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15 January 2016

HOK’s Mark Otsea: Project Manager Extraordinaire

Mark Otsea Mark Otsea, AIA, LEED AP, spent 12 years of his professional life leading a multidisciplinary team designing the 6.46-million-sq.-ft. Hamad International Airport Passenger Terminal Complex in Doha, Qatar—one of the largest, most challenging projects in HOK’s history. Between 2004 and 2015, as the project’s initial scope continued to grow, he made 80 roundtrip flights between San Francisco and Doha.

In 2009, at the peak of the effort, Otsea was managing 55 dedicated HOK people who had moved to Doha to work on site in the project office, in addition to coordinating the activities of hundreds of other professionals in San Francisco and eight other HOK offices.

Hamad International Airport, Doha, Qatar

Hamad International Airport Passenger Terminal Complex in Doha

“Mark’s commitment to serving our client in Doha was unprecedented,” said Patrick MacLeamy, FAIA, HOK’s chairman. “He turned his life upside-down at great personal sacrifice to lead this project to a stunning result. The terminal served more than 30 million passengers in 2015.”

In 2016, Otsea, a senior vice president and senior project manager in HOK’s San Francisco office, is celebrating his 40th year at the firm. Today, he is the project manager for Salt Lake City International Airport’s $1.8 billion Terminal Redevelopment Program.

Salt Lake City Airport

Salt Lake City International Airport Terminal Redevelopment

Otsea has spent most of his four-decade career guiding design and construction teams through complex, large-scale projects. He began to establish his reputation as a problem solver in 1976, during his first year at HOK. His first assignment was to support the design of a new federal office building in Anchorage, Alaska, for which he moved to Seattle and worked in a joint venture office for six months with John Graham & Associates, which designed the Space Needle.

“I’ve been a huge fan of Mark Otsea since we brought him on in San Francisco as a summer intern from UCLA,” said HOK Chairman Emeritus Bill Valentine, FAIA. “Mark was an instant hit: hard-working, incredibly bright and street-smart.”

After returning from Seattle to San Francisco in 1977, Otsea found himself immersed in one of the most politically charged projects in the city’s history: design of the 650,000-sq.-ft. George R. Moscone Convention Center.

Moscone Convention Center

Moscone Center in San Francisco

“This was an extremely difficult project,” said Valentine, who worked with HOK founding partner Gyo Obata on the design. “The idea of building a large convention center in San Francisco was a contentious issue and there was tremendous local interest in the project. But Mark, even as a very young architect, seemed to get it and understand where the pressure points were. He knew how to navigate through the community issues, get along with the client and coordinate our work with consultant team members like T.Y. Lin, the brilliant structural engineer. Mark covered all the bases and helped us develop a successful project that remains a significant landmark and economic engine for the city.”

Moscone Center

Bill Valentine, Patrick MacLeamy and Mark Otsea at the 1981 opening of the Moscone Center 

CalSTRS headquartersAfter the Moscone Center opened in 1981, Otsea went on to work on HOK’s corporate campuses for Sun Microsystems, Advanced Micro Devices, Nortel Networks and Novell in the Bay Area; Microsoft’s campus in Redmond, Washington; two high-rise R&D facilities for Samsung Electronics in Suwon, South Korea: R3 and R4; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (with Mario Botta) and the Asian Art Museum (with Gae Aulenti) in San Francisco; the master plan for Chep Lap Kok International Airport in Hong Kong; Boarding Area G at San Francisco International Airport; Fairmont Hotels in San Jose, Washington, DC, Dallas and San Francisco; CalSTRS’ Headquarters (right) in Sacramento, California; the Monterey County Government Center in Monterey, California; the University of California at Davis Food and Agricultural Sciences Building; and the San Francisco Public Safety Building.

“It’s no accident that Mark has always been assigned to our most challenging, complicated projects,” said MacLeamy. “Great project managers are in demand and he absolutely is one of the best. Mark has an uncommon ability to integrate input from owner groups, regulatory agencies and user groups and to manage design teams while keeping projects within the budget and schedule. He has been a pivotal figure in the success and growth of HOK’s San Francisco office.”

CalSTRS“Mark has an intuitive feeling for how to go with the flow with creative teams,” added Valentine. “Instead of trying to corral them, he walks alongside designers and helps them build consensus for doing the best possible projects. He has a sharp wit and knows how to diffuse tense situations with humor. Beneath all that, he is a selfless and very nice man.”

It’s not easy to get on Mark’s calendar for an interview. We managed to talk to him after a meeting with his Salt Lake City Airport project team was cancelled and he found himself with a rare free hour.

Right: Samsung R4 R+D Facility in Suwon, South Korea

Do you remember your first day with HOK?

MO: I started working at HOK in 1973 as a summer intern while attending UCLA and worked for three summers before joining full-time. In the beginning, there were about 10 people in the office. By the time I started as a full-time employee in 1976, HOK had won a commission to design the King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh and the office had grown to about 50 people.

What did you learn from working so closely with Patrick MacLeamy and Bill Valentine?

From Patrick, I learned about the need to have a strong idea and clear plan and then being able to clearly communicate with people exactly what needed to happen. I also learned the importance of being fair to everyone.

From Bill, I learned that everything we do should be about the project and the client—not about us. Be patient and always keep a sense of humor.

The Fairmont Hotel in San JoseWhat do you mean by focusing on the project and the client?

Bill was adamant that our work shouldn’t be purely about our design ideas and should never be about the architect’s ego. It needed to be about the client and solving the challenges presented by the project. If we design the best project we can, while meeting the client’s program, schedule and budget requirements, we all have succeeded. The challenge for a project manager is to help the team focus on the project and work together in a well-coordinated effort.

Right: Fairmont Hotel in San Jose

What are HOK’s strengths?

It is fantastic to be able to leverage the global—sometimes I say intergalactic—planning and design resources of HOK. Nobody has more to offer clients or does it better.

HOK always has extremely talented people who really care about design, the environment, their communities and one another. When we work together as a collaborative team, we can do anything.

What’s your advice for young design professionals?

Focus on doing the drawings. Some young people are more interested in the design process than in producing drawings. But at the end of the day, our team has to create a clear set of documents so a project can be constructed as the client wants it and as we designed it.

It can be scary for young architects when they haven’t been given much direction and don’t know exactly what to draw because they don’t want to make a mistake. My advice always has been not to wait—just draw something as thoughtfully as you can for someone to react to. Once there is a drawing, you’ll be surprised by how quickly you’ll get input and direction. It may not be exactly right the first time, but you will be making progress.

My advice for young project managers is to understand every aspect of the design and construction process. Developing a strong technical foundation and knowledge about specific building types is critical. Project managers also need to understand how people interact. Addressing the people issues on projects can be more difficult than the technical ones. If you can do this, then great projects, happy clients and financial success will follow.

Did you ever imagine you would stay at HOK for 40 years?

I am surprised every day, but the interesting people and challenging projects keep me coming back for more.