Date: November 2, 2018
Location: 2East Fire Station
Led by: Clayton Fry, Peter Muessig
Session Sponsors: WeWork
Location Sponsors: Metalab
Clayton Fry and Peter Muessig led the second session of the Christopher Kelley program, “Entrepreneurship and Business Management”. The topic was first introduced through a Rice Design Alliance lecture, “Innovation Lands in Urbanism: What’s Next?” by John Alschuler. During the program session at 2 East Fire Station, John Hand and Justin Stolze presented on the history, structure, and culture of Arup, as well as their experience of establishing local offices and their strategies for firm resilience. Following, Peter Muessig introduced the book “Essentialism” by Greg McKeown as a counterpoint to the expectation of architects having to be jacks-of-all-trades. Adam Koogler then presented his experience of growing a non-traditional practice and engaging the sharing economy at WeWork. To wrap up, Natalye Appel and Jesse Hager joined the previous presenters in a round-table discussion, speaking on their experiences with entrepreneurship and answering ever-prescient questions regarding the practice of architecture.
Presentation 1: “Firm Culture and Management”
Presented by John Hand and Justin Stolze, Arup
Arup Associate, John Hand, began the presentation with an introduction to Arup, a global company that aspires to “shape the world”. John explained Arup’s outlook of being one company with many, small local offices, one of which- the Houston office – he helped establish. His colleague, Justin Stolze, also outlined his role in starting other Arup offices, including one in Japan and Brazil.
Following, John and Justin told the story of their founder, Ove Arup, an English engineer, and the big project that started the firm: the Sydney Opera House. They spoke of Ove Arup’s main aims for the firm, and his lasting legacy of minimizing rules, with the mindset that providing smart, creative people the most leeway possible would create the best solutions. Arup prides itself on their “14,000 specialists” who leverage each other’s expertise to solve problems.
John and Justin also spoke of their internal structure; in particular, the “Four Legs of the Development Stool” – technical, marketing, commercial, and administrative or management, and their project approval process, based on thresholds of cost. They also outlined their internal professional development processes, from hiring new graduates, to formal training modules, to their project manager certification process.
They concluded the presentation with a discussion of trends that the company is looking to adopt, such as developing an internal university, performing additional research, and utilizing new tools including grasshopper, machine learning, digital automation, and many others.
Book Recommendation: “Essentialism” by Greg McKeown
Presented by Peter Muessig, Metalab
Peter Muessig of Metalab provided a quick introduction to Greg McKeown’s award-winning book, “Essentialism”. Peter summarized the concept as “doing less, but better,” noting how especially relevant this is to architects, who have traditionally carried the expectation of being “master builders,” while also combating the pressure of finding a focus or industry.
Presentation 2: “Starting and Growing Non-Traditional Practice”
Presented by Adam Koogler, WeWork
Adam Koogler of WeWork began his presentation with an introduction of WeWork, a company in the business of “designing [workspaces], building [workspaces], and filling [workspaces]” that seeks to “make a life, not just a living,” or humanizing the experience of the workplace. Founded in 2010, WeWork purchases ventures and sells access plans to workspaces at a variety of scales and levels of customizability.
Following, Adam explained what makes WeWork unique from other real estate or design firms. Because WeWork vertically integrates their functions – from acquiring real estate, designing the spaces, and brokering leases – there is less stuff for the owner to handle, so they can better focus on actually operating their business. In addition, WeWork continually monitors and updates their spaces based on live analytics, rather than going by traditional space capital improvement plans, which are often out of phase with economic changes.
Adam’s presentation concluded with a discussion of what makes WeWork different from a traditional architectural practice. Instead of separating by profession, employees work on cross-functional teams and are assigned to projects with professionals from different disciplines, while also maintaining access to others from the same discipline. Because of this interdisciplinary approach, WeWork operates projects with a Project Execution Plan, rather than a BIM Execution plan, and their iterative, streamlined process allows for consistency and clarity of information, rather than relying on “guesstimation” by contractors, reducing overall project cost and duration.
Roundtable: “Entrepreneurship in Architecture”
Presented by John Hand, Justin Stolze, Adam Koogler, Natalye Appel (Natalye Appel & Associates Architects), and Jesse Hager (Content Architecture)
For the final portion of Session 2, Natalye Appel of Natalye Appel & Associates Architects and Jesse Hager of Content Architecture joined John Hand, Justin Stolze, and Adam Koogler for a free-form roundtable discussion. After introducing themselves, Natalye and Jesse gave a brief history of their practices, with Natalye noting that her firm has “grown” over time, not by increasing in size, but by collaborating with others, while Jesse mused that his firm transformed from a Heights bungalow renovation business, to a full-service, ground-up residential firm, much to the chagrin of former real estate contacts.
One of the questions posed during the roundtable was, “why don’t firms participate in more in-house collaboration?”, particularly because all of the speakers’ experiences seemed to indicate that collaboration across disciplines was a positive thing. Beyond the basic assumption of higher risk, it was also pointed out that different disciplines follow different paces – for example, engineers turn over projects faster than architects. In the case of WeWork, they mitigate this risk by only doing in-house what is practical and necessary, such as only drawing to 50% Design Development internally, and utilizing architects and engineers of record to complete the remainder of the project. In addition, it was noted that it can also be a positive thing to have differing interests, which forces companies to produce good, efficient solutions, rather than becoming “too comfortable” under the same umbrella.
The following question prompted the speaker’s’ opinion of the AIA’s recent movement toward specialization, such as “AIA Healthcare” and its potential to restrict a more generalist approach to architectural practice. Although those from more traditional architectural firms were cautious of this change, Arup noted that they boast about having “14,000 specialists”, but that the reception of this may have to do with differing public perceptions of architects versus engineers. Jesse added that sometimes, developing a specialty can happen unintentionally, such as his experience of working on a small healthy nail salon eventually leading to a global headquarters project for a healthy brand.
The final question presented was one that every practice inevitably has to contend with – how do you survive an economic downturn? Justin offered up a solution he experienced while at Arup Japan – switching to a three-day workweek – which interestingly, due to the Japanese culture of overwork, actually only equated to a more normal workweek. Natalye also shared her strategy of sharing and switching employees with contact firms to help for a short duration or to work on a specific project. She noted that although these employees sometimes choose not to return, because of her collaborative approach to practice and permissive response to such departures, they remain “in [her] universe” and can still continue to work together in the future. To conclude, Adam warned that it is hardest for firms to be “mid-size”, with a higher workload but still having to handle multiple responsibilities at the same time.
The presentations and roundtable discussion in Session 2: Entrepreneurship and Business Management provided participants with insights into the process of starting and operating a successful firm, as well as strategies for growth and continued firm resilience. The different practice types represented by the speakers also provided variety in opinions and expertise, allowing for a richer perspective and more comprehensive understanding of architectural entrepreneurship and business management.