The commuting issue is only partly solved, however. From a project-management standpoint, the offices operate as separate entities. And although there is some geographical basis for divvying up commissions, scheduling constraints and client requests for particular partners are thrown into the mix. “Both offices have projects in Charlottesville, Va., the Washington office recently did a project in West Virginia, and the Middleburg office is working on a house on the Eastern Shore of Maryland,” Neumann says, “so that partner has to drive by the D.C. office on the way to the Eastern Shore. While we attempt to do things on a logistical basis, there are other factors that weigh in.”
That's also the case at SALA Architects, where 40-some staff members are tailoring their work lives to fit their preferred locations in Minneapolis, Stillwater, or Excelsior, Minn. Although each office works independently, there's an open-market system by which projects routinely get shifted to fill voids in other offices. Principal Eric Odor, AIA, Minneapolis, says the opening in 1997 of the Stillwater office, 20 miles east of Minneapolis, had as much to do with where the employees lived as the burgeoning market there. “At least half the office—10 to 12 people—lived in Stillwater,” he says. “As the commute got worse and worse, they were interested in not doing it anymore.” Then in 2002, the Minneapolis office sent an offshoot in the other direction, to Excelsior, a town 20 miles to the west on Lake Minnetonka. Although five of the six employees who started the Excelsior office lived there, and the commute was “simply awful,” its booming housing market and acres of shoreline also made it a prime target for SALA's expansion.
The firm operates as a collaborative of 13 project architects. (Eight are principals, and three of those are managing partners.) Each architect is responsible for his or her own clients and contracts, but they all share administrative and technical staff. “Each office has a workload meeting once a week that's attended by someone from another location,” Odor says. “If one office has more work than [it] can do, we will have employees shift locales or share work. It's nice to have some built-in flexibility.”
Divided offices not only help firms flex, but they ensure healthy diversity, too. “We like having people work in different offices because each one is unique in the way [it's] developed,” Odor says. Each has “different design methodologies and ways of detailing and doing presentations,” for example. “We spend a whole lot of time trying to keep aware of what everyone else is doing and knitting the offices together,” he adds. “There's a strong tendency to be in our own little world.”divide and conquer
Indeed, owners of firms with multiple offices routinely spend time figuring out how to draw the lines on project responsibilities but smudge the distinctions between locations so that staff feel connected to the larger effort. Unlike SALA, Versaci Neumann does not share work between offices; Neumann says it takes too long to get people up to speed. But the sibling offices regularly tour each other's projects to satisfy their curiosity about what's going on. And the marketing director recently started an electronic newsletter that profiles projects and employees every month or two. SALA also rents a bus for spring and fall project tours. “It's not mandatory, but it's highly attended,” Odor says. At the Woodley Architectural Group, work flows seamlessly between California and Colorado, and their opposing locations offer a nice perk: companywide Christmas parties in the Colorado Rockies and summer picnics in California.
Like Woodley, Mark Hutker, AIA, Hutker Architects, prefers the informal character of two small offices rather than one larger one. There are 15 people in each of his locations on Martha's Vineyard and on Cape Cod, in Falmouth, Mass. Hutker opened the Falmouth office eight years ago “after key staff got up enough gumption to tell me they weren't going to make the 45-minute commute” from the mainland anymore and to broaden his geographical reach. Now, 60 percent of the firm's work is off Martha's Vineyard, and two years ago Hutker moved his family to Falmouth. “We haven't lost market share on [the island], but [we have] expanded it in Falmouth,” he says.
Hutker says the key to making two offices work is having strong managers and knowing how to delegate. Principal Charles Orr, AIA, heads up the Falmouth office, principal Phil Regan runs the Vineyard location, and Hutker, who is involved in the design of nearly every project, travels back and forth. “I see the offices as equal siblings,” he says. “The people in the Falmouth office are a little older ... and almost everyone has a family, so the vibe from office to office is a tad different, but both are very creative.” Of course, sometimes there's sibling rivalry. The Falmouth staff rents a beautifully renovated waterfront space outfitted with Knoll furniture, and now the Vineyard office is getting a makeover, too. “It does matter whether one office has new chairs and the other doesn't,” Hutker jokes. “People keep tabs on that stuff.”
In the best of scenarios, staff quickly mature when given an opportunity to run a branch office. “It takes a lot of mentoring, but you can see the professional development happening in a shorter period of time, and that's very gratifying,” Hutker says. However, dispersing your energies, especially over a distance, can be a delicate balancing act that depends on the vicissitudes of talent and timing, as Charleston, S.C.-based Schmitt Walker Architects recently discovered. Four years ago, Chris Schmitt, FAIA, opened a satellite office in Westerly, R.I., to take advantage of $20 million worth of work that had come his way as a result of spending summers at the family beach house in Weekapaug. Schmitt sent north one of his strongest architects—someone “who happened to really not like Charleston”—to hold down the fort full-time. “He complemented my skills ... and our clients thought he could walk on water,” Schmitt says. Last summer, however, Schmitt had to shut down the office—temporarily, he hopes —when the 30-something architect and his wife moved to Florida to be near family.
“I said I can't continue the office because I don't have someone I have enough confidence in,” Schmitt says. The Rhode Island office generated $900,000 worth of work a year, compared to the Charleston office, which typically completes $1.2 million with eight people. “It had to do with the kind of fees you can get in Rhode Island, and the fact that we were working lean and mean,” Schmitt says. But the real fallout was back home. In his frequent absences, the Charleston office “declined enormously, to the point that one of the partners is no longer with the firm.” Because he was gone a week each month, a lot of prospective work never materialized. “One problem with a small office is getting your client base to accept the people you bring into positions of responsibility,” he says. “While I was off designing these projects in Rhode Island, the business in Charleston was suffering because the firm was too dependent on my persona.”
It might be a cautionary tale for Woodley, who is flirting with the idea of a third offspring in Hawaii. “We're doing some work with the Navy, and an employee who manages the California office bought a house there,” Woodley says. Talk about sibling rivalry.