what major changes they've seen in the design market over the past few years, both men agree that the nuts and bolts of design projects have basically remained the same; jobs are merely approached a bit differently. Indicative of the economy, budgets and time frames are tighter. Businesses are now keenly aware of the need to maximize free-rent periods.

"They may be allowed 12 months for alterations and renovations," explained Berger, "but they'd rather finish and move in after six months, so they can use the remaining six to operate with a reduced overhead."

A more significant change, perhaps, has been the growth of the pre-lease work within the design industry, explains Berger. Pre-lease analyses now play a vital part in the designer-client relationship. Owners now rarely sign a lease without consulting their designer who will evaluate such elements as cost of building space, air-conditioning and electrical systems available, floor plate, and energy efficiency.

"Say, for instance, a client requires 24-hour air-conditioning," said Rait, "which is often the case with a film company or a financial security firm, which trades internationally, across many time-zones. We will determine if such amenities are available and, if not, whether it might be more feasible to find another space, perhaps even a slightly more expensive space, with more accessible systems."

The same goes for available electrical supply, he explains. "A lot may be saved in the long run," he said.

"Layout," Berger added, "is also an important factor in prelease consultation. A large space may be more useful if it is broken up into two floors."

Then again, he notes, depending upon the business a client conducts and the amount of interfacing between his or her departments, one expansive floor may be more advantageous. Either way, he explains, "choosing an appropriate building space has, nowadays become a collaborative effort between the renter (client), architect, engineer and, of course, the broker. We, as architects, act as the intermediary between all parties."

Today's architect must be accurate and thorough to be effective in such cases, he stresses. Berger Rait, as a result, has become completely computerized. They promise their clients complete state-of-the-art office systems for both speed and accuracy of data.

According to Rait, another growing concern for architects is energy efficiency.

More attention is now paid to reducing waste than ever before -- particularly in regard to lighting. When designing a space, an architect could, for instance, call for a florescent downlight instead of an incandescent 150 Watt downlight.

"Not only would a florescent bulb use less electricity, but it will generate less heat, thereby reducing the need for air conditioning," explained Rait. So money can be saved twofold. On top of that, there are the Con Edison rebates that are now being offered for energy efficient bulbs and futures.

"Code compliance is also essential" said Berger. "ADA, fire safety -- exits, smoke detectors, etc. -- must all be provided for by today's architect, which means keeping on top of all laws and compliance codes."

All in all the most important consideration for a modem architect is that "his/her designs be 'successful,"' Berger concluded.

But what defines a successful design? "Simple," said Berger. "One with the right blend of design, economics and timing. A design must satisfy a client aesthetically as well as pragmatically, and it must do so within budget and on time."
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Berger Rait Design Associates
Author:Gordon, Bill
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Article Type:Company Profile
Date:Dec 16, 1992
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