Suite Life: Feature Story
Stevens Construction Builds Well-Deserved Reputation for Quality Commercial Projects
By Elizabeth W. Pearce

Cover_WebsiteLike many Southwest Florida contractors, Stevens Construction, Inc. was turning down work two years ago. But unlike many of its commercial competitors, the company has continued to stay busy, despite a depressed economy.

“We’re still doing quite well, even though our workload is down just like everyone else’s,” says owner Mark Stevens, who founded the company in Fort Myers in 2004. “Commercial owners face different challenges than they did a couple of years ago. So we’re doing a few things differently than we used to.”

For one thing, it’s expanding geographically with a new office in Maitland to serve projects in central Florida. Although the majority of its work remains in Southwest Florida, the company has projects in central Florida communities such as Mount Dora, Zephyrhills, Lakeland and Wauchula. Its services haven’t changed. The company is still designing, managing and building commercial projects from central Florida to Marco Island. However, its approach has shifted from “Can we take on more work?” to “Can we make the project work for the owner?”

The company is well known for doing just that, providing owners complete commercial construction services, with a focus on design-build and construction management. Over the years, its work has garnered numerous awards, including a 2008 Aurora Award from the Southeast Builder’s Conference. Stevens beat competitors in 12 states in the Best Healthcare Facility category for St. Mark’s Ambulatory Surgery Center in Fort Myers.

The 9,290sf facility has three operating rooms, a post-operating area and administrative offices. With decorative stone flooring and a vaulted wood-plank ceiling, it seems more like a ski resort than a surgical center. However, its attractive features belie its no-nonsense construction: It was built to withstand winds of 130 mph and has a generator to keep the entire building operating in case power is disrupted.

The same project took home a 2007 Summit Award from the Lee Building Industry Association (LBIA). Also last year, the company received Aurora and Summit awards for Best Hospitality Project for the Lagoon Pools and Clubhouse at the Pointe, which it built at South Seas Plantation.

Besides medical facilities and resort amenities, the company also builds banks, retail centers, offices and other commercial structures. Working on such diverse projects “keeps it challenging and interesting for our team members,” says Stevens.

The Preconstruction Advantage

Optimally, the company begins working with owners in the preconstruction phase and stays with them through the project’s construction and completion. “We’re seeing that owners really don’t want to take the risk or have the time or knowledge to manage the entire development process. Our design-build services coordinate all that. But first, we determine what they’re looking for and identify their long-term goals.”

Stevens says that too often, people will buy a property, pay for architectural drawings and then shop for a contractor to build their project. “They typically have no construction experience and unrealistic expectations of what the project will cost to build and how long the entire design, permitting and construction takes. They don’t understand that in addition to the actual cost of construction, there are impact fees, permitting fees, utility hookup fees and other charges that all add up. Nine times out of 10, the project’s not going to work the way they envision it.”

That’s exactly what happened to Dr. Billy Barnes when he and his wife, Amy, began planning and designing a new medical office building for their Cape Coral chiropractic practice. “We wanted to make the right statement Ñ that we’re young and progressive Ñ and we wanted our building to reflect that,” says Billy Barnes.

That meant creating something unusual and modern. “We knew exactly how we wanted our building to look and had the perfect location, so we hired an architect to draw up the plans.” They were in for a rude awakening when they couldn’t get building permits because of planning and zoning issues.

“Here I had the building I wanted that doesn’t fit on the lot and that I’m paying taxes on. My approach was totally backwards,” he admits.

Then Barnes hired Stevens Construction after interviewing several different contractors. “This wasn’t just another project for Mark. He had a real passion for building it. He also brought up a lot of things that you wouldn’t think of as an owner.”

Barnes says that Stevens’ suggestions not only saved him money, they made the 7,300sf building more functional and efficient. For example, the 14-foot ceilings were lowered to 12 feet in areas where sound was an issue, and ductwork was changed from metal to fiberglass. None of the critical changes sacrificed the unique, contemporary features that promise to make the Barnes building a landmark structure on Del Prado Boulevard.

Construction is scheduled to begin in September. When completed in about seven months, the building will contain eight exam rooms, a massage room, hydrotherapy room and X-ray room. “We would have eliminated a lot of frustration and expense if I’d just gotten together with Stevens Construction in the beginning,” adds Barnes. “I’ve learned my lesson.”

Current Projects

In addition to the Barnes Chiropractic building, the company is working on a number of other design-build healthcare projects, accounting for about 75% of Stevens Construction’s business so far this year, up from 50% last year. Two are for Florida Hospital, a long-time repeat client.

In Sebring, Stevens has begun renovating the catheterization lab at Florida Hospital Heartland Division. In addition to upgrading the existing lab, the project involves adding a second lab. Previously at the Sebring campus, Stevens built a 36-bed, 50,000sf expansion and just completed a 40,000sf medical office building. At Florida Hospital Zephyrhills, Stevens is adding a third cath lab as well as support facilities that include a control room, computer equipment room and an office. It is the tenth such project that Stevens has done for the medical system.

According to John Negley, assistant to the president of Florida Hospital Zephyrhills, medical construction is extremely complex and highly regulated by the state. “Stevens Construction’s experience and expertise makes the job flow much more smoothly,” says Negley. “We’ve never failed an inspection from the state.”

Having worked with Stevens for the past 16 years, Negley describes him as “proactive, very thorough, extremely cooperative and honest. He doesn’t change-order you to death. In fact, he does everything he can to eliminate them by being as inclusive and complete as possible in the contract.”

Furthermore, Negley says Stevens consistently delivers on budget and on or ahead of schedule. “What I like about Mark is that when there’s a problem, he always provides several different solutions for us to evaluate so that we can make an intelligent decision on which way to go. He doesn’t say, ‘Here’s the problem. Tell me what to do.’ He’s always looking for ways to save the owner money.”

Such is the case at the Mt. Dora Ambulatory Surgery Center, which Stevens plans to have under construction in October. In order to address stringent, state-regulated humidity and temperature controls, Stevens suggested that the owners install a chilled water cooling system costing $75,000 more than a traditional system.

“But the estimated payback in power consumption is $38,000 every year,” says Stevens. “So even though the initial cost is higher, it’s going to save them a significant amount in the long run.”

Upon completion next year, the 10,796sf center is planned to include two operating rooms, a minor procedure room, pre-op and recovery beds, one private recovery bed, step-down recovery and associate support services.

Additional Projects

Medical construction is not alone in its challenges. Building the Lagoon Pools and Cabanas at South Seas Plantation on Captiva Island was a trying project for a couple of reasons. “First, we were building on an island with a bridge that was being replaced, so getting materials and manpower out there was logistically challenging. Plus, it was in the post-Hurricane Charley building boom, so materials were tough to get on the mainland, let alone on Captiva,” says Stevens.

Ownership presented another problem, as the property changed hands twice during construction. With each new owner came new plans and design requirements. “I can’t fault them for that,” although ongoing design changes forced Stevens to halt construction for five months.

As a result, what should have taken eight months to build took almost a year-and-a-half. However, Stevens says the finished product was worth it. “Every time I go out there, I feel such pride,” he says. “I think we’re all prouder of that job than any other we’ve done.” South Seas management was so impressed with Stevens Construction’s work, that they hired the company again to build the Kid’s Pool Complex that includes a 120-foot cyclone-curved waterslide, a 50-foot vertical slide and a trolley stop.

Apparently, the company is a magnet for extreme projects. Currently, Stevens Construction is building a 15,000+sf helicopter hangar for EMS Flight Operations, along with offices, crew quarters and two apparatus bays for EMS ground personnel. Construction is scheduled to be completed next spring.

Actually, there are no cookie-cutter projects in Stevens Construction’s portfolio. In Estero, for instance, the company recently completed construction of Florida Gulf Bank’s newest branch facility at Coconut Point. Even though the bank had built similar 4,000sf facilities in recent years, some things had to be changed to comply with the developer’s architectural and aesthetic guidelines.

For example, the building height and roof color had to match neighboring buildings and the architecture had to be Mediterranean-style, rather than the bank’s trademark Old Florida look. “Stevens Construction worked hand in glove with the architect to make sure the project was quality engineered,” says Florida Gulf President Bill Valenti. “They handled everything beautifully and easily adapted our building design and concept. We’ve received a tremendous number of compliments on the (finished product).”

Although building began when construction was booming, Valenti says that Stevens was extremely proactive and communicative. “At the time, I kept hearing stories from people who couldn’t get their contractor to return their calls or didn’t hear from them. Mark was always the one calling us to keep us up to date.”

Valenti’s positive experience with Stevens and his company extends to the bank’s clients. “When we’re financing a (commercial project) and Mark is the general contractor, we feel very comfortable going into the project knowing that Stevens Construction is involved. We know they’ll finish on time, we know the client will be happy and we know we won’t have to worry.”

To Build or Not to Build?

Thanks to clients like Valenti, Stevens Construction enjoys the benefit of repeat customers and numerous referrals. Even so, one of the company’s greatest challenges today involves the psychology of the market. According to Stevens, business owners are having a difficult time deciding whether to stay where they are, lease space or build.

“That’s a difficult decision because there’s a lot of available space to lease, which would probably save them money in the short term,” says Stevens. “But there are a number of reasons for owners with a long-term mentality to build now. That’s the type of client we’re aligning ourselves with.”

Stevens says that while construction and labor costs are extremely favorable for new construction, owners and investors have reason to hesitate. “There are a lot of things working against (our market) right now – the economy, the amount of available lease space, tighter lending requirements and the scare factor associated with what is going on in the residential market.”

The fact that people are nervous about making the wrong move is why Stevens says he’s in business. “It’s our job to give our clients as much information as possible.”