the flat pack

By borrowing a law firm model, the principals of Minnesota-based SALA Architects think they've figured out how to create a strong firm while making work better for architects—even those who could easily succeed on their own. Here's why its flat organizational structure works:

  • SALA celebrates the part/whole dynamic of a firm. It encourages the 16 project architects (eight of whom are partners) to develop their individuality and niche in a way that does not compete with others, whether it's specializing in cabins, inner-city remodeling, or small green homes. As the number of architects and sectors grows, SALA broadens its market.
  • Being part of a group allows the partners to share resources and the administrative burden, while rotating management responsibilities. Each partner takes a three-year stint as a manager of marketing, personnel, or finances. Every three years, one of the three drops out and one of the other five rolls into that position. “It's a big job to run your own business,” says managing partner Eric Odor, AIA. “There's a lot of flexibility in having five partners to choose from. Someone might not be good with numbers, or another might have a family crisis when he or she is slated to roll in.”
  • There's an environment of collaboration and learning, as opposed to going it alone. The architects help each other meet their goals, rather than being judged by superiors who determine whether they get promoted or move on. And the nonhierarchical model most closely resembles the studio environment of architecture school. In an open, mentoring culture, everyone learns how to be profitable and serve clients well. “It works because of the scale of projects—it's rare to have more than three people working on a project,” Odor says. “If we were doing high-rises, we would need a lot more hierarchy.”
  • Each architect is entrepreneurially empowered and responsible for the full spectrum of practice. They're all on their own—but help is there when they need it.
  • Individual authorship and recognition results in high morale. And with peers as their partners, the architects are both challenged and inspired.