Integra opens U.S. hub office in Charlotte

The Charlotte Business Journal published a great feature story to mark the opening of Integra Architecture’s office at Packard Place (pictured).

By Richard Cuebas, AIA, LEED-AP

You can read the story below or visit this link to also see the images and other information. As the story says, we see tremendous opportunities in the Queen City and have begun partnering with key players to make them happen. We look forward to reporting on the progress, there and elsewhere in America, as we move along.

By Ashley Fahey, Staff Writer, Charlotte Business Journal.

One Caribbean-headquartered architecture, engineering and project management firm has selected Charlotte for its first foray in the United States — in the coming weeks, Integra will launch its U.S. hub at HQ at Packard Place in uptown.

The firm, based in San Juan, Puerto Rico, has overseen more than 800 architecture and engineering projects, primarily in the Caribbean, that run the gamut from commercial and residential development, sustainable water-treatment plants, and public-private projects to build bridges, greenways and other infrastructure.

Integra, which has operated in the Caribbean since 2000, will be led locally by principal Richard Cuebas. He plans to hire a local workforce, primarily architects to start, to work on projects that reflect the company’s overarching objectives of sustainability and designing for the future.

When deciding where to launch its U.S. hub, Integra principals honed in on 10 U.S. cities with populations roughly between 1 and 3 million that are undergoing a growth rate of 2% or more. And while Charlotte was ultimately the winner, Integra envisions eventual expansion into mid-sized, fast-growing U.S. markets such as Florida, Texas and Nashville, Tenn., with its U.S. base remaining in the Queen City.

“We’ve had quite a bit of experience in the Caribbean market and we want to bring this to the States,” said Alex Diaz, Integra business developer. “The growth has been so frantic down there, up until the last couple of years.”

Like many other real estate firms, Integra is eyeing the Lynx Blue Line for opportunities — not just in new development, but activating existing properties with “experience-driven” design and uses.

“(We want to) create integral destinations in all of these properties to become this magnet of buzzing activity,” Diaz said. “There’s this long strip south and north of individual destinations that add up to a fantastic district experience.”

Integra hopes to join the development boom along the existing light-rail line and the extension that will open next year — South End still plenty of opportunities, Diaz says.

Putting more emphasis on transit-oriented development and less on “expressway-oriented development” is what will help make Charlotte become a more “global city,” Integra leaders say. In fact, if more transit projects get approved and funded, Diaz says Charlotte has the potential to have at least 50 years of transit expansion — and with that comes cyclical development.

“From a development perspective, Charlotte has a unique opportunity to be (a city) in America that develops differently, that develops for this new generation that focuses on mass transit-centered living opportunities or the shared economy,” Diaz said. “That’s one of the reasons why we’re locating here, because (transit-oriented development) opens up design opportunities and urban experiences.”

DeepGreen: a sustainable advantage

Sustainable design is also a key theme in Integra’s portfolio. Locally, the firm is in conversations with groups such as Sustain Charlotte, Envision Charlotte and the Charlotte Chamber GreenWorks Council to devise ways of making new and existing development more environmentally-friendly — and, by extension, more cost-effective.

“Sustainable design simply adds such value to a property,” Diaz said. “There are all these profit points that a business or a building gets by going green.”

It starts with early conversations in the design process and partnering with contractors and developers who have a similar mindset.

“The life-cycle maintenance cost (saves) 20% to 40% every year — and (sustainability) easily improves branding and reputation, allows for faster sales, properties turn around faster, property values rise,” Diaz said.

Integra’s DeepGreen division specifically focuses on architecture and civil engineering that’s sustainable, resilient and livable. In Aruba, the firm master-planned a $124 million green corridor to expand an existing roadway and build a corresponding greenway to capitalize on the area’s environment.

The original plan was to demolish the existing bridge and build two new bridges, each with two lanes, in its place. Integra presented a new plan that expanded the existing bridge to four lanes and added a protected pedestrian greenway running parallel to the road.

“This area is next to the only freshwater lagoon on the island,” Cuebas said. “It has the potential to become a tourist destination, so we prepared this (area) as a linear park and promoted the healthy environment with … a greenway.”

Cuebas indicated that type of green urban design could be incorporated in Charlotte, referencing the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority’s proposed project to renovate the Charlotte Convention Center in uptown. Part of that $100 million plan includes an elevated pedestrian greenway outside the Convention Center off the light-rail bridge.

Beyond sustainability, Integra focuses on designing projects that anticipate where trends and patterns in development are headed.

For example: an office building’s parking ratio is currently a key marketing point and crucial decision factor for developers in new projects. But how will parking spaces be used in the future, when car-sharing and self-driving cars become the norm? In residential development, Cuebas said, homebuyers are increasingly looking at renting out second bedrooms via services like Airbnb to help pay for the mortgage — so how can new homes be built with that in mind?

“There are trends that always happen in the market and they keep shifting,” Diaz said. “When we sit down with a client or a project, we try to look as far ahead as we can so we can design something today that will be around for centuries, hopefully. (But) that project and what it’s used for will shift and change over time.

“If the developer designs it from the get-go to make it easier and less costly to adapt and change, that’s a big advantage,” he continued. “Let’s make it easier for a client to evolve with the times.”

Posted on September 23, 2016 in Architecture, Buildings, Engineering, Urbanism

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About the Author

Richard Cuebas is co-founder and Vice-President of Integra Design Group, Managing Member of our Charlotte office, and leader of the firm's Sustainability and Interior Architecture practices.
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