CO’s Top 15 Architects, Engineers and Construction Pros Under 35 Years Old
The real estate industry of New York City would not be what it is today without architecture, engineering and construction companies. These trades are responsible for designing, stabilizing and building the city.
This is CO’s first stab at a top list of young professionals in the A.E.C. industry, but when we sent out an invitation to the top firms to send us their rising stars, more than 30 companies with over 55 candidates heeded our call. These are the nominees that we’ve selected.—Liam La Guerre
Alrazi Ballal, 33
Director of Operations and Finance at Plaza Construction
Change is a good thing. And Alrazi Ballal has seen his share of changes.
Ballal immigrated to the United States in 2006 following his college graduation. He is a native of Wad Ballal in the Sudan and earned a bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering in 2006 from King Faisal University in Saudi Arabia, before getting his masters in construction management from Polytechnic University in Brooklyn (known today as Polytechnic Institute of New York University) in 2008.
Late last year, Ballal, who had been with Plaza Construction since March 2014, switched from a project manager to the financing and office management sides of the business. (He also has a background as an engineer.)
As a director of operations and finance, he is responsible for training new hires, ensuring accurate financial reporting, assisting the chief financial officer with establishing the annual budget and publishing monthly reports. Within the last year, he has successfully trained more than 350 employees in project and financial management.
“Initially, the move was driven by a desire to know more about the financial side of the business in order to become a better project manager,” Ballal said. “Honestly, I wasn’t completely thrilled by the fact that I was going to spend the majority of my time away from the field. Over time and as I started analyzing more projects, I developed a keen interest in the financial and the operational side of the business after I noticed its direct impact on the project as well as the company’s overall financial health.” —L.L.G.
Michael Bennardo, 30
Director of Construction at Legacy Builders Developers Corp.
Although Michael Bennardo works in the family business, that doesn’t mean he went right to the top of his uncle’s company, Legacy Builders Developers Corp. The firm was in its infancy when a 20-year-old Bennardo started at the company.
At that point (nearly 10 years ago) the company, headed by his uncle, John Bennardo, was renovating apartments in Queens and Harlem.
Bennardo started out as a driver and laborer in Queens. He worked his way up through a handful of positions, eventually leading to his current role as the director of construction.
Although Bennardo grew up in Arizona, a good share of his family was based in New York, and he was drawn to join the business in the Big Apple. His brother, Tom, also works at Legacy Builders, in the estimating department.
In the last year, he has overseen construction on 350 units of Carnegie Park, the 31-story luxury condominium building developed by Related Companies at 200 East 94th Street between Second and Third Avenues.
“I love working with a design team and a developer in helping to make their vision on plans and renderings become reality,” Bennardo said. “I love the adrenaline that takes over when you’re working late nights and weekends to meet deadlines and pass inspections. Most of all, I love the rewarding feeling of success at the completion of a project when you can look back and see an old dilapidated building transform into a beautiful new space.”—Terence Cullen
Kristin DiStefano, 30
Project Manager at Richter+Ratner
You never know what’s going to be behind some of the walls in the older buildings of New York City. In the case of a recent renovation at the Au Bon Pain at the Macy’s in Herald Square, Kristin DiStefano said there were layers upon layers of earlier walls.
“It’s cool when you work in a building that has that much history,” she said.
While she spends a lot of time in one of Manhattan’s most famous department stores, DiStefano’s real forte is working on the construction, renovation and expansion of schools. Most recently, she oversaw the construction of a new wing for Xavier High School, which connected to the century-old main building at 30 West 16th Street between Avenue of the Americas and Fifth Avenue.
“You’re connecting to a 100-year-old building,” she said, “so you don’t know exactly what you’re going to run into with a building that old.”
She got into the education construction business through her first job at HESS Construction after graduating from Pennsylvania State University in 2008. With a degree in civil engineering, DiStefano didn’t want to build roads; she wanted to build buildings (it’s in the genes; her father is an architect).
DiStefano, a native of Port Washington, N.Y., worked her first few years in and around Washington, D.C., with HESS. By 2014, she decided to move back to New York and get a job with Sciame Construction before joining Richter+Ratner a year ago.—T.C.
Brandon Favicchia, 25
Project Manager at Trace Pool Design, a Division of Lothrop Associates
Like many students fresh out of college, Brandon Favicchia wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted to do with his career. So he dipped his toe into pool design about two and a half years ago and is now doing laps around the Big Apple.
Over that time, he has risen to become a project manager and oversees a team of five engineers specializing in pool design throughout the city. While his office is based in White Plains, N.Y., Favicchia’s company has been making a splash on some big Manhattan developments such as 111 Murray Street, where the firm is working on a 75-foot long lap pool. It is one of the several posh amenities in the luxury high-rise, which is being developed by Fisher Brothers, Witkoff Group and a subsidiary of Howard Lorber’s Vector Group. (He declined to cite others.)
Favicchia said he oversees an average of six projects at once, which leads to him traveling to New York City. How does he keep his head above water? He got an associate’s degree in design from the State University of New York, Delhi and a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the State University of New York, Buffalo. His training in architecture mixed with his education in engineering helped him get ready for this role, he said.
Although the buildings are getting higher and more challenging to put pools into, Favicchia said new technologies have made it easier to build pools in different locations such as the roof.
“A lot of them are rooftop pools,” he said. “We’re no longer limited to ground-level pools. We’re breaking through that mold.”—T.C.
Daniel Halajian, 32
Senior Project Manager at Hunter Roberts
Daniel Halajian has worked for nine years at Hunter Roberts Construction Group and is now a senior project manager responsible for the overall construction operations of RXR Realty and Youngwoo & Associates’ 550,000-square-foot renovation of the Pier 57 building. The group plans to convert it from a two-story building with a rooftop space to a four-story building with a rooftop park.
Google has already signed for about 225,000 square feet of office space at the project, and the Tribeca Film Festival will host its annual event on the rooftop following its completion in the fall of 2018.
Halajian oversees 12 executives on the project and 150 contractors on the site. One of the biggest challenges is renovating 125,000 square feet from within the caissons (the foundation that holds up the pier). In order to do so, workers had to create a new dry chamber leading into the caisson, since that rentable area is under water.
“It’s definitely something different that you don’t do every day,” Halajian said. “It’s a lot of planning. It’s definitely exciting and very interesting work.”
A 2007 graduate of New Jersey Institute of Technology, where he was a dual major studying architecture and construction management, Halajian grew up in Byram Township, N.J., and currently lives in Wood-Ridge, N.J., with his wife.
He started out with a dream to be an architect but changed to construction management after discovering his love of being hands on with projects.
“I‘ve known since I was very young that I wanted to do something in the construction [industry],” Halajian said. “Before going to college I took architecture-type classes in high school. And I only looked at schools for college that offered architecture [courses].”
He added, “Construction management really started to interest me. To be out there in the field every day and see your building go up after your hard work really attracted me.”—L.L.G.
Sarah Ann Ocampo, 34
Project Manager at Montroy Andersen DeMarco
Sarah Ann Ocampo is leading the way on many things.
She is a single mother to a 7-year-old son, a congregation lecturer at two churches in Queens and a fitness lover who completed the 2016 Reebok Spartan Race. In addition, within the past year she bolstered her career when she became a registered architect in the state of New York and a LEED-accredited professional.
Ocampo, who has worked for Montroy Andersen DeMarco for nearly nine years, is the project manager that recently designed Madison Equities and Property Markets Group’s 100,000-square-foot, 21-unit luxury condominium at 10 Sullivan Street, which has a classic curved triangular shape (think Flatiron Building). And she crafted the condo conversion plan for The Chatsworth, a nearly 200,000-square-foot apartment building at 344 West 72nd Street, for landlord HFZ Capital Group.
She is also designing a 31,000-square-foot, seven-unit residential building at 11 Jane Street for developer Edward Minskoff between Eighth and Greenwich Avenues. And her team is working in collaboration with London designers from David Chipperfield Architects.
“I am very excited about this project as I am working with a great consulting team and gaining exposure to European designs and standards and figuring out how to translate them here,” Ocampo said.
Ocampo was born in Manila, Philippines, and came here as a child when her family immigrated to Queens. She was inspired to be an architect after watching her father, who is a structural engineer, and earned her bachelor’s from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 2004.
“I recall when walking together with him, my dad would look at parts of buildings that the majority of bystanders would be oblivious to and go into explaining to me how that arch, that buttress, that truss, etc. is working to keep the building up,” Ocampo said.—L.L.G.
Sarah Patterson, 28
Structural Project Engineer at Dewberry
Engineer blood courses through Sarah Patterson’s veins.
“My uncle’s a structural engineer, and I have a cousin who’s a civil engineer,” she said.
Plus, in high school she had a math teacher with a previous life in the engineering field who “gave me a good taste of what it involved.” So by the time she headed off to Villanova University, she knew exactly what she wanted to do. She proceeded to get a master’s degree at Northwestern University in civil engineering and while she was still in school she began working in the Boston office of Dewberry on telecom engineering.
A year into her stint with Dewberry she transferred to the New York office, where she is today working on some major projects.
First, she’s been long at work on the $1.2 billion Silver Line Phase 2 project—the extension of the D.C. Metrorail line into Virginia. “That’s probably my favorite project—and the one that’s been the most difficult.” She’s designed five new at-grade stations along the route, 31 pedestrian bridges and entrance pavilions—all on an extremely difficult schedule. “Each structure was similar but a little different. There were different foundations we were dealing with.”
It might sound like a big enough project that would seize all of her time, but she’s also the project manager on a new dormitory for Stony Brook University on Long Island.
“I would say my dream project would be a high-rise in the city,” Patterson said. It won’t be a dream for long.—Max Gross
Aleksandar Spasojevic, 30
Senior Interior Designer at Perkins+Will
Aleksandar Spasojevic has been at Perkins+Will for just four months, but he’s already working on the interior designs for a few extremely premiere clients.
As a senior interior designer in the company’s New York office, he is leading the redesign of global nutrition and hygiene products-maker Unilever’s 350,000-square-foot headquarters in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., which is expected to be completed in September 2017.
He is also working on redesigning the offices of job website Indeed in Paris, London and Dublin, and its design strategy for further growth around the globe.
A native of Belgrade, Serbia, Spasojevic “always knew that I was going to do some creative things in my life.”
He added, “I see architecture as a tool…I like the idea of making something for people [to function in] and affecting people’s lives.”
Spasojevic earned a bachelor’s degree in multifamily housing in 2008 and then a master’s in 2010 in architecture and planning, both from the University of Belgrade. Three years later he founded L’enfant Terrible Design Studio in his home country, and his firm worked not only on interior office designs, but also branding ideas and materials. His knowledge, experience and creativity for designing interior spaces are what make him such an ideal match for Perkins+Will.
“I knew about Perkins+Will back home,” Spasojevic said. “I really like a lot of projects that they are doing. Perkins+Will has made a difference in society with transformative design.”—L.L.G.
Matthew Stephenson, 34
Senior Associate at Woods Bagot
Matthew Stephenson was thrust into the world of design and construction as a child through his father, an industrial arts teacher in a town near Cincinnati, Ohio.
“Growing up we did a lot of building,” Stephenson said. “He always made us draw things before we designed them. And when I went into high school I took a drafting and design course. I really enjoyed that work, so the next step was to try to figure out how to pursue that field at the next level. And that meant architecture.”
Now Stephenson, a senior associate at Woods Bagot, is working on a new connected residential tower and office building in Dumbo, Brooklyn for AmTrust Realty.
The 350,000-square-foot project at 203 Jay Street, which is currently under construction, will include a 33-story residential tower and an adjacent nine-story office building. (They’re also among the first of Woods Bagot’s forays into North America.)
While he works in the Manhattan office, Stephenson is sometimes called into action for Woods Bagot’s teams abroad. He recently helped design the façade of a new 430,000-square-foot building for the University of Sydney Business School in Australia.
“We have 16 studios across the globe, and we make a big point of those studios being collaborative with each other,” Stephenson said. “On that particular project, there was a need for some exterior wall expertise. So they called on us.”
Stephenson, who has recently moved to the Upper East Side, graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a master’s degree in architecture in 2007 and has been with Woods Bagot for six years.—L.L.G.
Jennifer Sze, 34
Senior Associate at Vidaris
Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts and Silverstein Properties are holding a ribbon cutting this Wednesday to celebrate the opening of the new Four Seasons Hotel New York Downtown. That is a hotel that Jennifer Sze worked on, although her focus was only on one aspect: the building’s skin.
At Vidaris, a provider of niche consulting services within the architecture, engineering and construction industries, Sze is part of the 60-person new construction group. Her niche is exterior walls.
She and her team met with bidders and the general contractor to purchase the façade. They witnessed the testing of the façade prior to the construction to validate the exterior wall system, and then when the building was under construction, they performed on-site field inspections for the exterior wall.
“I basically supervised a team of inspectors who were going to the field and also going to the manufacturing shops, making the sure the quality control was okay,” Sze said. “There were some thermal issues with the façade that we worked with the manufacturer to resolve.”
Other projects on which she has consulted include 432 Park Avenue (where there were “some field issues that came up with regard to the installation of the windows that we kept an eye on,”) 50 United Nations Plaza, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum and Cornell Tech’s Passive House residential building.
With the Passive House project, there were “challenges there since it was the first passive house high-rise in the [world and] no one knew how to do it,” the registered architect said.
In the last year she became the deputy director of the company’s special inspections agency, and she was promoted to senior associate. She is the only female ranking in this position in the new construction group. And she also got married.—Lauren Elkies Schram
Thomas Szerlag, 33
Project Executive at Gilbane Building Company
Thomas Szerlag has served at Gilbane Building Company for a decade, since graduating from college. And he was promoted to project executive in November 2015.
Szerlag oversees construction management on the site of 55 Hudson Yards, a planned 51-story office building by Related Companies, Oxford Property Group and Mitsui Fudosan America. The structure will be 1.3 million square feet and will stretch 780 feet into the sky. Contractors have reached the 11th floor of the tower and hope to complete it by 2018.
While it wasn’t built on the Hudson Yards platform deck, 55 Hudson Yards sits atop the new 7 train station at West 34th Street. So workers had to be extra careful when laying foundation down for it, as the 120-foot long caissons that make up the foundation are adjacent to the train line.
“Drilling for these caissons, we were very sensitive and coordinating with the [Metropolitan Transportation Authority], so that [the foundation] was not impacting them,” Szerlag said. “Their priority is to keep the train running, and if there was any impact on that it would be bad.”
At the project, Szerlag oversees a team of 17 executives and more than 260 contractors. The manpower will increase to about 400 people when the company starts working on the interior sections, he said.
A native of Northbridge, Mass., Szerlag is a married father of two who lives on the Upper West Side. He grew up on a farm, where he realized his talents for building and using complex equipment. He graduated in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute and immediately started working at Gilbane.
“Growing up on a [dairy] farm, you had to be innovative and really think things through when fixing equipment and planting crops,” Szerlag said. “I always gravitated to math and science, [and] combine that with working with your hands on a farm, [construction management] just made sense.”—L.L.G.
Kate Thatcher, 34
Associate Principal at A+I
Kate Thatcher is an associate principal at Architecture Plus Information (A+I), where she has been employed since 2004.
As one of just two associate principals in the 70-person firm, she oversees the design and the construction process of several of A+I’s largest projects, including the fifth phase of Horizon Media’s global headquarters at 1 Hudson Square. The project involves a 125,000-square-foot expansion on the 11th and 12th floors of the building, bringing Horizon’s total footprint in the structure to 325,000 square feet.
For that interior office project, which features contemporary furniture, wooden and polished concrete floors and interconnected floors and plants, Thatcher and her coworkers earned various awards including one from the American Institute of Architects New York Chapter and another from the Society of American Registered Architects New York Council.
Thatcher was promoted to associate principal in November 2015 by the firm’s founding principals, Brad Zizmor and Dag Folger. As someone who has worked at the 20-year-old company for a dozen years, Thatcher has borne witness to the firm’s growth as much as she has contributed to it.
And now she is working some projects on the West Coast and in the Midwest, helping to expand A+I’s national portfolio. Thatcher is also a member of the firm’s steering committee, through which she is directly involved in advising A+I’s company-wide design objectives and its strategic direction.
Prior to her tenure at A+I she worked at architecture firm FreelandBuck. Thatcher has a master’s degree in architecture from Yale University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia.—L.L.G.
Brian Troast, 32
Senior Project Manager at Tishman Construction
Brian Troast loves complicated construction projects.
It’s only natural as the married father of three grew up in Wyckoff, N.J., learning about construction from his family’s business, Troast Construction, which extends back to 1923. He could have been the fourth generation to lead the family business but wanted to do bigger projects rather than the office buildouts for which his family’s company is known in the Garden State.
He started in the construction industry with summer jobs in the family business, but following his graduation from Bucknell University in 2006—where he studied civil and environmental engineering—Troast joined Tishman Construction and began working on 1 World Trade Center as a project manager. He was devoted to the 1,776-square-foot tower until its completion in 2014.
“The thing that gets me excited about construction is managing the complicated projects like 1 World Trade,” Troast said. “I’m driven by these highly complex projects, and New York is really one of the only places that can provide that.”
Troast is now a senior project manager at Tishman (which is a division of AECOM), and he is overseeing the Kohn Pedersen Fox-designed One Vanderbilt, a 1,501-foot-tall skyscraper by SL Green Realty Corp. He commanded a team of seven executives and about 70 subcontractors in the demolition of four buildings adjacent to Grand Central Terminal within the last year to pave the way for the new tower.
Troast is currently building a team of nearly 50 administrators, and up to 800 subcontractors, to erect the structure by 2020. In addition to maintaining the budget and schedule for the project, he navigates the process of gaining approvals from the New York City Department of Buildings, as well as the city’s Department of Transportation.
“The logistics, are tremendously complicated,” Troast said. “We have to get men and materials to the job site. Making sure we get the proper logistics is the lifeline to the project.”—L.L.G.
Glynis Vidalon, 30
Staff Architect at H2M Architects + Engineers
In 2012, Superstorm Sandy affected millions of Americans and devastated hundreds of thousands of homes. One of those victims was Glynis Vidalon, who was living with her parents in Freeport in Nassau County.
“When we first heard of it, we didn’t think it would be so big. So we thought, ‘Let’s stay put,’ ” Vidalon said. “It wasn’t until the flood started happening that we said, ‘We’ve got to get out of here.’ ”
Fast-forward three years, to 2015, and Vidalon was an H2M Architects + Engineers architect who worked with the city in its Build It Back program, creating the designs for the homes of about 100 families that were affected by the storm. Today, her team has to design elevations and rehabilitations for nine Sandy-impacted homes by the second week of October, which marks the fourth anniversary of the storm. Vidalon (more than most) can understand the frustration of waiting. She has redesigned her mother’s home, but it still hasn’t been completed.
“I say, ‘my mother is in the same situation, and I can understand how you feel,’ ” Vidalon said. “The clients feel at ease because I can relate to them.”
Besides homes, Vidalon, who graduated from the University of Hartford in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in architecture, has been involved with the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery initiative for commercial facilities. Through this program, she redesigned new flood-proof fire stations for the volunteer fire departments in the West Hamilton section of Queens and Gerritsen Beach in Brooklyn.
And while the community aspect of architecture is rewarding, her inspiration to be an architect started when she was 11 years old and visited Machu Picchu in her parent’s homeland of Peru.
“When I got up there, I fell in love with the architecture,” Vidalon said. “I want who is going to be in my spaces to feel that they are happy with them [too].”—L.L.G.
Lucien Wilson, 33
Associate Principal and Director of KPF Urban Interface at Kohn Pedersen Fox
Luc Wilson is not the guy from Old School—he’s Lucien Wilson, at Kohn Pedersen Fox, and he’s integrating data and 3D models in design.
Wilson started at KPF in 2012 to launch its X-Information Modeling program, a spin on the industry’s building information modeling, or the creation of 3D concepts of projects. The team worked to identify not only data from buildings, like maximum floor area, but also other variables that affect buildings (and tenants) such as views and shadows, which help make designs more efficient. The modeling also aids architects in avoiding design problems by providing thousands of iterations at the start of projects.
Wilson compares his projects to “a design MRI, where the idea is the X-ray doesn’t take away from the judgment of the doctor but helps them make decisions faster.”
He added, “We look at floor plate efficiencies [for example]. We’ll test a few hundred different options.”
The X-Information Modeling team works on about 100 projects a year for KPF. And Wilson, who is an associate principal at the firm, launched KPF Urban Interface in April. It is a research group that collects building data from landlords, city records and even social media, to more quickly understand how to better design cities.
Recently, Wilson’s group created 3D visuals for New York City concerning the planned Midtown East rezoning, helping administrators understand how the possible upzoning would affect the area. For example, allowing buildings to be too tall may cast longer shadows in the neighborhood, making it much darker, Wilson said.
Outside of KPF, Wilson is an adjunct assistant professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation and also an adjunct course adviser at New York University Center for Data Science.—L.L.G.