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Manatee-Sarasota
Business Observer Friday, Nov. 13, 2015 3 years ago

Avoiding mediocrity

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Sweet Sparkman Architects has carved out a niche designing cutting-edge, budget-minded buildings for governments and institutions.
by: Kevin McQuaid Commercial Real Estate Editor

A little more than a decade ago, Sweet Sparkman Architects scraped by designing carports and residential additions.

“In the beginning, we took what we could to be expressive,” says Todd Sweet, 47. “No one would give us a significant job.”

Today, the boutique firm is among the most active in Sarasota County, with projects for Ringling College of Art and Design, Sarasota County, the county's school board and others.

Though the firm aspired to land institutional and government contracts from the outset, its modern architectural bent didn't resonate with everyone.

But in 2004, Charlotte County tapped Sweet and Sparkman to work on a historic park. A year later, the Gulf Coast Community Foundation hired the pair to design an affordable housing village that ultimately wasn't built. In 2006, a client retained the firm to design a three-building, single-family home on Casey Key.

Slowly, their practice gained traction. Sarasota County approached the firm in 2008 to design a series of beach pavilions it was planning, including a $17 million overhaul of concessions, parking and amenities at Siesta Key Beach.

But then the recession hit. Projects evaporated, clients retrenched. Architectural firms laid off staff to wait out the downturn. Many collapsed.

Sweet Sparkman, however, doubled down on government work, differentiating itself with quality designs regardless of budget, and focused on picking up the occasional high-end residential project. The strategy worked.

Along the way, the firm eliminated debt and acquired a building at 2168 Main St., in Sarasota, from which it now operates.

When the region's economy recovered in 2012, Sweet Sparkman was well positioned. It became the local firm associated with the Ringling Museum's new Asian art museum, and was hired by Ringling College to design the school's new library and a visual arts center — now under construction. New College turned to Sweet Sparkman for an ongoing contract.

Sarasota County and other municipalities, meanwhile, hired the firm to design a series of new fire stations. To date, eight have been completed.

Clients say the firm has successfully balanced the volume of work with a service-oriented approach.

“They're very detail oriented,” says Steven “Dusty” French, the principal at Fruitville Elementary School, where Sweet Sparkman has designed a 29,000-square-foot, two-story building that will be completed next year. “I'm always pleasantly surprised at how involved they are in every aspect. And I trust them.”

“The architecture they've provided is beautiful, and yet it's also within the budgetary realities of the school system,” says Dr. Laura Kingsley, Fruitville's principal when Sweet Sparkman was hired and a member of the committee that selected the firm, who now oversees all county elementary schools. “They're putting up a piece of art, really.”

Despite a staff of 12 now, Sweet and Sparkman say they remain focused on high-quality design and a hands-on approach to business. They fret about the perception that they might be “too busy.”

They hope in the years ahead to branch out geographically, to land more private-sector work -- maybe even a signature project in Sarasota.

But both say their overriding goal is to avoid mediocrity.

“I think we're both hard-wired to do something unique as an architectural practice,” says Sparkman, 48. “And we like to be continually challenged.”

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