Saturday, March 31, 2012

March AIA-SWO Chapter Meeting Recap

The ups and downs of the economy have affected three firms differently, bearing out the thesis that size does matter. (Illustration by Arthur Rackham from the Project Gutenberg eBook, English Fairy Tales, by Flora Annie Steel)

small/Medium/LARGE was the catchphrase for the March AIA-Southwestern Oregon chapter meeting. How does a firm’s size affect its work and culture? How have firms of differing sizes adapted to the realities of today’s economy and ever-changing work environment? 

AIA-SWO’s program committee brought together three firm principals to answer these questions and participate in a general panel discussion about how firm size has impacted their practices. Representing the little guy was Will Dixon, AIA of the eponymously named firm Willard C. Dixon,Architect LLC. Holding the middle ground was Toby Barwood, AIA, one of the principals at PIVOT Architecture. And presenting on behalf of the leviathans of the architectural world was Larry Bruton, FAIA of Zimmer Gunsul FrascaArchitects, LLP.

All three architects offered revealing insights about their respective offices. The ups and downs of the economy have affected each differently, bearing out the thesis that size does matter.

Will Dixon, AIA (all photos by me)
Will Dixon, AIA
The takeaway from Will’s presentation was that being proactive is essential to the survival of a small practice. As Will put it, “there’s no place to hide” when you’re a sole proprietor and the buck starts and stops with you. The challenges confronting a small firm are a deterrent to striking out on one’s own. Regardless, Will took the plunge, weathered the recession’s storm, and believes his firm is more nimble, resilient, and capable as a result.

Will drew contrasts between the life of his practice before and after the most recent economic downturn. Life was good before the crash, as Will found lucrative work designing custom homes (including the Rogers residence, which won a 2008 AIA-SWO People’s ChoiceAward). When the recession hit, Will’s fortunes changed dramatically. Suddenly, commissions were scarce. Undaunted, he regarded the slowdown as an opportunity to not only check off items on his professional “to-do” list (getting licensed, becoming active in AIA) but also to rethink his practice.

Will decided to offer his expertise to the people, one nickel at a time. He constructed a booth directly inspired by and modeled after the “Architecture 5¢” stand erected at the Ballard Farmer’s Market by Seattle designer John Morefield. Will contacted John and received John’s endorsement of his own Architecture 5¢ booth.

The booth’s debut was at the 2010 Eugene Celebration. Since then, it has become a weekly fixture at Eugene’s Saturday Market. Work at the booth has actually led to real, paying commissions. More important to Will though has been the opportunity to deliver architecture to the people in a setting where they didn’t expect to find it. No project is too small for big ideas.

Will and his three employees work in a cozy (350 s.f.) office in the Whiteaker neighborhood. His current focus includes co-housing projects and secondary dwellings, themselves a reflection of shifting paradigms as our economy and lifestyles have changed. As a small practitioner, Will has grown professionally and adeptly navigated the economy’s roughest waters.

Toby Barwood, AIA
Toby Barwood, AIA
Toby opened his talk by invoking the Three Bears but pointed out that while falling in the middle between extremes may be “just right” when it comes to porridge it isn’t necessarily so with architectural practice. Mid-sized firms face challenges just as small and large ones do; they’re just different.

Bucking adverse trends, PIVOT Architecture actually found itself busier than most during the depths of the recession. Its biggest project ever, the Eugene Water & Electric Board Operations Center in west Eugene, was in design and subsequently under construction during this period. The sour economy hardly impacted the firm at all. Toby wonkishly proved his point by way of informative graphs that gauged PIVOT’s number of employees and volume of work over this timeframe.

Paradoxically, the firm’s workload is now lessening even as the economy improves. In part, Toby attributed this to PIVOT’s past emphasis upon public sector work for agencies such as EWEB and the Lane Transit District. Public spending remained constant throughout the recession, in part the result of government stimulus programs. Today, public agencies are feeling squeezed whereas the private sector is reawakening. Renovations and remodeling are also increasingly prevalent, as opposed to all-new construction. There are fewer projects to go around and more firms chasing after them.

In response to these circumstances, PIVOT is remaking itself and competing on a larger playing field. Toby said his firm is honing its marketing skills, vying “up-market” against much larger firms (such as ZGF). It is increasingly a chimera, shape-shifting and presenting its capabilities in a broader range of project types. PIVOT’s chic new office is itself a reflection of this evolution, with its open and flexible workspace adaptable to rapidly morphing project demands.

Toby is most satisfied by the staff the firm has assembled, particularly the younger generation who will contribute their skill and energy for years to come. The members of any staff are ultimately the difference makers, whether the firm is small, large, or medium-sized as PIVOT is.

Larry Bruton, FAIA
Larry Bruton, FAIA
As one of the principals of a 440-person mega-firm with offices in Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles, Washington D.C. and New York, Larry knows both the upside and downside of managing a large architectural practice. Though ZGF is huge compared to AIA-SWO member firms, Larry was able to impart lessons to applicable to practices of any size.

ZGF leaned upon its bulwark of size, diverse portfolio, and project management structure to weather the worst of the recession. The firm doesn’t operate as a collection of specialized, independent studios. Specialization limits flexibility, a shortcoming that would prove ruinous for many of ZGF’s peers. Instead, Larry’s staff is able to adapt its skills to the broad range of project types the firm undertakes. ZGF’s multiple offices also share resources, which helps to even out the inevitable highs and lows in the various markets they serve.

Despite its inherent advantages, Larry reported his firm hasn’t been completely immune to the recession’s deleterious effects. In response, ZGF “carefully downsized,” taking care to retain its best staff. ZGF also has adjusted to the evolution of its clients’ expectations, which have seemingly risen in inverse proportion to their number of projects. Larry noted that advances in technology and integrated design strategies have allowed the firm to keep up with the elevated level of expectations.

Like Toby, Larry cited ZGF’s staff as its strongest asset. The upshot is that architectural practices are no less than the sum of the talent and personalities of which they’re comprised. Regardless of a firm’s size, the most valuable resource it possesses is its people.

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Kudos to AIA-SWO’s program committee, and in particular Jenni Rogers, for organizing the successful small/Medium/LARGE panel discussion and presentations by Will, Toby, and Larry. The caliber of forthcoming 2012 programs promises to be equally high, starting with April’s installment: Small Spaces: What's the Big Idea? I hope to see all of you at The Actor’sCabaret on April 18th for the next AIA-SWO chapter meeting.

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