EMERGING MODES OF ARCHITECTURE PRACTICE REFRAMING THE VALUE PROPOSITION OF ARCHITECTURE
MIA SCHARPHIE SCHOOL OF ARCHITECTURE NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
“Emerging Modes of Architecture Practice” was researched, written and designed by Mia Scharphie for the School of Architecture at Northeastern University’s College of Art, Media and Design. © 2015 by Mia Scharphie
The context of design practice is changing. Architects today face challenges as budgets shrink, fees are squeezed, and buildings are produced outside of the architectural system. At the same time, disasters such as Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and the challenges of crumbling urban infrastructure are clearly demonstrating the need for strategic design involvement in issues with wider systemic impact.
with a specific idea of how to improve upon existing design practice models, some found themselves with unique practices based simply on following their natural interests or talents. While the models they are creating all come with tradeoffs, their practices provide new sources of insight into how designers can proactively address the classic question of how to get more from their work: more compensation, more fulfillment, more influence, more impact.
At the same time, the rise of the internet and information technology has changed business practice on all levels, from opening up markets to changing the internal dynamics and hierarchies of firms. Increased access to information, resources, and the new marketing channels afforded by the internet have lowered the bar to starting one’s own practice. New areas of design practice have emerged--from high-performance design, based on data-driven understandings of ecological factors, to the ability to ‘mass customize’ through new computer programming techniques.
At the same time as these shifts in design practice are occuring, a whole new class of designer is emerging that has chosen to move outside of architecture and to found entrepreneurial ventures of their own. From both within architectural practice, and in these new ventures, architects are developing new skill sets and using architectural skill sets in new ways.
Amidst all of this change, new forms of design practice are emerging that take advantage of these shifts within the design field, the larger market, and new technology. Emerging design firms are reframing the value proposition of architecture by developing new, more entrepreneurial practice models that allow for more impact, more of a role in decision making and greater financial stability. These firms are innovating on both the market-facing side of their practice by developing new service offerings and relationships with their clients, and on the internal side, evolving the way they deliver their projects. These firms are often ‘riding the bicycle as they build it.’ While some set out
We give you this study as a unique sampling of some of the diversity and innovative thinking in the architecture field right now. We hope it serves to inspire practitioners and students alike to further the process of evolving architectural practice to serve us, our clients, and our communities more successfully.
Mia Scharphie Scholar in Residence, Northeastern School of Architecture January 2014
This study is a collection of innovative and entrepreneurial practice models emerging in the field right now. It is an assemblage of provocations for further research, and continued innovation.
EMERGING MODES OF ARCHITECTURE PRACTICE 5..... ARCHITECTURE opportunities for innovation 12... FRAMEWORKS: evolving the design business model 18... EXPERT VIEW: laura weiss, innovation in business and design 20... EXPERT VIEW: chris parsons, knowledge architecture 23... COMPARATIVE GRAPHICS select innovative practices 32... FIRM PROFILE 1: flank new york, ny 36... FIRM PROFILE 2: utile boston, ma 40... FIRM PROFILE 3: interboro partners new york, ny 45... DESIGN ENTREPRENEURS: new directions for architectural skills 48... CONCLUDING THOUGHTS 53... APPENDIX frameworks for academic use
architecture: meaning, impact and reward
OPPORTUNITIES FOR INNOVATION
WHY THIS STUDY? ADDRESSING THE FRUSTRATIONS OF PRACTICE The road to becoming an architect is a difficult and lengthy one. Although an architecture masters degree is at least three years (for those without design training) and a bachelors of architecture takes a year more than the typical undergraduate degree, architects earn wages that are lower than many other professional salaries. In addition, moving up in the field through obtaining licensure consists of at least 3 years of work in different areas of practice under a licensed architect, and a string of difficult and costly tests. On average a person can expect to spend 6-10 years just attaining the training and status to call him or herself an architect.
comes to an architect’s table. Whether it’s market conditions that incentivize poor design decisions, dysfunctional client decision-making processes, or bundles of conflicting red tape, architects often see themselves as experts in a broad set of urban and civic strategies--experts that no one bothers to consult.
In addition, the fortune of the profession is inextricably linked to that of the economy. When the economy takes a downturn, building construction activity slows down. During this past recession architectural employment was slashed by almost a third.1
Yet as researchers such as Dana Cuff have shown, not all of these issues are just problems of the marketplace. Cuff’s seminal book Architecture: The Story of Practice, a truly thoughtful ethnography of the field, shows that the field’s relationship to the notion and practice of business is ambivalent at best. Cuff traces the distance the architecture profession has tried to make between its practices and making money even from Vitruvius’s time when he wrote “I have never been eager to make money by my art, but have gone on the principle that slender means and a good reputation are preferable to wealth and disrepute.”2
Other frustrations come from the decisions that are made before the project
Many of the field’s practices of encouraging unpaid interns--a practice
contributing to design canon
A more complex understanding of different types of job satisfaction for architects. Different positions will ‘score’ differently on the ‘sliders’.
that the AIA took a stand against in the 1990s, perpetuated this reality. Architects will often spend more time than is allocated in the budget on a specific issue because they enjoy the process of design and exploration, or feel that they can’t produce a good enough design in the budgeted time. Cuff traces many of these attitudes to the design studio ethos in which “good architecture requires commitment beyond the allotted time, accountant’s ledger, and normal hours.”3 MEANING, IMPACT AND REWARD: TOWARDS A MORE EXPANSIVE UNDERSTANDING OF COMPENSATION Any architect who has gotten immersed in a project, lost track of time, and left the office late will tell you that there’s more than just financial compensation that motivates many architects. Architecture is a profession that comes with many benefits including opportunities for creative growth and artistic exploration, chances to get out of the office and work on site, and the satisfaction of problems solved and clients’ needs met. For most practitioners, architecture is also the work that brings in necessary income. It’s work, there will always be difficult clients and coworkers, stillborn and boring projects.
Therefore, central to this study is the question of why firm professionals choose to practice the way that they do, and how they see the
benefits of their model of practice, relative to their conception of traditional practice. Whether it’s the pursuit of innovation, a fascination with a specific type of craft, the excitement of moving into a new niche, or the call of service, there are value-based choices behind each model. The real question is not simply how a firm gains a larger share of financial reward and influence, but its strategy for financial sustainability and meaningful practice. WHY STUDY INNOVATION IN DESIGN? This research rests on the assumption that some architects, when faced with the challenge of crafting meaningful, impactful and financially rewarding careers, will experiment with new modes of practice. These models can be studied to understand the successes, challenges and tradeoffs involved, and can shed light on possibilities of transformation for the field at large. DEFINING “INNOVATION” So what is an innovative firm? For that matter, what’s a traditional firm, and how do innovative firms differ from them? Experts on innovation insist that there’s no one definition, rather, it’s context-specific. This presents difficulties for defining the term in the context of architecture especially due to the field’s decentralized nature with 26% of US architecture firms consisting of only one person.4 Although the AIA publishes materials on
standardized ways of practicing in the field, through its resources, lessons that are reinforced by licensing exams, there’s probably no single characterization that can describe the practice of most architects. That said, there are approaches and practices that are widely disseminated in the field, from common software and tools to common methods of staffing projects, billing clients, and seeking new work. Given the difficulty of finding easy definitions, this research effort took a wide approach. We developed a framework of areas for innovation in practice--from client facing areas such as what services to offer, to internal ones, such as what activities the firm takes on. We polled professionals in the field from academia and practice asking contributors to suggest firms that they thought had developed a new or interesting approach in one of these areas of practice. The firms included in this research report are part of an open and growing list and each has an innovative approach to practice, some more widely shared than others. THE SEARCH FOR INNOVATION: MORE THAN NEW TECHNOLOGY One of the reasons we launched this research effort is that although we felt that there was interest in the field in innovative practice, much of the attention had thus far been focused on developments in the technology
In the last 20-30 years, technology has driven changes in design practice, but that’s not the only story. of architectural practice, and less attention on the larger organizational and market contexts of firms. In the last 20-30 years, innovations in technology have driven much of the change in practice models in design, but that’s not the only story. Even the interest in Integrated Project Management, which brings all parties involved in a building project together earlier, and helps them communicate and estimate costs, has largely been focused on the tools that make it possible, such as BIM systems. We felt there was room to reinject a view of practice that takes into account its soft systems as well. STUDY METHODOLOGIES AND LIMITATIONS For this study, we populated a list of innovative design firms and then conducted 3 levels of research on them. The first was to categorize them according to our framework of innovation types. In the second, we looked more in-depth at a select number of firms through online research, and in the third, we conducted open-ended interviews and administered metrics-based surveys to three chosen firms. The research attempts to balance breadth with depth, investigating the range of possibilities for innovation in design, and looking deeply at a few of those models. PRACTICE AS AN ECOSYSTEM One of the challenges to studying businesses is that they are open systems. A firm is part of a larger context--the markets it operates in, and the markets it aspires to operate in, the employment alternatives and personal goals of its employees, and the influence of the larger
professional narrative and norms on it. In addition, a firm is always changing in time. There are bad years, good projects that spur new opportunities, and employee turnover that changes internal capabilities. When looking at a firm and its business strategies, teasing out the relationships between the components is incredibly difficult. SELF-PERCEPTION AND SUBJECTIVITY This study relies on the self-perception of architects, through their websites and articles and through interviews with the principals of a select number of firms. These sources are far from objective. They are complicated by a firm members’ incentive to show his or her firm in the best light, and the natural limitations of one person’s viewpoint. Illustrating this point is a stellar example from Architecture: The Story of Practice. Dana Cuff includes three different interview excerpts from one firm and the narratives could not be any more different.5 The message is clear: An organization can be interpreted in multiple ways depending on your position. To counter this issue, one direction for future research is the “360 degree” analysis. In this approach, suggested by Dr. Beth Altringer a specialist on innovation at Harvard’s School of Engineering, an architect, their client, a
funder, a regulatory official, a contractor and end users would be interviewed to get their perspectives on a project they had worked on jointly. Different participants could be asked to rate the percentage of contribution of the other participants. This method would widen the frame of reference beyond just that of the architect, and could more acurately reveal outside perspectives on the value architects bring to a project. VALUES-BASED CHOICES The goal of this study is motivated by the desire to optimize practice for greater meaning, impact and financial reward, but this is a truly subjective issue. ‘Methods of compensation’ are hard to define, and are actually often in conflict. What ‘meaning’ or ‘impact’ mean to different designers can be wildly different things: For one architect, ‘making an impact through design’ might mean adding a beautiful building to the streetscape of city. Another architect might prioritize the needs of a specific disadvantaged community by designing a food program facility for a community in a food desert. This is why in this study, we’ve tried to be highly specific about a firm’s specific narrative around these subjective benefits. To further complicate matters, innovation and financial compensation may be at odds in the short term. Innovation is risky, and as John Peterson, founder of the organization
PROJECT PHASE 1: IDENTIFY MARKET OPPORTUNITY
% value added
Future research could look at the broader context of the construction process and perceptions of value added by the different parties involved.
WHAT IS TRADITIONAL DESIGN PRACTICE?
While there is no such thing as one kind of ‘traditional’ design practice, there are a set of practices that have historically typified the field, a shared set of strategies related to the different ways architects and other spatial designers manage their business practices. These come in a set of areas:
The basic value proposition of architecture:
We take clients’ spatial wants and needs and translate them into buildable, functional and hopefully beautiful spaces through creating documents and models, and through instructiing those who construct those spaces.
Architects’ clients are diverse, but some of the more common types include individual clients, institutions and companies, public agencies and governments, developers and other landowners, and other design firms.
Besides administration staff, most employees are trained as architects, although many firms have specialized positions such as marketing. Firm leadership focuses on bringing in work, design direction, strategy and client relationships. They aslo focus on keeping projects on schedule and budget. Key partnerships include consultants.
The “classic” offering is full design services--from conceptual design to construction administration, but many firms deviate from this and have expanded their scope (or specialized) to produce other services such as master planning and space planning, or full inside-out services including interior and furniture design.
Work process is defined by phases in which the design reaches higher levels of resolution (which in reality are quite overlapped.) Conceptual and Schematic Design and Design Development are followed by the creation of Construction Documents and Construction Administration. Precedent research, critique of work by others, and the testing of multiple possibilities are part of the process.
CHANNELS TO CUSTOMER
The typcial channels we use to communicate our value are: -The design porfolio (usually through a website) -Referrals from other clients -Design awards and our work in publications -Competitions -Specific targeted marketing: e.g. meeting potential clients
Most firms work hourly or for a specific fee tied to the phase of their project. Total fee is usually tied to a percentage of construction cost. The highest firm expense is almost always salaries.
The best way for this study to be used is as an invitation to to develop and test hypothesis about how design practices work.
Public Architecture has noted, firms that are innovating are often in their ‘growth phase.’ They are consuming resources and aggressively reinvesting profits into their company’s goals. These firm may not show a great profit now, only zooming out on the larger trajectory of the firm will show the real return on their investment. THE DANGER OF SEEKING A ‘THEORY OF EVERYTHING’ One downside to a research effort of this scope is that it can fall victim to trying to be a ‘theory of everything’ for design practice. This study was not an exhaustive effort, it drew from no representative sample of firms in the field. Its approach lies somewhere between an academic study, in terms of the rigor it sought, and a journalistic effort which aims to bring to light important issues worthy of attention and
study. The best way for this study to be used is as invitation to research, and an invitation to develop and test hypothesis about practice for further study. For example: If firms like Utile, Interboro Partners and WXY all provide similar services in similar urban contexts, what accounts for their differences in terms of size of firm and commission? Are they at different places in their development, or are they the results of fundamentally different choices made by their founders? Another question: What are the different working conditions and compensation scenarios of consultancy-based firms who don’t engage in construction administration at all, and designbuild models, which are actually building projects? How do these extremes compare to
the traditional firm model and what do they tell us about it? These are the kind of questions and analysis we hope this research can inspire. Limitations aside, this study is a collection of innovative and entrepreneurial practice models emerging in the field right now. We hope it will be an assemblage of provocations for further research, for continued innovation in design practice, and a collection of insights for the development of new models and strategies in the field.
1. “2012 AIA Firm Survey: Economic Downturn Cut Architecture Firm Revenue by 40 Percent, Employment by Almost a Third” AIArchitect. August 24, 2012 2. Cuff, Dana. Architecture: The Story of Practice 1992. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 71 3. Cuff, Architecture 70 4. “The Business of Architecture. 2012 AIA Survey Report on Firm Characteristics” American Institute of Architects, 5 5. Cuff, Architecture: The Story of Practice, 17
Architects, when faced with the challenge of crafting meaningful, impactful and financially rewarding careers will experiment with new modes of design practice.
EVOLVING THE DESIGN BUSINESS MODEL
Is there a secret sauce to making a design business work? What’s the special formula that makes a design firm successful? While book covers, bloggers and consultants will claim they know the truth, there’s no one big, satisfying answer that fits all design firms. Success in a design firm is not just having the ‘right’ clients or the ‘right’ staff, it requires a combination of these elements and an alignment of resources, strategy and ways of working within a given market.
competitors and its processes. The common thread is that a model describes the components and key processes that are central to a businesses’ ability to produce value and exchange that value for compensation. Business model definitions differ in the way they emphasize elements or relationships between components, and how much they focus on the internal functioning of a company, versus how much they focus on the relationship of that company to an outside world.
While understanding how businesses work ‘under the hood’ has long been an area of interest to business researchers and practitioners, in the past fifteen years there has been a rise in popular use of the concept of the ‘business model’--a way of abstracting the processes and strategies of a particular business or firm type. In many ways this attempt mirrors the architectural practice of making typologies. Through business models we try to understand what makes a business work.
Scholars have categorized business model definitions in terms of how they operate. Charles Baden-Fuller and Mary Morgan theorize that there are four ways business models can function. There are taxonomies or typologies, which classify businesses or describe an ‘ideal type.’ Models, like those in biology or economics, can be used to test hypothesis. ‘Recipes’ are instructions for creating similar businesses. 3 These distinctions are important because they govern what we are asking a business model to do for us in terms of furthering our knowledge.
THE LITERATURE: WHAT IS A BUSINESS MODEL? HISTORY The origins of the idea of the business model are found in the economic thinking of the 1960s and 1970s. One study places its birth in the 1962 business classic Strategy and Structure by Alfred D. Chandler.1 Another major contribution to the theory was Michael Porter’s seminal work The Competitive Advantage in which he introduced the concept of the “value chain,” the chain of activities that a business uses to turn resources into valuable products.
The term ‘business model’ came widely into use after the development of the internet and the proliferation of new ways of doing business online, however there is no one definition for the concept. Some define a business model as ‘the way an organization organizes its inputs, converts these into valuable outputs, and gets customer pay for them.2 Other definitions rely on explanations of key elements to a business, such as its clients, its
One view, put forth by Benoit Demil and Xavier Lecocq suggests that the search for a business model as a static framework of a company is a deeply flawed pursuit. Furthering the research of Edith T. Penrose whose 1950s work looked at how firms grow and what influences and constrains that growth, the team developed a framework that looks at three components of a business model: Its resources, value proposition and organizational structure, each of which is in constant, dynamic dialogue with the other elements.4 Demil and Lecocq show in their case study of the English soccer club Arsenal FC that the company’s model evolved through changes in one sphere setting the conditions for changes in another. Their expansion on Penrose’s theories show that a business model is really just a snapshot in time, and understanding the relationship between the elements of the models as in ‘permanent disequilibrium’ will reveal the potential of the business to innovate on its model over time. In other words, innovation in business
The 2010 book that introduced the ‘Business Model Canvas.’
models is driven by continual readjustment to changing conditions. RESOURCES & COMPETENCIES
INTERNAL & EXTERNAL ORGANIZATION
VOLUMES AND STRUCTURES OF $ COSTS
Demil and Lecocq’s schema showing all elements of a business’s model in permanent coevolution.
THE BUSINESS MODEL CANVAS The most popular work on business models in recent years has been the ‘Business Model Canvas’ produced by Alexander Osterwalder and his collaborators.5 The template for the canvas organizes business model components into internal components related to a business’s processes and costs, and external components related to the business’s clients and a company’s revenues. The company’s value proposition, which mediates the two sides is at the center. The canvas, based on Osterwalder’s 2004 PhD thesis is a simple template for users to understand and design business models. One of the key contributions made by the business model canvas is not its deep insight into the construction of businesses, but its simplifying of the elements of a business model and its move towards representing the elements and relationships of a business visually. The simple visuality and physicality of the canvas, especially when printed, helps pull business model out of the pure logical and prose-based ideation of the business plan, to a place where it uses more of our creative senses. The page organizes our relational and analytic thinking and helps us spot
patterns. New ideas can emerge through the placement of ideas on the page. TOWARDS A BUSINESS MODEL FOR DESIGN PRACTICE Professional service firms are a very specific type of business. Unlike firms that rely on the sale of products, professional service firms sell the time of their employees, and indirectly, their expertise. Other assets, like technology are also centrally important in architecture, but for reasons explained in the introduction, this study does not focus on technological innovation. The model for this study is based off of the business model canvas, but is adjusted for design firms. ‘Ways of knowing’ and ‘ways of doing’ are extremely important elements within this scheme. The areas for innovation are divided into two general categories--the client-facing side on the right, and the work process, or production side on the left. Six areas for innovation (in black circles) were chosen because they highlight a key area of focus in which a firm can change its practices and seek a new approach. Many of the firms in the study are innovating in more than one of these areas, and in fact, it’s often an integration of strategies that gives them their competitive edge. This model forms the basis of this study. It is a tool that can help practitioners understand other firms and model their own strategies.
SATISFACTION & FRUSTRATIONS
The schema for this study was based off of the business model canvas, pays special attention to staff resources, and adds a nonfinancial measure to its definition of ‘profitability.’ Black circles represent opportunities for innovation.
It’s often the integration of a firm’s innnovations in multiple spheres that gives them their competitive edge.
1. Chesbrough, Henry, and Richard S. Rosenbloom, “The Role Of Business Model In Capturing Value From Innovation: Evidences From Xerox Corporation’s Technology Spin-Off Companies,” Industrial and Corporate Change 11 (3), 2002, as cited in Nielsen, Christian & Per Nikolaj Bukh. “What Constitutes a Business Model: The Perception of Financial Analysts“ in International Journal of Learning and Intellectual Capital 8(3), 256-271
5. Osterwalder , Alexander and Yves Pigneur Business Model Generation: A Handbook for Visionaries, Game Changers, and Challengers John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
2. McGrath, Rita Gunther, Ian C. MacMillan, The Entrepreneurial Mindset. Strategies for Continuously Creating Opportunity in an Age of Uncertainty Harvard Press, Cambridge, MA, 2002 Business School Press, Cambridge. as quoted in Hedman, Jonas and Kalling, Thomas. “The business model concept: theoretical underpinnings and empirical illustrations” European Journal of Information Systems, 12, 2003 3. Baden-Fuller, Charles. Morgan, Mary S. “Business Models as Models” in Long Range Planning vol. 43, 2010, 156l-171 4. Demil, Benoit and Xavier Lecocq. “Business Model Evolution: In Search of
Dynamic Consistency” in Long Range Planning, vol 43, 2010, 227-246
nc NEW CLIENTS Finding ways to bring a new set of clients into the fold of who receives architectural services expands the market for architectural service offerings. MASS Design, based in Boston, MA and Rwanda, for example, based their business model on the identification of a new market, and what they believe is a mismatch of architect supply and demand for their services: Although a huge number of buildings will be built in the developing world in years to come, most architects are based in, and work in developed countries.
Tied deeply to the development of new client groups is the development of new services. Developing new services means finding new offerings that provide value to existing clients. It also means creating new offerings, based on skill sets architects have or can develop. The Cambridge, MA-based firm INVIVA, for example, leverages its knowledge of architecture, hybridized with its expertise in digital technology to create digital experiences, interactive installations and visualizations for clients, such as LG and Microsoft. Other firms, such as Front, have developed specialized expertise in fabrication and construction techniques, and work for other architecture firms producing exciting, technologically complex facade designs for high-profile buildings.
The exchange of architectural value between architect and client is based on the quality of the relationship they build. Architects innovate by developing ways to attract and retain clients. Vital, a San Francisco-based firm positions itself to clients as a partner in helping organizations reach their strategic goals through their facilities. The firm starts their inquiry by learning about their clientsâ€™ business plans and strategies.
WORK PROCESS AND DELIVERY SYSTEM
The business model canvas calls the processes by which a firm turns its resources into values its ‘Key Activities.” The work process of a firm is its special methods of working. One way is its unique ways of approaching design problems. One example is Utile’s tactic of ‘delaying’ the start of form-based design until their analysis and research period is completed, in order to make sure their design solves the real issues of a project. Another innovation is a firm’s special approach to how to deliver architectural services. Designer-developer firm Flank, for example, runs the entire process of development, design and brokerage in-house.
The internal structure of a company, how it acquires and organizes its assets and puts them into use sets up a firm to produce work. In professional services firms, people are the most important, and almost always the costliest asset, so this framework focuses on internal staff and outside partnerships. There are fewer visible examples of innovation in this sphere, but some of the interesting ones are newer firms that are experimenting with more network-like personnel structures such as 00:/, a worker-owned collaborative.
A firm’s internal elements contribute to its cost. Its ability to develop relationships with clients and price its offerings contribute to its revenue. Firms can innovate by finding ways to change the dynamics that contribute to how its services are priced or the cost of acquiring them. Firms, like Connect Homes, which specializes in modular housing, have changed their relationship with the supply chain of housing and the way customers purchase their design work.
LAURA WEISS, INNOVATION IN BUSINESS AND DESIGN
Laura Weiss knows how to wear two hats. With graduate degrees in both Architecture and Business, and a CV which includes a 9 year stint as Practice Director and Associate Partner at IDEO, Laura has accumulated a deep knowledge of how businesses can leverage design and innovation to improve their offerings. Most recently, Laura served as Gensler’s Innovation Fellow where she worked with senior leadership to develop strategies for in-house innovation.
INNOVATION IN DESIGN FIRMS Innovation is not an easy concept to define, as its meaning is contextual. In the context of professional service firms, Weiss believes that innovation is ultimately about the relationship with the client: “The presence of a client, adds a special element to a project. In a way they sort of need to be ‘coconspirators’ in innovation, assuming ‘innovation’ is what they really want.” One of the reasons Weiss believes design firms have been interested in pursuing innovation is that their clients represent companies and institutions that are concerned with it for their own businesses. For a client, a building is ultimately part of its strategy and a firm that can help a client push its strategy forward through its building is an asset and ally. This gets at what Weiss calls ‘consultmanship,’ the crafting of a relationship with a client in which the firm is not just a service provider, but is a trusted adviser. However, this balance, between just doing what the client says, and telling the client what to do, is exceeding hard to strike. An architect needs to really understand a client’s issues to use design intervention to address those needs. Weiss thinks “a lot of firms struggle to have a conversation about innovation with clients and then don’t always know what to do with answers.”
IMPLEMENTING A CULTURE OF INNOVATION One of the struggles in building a culture of innovation is not only that it’s hard to find a company-specific, shared definition of the word, but that
Prototyping One of the central tenants of IDEO’s design approach is prototyping. The company’s emphasis on prototyping products and ideas and testing them with real users is key to its ability to ideate creatively and quickly. Weiss thinks that this is an underused tactic in built spatial design where plans and ideas can take forever to move from abstraction into testable versions. While some argue buildings cannot be prototyped, she points to old mockup techniques, and new technologies that allow us to simulate experiences with users.
companies, especially large ones, are ultimately not designed to innovate. Innovation means taking risks, not knowing whether something’s going to work, or doing things differently. “It can be really scary and really unappealing to a lot of organizational leadership. ...... The model’s always worked and all the sudden if you change that model, they ask, ‘Am I as a leader going to be effective?’” Innovation programs fail unless senior leadership is invested and they attack the issue with a sense of urgency. FOUR OPPORTUNITIES FOR INNOVATION IN DESIGN Using Human-Centered Design to Develop Programs Weiss sees four promising areas for innovation within design firms. The first, is in using more incisive methodologies, such as the ethnographic approach of ‘Human Centered Design’ to really understand their clients’ needs. She cites one project she witnessed at IDEO in which the consultancy was hired by an architect to research the needs of the user groups for an academic building. The resulting data showed that the building needed a completely different program from the one the architects had assumed they would build. Weiss is “blown away” that research like this doesn’t happen more often, and that more assumptions about people’s needs aren’t checked against reality.
Reinstating a Culture of Critique Weiss also sees critique as an important part of the design process, one that can sometimes get lost in the shuffle of practice. Employees need to exchange feedback and productively handle conflict, as in healthy cultures for ideation, not everyone will always be on the same page. To that end, in one of the companies she worked with she introduced a storytelling program in which teams were encouraged to share their failures and successes with the company at large. In a larger world in which storytelling is most often used to highlight only our successes, her program made space for a company to learn from mistakes as well as wins.
Facilitating So many of the decisions that drive architecture emerge out of meetings and collaborations with clients, consultants and other designers. Weiss believes that architects need to be trained to facilitate anything from a public or client meeting to a work session. This is a skill most architecture schools don’t
Innovation can be scary to a lot of organizational leadership. When you change the model, they ask, ‘Am I as a leader going to be effective?’ explicitly teach, and in fact, they often shield future architects from working with people with other backgrounds. Weiss looks back at her professional practice course in architecture school and muses on how woefully it underprepared her for the reality of multistakeholder collaborations. She points with hope to the growing trend in graduate schools to encourage disciplinary mixing, such as the University of Nebraska in Lincoln’s d.ONE program in which all students in the College of Architecture learn together for the first year.
CHRIS PARSONS, KNOWLEDGE ARCHITECTURE
Christopher Parsons has his eye on opportunities for architects to improve their practice. He’s the Founder and CEO of Knowledge Architecture, a knowledge and information management consultancy to architects and engineers, and the producer of KA Connect, a knowledge and information management conference for the AEC industry. KA Connect convenes practitioners to discuss topics from the role of research in practice to BIM and Integrated Project Delivery.
INNOVATION IN DESIGN PRACTICE The architecture industry is very diverse and it’s hard to paint firms in the industry with a broad brush. According to Parsons, “A lot of new models of practice aren’t that new. There have always been examples of firms that see the world a little bit differently.”
than it has ever been in the history of commerce. With a very minimal amount of money you can establish a website and a social media presence. You can get your name and word out there and compete--especially if you’ve got innovation or thought leadership or something compelling, new, and different to say.”
The major factors Parsons thinks have changed the industry in recent years have been the development of new technologies, globalization and the commoditization of design. While these factors are often seen in a negative light, they have a positive side: “Technology is making it easier cheaper and faster for new entities to start
On the more established side of the market, the average client Parson’s company works with are 100-1000 employee firms, most with multiple offices. Parson’s company helps these firms by developing internal and external communication platforms. EXPERTISE AND SPECIALIZATION
Managing internal knowledge is key because a major element of an architecture firm’s value is its expertise. Parsons encourages firms to develop and hone specialized expertise. Specialization can help companies serve clients better--he’s seen companies be successful through developing a focus which they’ve used to offer consulting, data and strategic services to clients to meet their needs from “end to end.” The firms he’s seen succeed as generalists almost always partner with other firms and executive architects. Specialization also helps a company speak with “one voice” on an issue, and stand out to clients as experts, especially when brand awareness is mediated by the internet and search engines. “It’s
change some element of how the firm is producing and delivering value. Thirdly, they are an employee retention device. Parsons has seen one firm, based in a second tier city use their research program to attract top-notch employees interested in being part of an innovative firm.
It’s very hard to win with clients if you’re not willing to stand for something. very hard to win with clients if you’re not willing to stand for something,” he says. Parsons advises specializing with care, however, as being overexposed to one market is dangerous, and he saw more than one firm fail in this way during the recession. A more strategic approach is for a firm to pick 2-4 niche markets that are counter-cyclical so they can ride out issues in the market. TRENDS IN PRACTICE Research Programs Parsons sees three major trends towards innovation in practice right now. The first is that firms are developing their own in-house research and development practices. Research programs, when done well, have three advantages. Firstly, they give firms an advantage in marketing, positioning them as experts to clients. Secondly, they deliver a practice advantage--they
Product Development The second trend Parsons is seeing is firms finding ways to capitalize on their accumulated expertise by developing products. From Frog Design which is producing pre fab buildings, to Perkins + Will which is developing its own software, firms are finding ways to extract more value from their work. Businesses that sell products have different capital needs than professional services firms, so Parsons says some of these ventures may eventually split off firm the parent firm. Communications A final area Parsons sees firms innovating in is communication. A firm’s communication and marketing efforts used to mostly occur through their portfolio. Now, through social media, firms have the potential to connect with clients more frequently and in new ways. With the rise of social media, the lines between the internal and external are blurring, and the ‘presence’ of a firm is a tool in its marketing and staff attraction and retention arsenals. While firms that have strong online presences and write well are outliers now, Parsons believes that in five or ten years, this skill will be so widespread that it will no longer be a market differentiator. Overall Parsons remains excited about the opportunities ahead for the profession. “It’s an interesting time. Yes, there’s more pressure. But there are more avenues to respond to that pressure. There’s a lot of doom and gloom about this space, in response to commoditization and the recession, etc. but when you really get into it and you really focus on the outliers, people who are showing you what practice will look like in the future, I feel like there’s a lot of justification for optimism right now.”
The following drawings investigate firms with innovative aspects to their models. These diagrams collect and categorize these firm according to their innovation type. A select number of firms, featured here, were chosen for in-depth study to reveal insights about the relationship between their innovative aspect and their business models.
MADE IN THE LOWER EAST SIDE
Architecture firm with associated research and consultancy firm.
Large in-house research program.
New York, NY
Collaborative personnel structure, multiple divisions under one name.
Collaborative, collectively owned personnel structure.
UN STUDIO Intersection of architecture, urbanism and heavy focus on research.
[prefab] COLLINS-WORMAN ARCHITECTS
“AirBnB” model for storefronts including modular furniture installation.
Developing product lines.
New York, NY
Prefab high performance energy housing.
New York, NY
Modular and prefab housing.
New York, NY
Development of projects, alternative ways of working with contractors.
New York, NY
RESOLUTION: 4 ARCHITECTURE
New York, NY
Use of prefab systems.
New York, NY
CONNECT HOMES Modular and prefab housing.
Los Angeles, CA
Design/build developer. Significant neighborhood redevelopment.
GLUCK + Involved in development and construction of projects.
New York, NY
Crowdsourced funding of projects.
[specialized architectural] GEHRY TECHNOLOGIES
[client issue area]
Los Angeles, CA
Design and research firm focused on helping cities deal with port infrastructure.
Spinoff of architecture firm that developed architectural software.
Specializing in design, and customization of green roofs.
Los Angeles, CA
New York, NY
Specializes in facades.
Design for phytoremediation landscapes.
San Francisco, CA
INVIVIA Hybrid digital-physical experience design.
Los Angeles, CA
New market in developing world health sector.
San Francisco, CA
New York, NY
Prototyping-heavy design process, work in developing world.
Linking consulting work on redevelopment for cities with architecture work.
Linking public works agenda with youth empowerment and its associated funding streams.
BECAUSE WE CAN
Boston, MA, Rwanda
Mix of research-based planning and economic development with architecture.
UTILE Philadelphia, PA
New York, NY
Design and planning firm, focus on research and public advocacy work.
Focused almost soley on fabrication.
Los Angeles, CA
Involvement in clients' business plans, integration between business plans and spatial design.
Placemaking and wayfinding services.
INTERBORO PARTNERS THE THIRD TEACHER (CANNON)
Education design research and consulting. Brings educational clients into pipeline.
Experience and branding design.
[developing world design]
Create customized spatial-scale furniture and installations for clients using fabrication technologies.
FIRMS ORGANIZED BY TYPE OF INNOVATION
The diagram below compares a select number of firms through different components of their models and practices. Information in black is drawn from interviews with and surveys of the firm, information in gray is based on the self-representation of firms via websites and articles.
ns 2 14 NEW SERVICES
ns 24 12
Design of hybridized physical and digital environments.
MASS DESIGN GROUP
30 8 PEOPLE
Design of healthcare and community facilities strategically tailored for resource-poor environments in the developing world.
wp WORK PROCESS
in New England
average size: 50,000 sq. feet. misc. & unknown
clusters in Rwanda, Haiti, Libera and Uganda
Architecture and planning services informed deeply enough about regulatory and financial realities to identify efficiencies and opportunities.
Delivers high-end homes more affordably and sustainably using a modular, factory-built process.
clusters in MN and Canada
Staff Composition & Key Expertise
+DESIGN RESEARCH +RESPONSIVE ENVIRONMENT DESIGN
at least 50% ARCH.
brought in to create hybrid digital/physical
Advocacy Groups Support agenda, fund and define issues
+FULL DESIGN SERVICES +PLANNING +RETROFIT +INTERIORS
85% ARCH. 10% PLANNING
Academia Support research agendas
5% PUBLIC HEALTH
FEE FOR SERVICE CONSULTANCY
FEE FOR SERVICE 80% CONSULTING 20%
seek opportunities for public betterment and economic efficiencies in design
4 Senior 5 Middle 11 Junior
conceptual design, often film or digital products
help city define planning gain deep knowledge brought into project by agenda (including zoning, into regulatory and developers due to deep redevelopment strategies) economic context insight on context
+FULL DESIGN SERVICES +PLANNING +RESEARCH
Academia Sponsors research programs through studios
+USER EXPERIENCE DESIGN +DESIGN STRATEGY
Consultants Provide assistance on developing technical solutions for developing world, sometimes pro bono
spend time in context
gain deep knowledge into culture and technical issues
seek strategic solutions to design issues in resource-constrained envrionment
FEE FOR SERVICE
FUNDED BY NONPROFIT OR GOVERNMENT THROUGH THEIR FUNDRAISING
MASS DESIGN FUNDRAISING
empower people through construction process
Realtor + Developer Sell firm-designed homes
+FULL DESIGN SERVICES +SALE OF PREFAB HOUSING +CUSTOMIZATION
Factories Produce homes
PER HOUSE $3000 down payment firm designs models
client gets survey and permit
Contractors Install home model trucked
contractor installs model
model built in factory
arch fee: 10% of customization construction cost 15% of construction cost
*delivery and installation fees not included
Fee by Phase Schematic Design= 40% Design Development= 40% Construction Documents= 15% Construction Administration= 5%
ns 6 11
Value Offering Planning, design, and advocacy services informed by research on often ignored patterns of people’s use of space, and the effects of economic and political systems.
misc. & unknown
ADVOCACY ORGANIZATION CLUSTERED
in New York City 15% of projects not place-based
NO CLIENT/ SELF FUNDED
10 12 PEOPLE
Produces high end residential properties informed by joint design and development expertise and concerns.
INDIVIDUAL [end user]
in New York City
average size: 100,000 sq. feet.
Designing buildings that are a critical part of the company’s strategy.
MADE IN THE LOWER EAST SIDE
wp WORK PROCESS
in SF-Bay Area
few additonal projects scattered elsewhere
Identifies vacant storefronts in the lower east side, and develops them into co-working, community and short-term rental space. The ‘AirBnB’ of storefronts.
COMPANY/ ORGANIZATION HYPERLOCAL
in Lower East Side of New York City
Services Offered +RESEARCH +ADVOCACY RESEARCH & GRAPHICS +PLANNING & SPATIAL STRATEGY +ZONING AND MARKET ANALYSIS/PRO FORMAS +OFFICE RENOVATIONS +TEMPORARY INSTALLATIONS +EXHIBITS & PUBLICATONS
+FULL DESIGN SERVICES +PARCEL ID, DILLIGENCE & ACQUISITION +ZONING & MASSING ANALYSIS +MARKETING RESEARCH +INTERIORS +DEVELOPMENT +MARKETING +SALES +BROKERAGE +FULL DESIGN SERVICES +RETROFIT +STORYTELLING/PLANNING +APP. DESIGN
+BOOKINGS OF STOREFRONTS +DESIGN SERVICES FOR TEMPORARY SPACES +FINDING SERVICE FOR SPECIAL EVENT SPACE
Staff Composition & Key Expertise
75% ARCH & URBAN 25% PLANNING
3 Senior 0 Middle 3 Junior
70% ARCH 20% BROKERAGE MARKETING, ACQUISITIONS
Key Partnerships Work Process
Illustrators and Graphic Designers Produce visual material Community Groups Are partners/clients
FEE FOR SERVICE observe space or talk to people about phenomenon in action their needs.
Academia Support principals, provide research opportunities
translate into planning strategy, design, or advocacy tool like publication or website.
Marketing/Public Relations Promote offerings ID parcel
Lenders Are partners in joint efforts
design & construct
VERTICAL INTEGRATION: DEVELOPMENT DESIGN & BROKERAGE
10% ADMIN 33% ARCH 33% ENGINEERING
Engineering/R&D Collaborated on personal environmental controls app. investigate company’s story and strategy
33% USER EXPERIENCE DESIGN
~30% ARCH ~60% OTHER EG.. BRANDING, SOCIAL MEDIA, FILMMAKING, PLANNING, ETC. 1 Full time founder Dispersed creative team Multiple fellows
Advocacy Organizations Marketing partners, access to resources/advice. Academia Provides support through student placements
identify vacant storefront
develop stories, products and spaces that propel strategy
get landlord to make available for short-term rental
list space to prospectiVe tennants
FEE FOR SERVICE
RENTAL INCOME FROM PROPERTIES DESIGN SERVICE FEE
provide design services for space transformation
publicize pop-up uses
PROJECT SETUP AND PREDESIGN
MADE IN THE LOWER EAST SIDE
MASS DESIGN VITAL INTERBORO PARTNERS HIVE MODULUAR FLANK
IDENTIFY STRATEGIC MARKET PLANNING OPPORTUNITY
DUE BUILD PROGRAMMING DILLIGENCE POLITICAL WILL eg. financial, legal political
RAISE CAPITAL MARKET PROJECT
SCHEMATIC DESIGN/ DESIGN DEVELOPMENT
TENANT FIT OUT (FF&E)
CONTINUED RENOVATION/MAI PROGRAMMING/ NTENANCE EXPERIENCE DESIGN
FIRM INVOLVEMENT IN BUILDING PROCESS This diagram shows which elements of the larger contstruction process firms engage in. Pink highlighting shows areas firms are working in in that relate to their innovative practice elements.
FLANK new york, ny
wp, fs 12
Flank is a New York-based firm that is vertically integrated, combining development, architecture and brokerage. Over its twelve years in practice, Flank, which has focused mostly on high-end residential developments, has amassed an impressive portfolio of projects which feature exciting and unusual design choices.
ORIGINS Flank was founded by Mick Walsdorf and Jon Kully, who hatched the idea for the firm as part of their joint architecture thesis project at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. The thesis, which Walsdorf comments, “wasn’t very well-received” at the time laid out the model for a hybrid architecture firm and real estate development firm. Their argument: Architects were well positioned to identify development opportunities and add value to real estate developments. Architects were missing out on both the financial benefits and impact they could have by having a greater stake in the project. They launched the firm right out of graduate school with no previous experience in development or finance. “We were young, we didn’t know any better,” Walsdorf reflects.
The firm entered the practice in 2002 and put in a little time learning from and working with developers, observing them and how they structured deals. They entered the market to develop their own property in 2004, which turned out to be well-timed because the economy was soaring and financing was so easy to obtain. Their first project was a church to residential property
The firm’s first development project, 135 West 4th.
conversion. It was financially successful, with its return close to what the business plan had forecasted, and it was acclaimed for its unusual design. SERVICE TYPES & CLIENTS Flank’s work has been largely in the residential market, mostly on highend residential property. The firm identifies opportunities in-house, and is differentiated from many developers in that the principals consciously try to make very independent choices about their products instead of overly deferring to the standard set by “comps,” eg. comparable properties. For example, apartments in the firm’s project at 385 west 12th street in the West Village, had much larger unit sizes than the properties other developers were willing to build in the area. As Walsdorf reflects, while most other developers were convinced properties in the neighborhood needed to be 1-2 bedroom units to sell, Flank, identified a trend in families moving from uptown to downtown and a market for family housing.
Typical Customer Typical Customer Value Offering Projects Produces high end residential properties
Value Offering Size Age
Planning, design, and advocacy Planning, design, and advocacy services informed by researchservices on informed by research on staff composition and expertise often ignored patterns of often ADVOCACY ignored patterns of 70% ARCH YEARS NEW people’s PEOPLE YEARS ORGANIZATION use of space, and thepeople’s use of space, and the SERVICES 20% BROKERAGE MARKETING, ACQUISITIONS effects of economic and effects of economic and 10% ADMIN political systems. political systems.
Staff Composition & hedging rvices OfferedIn this project, instead ofKey Expertisetheir bets
NO CLIENT/ SELF FUNDED
Key Partnerships Work Process
through a mix of apartment sizes, the principals key partnerships guessed that families would want to share a ESEARCH Illustrators and Graphic Marketing/Public Relations building with other families, so they kept the unitDesigners DVOCACY RESEARCH & GRAPHICS Promote offeringsProduces high end residential Produces high end residential sizes relatively consistent and aimed at a family FINANCIAL FINANCIAL 75% ARCH & URBAN LANNING & SPATIAL STRATEGY Produce visual material market. All the units sold out except for one, STRUCTURE STRUCTURE ONING ANDFLANK MARKET properties informed by joint design properties informed by joint design Lenders which they rented for $30,000 monthly until they LYSIS/PRO FORMAS 25% PLANNING Community Groups Are partners in joint efforts and development and and expertise observe space ordevelopment talk to people about translate into planning and found a buyer, and Walsdorf believes they could FFICE RENOVATIONS ArePEOPLE partners/clients expertise PEOPLE YEARS YEARS phenomenon in action their needs. strategy, design, or MPORARY INSTALLATIONS have held out even longer for a better price. concerns. concerns.
fs 10 12 10 12 wp wp
advocacy tool like INDIVIDUAL publication or website. [end user]
XHIBITS & PUBLICATONS
Academia 3 Senior WORK WORK Walsdorf believes that the market for real 0 MiddleestateSupport principals, provide research 3 Junior PROCESS PROCESS is so fluid and constantly changing, that today’s opportunities
comparable properties may not be as relevant
ULL DESIGN SERVICES Marketing/Publicwork Relations to market needs in the four or so years that it ARCEL ID, DILLIGENCE & Promote offerings process takes a project to come to fruition. He and Kully 70% ARCH UISITION start every project with a product concept which ONING & MASSING ANALYSIS Lenders guides their decisions from financial to the Are partners in joint efforts ARKETING RESEARCH 20%the BROKERAGE design. TERIORS RELATIONSHIP MARKETING, RELATIONSHIP EVELOPMENT ACQUISITIONS STRATEGY STRATEGY ARKETING For Walsdorf, it’s gratifying to know that the firm’s ALES projects have impacted the 10% market--in ADMIN a recent ROKERAGE project in Savannah studio PEOPLE they incorporated YEARS PEOPLE YEARS
rs Designing buildings that are a 3 critical 4part of the company’s 3 ns strategy.
STRUCTURE MADE IN THE LOWER PERSON EAST SIDE
OOKINGS OF STOREFRONTS ESIGN SERVICES FOR TEMPORARY CES
misc. & unknown services offered
misc. & unknown
in New York City +MARKETING RESEARCH +DEVELOPMENT 15% of projects not place-based +MARKETING, NO SALES, CLIENT/BROKERAGE
Fee Structure typical customer
FEE FOR SERVICE
INDIVIDUAL [end user]
in New York City
average size: 100,000 sq. feet.
acquire parcel EQUITY STAKE
Designing buildings thatROI are a market property critical part of the company’s COMPANY/ fee structure strategy.
design & construct
ADVOCACY +FULL DESIGN SERVICES ORGANIZATION +PARCEL ID, DILLIGENCE & ACQUISITION CLUSTERED +ZONING & MASSING ANALYSIS
average size: 100,000 sq. feet. project initation
apartments--something the city had very few of ORGANIZATION Engineering/R&D ULL DESIGN SERVICES 33%upARCH at being NEWthe time. Those units ended NEW some ofCollaborated on personal EQUITY STAKE ETROFIT the most well-performing in the building, SERVICES SERVICES and have environmental controls app. VERTICALLY INTEGRATED: 33% ENGINEERING changed notions of what’s possible in real estate TORYTELLING/PLANNING investigate company’s develop stories, DEVELOPMENT, ARCHITECTURE, BROKERAGE in Savannah. story and strategy products and spaces PP. DESIGN 33% USER that propel strategy EXPERIENCE DESIGN It’s great to have your vision validated by the costs market, but the firm doesn’t always get it Identifies right. vacant storefronts inIdentifies vacant storefronts in For example, they believe that one of their INITIAL ACQUISITION OF PROPERTIES, the lower east side, and develops them theCOST lowerBUSINESS east side,MODEL and develops them properties was perhaps a bit too contemporary for UPFRONT FINANCIAL FINANCIAL the local market. The firm’s architecturalinto training co-working, community and into co-working, community and
informed by joint design and development expertise and concerns.
ns 6 11ns 6 11
Geographic Focus Projects
ORGANIZATION short-term rental space. The short-term rental space. The PERSONpartners, Marketing accessYEARS to resources/advice. ‘AirBnB’ of storefronts. ‘AirBnB’ of storefronts.
VERTICAL INTEGRATION: misc.DEVELOPMENT DESIGN & BROKERAGE
100% self-initiated commercial
COMPANY/ most profitable service offering HYPERLOCAL ORGANIZATION in SF-Bay Area
institutional institutional DEVELOPMENT MANAGEMENT few additonal projects scattered elsewhere FEE FOR SERVICE
revenue commercial AVERAGE PROFIT MARGIN: commercial 40% (RANGE: 20-70%)
COMPANY/ ORGANIZATION HYPERLOCAL
also led to some early mistakes--Walsdorf thinks that their design was perhaps a little more complicated than it needed to be at 385 West 12th street. They’ve learned not to overestimate the skills of their contractor. WORK PROCESS After the firm’s first success, they went in what Walsdorf’s view was ‘overboard,’ and hired too many people and spread themselves too thin. The recession hit and the firm struggled. In bad times, Walsdorf explains, there’s a ‘cascade of impact’ that affects the prospects of a construction project. Banks contract their lending on one side, and contractors are squeezed on the other. In addition, because the projects Flank works on are relatively small, they often work with non-union contractors, who are more likely to be financially vulnerable. Contractors can flop and a firm that doesn’t have access to enough capital at the time it needs it can get pinched. This is when the firm learned the value of liquidity--of having quick access to capital.
The firm has since slimmed down to be only 10 members large: The principals, one employee who works on their acquisitions and financing, their administrative staff, five architects and a partner they work with often who handles their brokerage. While years ago the firm sought more narrow design excellence or good modeling skills in employees, they have shifted back towards
focusing on well-rounded candidates who can grow into project managers. One of the benefits Walsdorf sees to running every part of the process is that when the architect is at the hub of the financial and design decisions there’s much less back and forth among decision makers and consultants. There are less parties who need to have input and less miscommunication. If the firm wants to make changes to a project, they do, and do it fast. The firm’s multifamily housing.
FINANCIAL The most profitable market for the firm---by far-is the high end residential market. As Walsdorf sees it, because families that can afford to spend over $10 million dollars per home “want what they want,” the market is very elastic. Putting something exciting, new and well designed in the market goes a long way in attracting these customers. With the exception of a land deal (this is when land is purchased, rezoned, retitled and sold quickly) which the firm has never done, Walsdorf thinks this will always be the firm’s most profitable project type. The firm sees more financial benefit than other architecture firms when projects go well, but there is a level of financial risk that’s just inherent in Flank’s practice model. Yet, the flip side to risk is reward. Flank focuses on quantifiable risks and it puts contingencies in its pro formas to mitigate
those risks. There are unquantifiable risks--due to no fault of their own, one project was caught in a senseless lawsuit brought on by a neighbor which led to massive delays. This experience further underscored the value of liquidity to the principals. Another process which the firm plans for, but adds costs to projects is the regulatory process of the cities they work in. The firm was surprised by the relative ease of gettting through the regulatory process in Savannah, “Savannah is an A, from a regulatory standpoint, New York is an F,” Walsdorf reflects. Getting through the recession was a struggle for the firm, but they “did as well as they could and learned a valuable set of lessons” about the
“Nodehouse” completed by the firm in 2003.
value of liquidity, and the advantages of keeping overhead low. A new challenge has arisen for the firm in the post-recessionary world with New York City land prices going through the roof. In their first project, the firm was able to spend $770 per gross foot, and sell for at least twice that, often between $2000 to $3000 per square foot. With land prices in New York City skyrocketing, the basis price of a project can get up to $2300 per square foot, which Walsdorf thinks is a frighteningly high point to sell from. In this market, the “only way to make cash flow work,” he notes, “Is to have already owned the land. That’s why you see the same wealthy families over and over again” in the rental business. Given these new realities, looking to the future, the firm plans to pursue two sets of opportunities. The first is expanding to more affordable markets in the eastern seaboard. The second is to seek opportunistic ways into projects in New York that run into trouble. Walsdorf reflects that “too many people are inexperienced out there” who haven’t yet learned the lessons of liquidity the way Flank has, and Flank can add value and profit by helping out on these projects at the right time. Unfortunately, Walsdorf muses, there’s not a lot of how-to information about getting into the development business. His firm had to learn their lessons by making mistakes. He advises interested architects to talk to people who are
in the business already becuase one of the key lessons to learn is how to navigate the cyclical nature of the business. “Unless you understand the risks, if your timing is poor when you enter the market, you may never get restarted,” he warns. Walsdorf looks back at his firm’s accomplishments and really believes that although some architects might shy away from the financial aspects of their projects, development is not that complicated and “it certainly can be done.” He thinks that if architects were involved more in the financial stake of projects as well as the design, the business would be “far more interesting.” *** Flank’s model brings architecture, development and brokerage under one roof. Their model changes the architects’ stake in the project and requires an additional skill set, but it results in greater influence on a project, greater efficiency and greater compensation.
UTILE boston, ma
Diagram created by Utile to explain the regulatory and design process. misc. res
inst. mixed use
Utile is a for-profit architecture and planning firm founded in 2002 that calls itself a design firm “built like a think tank.” Utile was founded by Tim Love, an architect with previous experience at Machado & Silvetti and a tenured position at the school of architecture at Northeastern University. Utile has become known for its skill at dealing with the complexities and politics of institutional urban projects, especially in the Boston area and in the northeast in general.
ORIGINS The genesis of Utile’s business approach was an early contract to be the on-call design review consultant of the Port Authority of Massachusetts. Love made a series of relationships through that project that led to future work with other public agencies, including the Boston Redevelopment Authority and MassDevelopment, the state’s development finance agency. From that first project and on, the firm has developed a reputation for being able to navigate projects involving complex regulations, overlapping agency jurisdictions and multiple funding sources.
SERVICE TYPES & CLIENTS Utile has two major types of projects that have a synergistic relationship to each other--planning projects and architecture projects. Planning work is about 60% of Utile’s workload. The firm retains its consulting role with the Port Authority and has done a large number of planning studies for cities in the northeast, focused on economic development and streetscape improvement issues. Forty percent of Utile’s work is architecture, much of it multifamilily housing, and a smaller percentage is work for institutions. One of Utile’s strengths that lies between the two disciplines is in the scoping or predesign elements of a project. Oftentimes in complex projects, according to Love, the framing of the problem itself, and the sorting out of all the competing needs and stakeholders is a necessary endeavor that requires its own set of skills and strategies. Project scope is often more flexible than it seems at first, and sometimes the firm needs to be the one to define its
value offering Architecture and planning services informed deeply enough about regulatory and financial realities to identify efficiencies and opportunities. staff composition and expertise
+URBAN PLANNING 60% WORKLOAD, 40% REVENUE
Services Offered Services Offered +USER EXPERIENCE DESIGN
Key Partnerships Staff Composition & 5% OTHER Key Expertise Key Partnerships Staff Composition & Academia Key Expertise
Work Process40% WORKLOAD, 60% REVENUE Fee Structure Work Process
Sponsors research programs through RESEARCH own project scope, +DESIGN especially with public agency key partnershipsstudios typical customer geographic focus Academia clients. Love talks about the need to weigh the +DESIGN STRATEGY +USER EXPERIENCE DESIGN Key Partnershipsat least Staff Composition & brought in to create conceptual design, 50% ARCH. Consultants Sponsors research programs through sometimes competing narratives around a project FEE FOR SERVICE hybrid film or digital +RESPONSIVE +DESIGN RESEARCH Offered Process to team Fee Structure often Add expertise and reputation Key ExpertiseENVIRONMENT DESIGN studiosWork NATIONAL/ digital/physical products generated by the mix of different stakeholders CONSULTANCY +CONCEPT DESIGN NTERNATIONAL and to find+DESIGN whichSTRATEGY have resonance and which at least 50% ARCH. brought in to create conceptual design, Advocacy Groups FEE FOR SERVICE hybrid often film or digital +RESPONSIVE ENVIRONMENT DESIGN Academia support agenda, fund and define issues RIENCE DESIGN don’t. digital/physical products Sponsors research programs through CONSULTANCY +CONCEPT DESIGN DEVELOPER MUNICIPAL REGIONAL SEARCH Advocacy Groups +FULL DESIGN SERVICES studios Love traces his expertise with the participatory in New England GOVERNMENT Support agenda, fund and define RATEGY +PLANNING and political aspects planning to an open brought in to create conceptual design, at of least 50% ARCH. issues 85% ARCH. hybrid help city define planningFEEgain knowledge brought into project by FORdeep SERVICE often film or digital Downtown E ENVIRONMENTspace DESIGN project +RETROFIT Advocacy Groups +FULLin DESIGN SERVICES Boston while working FEE FOR SERVICE agenda (including zoning, into regulatory and developers due to deep digital/physical products at Machado and Silvetti. He posits that if he 80% Support agenda,Academia fund and define redevelopment strategies)CONSULTANCY economic context insight on context ESIGN +PLANNING +INTERIORS 10% PLANNING hadn’t identified the competing interests of the issues REGIONAL 85% ARCH. Support research agendas help city define planning gain deep knowledge brought into project by CONSULTING work process in New England project FEE FOR SERVICE public and+RETROFIT private stakeholders – and found a agenda (including zoning, into regulatory and developers due to deep initation 20%
80% 5% OTHER Academia redevelopment strategies) economic context insightfor on public context +INTERIORS seek opportunities design solution that ameliorated their issues - the10% PLANNING Advocacy Groups 4Support Senior research agendas betterment and economic 25% RFPs project would have never happened. His ability CONSULTING Support agenda, fund and define 5 Middle efficiencies in design 20% 25% Referrals to learn who else needed weigh in and how 11 Junior issues 5% OTHER 85%toARCH. help city define planning gain deep knowledge brought into project by seek opportunities for public 30% Repeat Clients to manage that process not only kept the job on FEE FOR SERVICE agenda (including zoning,Consultants into regulatory and developers due to deep betterment and economic 4 Senior +FULL DESIGN SERVICES 80% economic context insight on context 5% Competitions 5 Middle efficiencies in design the table for him, but wasPLANNING central to the project Academia 90% ARCH.redevelopment strategies)Provide +PLANNING assistance on developing 10% 15% Self-initiated FEE FOR SERVICE SUBSIZIDED Support research agendas 11 Junior ultimately benefiting+RESEARCH his client. CONSULTING technical solutions for developing 20% +FULL DESIGN SERVICES Consultants world, sometimes pro bono 5% PUBLIC HEALTH gain deep knowledge seek strategic solutions FUNDED BY NONPROFIT OR MASS DESIGN 5% OTHER spend time in seek opportunities for public 90% ARCH. Provide assistance on developing into culture and A key skill+PLANNING to doing this work is speaking the to design issues in profitable GOVERNMENT THROUGH offeringFUNDRAISING context fee structure most service 4 Senior betterment and economic FEE FOR SERVICE SUBSIZIDED technical issues resource-constrained THEIR FUNDRAISING technical solutions language +RESEARCH of the other stakeholders in a project 5 Middle efficienciesforin developing design 5% OTHER envrionment CLUSTERED world, sometimes pro bono Junior gain deep knowledge seek strategic solutions FUNDED BY NONPROFIT OR MASS DESIGN and understanding their thinking 11process. For 5% PUBLIC HEALTH spend time in wanda, Haiti, Libera and Uganda Fee-for-service-80% into culture and to design issues in GOVERNMENT THROUGH FUNDRAISING context No outliers GN SERVICES example, Love thinks it’s essential to understand Consultants technical issues Consulting-20% resource-constrained THEIR FUNDRAISING empower people through 5% onOTHER 90% ARCH. SOMETIMES HYBRIDIZED the financial underpinnings of a project. Provide assistance developing envrionment construction process FEE FOR SERVICE SUBSIZIDED Uganda technical solutions for developing Understanding your client and partners also world, sometimes pro bono HEALTH level where gain deep knowledge means knowing on5% anPUBLIC interpersonal seek strategic solutions FUNDED MASS DESIGN spend time in empower people throughBY NONPROFIT OR SOMETIMES HYBRIDIZED into culture and to design issues in GOVERNMENT THROUGH FUNDRAISING context to push, and how. construction process Realtor + Developer technical issues PER HOUSE resource-constrained costs revenue THEIR FUNDRAISING +FULL5% DESIGN SERVICES OTHER Sell firm-designed homes envrionment OF PREFAB HOUSING $3000 down payment While Utile is good +SALE at navigating the politcal SALARIES 57% REVENUE Factories Realtor + Developer client gets survey and model built in firm designs realities of+FULL a project, they are clear that they are PER HOUSE +CUSTOMIZATION DESIGN SERVICES Produce 100% ARCH. Sell firm-designed empower people through homeshomes permit SOMETIMES HYBRIDIZED factory models arch fee: 10% of customization Fee by Phase designers first. This means that their primary construction process construction cost
OTHER OVERHEAD 35% REVENUE Factories Contractors
+SALE OF PREFAB HOUSING
ters in MN and Canada
Realtor + Developer
Produce homesInstall home
firm designs models
client gets survey and permit
Schematic Design= 40% 15% of construction cost $1-3 MILL.Design Development= 40% Construction Documents= 15% arch fee: 10% of customization Fee by Phase Construction Administration= 5% construction cost 15% of construction Schematic Design= 40%
$3000 down payment
model built in factory PER HOUSE
A 48 unit affordable housing project by the firm.
offering is their deep understanding of the built implications of their recommendations. Their solutions can range from rezoning recommendations to a new typology of building. The synergistic relationship between Utile’s planning and design work helps them bring work in the door. They are uniquely positioned to offer their design services to developers in areas they do planning work because of their deep familiarity with a project context. In this vein, the major share of Utile’s projects come through repeat clients and referrals. The firm does get work through responding to RFPs (requests for proposals), but Utile’s strategy is to avoid submitting RFPs if they have no personal connection to the client Once that client relationship is established, Utile prides itself on maintaining very transparent relationships with its clients. Project budgets are composed in spreadsheets that make assumptions about time and costs clear, and those documents are shared with clients. This attitude has no doubt helped the firm become well-known and respected in the Boston architecture and construction community.
Currently, eighty percent of the firm’s work is in the Northeast, but the firm has a few isolated projects in other locations. Looking to the future, they hope to expand the geographic base of their
projects by leveraging their skills in other cities and regions facing similar issues. WORK PROCESS One of the hallmarks of Utile’s process is that it waits to start form-based design until the research and analysis phase has fully identified the priorities and opportunities of the design problem. It avoids “making pretty things too early.” Love finds that doing this means that when they begin the design process in earnest, not only is it more likely to actually solve the issues that really need addressing, but the final product is more likely to be accepted by the client. In this vein, he also thinks there is a specific type of ‘storytelling’ necessary for this work, making complex decisions with spatial implications clear to non-designers. The firm uses diagrams much more than renderings. Diagrams put all the facts and logic on the table facilitating decision making by stakeholders. While historically designers (he cites the New Urbanists) have used renderings to convey the feeling of a project, he thinks those approaches are often too form-based and miss the point of being resources that can drive decisions. Love describes the firm’s approach to projects as ‘tactical.’ They see themselves as problem solvers, and are often willing to think creatively about
a project’s scope, and find opportunities the average firm would consider ‘out of bounds.’ For example, in one recent project in New Haven, the firm addressed the potential of adaptive reuse to catalyze and attract light manufacturing. The firm’s work in this area led to hybrid architectural and planning solutions--they proposed changes to the zoning that would create a new hybrid light manufacturing classification and generated new building types that mix light manufacturing with other use types. The firm is lead by four principals, and the firm recently appointed a Director of Architecture who curates design-based information for employees and works on staffing. The firm chose this structure instead of choosing to have associates since they felt that differentiating employees as associates was worse for employee “buy-in” across the firm. In terms of staffing, the firm is composed of mostly architects although it employes three planners who bring expertise in GIS, census data and statistical analysis, among other skills, to the firm. In the architects Utile hires, they tend to look for two types of people: The first type excels at the opportunity phase of a project—representing complex relationships and proposing opportunities. The second excel at project implementation and can deal with issues such as offsets, modular design and intelligent code and
The firm prefers diagrams that can drive decison making like these streeetscape typology diagrams over atomospheric renderings.
historic compliance in sophisticated ways. FINANCIAL Utile is an S-Corporation, which means profits are distributed to the shareholders, who are taxed instead of the corporation. The firm distributes its profits yearly through bonuses, so it doesn’t show a profit. Most of the firm’s work is fee-for-service, architecture project fees based on a percentage of construction costs. The major exception to this setup is their work for the Port Authority for which they work on a retainer basis. The firm is now so good at estimating the time a project will take that their work almost never
goes over budget. The one area of their practice that sometimes is an exception to this rule is the construction administration process. Love finds that the AIA estimate for construction administration time seems almost never to be enough to answer all the questions and resolve all of the issues that arise. He notes that many firms struggle with how to handle this part of the process, and some choose to limit their involvement, noting that oftentimes contractors ask questions that they could have figured out themselves. Utile’s stance is to err on the side of more involved as they find that the issues that can arise out of inattention can “sour relationships overall.”
*** Utile’s model is to combine an opportunistic and ‘tactical’ form of planning with a traditional architecture practice, with each side supporting the other. Their natural strength in sharp and incisive thinking and political and economic awareness makes them an asset to the cities and clients they serve.
INTERBORO PARTNERS brooklyn, ny
Interboro is a small but rising firm. Composed of three principals who each have established careers in teaching, they are most well-known for their winning entry for MOMA’s PS1 competition, entitled “Holding Pattern.” Recently, their firm was chosen as one of the teams working on the high profile “Rebuild By Design” post-Hurricane Sandy resiliency initiative.
ORIGINS The firm’s beginnings were in a humble book group. The three principals of the firm, Dan D’Oca, Georgeen Theodore and Tobias Armborst, were recent graduates of the Harvard School of Design. Although they came from different disciplinary backgrounds, D’Oca from planning and Theodore and Amborst from architecture and urban design, they met through work and classes with the scholar Margaret Crawford. After school the three decided that they didn’t want to lose the intellectual chemistry they’d had and decided to start a book group that would keep them in touch.
The trio’s first foray out of just reading together was the Dead Malls competition of 2003. Their entry, “In the Meantime, Life with Landbanking,” emerged out of their realization that the owner of the mall they chose was landbanking the property.
misc. mixed use
Visiting the site, the team found that the mall was actually not entirely dead from a user perspective--informal flea markets and other uses were occurring on site with regularity. Building off of this activity, their winning entry proposed temporary use strategies, such as a fitness center in one of the abandoned outparcels, and bathrooms that took advantage of the abandoned mall infrastructure. Their proposal kept the mall parcel in community employ until its future re-entry into the formal land-use system.
A subsequent competition that asked designers to rethink Detroit caught the trio’s eye. The firm’s approach to the competition was symptomatic of what Dan D’Oca sees as central to the Interboro approach: The team went
The firm’s MOMA PS1 project, “Holding Pattern”.
to Detroit and tried to be highly observant of what was happening, instead of jumping straight into design proposals. The team noticed that on blocks with a great deal of vacancy, tenants would expand the boundaries of their activities into former neighbor’s lots. These block-lots, or ‘blots’ as the team termed them, formed a cornerstone of their proposed approach to planning in this shrinking city. In their plan, homeowners were provided with specific ways to ‘improve their lots.’ Their
Interboro’s Rebuild by Design planning work.
entry, deeply informed by existing social patterns in Detroit won, and as D’Oca notes, the term ‘blot’ has since become part of the discourse on shrinking cities. SERVICE TYPES & CLIENTS Interboro has three main areas of design practice: planning projects, installation-scale design projects, and office renovations. In addition, the office runs many projects that don’t quite fit neatly into these service areas, and are sometimes self-funded, but often feed intellectually into their planning and design work.
Planning In their most recent planning work, for the Rebuild by Design initiative, the firm started by identifying misalignments between regional goals that would benefit local municipalities-- for example, the regional imperative to increase impermeable surfaces, and local goals for local economic development. The firm sought to be practical yet idealistic in their proposal and identified opportunities to put these goals in alignment, such as reinvigorated public coastal ecosystems that protect from flooding and provide new ammenities.
research spills over into other firm efforts, and vice-versa. In addition to research on temporary uses and regional planning strategies, the firm has also active research eforts on other related political issues. A major research interest of theirs is in NIMBYism (‘Not in My Backyard.’) The firm was asked to produce a drawing by Esquire on “the state of things in the US,” and produced a map that includes design and planning practices communities use to be inclusionary or exclusionary. They subsequently produced a large atlas illustrating these practices and are writing a book that catalogs these processes.
Temporary Installations Another specialty of the firm’s is temporary installations. Like the firm’s planning projects, these projects grew out of the firm’s research and planning interests. Building on the ideas generated in their Dead Malls competition entry, in 2009 the firm created “Lent Space,” a public space for the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, they transformed a privately-owned development site into a temporary plaza. The site hosted planters holding trees that would eventually be used as street trees in the surrounding area, and they redesigned the typcial construction site fence into a moveable sculptural barrier with attached seating for passers by. While the D’Oca looks at the firm’s accomplishments with satisfaction generally, he would like to be able to compete for larger projects. He
For Interboro Partners, planning work also means investigative work, revealing some of the existing dynamics in a given space and economic system. In 2009 they worked as urban design fellows for the ‘Made in Midtown’ campaign, launched by the Design Trust and the Council of Fashion Designers of America. They campaign rested on a study of the Garment Industry in Manhattan, which is under pressure to redevelop into residential property. Interboro’s study revealed the ways in which the neighborhood contributed to New York City’s economy and its interactive graphic website, madeinmidtown.org was an advocacy tool. It used the graphic technique of the cross section to reveal the vibrancy and productivity of the industry.
Research Research is a central part of the firm’s planning efforts, and project-specific Made in Midtown interactive graphic.
believes that Interboro’s unique approach and perceptiveness sets the firm apart and would positively shake up the ‘business as usual’ approach of many urban plans for medium-sized cities today. He hopes the “Rebuild by Design” commission will demonstrate Interboro’s ability to work on projects at a larger scale.
their experiences are a big part of how the firm gets started on any given project. Their approach to their projects can be described as a form of ‘practical idealism.’ The firm seeks to understand the realities of economic and political systems in order to find ways of intervening for greater social benefit.
Unlike much of the contemporary design interest in the subject, Interboro ‘s approach to temporary installations is to use them as planning tools that act as structural interventions into a larger economic system’s underuse of land in between cycles of formal use. Their design for the MOMA PS1 exhibition took up this theme: The team polled MOMA’s neighbors about what items they could use and then designed the installation to include these items. The project took a unique approach to the often wasteful nature of the temporary design project, and improved the relationship between the MOMA and their neighbors in Long Island City.
Interboro remains small. The firm has one fulltime staff member besides the principals, and currently has two other part-time employees. Interboro’s staffing is fluid: They bring people on to help them complete projects, often host interns. and rely on partnering to bring the right expertise to a project. They often collaborate with Thump, a New York-based graphic design agency, and will bring in specialists, such as transportation experts when working on projects in which those specialized expertises are needed.
Office Renovations The third major element of Interboro’s practice is office renovations. The firm recently produced a plan for a real estate company, helping them rethink their real estate holdings and suggested facility changes that could attract more tennants, such as improved common spaces. The company hired Interboro to implement the recommendations. The team believes that their strategic approach to planning and design helps them be successful in both their thought leadership projects and their office renovation work, but they joke that the two areas are such different markets that they should have two firm websites.
WORK PROCESS The values that underlie Interboro Partners’ work have remained consistent from the trio’s first days in graduate school. Interboro highly values attention to the vernacular--not just in terms of form, but in terms of the social and economic patterns that underlie how people use a given space. Observation of existing patterns through research and talking to ordinary people about
The firm’s unique way of framing design and planning problems shows up in their distinctive visual communication style. They use “comic book”-like formats and text bubbles to make the human impact of their proposals clear, and to illustrate the research process that informed their conclusions. They produce many simple axonometric drawings, which can break down design ideas for lay audiences and better explain processes than planometric and sectional representation often do.
“Lent Space” installation
FINANCIAL The financial model of the firm is guided by the three principal’s roles as academics. While the firm takes in income, each of the principals is a full-time professor at his or her institution, which takes the pressure off of the firm to financially support the principals.
measure of realism to the courses they teach. Coordinating among academic schedules can be hard, and D’Oca, who was on sabbatical this fall notes that the break allowed him to more deeply dive into the complexities of the Rebuild by Design project. However, despite the complexities, the principals are passionate about teaching and don’t envision moving out of academia.
The principal’s academic positions subsidize their firm not just financially, but intellectually. The principals are able to ‘seed‘ the ideas that they are interested in pursuing and stay intellectually sharp, through teaching studios and seminars. In return, their experience in practice lends a
The firm’s projects are all based on fee-forservice models, and none are wildly profitable, according to D’Oca, with publications bringing in the least money per investment of time. The principals’s own interests therefore strongly
The firm’s ‘Atlas’ illustrating tactics of exclusion and inclusion.
drive their choice of what work to take on. D’Oca jokes that the firm’s work is certainly not a path to “fortune or fame.” That said, the firm has become more profitable as it’s become established; the firm used to put a lot more uncompensated ‘sweat equity’ into projects but as the organization has matured it’s something they do less and less of. Now, even their research projects have some sort of ‘seed’ funding to start.
*** Interboro Partners model sets the firm up to add value to issues of public complexity, and to test out ideas through small-scale design work. Their work, which is intelligent, but playful, puts people at the center of the design process and finds ways to suggest new opportunities for urban vibrancy and community empowerment.
architect as entrepreneur
NEW DIRECTIONS FOR OUR SKILLS
The answer to architects who want more money and greater influence has always been, “Be an Owner.” This path either requires years of working up the skills, or jumping into architectural practice with minimal experience and gaining the leadership and production experience by fire. In recent years, especially given the rise of start ups in business, a number of architects have founded or joined startups outside of architecture. DESIGN AND STARTUPS: A GOOD PAIRING... The skills of architecture, with its focus on visualizing and modeling ideas from the abstract to the tangible is a method of working that transfers well to the startup mentality. ‘Beta tests,’ product tests in close to real circumstances, help startups rapidly test their concepts and iterate on their products. The creative opportunities that exist in architecture practice also exist, albeit in other forms in startups. From creating a visual and brand identity, to engaging with potential customers to learning about their needs and wants, startups include their own form of learning, synthesis and creative leaps. BUT NOT ALWAYS... While design can be a key ingredient in the success of a company, there are some structural characteristics of a design education that can
get in the way of success. Firstly, while design education is often very humanistic in its leanings and values, exposure to real clients and their needs is limited in most design curriculums. As Dana Cuff has noted, the studio system sets up a design process in which emerging designers learn to design in response to other professionals.1 The critic-student and student charrette/reviewer process leaves students learning to anticipate the desires of other architects. This leads students to focus on issues of professional consideration for idealized clients, or an idealized notion of ‘the public.’ An iterative process of testing ideas against the true response of prospective customers which most startups find invaluable, isn’t often present in the studio environment.
to recognize that those tendencies are preventing forward momentum is key.
1. Cuff, Dana. Architecture: The Story of Practice 1992. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA,44
In addition, designers can often suffer from what internet marketing expert Seth Godin calls ‘fear of shipping.’ A clear graphic message, and products that work well signify seriousness to prospective customers. However, putting versions of one’s product into the world, before it’s absolutely perfect helps identity missteps early in the process. Designers can fall victim to worrying so much about getting it right, or spend so long establishing the right visual identity, that they fail to go out and talk to real users to adequately assess their needs. Learning to use perfectionist tendencies when useful, and when The Designer Fund supports designer-founded startups.
SARAH KATHLEEN PECK
itstartswith.com, one month
Sarah Peck is a landscape architect who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2009. Peck moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and began work at the SWA Group, and quickly rose to the role of Communications Specialist, in which she worked on marketing efforts such as competitions and publications. While at the SWA Group, Peck founded the award-winning Landscape Urbanism Blog which has quickly garnered attention in the landscape architecture field, and features projects and short posts, as well as a seasonal long-essay journal.
JUDY FULTON musey Judy Fulton graduated in 2013 from Harvard’s architecture masters program and launched Musey with cofounder Hokan Wong. Musey is an app that redesigns the retail experience by helping users discover products ‘hidden in plain sight’ in places such as coffee shops. Musey won the Deans’ Cultural Entrepreneurship Challenge at Harvard and was selected by the accelerator program Matter, which focuses on media entrepreneurs. Musey originally started as an app that used geo-technology to help users discover art outside of institutions, as well as a platform for artists who put their work in the public realm to connect with viewers. The Musey team quickly tested a number of ideas before landing on Musey, including a geolocation music app that would create ‘soundscapes of the city.’ The common thread running through all their iterations has been a focus on heightening the everyday experience of moving through cities, and using geolocation technology to bring art and beauty into everyday life.
While at the SWA Group, Peck realized that her training as a designer and her natural interest in psychology had added up into significant talent in storytelling and communication. While at the firm she began her own blog, itstartswith.com. She writes about storytelling, personal growth, productivity, motivation and creativity. Peck now runs a series of online courses, on writing, content strategy for thought and business leaders, and living with grace and gratitude. She has advised private clients and startups on communication, storytelling and marketing and recently joined One Month, a Y Combinator-backed startup that produces online classes for accelerated learning in subjects such as Ruby on Rails, as the company’s Communication Director.
SHA HWANG EVAN SHARP
Evan Sharp is one of the cofounders of Pinterest, a project which grew out of his difficulty managing his precedents collection while in architecture school at Columbia’s GSAPP. After connecting over their shared love of collecting, Sharp and cofounders Ben Silbermann and Paul Sciarrato teamed up to produce Pinterest. While in architecture school, and doing freelance web design work to make a little extra money, Sharp received a job offer from the Facebook design team. He took a sabbatical from the GSAPP (to which he hasn’t returned) and started Pinterest soon thereafter. Pinterest has succeeded in part due to Sharp’s painstaking design. Sharp’s love of creating things motivates him. When interviewed by Design Founders, a publication produced by the Designer’s Fund, Sharp shrugged off the label entrepreneur: “I’m really not much of an entrepreneur. I hate to say it…I actually don’t hate to say it. I’m totally fine saying it. I fell into this thing, in a good way. I think I’m more of a builder, not to be too ideological about it.1 1. Interview with Evan Sharp, www.designerfounders.com
Sha Hwang is designer, technologist and entrepreneur, currently working for HealthCare.gov. Hwang received his architecture degree from UC Berkeley and worked for IwamotoScott Architecture where he had a chance to develop his programming, animation and visualization skills for the firm’s innovative and concept-heavy work. Hwang later worked for Stamen Design, known for its interactive design and data visualization. While at Stamen, Hwang noticed that while his firm produced value, ultimately Stamen’s clients became the owners of that value. Later, while teaching a 3-hour course on illustrator, Hwang met Eric Wu, a serial entrepreneur interested in moving into the real estate market, and together they founded Movity which aggregated and visualized neighborhood data, helping home buyers make better decisions. Movity was acquired by Trulia in 2010. Alongside Movity, Hwang also founded Gifpop, which makes printed cards out of gifs and Meshu, which creates custom jewelry based on an individual’s urban network map with his friend Rachel Binx. In late 2013 Hwang was asked to join the HealthCare.gov team, with a focus on user interface, as part of the effort to fix the website. In addition to the rendering, visualization and technical skills Hwang gained from his architectural training, Hwang gravitated towards the analysis components of his architectural education. Instead of “designing precious objects,” he makes beautiful systems, whether for websites, manufacturing processes or for understanding complex data.
The designers highlighted in this study represent a specific class of architects--those with a conviction that they were willing to follow even though it meant not doing ‘business as usual.’ These firms and individuals share a tolerance for experimentation and a measure of risk, trying out new ways of producing buildings or using their architectural skillsets in new ways. As the world becomes more globalized, complex and interdependent one thing is true: adapting to changing conditions is key for any organization. Businesses are in ‘permanent disequilibrium’ and that’s part of the evolutionary process. Firms need to stay responsive and willing to experiment.
The ‘outliers’ highlighted in this study are in their own way, leading in the field, forging new paths for practice. Time will tell which of the strategies they are developing are more successful and some will become integrated into mainstream practice over time. Studying these innovative practices and architects can shed light on a new set of possibilities for greater meaning, impact and reward for architects in years to come.
The â€˜outliersâ€™ highlighted in this study are in their own way, leading in the field, forging new paths for practice.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS This work would not have been possible without George Thrush, Director of the Architecture program at Northeastern who supported and advised this project. Thanks to interviewed firms, Interboro Partners, Utile, and Flank, and to experts Chris Parsons and Laura Weiss. Many thanks those who provided valuable advice on this project: Tim Love and Suzanne Lanyi Charles of Northeastern, John Peterson of Public Architecture, and Bill Foulkes of RISD. Thanks to Dr. Beth Altringer, Paul Nakazawa and Andrea Hansen of Harvard University. Many thanks to Gilad Meron and Nick McClintock, of the Proactive Practices research group.
ABOUT MIA SCHARPHIE Mia Scharphie is a landscape designer who comes to Northeastern with professional experience at the nationally-recognized nonprofit design firm Public Architecture, as well as at the SWA Group. She is a cofounder of the Proactive Practices research collaborative, which was formed in 2012 to identify and publicize emerging models of financially sustainable, social impact design for the built environment. Mia received her master in landscape architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and her undergraduate degree cum laude in Urban Studies from Brown University. She has received a number of honors and awards including Phi Beta Kappa, residency in the Harvard Innovation Lab, and fellowships from the Dorot Foundation and the Roothbert Fund. Miaâ€™s writing on issues of equity in design has been published in the Christian Science Monitor and GOOD.
FRAMEWORKS FOR ACADEMIC USE
There’s an art to interviewing--to developing a rapport with a subject and having a conversation that uncovers key insights. A few tips: Set yourself up to get the most out of the interview by learning about the firm through their website, looking through their projects, and reading articles written about them. What strikes you as interesting? Think up a few questions specifically for the firm.
Make sure you have a way to record the interview as it takes pressure off you to get everything down while your subject is talking. Don’t forget to ask your subject for permission, explain you’re using the recording for your own uses and it won’t be made public. Set up a time to speak with them. This protocol is designed to be a 2 hour protocol (if you go through the sample project section twice, and ask them about two projects, which I recommend). The two hours can be broken into two 1-hour chunks. Firm members are busy because they’re doing the kind of work that we want to ask them about--therefore it can be hard to get them to commit the time. I’ve managed to run interviews in an hour with a 20-30 minute follow up call to get a last few details. Familiarize yourself with the arc of the interview script before you start. You want to
aim for a mix of breadth and depth in your talk, going deeper into some lines of questioning to get details and explanations, but trying to cover the major areas. Oftentimes your interviewee will respond to your questions before you even ask them, in their natural narrative arc so don’t worry to much about going by the script. This isn’t always easy, but it’s okay if you don’t get it perfect. Let the interviewee talk. Try not to interrupt them, and let them follow their own thinking flow. You can keep notes on follow up questions to come back to. However, if they’ve gone off track for long stretches, and you can tell you’re not getting the information you need, bring them back to the subject at hand. Ask follow up questions. This is the best way to get to the bottom of the story and reveal gems. Asking questions like “When you say the client blocked the process, what do you mean by that?” helps your interviewee elaborate. Ask one question at a time. When we dont know exactly what we’re asking we sometimes ask 2-3 questions at a time. Try to avoid this if you can, as it often leads to interviewees giving much more vague answers. Ask for specific examples. Interview responses can often be divided into two
categories: “values” responses in which they tell you about their philosophy on an issue, and concrete ones in which they tell you about what happened. Visionaries can often get ‘stuck’ in the ideal or philosophical. You want to get a balance of both in the interview. Questions like “Can you give me an example of a time that happened?” or “Can you walk me through the process of how you approached that client?” go a long way.
ORIGINS -How was the firm founded? -Can you give me a quick history of your firm, highlighting the major phases or milestones of your practice?
SAMPLE PROJECT -How would you categorize the kinds of projects your firm does? -Now pick one a project that you think characterizes the most common project type. Can you walk me through the process of completing that project? -How the project was initiated -Who was the client? -What was the scope? -Who was involved? -How it was funded? (percentages? or different percentages at different phases?) -Describe the project chronologically -What was the duration? -What was the project’s impact? How did you measure it? -What was the most challenging aspect of the project? -What did you learn from the project? -Did the project lead to future opportunities? -Did the project support or feed off of other initiatives you had in the office? -How would you do this project differently if you were to do it over again?
PROJECT CONTEXT -What is the typical size and scope of one of your firm’s projects? Are there limitations on this? -Are most projects initiated in the ways you described previously? -What’s your strategy for bringing work in the door? -Do you have loss leaders? -How would you describe the value of your firm’s approach to design projects? What do you think differentiates you from other firms? -Has it always been that way, or has that approach evolved over the years? -Are there projects that you have tried that were not successful approaches for your firm? Why?
-Is there an overlaying organizational structure that guides how staff work together and who is responsible for what work? -What are the key partners you work with to accomplish the work?
FINANCIAL -What is the general breakdown of different funding sources supporting projects in your office? -How do you get paid? What are your fee structures? -Are certain projects funded differently, or is there one funding model you follow? -What is your most profitable service or project type? -What service or project type do you feel contributes most to your reputation? -What are the riskiest projects for your firm to take on? -How did that approach evolve and did it ever change? Is there a funding method you’ve abandoned over time? -Are there other markets or funding opportunities you’d like to explore in the future?
[This is a good time to go back and do a sample project again if you have the time.]
FUTURE -Looking back, what are the major ways your firm has changed or evolved over time? In terms of work type, impact, funding approach? -What do you feel is the impact of the work that your firm does? -What are the major challenges your firm is facing right now? -Looking back, what was the hardest/worst time for your firm? -Where would you like your firm to be in 5 years? Where do you think it’s likely to be? -If you could change one thing in the context you’re working in (eg. some element of the market or the construction industry, etc.) what would be be? -What do think your practice model can teach the rest of the design profession?
FIRM STRUCTURE AND ASSETS -Can you give some more detail on the different roles staff play and what specific skillsets are critical for your success? (Especially any skill sets that might not be as important in a more traditional design practice.)
For all questions with numbers or percentages, please refer to the last two years.
3. What percentage of your projects have physical/built products involved? (eg. built: a building or installation, unbuilt: planning recommendations or publications or events.)
Service Offerings 1. What services do you offer? (list as many as apply and the percentage of your workload and total revenue each has been in the past two years.) ______________________ __ __ SERVICE % of workload % of revenue ______________________ __ __ SERVICE % of workload % of revenue ______________________ __ __ SERVICE % of workload % of revenue ______________________ __ __ SERVICE % of workload % of revenue ______________________ __ __ SERVICE % of workload % of revenue ______________________ __ __ SERVICE % of workload % of revenue
4. What is the average size (in sq. ft) of your built projects? 5. What percentage of the projects you worked on in the past 2 years didnâ€™t make it to completion? 6. What is your most profitable service type? 7. What is the service type that you think contributes most to the reputation of your firm? 8. What percentage of your projects are funded? (eg. ones not done on your own/firm time.)
2. What sectors is your work in? __% Residential __% Institutional __% Commercial __% Mixed Use __% Urban Development _% Other List___ [please list as many as you need and note the percentage]
Clients 9. Who are your typical clients? (from projects in the past two years) __% Individual __% Developer __% Government __% Organization/Company
__% Advocacy Org __% Philanthropist/Funder __% A & E Firm (as consultant) __% No Client _% Other List___ [please list as many as you need and note the percentage]
Revenue and Costs 12. What is your annual revenue? (billings minus pass through expenses) [Note: The exact figure wont be used publicly, we want to sort firms into categories based on generic budget size for comparisonâ€™s sake.] 13. What is the breakdown of your revenue by source?
10. How are your projects geographically clustered?
A. Local- one metro area B. Regional C. National D. International E. Multi-cluster (2-4 major geographic areas my work is in) D. My work is not tied to a specific geographic place
Client Relationship 11. How do you get work? __% RFPs __% Referrals __% Repeat Clients __% Competitions __% Self-initiated (with or without building collaborative/client group) _% Other List___
__% Traditional fee-for-service __% Consulting __% Teaching or other subsidization __% Sale of Products __% Intellectual Offerings (publications and speaking fees) __% Private Donations __% Grants __% Corporate Sponsorship/Donations __% Subsidized or free labor _% Other List___ _% Other List___ [please list as many as you need and note the percentage] 14. What is your total annual overhead costs? 15. What is the total cost of salaries (before bonuses?) 16. Please list the number of employees you have by level
[please list as many as you need and note the percentage]
__# Senior level __# Middle __# Junior __# Office Support 17. What are the major project-based activities your firm (or you?) spends itâ€™s time on? _% Coalition Building _% Research _% Advocacy Activities _% Fundraising _% Consulting _% Predesign Activities _% Schematic Design/Design Development _% Construction Drawings _% Construction Administration _% Coordination _% Project Evaluation _% Other List___ _% Other List___ _% Other List___ [please list as many as you need and note the percentage] 17. What are the major activities your firm (or you?) spends its time on not directly related to projects? __ __ __
__ __ __ (eg hiring and training, advocacy, administration, developing your board of directors) 18.How much time do you spend (as percentage of total time) on these activities? 19. Three things you find most satisfying/compelling about your work: __ __ __ 20: Three things you find most frustrating/challenging about your work? __ __ __
by Mia Scharphie