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Sarasota architecture firm continues to build on St. Pete expansion

Sweet Sparkman has made some strategic moves designed to build on its past successes.


Jerry Sparkman, Karl Bernhard, Michele Demperio, Todd Sweet and John Bryant with Sarasota-based architecture firm Sweet Sparkman stand in front of the winning design for the Reimagining Pei competition.
Jerry Sparkman, Karl Bernhard, Michele Demperio, Todd Sweet and John Bryant with Sarasota-based architecture firm Sweet Sparkman stand in front of the winning design for the Reimagining Pei competition.
Photo by Lori Sax
  • Manatee-Sarasota
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Sweet Sparkman Architecture and Interiors isn’t afraid to seize opportunities. After handling several projects in the St. Pete area, the Sarasota-based firm opened an office, its second overall, in downtown St. Petersburg in July 2023. 

“We are there to really take advantage of the development that’s going on around the Gas Plant District and the Tropicana Field redevelopment,” says Michele Demperio, partner and director of business development for Sweet Sparkman. “There’s a lot of opportunity up there.”

While St. Pete skews a bit younger in terms of demographics, both cities share an appreciation of midcentury modern and contemporary design, styles Sweet Sparkman embraces. “There’s a lot going on in Sarasota, and there’s also a lot going on in St. Pete,” says Karl Bernhard, a principal and partner at the firm. “So we just want to sort of spread our wings and be able to reach a broader audience and help build up the communities that surround us.”

Current projects in the St. Pete area include the city’s sanitation building, a LEED Gold project under construction. The firm is also in the early stages of designing fire and K9 training facilities for St. Petersburg Fire Rescue and the St. Petersburg Police Department, and it’s continuing to work on fire station projects in the area and projects at Eckerd College.

In Sarasota, meanwhile, Sweet Sparkman recently won the “Reimagining Pei” architectural competition held by New College of Florida in coordination with Architecture Sarasota. The firm earned praise for its designs that incorporate a desired new athletics complex at the college while also preserving renowned architect I.M. Pei’s brutalist-style dormitories on New College’s East Campus. 

Notably, it beat out two other firms based outside the area.

“The architects that we competed against, we hold in high regard, and it’s sort of proof that world-class architecture can come from Sarasota and does come from Sarasota,” says Bernhard. “I think it’s our duty to maintain and uphold the historic fabric of the architecture of our community. And being the local firm, it’s even more pressure for us to make sure that we’re seeing that those buildings survive the test of time and are able to adapt to address the current needs of the college.”

Next steps remain to be seen, and Sweet Sparkman knew all along success in the competition didn’t come with the guarantee of a job. “There’s a pretty rigorous procurement process that you have to go through in order to get that kind of job,” says Demperio. “But this was about ideas, which is what made it even more special for us, because we could really stretch our imagination to what could happen.”

The firm’s also working on projects for the Sarasota County History Center and Sarasota County Parks and Recreation, as well as residential projects in the area. And its past work continues to get accolades: Longboat Key Fire Station Number 92 recently received an AIA Florida Design Award, and Venice Fire Station Number 1 received a Notable Design Award from Firehouse Magazine.

The firm attributes its success to the strong staff it’s assembled, which currently numbers about 40. Attracting that talent has been made a bit easier by the hybrid work environment the company has kept in place following the pandemic. “Because we’re able to offer flexibility in the schedule during the work week, we’re able to get, I think, better talent,” says Demperio. 

“We’re sort of in a new era where the nine-to-five, five days a week sort of seems to be an antiquated system,” adds Bernhard. “We personally love having people in the office, because architecture really is a collaborative process. And especially a lot of the younger staff really benefit from being in the office next to their mentors…But I think three days a week is sufficient for that.”

As the firm looks toward 2024, it will continue the approach it’s taken to deal with the volatility in costs and materials shortages and delays the building and design industries have experienced over the last few years. 

“We have to be a lot more cautious,” says Bernhard. “From right out of the gate we are going to be dealing with rising costs. Typically our strategy is to design efficient buildings that will last, and it’s a design challenge on how to make a simple structure that is cost effective and beautiful. It’s easy when you have an endless pit of money to build something beautiful. But we love doing it and we’ve been able to keep our clients’ projects moving because of our strategies.”

 

author

Beth Luberecki

Nokomis-based freelance writer Beth Luberecki, a Business Observer contributor, writes about business, travel and lifestyle topics for a variety of Florida and national publications. Her work has appeared in publications and on websites including Washington Post’s Express, USA Today, Florida Trend, FamilyVacationist.com and SmarterTravel.com. Learn more about her at BethLuberecki.com.

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