This broad-based horizontal structure allows SALA to reach more clients, staying involved in the largest percentage of work for the longest period of time. But for Odor and his colleagues, it's simply a better way to work, which is what good design is all about. “We're like 16 individual offices operating in a similar fashion, but each has its own focus,” he says. “I think it's valuable to offer four-hour consultations for clients, but other architects here insist on doing only full-service work. Our fee structures range from hourly to 20 percent of construction. The flexibility we have really is the biggest part of what makes this [a good deal].” If there's a downside to that freedom, it's the built-in complexity and inefficiency of running 16 mini-firms among three locations. “It's hard to balance everyone's needs,” Odor admits, “but that's part of the charm.”leveraging design
Aside from the collective model, other firms have chosen to create multifaceted businesses that offset the time-consuming, one-off nature of residential work. Because a formal architecture education increasingly spans design disciplines, many architects are figuring out how to profit from related interests through their practices, often emerging as entrepreneurs. Case in point is Gregory A. Kearley, AIA, LEED AP, founding principal of Washington, D.C.-based Inscape Studio, who oversees a seven-member office dedicated to architecture and urban planning. Two years ago he made a strategic decision to become part-owner of Project 4, a 900-square-foot contemporary art gallery in downtown Washington's burgeoning arts district. “Architects are always thinking they're artists,” he jokes.
“I taught an architecture studio at Catholic University where the students built an art installation, and they turned that into a museum for contemporary artists,” Kearley explains. “The creative process has always been an interest of mine.” Still, when he made the leap to art gallery owner with three friends—another architect, a journalist, and a Web and graphic designer—it wasn't without trepidation. He says now, though, that the balancing act is paying off by feeding a lot of work to the firm. The partners hired a director and assistant director for Project 4, and he spends about 10 hours a week on the gallery, representing artists and hosting shows every six weeks.
“All the partners need to sell, and I have a better chance than some of the others because our architecture clients are all possible purchasers, especially if we're doing a commercial space,” he explains. And vice versa. Inscape is working on a 25,000-square-foot commercial job that came about through a gallery relationship, and another building that mixes gallery, commercial, and condominium space is in the works. Kearley expects to break even financially on Project 4 next year, but for now he's happy to be profiting from the synergy he can create between art and architecture.
At Rios Clementi Hale Studios, Los Angeles, the design crossover is more direct. What began in 1985 as a firm dedicated to architecture and landscape architecture has evolved into a 50-member multidisciplinary endeavor and, since 2001, a product arm called notNeutral. Heading up the spin-off is architect and CEO Julie Smith-Clementi, IDSA, who is also a principal of Rios Clementi Hale Studios, along with founding principal Mark Rios, FAIA, FASLA; Frank Clementi, AIA; and Robert Hale, FAIA. “When we looked at business models, the idea of designing something once and getting paid multiple times for it was intriguing to us, as opposed to a service model, which is what most architects do,” says Smith-Clementi.
To be sure, most of the firm's revenue comes from a traditional service model, with architectural projects that range from custom homes to hotels, restaurants, and day-care centers. But the idea for notNeutral grew out of a soup-to-nuts restaurant commission that included custom-designed dishes and a graphic identity. “That experience of designing dishes was rewarding in how quickly you can get something done compared to architecture,” Smith-Clementi says. Aimed at design-savvy consumers, notNeutral started out with tabletop products and has since grown to include objects for home, garden, and kids. The kids category—furniture, carpets, quilts—had its genesis in a line of furniture the firm designed to go with a child-care center commission for Warner Bros. Studios in 1991. “Ten years later, people were still asking us about this furniture, so we redesigned it for the residential market,” Smith-Clementi says. “It had to ship flat and didn't need to stack anymore, so we simplified the design.”
While design constantly crosses between the two legal entities and they share a building, each has its own staff and financial structure. That's partly because notNeutral, which had more than $1 million in revenues last year, carries product liability insurance and the S-corp architecture firm does not. “In the design firm everything is project-based, so accounting is very different from notNeutral, which has inventory and sales,” Smith-Clementi explains. Other than the Web site and a retail gallery below the architecture studio, most of its business is wholesale.
For an architect with no sales or trade show experience, managing notNeutral and its staff of five was a leap of faith. “There's the mentality that you jump in and learn by doing as opposed to thinking about it too much—we have an affinity for that,” says Smith-Clementi, who splits her time between architectural commissions and notNeutral and clearly relishes the demands of both. “The client base is more stable and reliable on the architecture side,” she says, “in contrast to dealing with consumer confidence in the economy. Will they spend $50 or $200 that day?”
Also expanding sideways is Manhattan architect Dennis Wedlick, AIA, whose newest venture is more of a counterpoint to his core business. Last October he opened The Hudson River Studio in upstate New York—the country cousin of his city firm. The new office's full-time employees intend to immerse themselves in the typologies of rural architecture and planning, building on work that Wedlick is already doing in the region. “We're focusing on how we can contribute to residential development in rural areas, with the intention of keeping them rural,” Wedlick explains. “Some of these areas have a lot of history, yet they're struggling to survive, so there is a different set of planning and community issues than building in thriving urban areas. We wanted to actually become a rural-based business so we could apply those experiences to our own practice.”
Wedlick views The Hudson River Studio as more than a satellite. Half the space he rents, in a former doll factory, is devoted to hosting conferences and exhibitions. The effort looks promising, as the firm's last four projects have originated there. Currently under way are a 49-home development where one-third of the land is in conservation, a 7,000-square-foot family compound that's 95 percent off the grid, and the restoration of the historic Antrim Lodge in Sullivan County, N.Y.
Alternative practice models may be nothing new, but in a world where the boundaries between work and pleasure, art and life, and partnership and independence are beginning to blur, nontraditional firms may start to become the norm. After all, if architecture is the antithesis of one-size-fits-all, why not apply it to practice too?