In the late 1970s, Adolfo Cotilla Jr. was working in a regional office in Boca Raton for an architecture firm based in Troy, Michigan. He was promoted to vice president within a year and a half, he said, only to later find himself out of a job when the firm shuttered the office.
Cotilla went to work for two other firms but soon realized he'd rather be on his own. In 1985, he started ACAI Associates, based out of his house in Sunrise. "There was no payroll," Cotilla said. "It was just me looking for work."
More than three decades later, ACAI has grown substantially, serving clients in the health care, education and transportation industries. Now based in Fort Lauderdale, the architecture and consulting firm has 33 employees, and it generated more than $6.5 million in revenue last year, Cotilla said.
Last year, it began working on two projects at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. The firm is designing a new 100,000-square-foot customs facility, and also is involved in the master planning of four terminals at the airport.
The projects have a combined revenue of $3 million, making ACAI the 16th-largest airport terminal architecture firm in the United States, according to rankings released last month by Building Design and Construction magazine. The trade publication's annual "Giants 300 Report" ranks the largest architecture, engineering and construction firms in the country.
Cotilla, 63, also has been designing projects for Nova Southeastern University in Davie for more than two decades. Earlier this year, ACAI completed the Center for Collaborative Research. The 218,000-square-foot building reflects an investment of about $100 million, according to NSU. The building has laboratories and offices for the United States Geological Survey, a government agency overseeing the Everglades Restoration Project and other ventures.
"Everybody is already talking about the beauty of the building, and it is beautiful. But to me, the most important thing is the efficiency," said Fred Lippman, chancellor of NSU's Health Professions Division. "Research will flourish dramatically in this building."
Peter Keller, an executive associate dean in NSU's College of Dental Medicine, said Cotilla delivers, even on requests that aren't always practical. "The best part of working with Adolfo and his firm is they never say no," Keller said. "They may say, 'We can't do it exactly that way, but we'll find a way to get it done.'"
Coming up, ACAI is in charge of design on the renovations to the pediatric and neonatal units at the Chris Evert Children's Hospital at Broward Health Medical Center. Officials expect the project to be ready by 2019.
Cotilla said the firm also will work on The Wave streetcar project in Fort Lauderdale. ACAI is designing the stations and maintenance facility for the streetcars. The service, planned for 2020, will run along a 2.7-mile stretch on or near Andrews Avenue, between Sistrunk Boulevard and Southeast 17th Street.
Cotilla said the success he's had in building the firm is a direct result of the business relationships he's cultivated. "You can talk all the architect talk you want in the office, but when you're out with people, you have to talk what they understand and what they want to hear," he said. "Every day, I get up and go to work, but I don't really go to work. I love it. This is an amazing 'people' career."