Nailing It

frank sciame credit danny kim Nailing It

The Commercial Observer: What happened to the construction industry last year? It was pretty slow, right?

Mr. Sciame: Last year, the construction industry went from what was being referred to as ‘white hot’ to ‘falling off the cliff.’ The number of projects that were in the development phase had just evaporated. I don’t think there were any projects I could think of in the New York metropolitan area last year. So you had all the new construction drop off the cliff. Institutional was still fairly strong, but not like it was, in terms of what happened to endowments and things like that. I think it’s fair to say that the construction industry entered an extraordinary downturn in 2009.


Now we’re seeing, almost exclusively, publicly funded projects.

Yeah. I mean, you know, if you were a major construction firm in 2008 or 2009, you still had a backlog, and you had a pretty good year. But you saw your new projects start to get more challenging. We actually saw this coming, and diversified. We went into the public sector. We were doing a lot of museums, and they were highly successful; so what we wanted to do is get into a sector that we had been in years ago, in terms of institutional, where we knew there would be repeat work. We sort of diversified and went not only into the institutional realm but also the public sector-EDC, DDC, CUNY, and we’ve been successful in landing those new projects.


What are the drawbacks, or benefits, of working on a publicly funded project?

They’re not that dissimilar. The public sector understands that a construction management approach makes sense. So you’re able to qualify the subcontractors and make sure that even under Wicks law you just have good contractors bidding on the project going through the pre-qualification process. We’re also finding that the city is really paying attention to architecture, which is great-because I’m a graduate architect. Never practiced, but my love is for great architecture. I think it’s been said that civilizations are judged in large part by the buildings they leave behind, and it’s terrific this city is looking at the buildings they leave behind.


In your bio, you’re described as ‘a builder with the eye of a constructor but the vision of an architect.’ What does that mean?

I like great architecture. I also think great architecture adds value to the development project. When an architect is hired by the owner, I believe they’re hired in large part for the type of work they’re going to deliver. We try to do our very best to have that architect deliver that vision in a cost-effective manner. So we look at the architecture and try to envision how we can build this cost effectively. How can we achieve that design for the right price? If you do that, you have a happy client.


Do you have a favorite architect?

It’s a tough question. I learned early on that I wasn’t going to be the next Frank Lloyd Wright. I was intimidated by the creativity of the students in my class. It was amazing because we were in school learning about Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright, and then 35 years later, to be working with the Mies van der Rohes or Frank Lloyd Wrights of the day is really an extraordinary experience. I don’t have favorites, but I can tell you that most of the great architects are great people-interesting, visionary, fun to be with and just deserving of the greatness.


You did the Guggenheim Museum restorations recently. Was that a challenge?

That was a very unique, challenging project in terms of its restoration. It was really, ‘How do we bring this back to the way it was when it was built?’ And I think, at the end of the day, someone had commented that it’s not only as good, but probably a little better than it was when it was first built. But it was really an experiment in finding out what different layers of paint were put on, what were the original colors, and then looking at new mechanical systems and how to get them into the building without disrupting the historic, landmarked facades. It was just a good challenge, and we did it while the museum was in operation.


As recently as two years ago, you were hearing a lot of people from outside the real estate and construction industries complain about ‘overdevelopment.’ What comes to mind when you hear that turn of phrase?

Usually, they talk about overdevelopment when it’s blocking their view. I think that in certain instances, there are legitimate concerns that should be addressed, and I think the city has a great public-hearing process. I was chairman of the Landmarks Conservancy for a number of years, so we were involved with a lot of these hearings. And, there, it was always my goal and intent to try to really be objective.


Not hearing so many people complain about overdevelopment now, though, right?

No! The world has changed. Look, I knew that the market was on fire. We were reluctant to develop projects where we were depending on higher costs per square foot than we were being paid at the time. We didn’t want to chase the market, but I don’t think anybody anticipated a 30 or 40 percent correction, and that’s what we’ve had.


F.J. Sciame Construction Co. has been around since 1975. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the past 35 years?

The biggest change is that we were brought up as lump-sum builders, where you would bid the jobs and you’d have to use all the contractors that were out there, and it was very difficult to control the quality and put in a good competitive lump-sum bid. We lost a lot of projects because I refused to use subcontractors that were second tier in terms of quality because I knew at the end of the day, it would bring down our level of quality. That was a real frustration. As the construction management came to be-which is something that’s really changed in the past 20 years, in particular-it has allowed us to pick the right subs for the right job and really represent the owner as their agent, or their contractor, eventually.


Did you come across the mob element that we hear about so often?

Fortunately, not me. And even that has been, I think, much less than it was 35 years ago, when I started. Perhaps at the subcontractor level things like that were going on, but, you know, we were always straight as an arrow. No way to do it other than the right way. Our core values-honesty, integrity-never changed. So we didn’t see it. Now, that’s not to say that it may not have existed. But fortunately … And then as you grow, it’s certainly much less of a risk, if there ever was one.

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