Santa Monica, Calif.-based Pugh + Scarpa calls itself a boutique firm—smallish, creative, and eclectic in the kinds of jobs it likes to take on. Its portfolio includes an array of nationally acclaimed work—from the sculptural Dwell House II and the energy-independent Colorado Court, an affordable multi-family housing complex, to highly innovative medium-and large-scale commercial and educational projects. Not bad for an office that started out in 1991 doing small bathroom remodels and master bedroom additions. As founding partners Gwynne Pugh, AIA, and Lawrence Scarpa, AIA, discovered a few years into the business, design talent takes a firm only so far. Part of the reason their firm has enjoyed wide-ranging success is that it repeatedly joins forces with outside architecture offices to gain experience in a diverse set of building types.

For Pugh + Scarpa, strategic alliances are a response to what has become an increasingly specialized profession. “It puzzles me that as an architect today, it's almost impossible to get a job on a project [type] you haven't had experience doing,” Scarpa says. “People want to know, ‘Have you done a school? A K–12 school? In an urban area? How many on a corner lot?' Everyone has become a specialist in a particular sector of work, and that's something we had little interest in.” In 1994, a mutual friend introduced the pair to Steven Kodama, FAIA, who heads up Kodama Diseño Architects in San Francisco. Kodama had been perfecting the design and delivery of affordable and special-needs housing for almost 40 years. The three hit it off and decided to create Pugh Scarpa Kodama, a separate legal entity, or joint venture, to attract top-notch clients within that housing niche. Since then, Pugh + Scarpa has simultaneously partnered with other architects, but more informally, to broaden its market reach.

This business model, while common in the corporate world, is rare among design professionals. But today's sophisticated clients, hot real estate market, and tougher competition require architects to be increasingly savvy in their business dealings. A partnership—be it a legal joint venture or other affiliation—provides advantages lone firms may lack, allowing architects to step up production, add expertise, or gain entrée into related businesses or geographic markets. By teaming up with another firm, they're able to respond more quickly and more persuasively to requests for proposals or to an attractive opportunity outside their licensing jurisdiction.

handing off

For small operations such as Boston-based Hacin + Associates, partnerships with other firms work very well for farming out production work. “We are a small firm—just 11 of us—so we try to avoid the hire and fire cycle that sometimes accompanies a surge of work coming through the office, like a snake trying to digest a large mammal,” says principal David Hacin, AIA. On large projects, such as a 40-unit condominium complex currently under way, he turns to a trusted local architecture firm for production help. “We're controlling all aspects of the project, taking on liability, and using their expertise as a drafting service through construction documents,” Hacin says. Protocol dictates that he meet with the other firm members weekly or biweekly to answer design questions that come up. After the drawings are issued, Hacin's office reviews them, stamps them, and submits them for permits. And project fees get divvied up accordingly.

“A sizable portion of the construction documents fee goes to the other firm, along with a share of the construction administration fee if they participate,” he says. “The lion's share of the fee comes to the architect who is taking responsibility.”

On occasion, Hacin has agreed to design plum projects that he was too shorthanded to execute, acting as a design consultant to a prime architect or as architect of record. “In that scenario I'm not going to take on the liability for the project,” he says. “We'll provide construction administration in a critical phase and be on call to answer questions, but I would not be reviewing all the technical issues.”

That kind of logistical baton-passing also makes business sense for David Baker, FAIA, David Baker & Partners Architects, San Francisco—particularly on high-risk projects such as condominiums. By working with an umbrella firm, Baker insulates himself from liability and doesn't have to go on a hiring spree to get the job done. Despite its efficiencies, this approach isn't his favorite way to create architecture. “We don't like to do that because it doesn't produce as good a product,” he says. “So much of the design happens during construction documents.” More likely, he's on the flip side of the equation, mentoring small associate minority firms as required by some of his nonprofit clients.

In a joint venture, whether formal or informal, compatibility is everything, and the longer the history with an associate firm, the better. Baker, who oversees a staff of 20, recently formalized a long-running relationship with friend and sometime-business-partner José Vilar, AIA, an architect in nearby Emeryville, Calif. After 25 years of doubling up to go after affordable housing projects and “hanging out,” as Baker calls it, the pair made their ad-hoc association official with a joint venture agreement called Baker Vilar Architects. Although Baker says the partnership is a “complete anomaly” because he has only a minority interest in the firm, being joined at the hip makes it easier to attract select commissions in the $10 million to $20 million range.

“It's really José's firm; I don't participate in day-today management, and typically BVA will go after stuff by itself,” Baker explains, noting that BVA's expertise is in affordable housing and educational and institutional work. “But they have quite a good construction-review capability, and we joint-venture with them to add staff. We have this long relationship and know how good the other is, so it's not like handing part of a project to someone else.”