Falamak Nourzad knows how to not only take on a career change but also how to become an expert in a new field.
Nourzad co-founded Milwaukee-based Continuum Architects + Planners 25 years ago, after she and her business partner were tired of “being pigeonholed” into work they didn’t want to do at their former firms.
Since its founding, the firm has developed expertise in four sectors: higher education, nonprofit, office spaces and commercial housing.
Nourzad leads the firm’s work in the housing sector and has developed a specialty in challenging but meaningful multi-family projects. The bulk of Continuum Architects’ residential work involves converting historic buildings into affordable housing.
“Housing, especially with regard to something that is more affordable for folks, is something we feel very passionate about,” she said. “We have done some market-rate work as well, but most of our housing projects thus far have been in the realm of working with low-income housing tax credits, combining that with historical tax credits.”
This type of project is complex on multiple fronts and usually takes a long time to come together. Each tax credit program has its own set of standards and restrictions. The application process is strenuous and competitive. Nourzad said projects vying for affordable housing tax credits typically aren’t awarded them on the first attempt.
Plus, if a building is receiving historic tax credits, it often needs a bit of TLC. But it’s the historic features that also make a building unique and desirable, Nourzad said.
“(Historic preservation) makes life challenging, but in a good way,” she said. “These projects by nature have amenities and qualities inherent that you can bring within these units and make them even more unique for that individual.”
Continuum honed its expertise in this realm over time, starting about two decades ago. Building credibility took time. Nourzad said her team had to cultivate relationships with housing developers and prove to them that Continuum could handle these projects, which typically cost tens of millions of dollars. The firm attended an affordable housing seminar to learn more about the tax credit program and meet others involved in the business.
Its work with nonprofits and community-based organizations is an asset to Continuum’s work in affordable housing. A project seeking tax credits is stronger and more competitive when the developer has relationships with community groups, Nourzad said. Continuum was in a good place to foster those relationships.
And while the big corporate design firms chased after high-profile projects, Continuum sought to embed itself in neighborhoods like Walker’s Point in Milwaukee, where the firm was previously headquartered.
Continuum’s work has made it a frequent partner of graduates of the Associates in Commercial Real Estate program, an industry-supported program that recruits and retains people of color for careers in commercial real estate.
The firm has provided some level of guidance to every ACRE grad who has come to them, Nourzad said. That’s turned into working relationships and big projects. An example: The Community Within the Corridor project, being led by local developer Que El-Amin and designed by Continuum. The redevelopment of the former Briggs & Stratton complex in the 30th Street Industrial Corridor on Milwaukee’s northwest side will include 197 housing units, a community service facility and indoor recreational space. Construction is underway.
All of those components translate into a successful subsidized affordable housing project.
“There’s multiple layers,” Nourzad said. “A developer needs to prove his team is not only an expert in itself, that it’s financially stable, but it’s rooted within the community.”
That ties back to connections with community groups.
“It’s also delivering a partnership that provides venues and avenues for younger embedded folks within that community to advance themselves. So, sometimes this translates into partnering with ACRE grads who really become essential for them,” she said.
Nourzad has lessons for younger employees and
industry professionals from her journey of building up her business.
“The biggest lesson learned, and we have tried to implement, is how to engage our staff in every aspect of a project,” she said.
This includes the very beginning stages of a project.
“I always tell people, just be curious where projects come from,” she said.
Missing from architecture schools and larger firms, Nourzad said, are lessons and experiences such as how to write a proposal or chase a project.
Teaching Continuum employees those skills has meant they become invested in all aspects of a project, she said.
“That is something we have preached and practiced throughout our practice,” said Nourzad, adding it separates Continuum from some other firms.
Professional development is not just an important principle at Continuum; it will also be key to the firm’s future. This is only fitting for a company whose name means “a continuous sequence.”
“The name we have for Continuum basically means a whole makeup of smaller parts,” Nourzad said. “We (the founding partners) have always intended to not use our names for the firm, but having a name that represents every individual … moving along in time and become bigger and better.”
Co-founder and principal
“The most significant contribution to my career path was to be supported by my life partner, my husband, Farrokh Nourzad, who allowed me to start a business of my own, and secondly my business partner, Bob Barr… Lastly, surrounding ourselves with smarter people than ourselves who were fearless to tread new waters.”
“I keep trying to organize my desk, but the minute I do that I can’t find anything. It seems like my brain works better when there are massive jumbles of tasks out there to tackle and organize!”
Goal for the next year?
“Solidify our transition plan by strengthening our younger partners to confidently tackle the business needs of Continuum even stronger and more effectively than they are doing now.”
“Villa Winternitz in Prague by Adolf Loos, and the famed Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh Building. The addition after the fire (of 2014) is a pretty cool way of integrating modern architecture with a historical building.”