TAMPA Beck Group architect Jeet Singh squeezed through a chain-link fence and unlocked the rusted door of an old waterworks, abandoned and falling apart.
There, Singh said, pointing to dust and wooden boards, would be the kitchen of Ulele, an oyster bar and chophouse. And over there, he said, pointing to crumbling bricks, a wine cellar and waterfall.
"As designers, we tend to be very emotional about what we do," said Singh, 32. "There's a history here we can't ignore."
What Beck does is make something out of nothing. Architects, cost estimators and builders, they intertwine levels of development that can sometimes butt heads.
But when construction slowed to a crawl during the recession, the Tampa firm had to redesign itself. Workers said it arose younger, lighter and sewn through with fresh ideas.
That helped Beck climb to No. 6 of small businesses in the Tampa Bay Times' employee survey of Top Workplaces. Employees celebrated Beck's support and culture, with one saying workers share an "enormous amount of pride."
Of all workplaces surveyed, Beck won top honors for fostering workers' imaginations, with many saying the firm champions new ideas. Managing director Mark House is known for his military-style command — a West Point graduate, he hangs a replica Revolutionary War uniform at his desk — but employees said everyone is encouraged to take creative lead.
The firm's originality is on display in projects like the Dalí Museum, the beer-can-shaped Rivergate Tower and the University of South Florida's high-tech Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation.
But lesser known is the firm's artsy, airy studio off the Hillsborough River in Tampa Heights, which Beck designed, built and opened in 2010.
The move came after two years in construction trailers and deep cuts to the firm's workforce, including old hands. But employees said that has helped the team grow tighter and, as work ramps up, focus energy on new designs.
Some of that vibrancy carries through to Beck's workforce, whose employees largely look hip or young or both. In the main studio, designers play reggae music and hang colorful renderings on the walls, while others have left the office to fish for tarpon in the river out back.
Perhaps the workplace's highlight is the rooftop deck, which has hosted yoga sessions, cigar socials and even weddings. On Fridays, workers celebrate happy hour from its outdoor couches, grabbing Heinekens from the top-floor fridge.
"I used to work in some places that were just miserable," senior preconstruction manager Mark Mendelson said. "This is one place where I actually have fun."
The chophouse proposed for next door, named Ulele for the neighboring spring, could add to that energy. Blueprints show the restaurant's outdoor seating unfolding alongside the restored spring and a redesigned Water Works Park, the tail end of Tampa's Riverwalk. That's got Beck designers energized both for work and play.
"When you work on potential projects, it's like looking into the future," House said, "and that charges everybody up — young and old."
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 893-8252 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
All the companies in the Top 100 know that creating an exceptional workplace takes a variety of strengths. Still, it doesn't hurt to excel in one area. Here are the companies that scored the highest in categories critical to creating a top workplace.
Direction Hyatt Hotels and Resorts — Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay • Managers The Progressive Group of Insurance Companies • Doers National Title Network • Meaningfulness The Care Coalition of the U.S. Special Operations Command • Ethics American Strategic Insurance Corp. • Clued in Senior Management Kforce • Communication Atria Evergreen Woods • Appreciation Residence At Timber Pines • Work/Life Flexibility St. Petersburg General Hospital • Training Keller Williams Realty Ubaldini Group • Benefits Hill Ward Henderson