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Idaho Business Out Loud interview: Jim Escobar, founder of neUdesign

Jim Escobar

Jim Escobar has seen his hometown of Meridian develop over the years and is positioned in the center of that growth with his company, neUdesign Architecture.

From dorms for the College of Idaho made from shipping containers to multifamily housing projects being developed in Meridian’s Opportunity Zones, there is a lot on the horizon, and Escobar is looking forward to his firm being a part of it.

He recently sat down with the Idaho Business Out Loud podcast to discuss development in downtown Meridian and the story of neUdesign.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

I have a whole host of questions for you that I’m excited to dive right into. But first I was hoping you could tell us the story of neUdesign.

So neUdesign was actually a story that I created when I was just 7 or 8 years old because I knew way back then that I wanted to be an architect someday. I knew that I wanted to work for myself because I was in an entrepreneurial family as a kid. And I was exposed to a lot of construction. So I constantly heard from my dad, ‘Oh those dang architects, those dang engineers, they don’t know what they’re doing.’ Because there’s a real disconnect that happens in the process of design where designers are education-based and trained, and people out in the field are typically learning on their feet out on the job site, how to swing a hammer and things of that nature. So part of my goal was to create a firm that actually understood what construction was like, which meant that I had to have a lot of practice and background in construction and create structures and systems in place that are more accountable to the construction site rather than just the pretty picture site.

So something that I heard is that you started your company during the recession. What are the secrets to your success?

We knew that if we could hold on long enough that the economy was eventually going to come back. And so that was a big part of my focus at the time: hang on, find every little project you could. Didn’t matter what it was, if it brought money in the door, it meant that we could have another month of life.

It was tough, and there was a moment towards the end of the recession where I literally was sending my resume back out for jobs, trying to find an architecture firm to work at and grabbing a hold of every project that I could get my hands on. So I’d say that the true secret was grit, tenacity, and a belief that it was going to turn and I was going to function.

What are some of the projects that you’re currently working on?

I really enjoy the mixed use buildings. Like some of the downtown urban stuff where we can do ground floor retail, we can mix in a parking garage, we can do some multifamily, things of that nature. They’re fun projects because they have so much variability to them. I like some of the modular projects.

I think that the wave of the future is going to be in modular construction.

Then there’s the capacity to even look at projects and analyze whether or not they should go modular or if we push them back to traditional site-built construction because of the local economics or whatnot. That’s some of the fun stuff.

What are some of those criteria that you use to determine whether modular construction is the right fit?

Some of it has to do with the local economics. How well can the local area and its demographics service construction projects like that? For example, when we go down to San Jose, California, wage rates are significantly more expensive. There’s a lot of unions associated, and then even the availability of a tradesman in the market can have a big impact.

But then there’s also the repeatability factor – whether we’re going volumetric modular, which is the entire shell of the building, like a hotel room. Obviously hotel rooms and multifamily buildings make sense. But other types of projects can be modular but more panelized modular where things are still built in a factory and at some point built through robotics and other intelligence of software.

So it’s project specific, and we find that in Idaho, it doesn’t seem to be as cost-effective because our labor rates are a little bit more effective compared to some of the more urban areas where their labor rates are twice as much as Idaho.

One small little project I have to ask about is that you’re building dorms for the College of Idaho, right? 

Yeah, it’s a shipping container project. So they’re three stories tall. I want to say there’s six containers on each side of a central hallway, times three if I remember right. There’s a local company that’s doing innovative cool things with shipping containers. They’re grabbing a lot of media attention, and it’s exciting to be on a project like that here locally because so much of our work that we do is outside of the state.

You guys have been here for a while. What changes have you seen in the Treasure Valley and the landscape of downtown Boise and downtown Meridian over the years?

The neUdesign office in downtown Meridian. Photo by Liz Patterson Harbauer

Well, how far back do we go? Because back in the days when they were trying to figure out where to place a mall in this valley, it really decimated the downtown Boise core, and it became a ghost town in downtown Boise. But the city paid attention to it, and they knew that a healthy, vibrant downtown was important. So thankfully they started to reinvest and do some smart urban renewal. And now we have a great vibrant cultural scene, beautiful buildings, attractive places for people who want to live and work. I’ve seen such positive things happening in downtown Boise over the last 15 years compared to during my childhood back when I saw kind of the opposite happening.

Downtown Meridian, I think, is still an undiscovered gem. People don’t quite realize how cool it is in downtown here, that there’s so much opportunity and we’re starting to see some big development come into play. We’re going to hit a critical mass where everybody’s going to now have their eyes on what piece of downtown Meridian they can be a part of.

We’re physically the center of the valley. We’re going to continue to be. And I’m grateful that the city of Meridian decided to put the city hall in downtown. I think it’s the city’s desire and interest to see the downtown thrive and not be known as The Village or not be known as the 10 Mile district. We need a healthy downtown core too, which is why you see the city investing so much energy. Now some of the developers are paying attention to it and I think we have over 500 units of multifamily coming into the downtown core just within the next two years.

neUdesign is involved in one of the Meridian Opportunity Zone projects. What can you tell us about that?

So we actually have two of them going on right now. They’re both with the same client who is a basically a champion for the Opportunity Zones. And we see him in the media quite regularly, Bill Truax with the Galen Fund, supporting Opportunities Zones.

One of them I believe is going to be a three-story parking garage with retail that lines the ground floor to create that livability space. The other one above that is four to five stories of all multifamily. It’s going to be in two different towers and it exists between Third and Main street, Broadway to the railroad tracks.

We did a couple of projects very successfully with that client in Garden City, the 405 Lofts. And then there’s some multifamily that we did down in that area. So he’s a real developer with great business sense, supporting and growing this Opportunity Zone that Meridian has. And from what I hear, Meridian’s Opportunities Zone is rather unique compared to others around the country. So I think we’re going to continue to see more attention and energy on that.

And then there was an RFP that’s to the parcel directly to our east that the city put together that includes a community center. I want to say there’s a few other attributes associated with that RFP, and I believe they’re in negotiations right now with the city and getting the land acquired. I know they’re leveraging the Opportunity Zone benefits for that project as well.

It looks like there’s a lot to look forward to coming in 2020 in downtown Meridian.

It’s got a lot of changes over the next couple of years that are going to be very positive. It already is a great place to be. We’ve been trying to find a new office space here for some time, and my staff has basically said we’re not leaving Meridian. We like it downtown. So it’s been really limiting as a business owner trying to find a place to house 40 employees, but through innovation and some unique opportunities, we’re finally finding some answers. Long story short, it’s a great place to be.

From an architectural viewpoint, how would you like to see Meridian grow over the next decade? You’ve definitely seen it grow over the past decade.

Well, I think Meridian is very proactive in their planning process, so they’re very (focused on) what areas of town they think are the next epicenters of growth. You’re seeing a lot of growth happening out at the 10 Mile area, which was another urban renewal district. It’s a pretty neat incentive for a city to be able to use. In fact, it’s the only incentive that I know of that cities can utilize for leveraging public dollars to support private investment in Idaho that I’m aware of. And then you see areas out at like Chinden and Linder with the Costco and the Fred Meyer and all of that stuff blossoming with residential development. So Meridian has a very good identity of where and how they want to grow, and now it’s just a part of executing their plans.

I think it’s one bite at a time as they’re looking at these different areas of how to support smart growth. So a lot of it’s residential-based, but at least it’s nice to see them focusing on the retail too. We’ve got a lot of that up and down Eagle Road and Chinden.

It sounds like a lot of the projects you’re involved in are multifamily housing. What kind of impact is that going to have on the valley to provide more housing for the people who live here? 

So multifamily seems to be a generational change. I mean, in my generation, it seems like everybody wants to have the single family more suburban sprawl type structure. It seems the new generation that’s coming out and moving into homes and buying homes wants intentionally the denser communities and wants the carefree lifestyle of not having a lawn to mow, but still having a place for Fido to go play, you know. So we’re doing a lot of these multifamily developments with playgrounds, focused around kids or dog parks or things of that nature. It’s just a change in demand is what I’m seeing around the country. It’s not just Idaho; it’s a similar story everywhere I go.

So to bring it back to original topic about neUdesign, what makes your company culture special?

I think we’re uniquely positioned as an architecture firm and as a business with a focus and emphasis on the process of life. We’re doing this eight hours a day, five days a week.

One third of our waking lives or more we’re spending at work. And the way I’ve structured neUdesign from day one is that I wanted it to be a place where I could attain my goals for how I engage with my day job.

And I actually saw that as a really unique opportunity to say, ‘Why would I just stop at me?’ Here I am giving my wife her goal of being in HR, and basically she’s in the CFO in role here at neUdesign. I’m giving somebody who’s graduating from CWI an opportunity to fulfill their life goal of a drafting career and not stopping at drafting if that’s where their interests want to continue to grow. So I think long story short is that the structure of the company has been focused on ‘How do we utilize and leverage neUdesign as the vehicle of our engagement with our day jobs that provides us satisfaction with our lives?’

A trend that we see in the construction industry is the struggle to find workers. Is that true of the architecture industry?

It’s very true. We could be growing quite a bit more quickly if there were more availability of good quality talent out in the marketplace. And I don’t mean that there’s bad quality people. I just think that there’s not enough people for the amount of demand that we have, certainly in our valley. With all the growth that our valley has seen and continues to see, that puts all the pressure back into the employers’ world to make sure that we’ve got enough human beings with enough skills to be able to fulfill those roles and duties. So we find ourselves trying to pull people from out of the area into our firm. That’s been one of the most successful ways to help us grow. But even still, we’re pretty much constantly hiring and still struggling finding positions and having to say no or extend deadlines with clients.

Do you feel like this company culture that you talk about plays a big part in recruitment?

Definitely, yes. We’re dedicated to being one of the best places to work in Idaho because we have the core value of wanting to improve people’s lives, and we’re leveraging the business to be able to do so.

About Liz Patterson Harbauer