Design Alaska, a Fairbanks-based architecture, engineering and surveying business, celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. It thrived during the trans-Alaska oil pipeline boom of the mid-1970s and weathered the economic difficulties of the late 1980s, but through it all the company has remained true to its core values and purpose: Serve the client, support the employee and strengthen the community.

Today, the company employs 55 people who specialize in a range of disciplines, including engineering, architecture and land surveying. Design Alaska's sister company, Construct Alaska, was incorporated in 2004.

Design Alaska began in 1957, two years before Alaska was admitted to the union. Bob Gray and Les Rogers, a civil engineer and land surveyor, respectively, met while working at Alaska Architectural and Engineering Co.

Gray had lived in Alaska most of his life, and had a degree in civil engineering from the University of Alaska. Rogers arrived in Fairbanks in 1947 with his bicycle and $20 in pocket cash.

Ten years later, the duo created their own business. The firm operated out of Gray's basement until 1960, when it moved to 601 College Road. It remains there to this day.

Through thick and thin

The 1968 discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay and the completion of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline in 1977 brought great prosperity to Alaska. Design Alaska flourished during this time. The firm secured several notable public projects, including the Fairbanks Federal Building, several buildings at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and the Big Dipper Ice Arena.

In 1981, Design Alaska began renovating the arena and earned the Best Design award from the Alaska chapter of the American Institute of Architecture in 1983.

As with most businesses during the time, Design Alaska struggled through the downturn of the mid-1980s. Oil prices plummeted, taking the economy with it. Projects were scarce, so layoffs and pay cuts followed.

But by the early to mid-1990s, the economy began picking up, and so did the work.

Current president Jack Wilbur took over the position in 1996. Wilbur, a third-generation Fairbanks native, began working for Design Alaska in 1975 as a mechanical engineer in training. In the 11 years he has been president, the company has grown tremendously.

“We've successfully positioned ourselves in the marketplace,” Wilbur said. “The one-stop-shop concept is unique in the marketplace, and definitely unique in Fairbanks. To provide a range of services is relatively uncommon for smaller firms.”

One-stop community shopping

The company's goal is to provide a range of services under one roof.

“We really are a one stop shop,” Wilbur said. “It makes it easier for the client when they're only dealing with one entity.”

Design Alaska is a decidedly Fairbanks company, but its capabilities extend from Barrow to Juneau. Notable current projects include the Arctic Health Laboratory revitalization at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the Nome warm storage building, and the Alaska Airlines terminal sewage disposal system in Yakutat.

Notable past projects include designing the site and landscape for Alaskaland (now Pioneer Park) in Fairbanks in the early 1970s. Recent past projects include the Doyon headquarters building in Fairbanks, the National Archives and Records Administration facility in Anchorage, and Central Peninsula Sports Center in Soldotna.

In addition to its building projects, Design Alaska participates in a variety of community service works. The company became the first private business in Fairbanks to receive the Green Star Award for environmental consciousness, and also helped Pearl Creek Elementary in Fairbanks achieve Green Star status.

In addition, Design Alaska supports the Fairbanks Symphony Association, sponsors the annual Wild Arts Walk, and is a recipient of the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce Business in Arts Award for recognition of its commitment to the local artistic community.

“We believe that being a good corporate citizen is vital to the health of the community, and that to be a good corporate citizen Design Alaska must be involved in and supportive of a wide variety of community events,” Wilbur said.

The company has also twice received the North Star Borough's Family Friendly Business Award, which is given to business that show exceptional respect for employees' families.

North to the future

Wilbur said the future of Fairbanks looks promising, and he is confident Design Alaska will maintain its place as one of the city's premier commercial design/build companies.

Over the next five to 10 years, the company will be working to expand its capabilities within the existing Fairbanks market.

Wilbur would like to see Design Alaska achieve a larger presence in designing projects such as roads, airports and site development.

“The Fairbanks economy is good and growing,” Wilbur said. “I think that trend will continue.”
Source: Alaska Journal of Commerce, October 14, 2007.