equal opportunity

Many large firms stay away from formalized joint ventures. With plenty of manpower and a presence in multiple states, there's simply less incentive to deal with the cumbersome process of setting up and managing a separate legal entity for a project. Bohlin Cywinski Jackson joint-ventured with Bainbridge Island, Wash.-based Cutler Anderson Architects to design the infamous Bill Gates compound because it was client-mandated—and justified by the job's size. Although BCJ typically avoids that setup, it does form non-joint-venture relationships with outside firms as a 50/50 participant on certain projects. BCJ's principals have come to the same conclusion Baker reached: Unless someone is bird-dogging to make sure the contractor is aware of tricky details, they won't get done—or they'll be done wrong.

“Sometimes we're the prime and the other architects are consultants to us, or vice versa,” says Randy Reid, AIA, a partner in BCJ's Philadelphia office. “When we do team up with another firm, we always set up an arrangement where we're involved through all phases.” There's no set formula for which firm does what, he says, because each job is different, but because BCJ typically takes the design lead, the firm plays a dominant role in schematics and design development. At the construction documents phase, the larger role shifts to the associated firm. “We'd focus on the issues we feel will make or break the job, and set it up for the other firm to have all the information they need to move on the other aspects,” Reid says. If a project is a long plane trip away, the local architect will have primary responsibility for site observation. But the job would still be staffed with at least one full-time BCJ project manager who deals with day-to-day activities and visits the site every other week to make sure nothing falls through the cracks.

For that reason, BCJ would feel uncomfortable working on a job outside its licensing jurisdiction. “When you have that role and are involved in construction, you want to be licensed in the state,” Reid says. “We find a way to draw a line on what they do versus what we do in a way that's reasonably efficient because not many clients will pay extra to involve two firms instead of one.”

It's that client perception of two firms rather than one that Pugh + Scarpa tries to downplay when going after large-scale projects. Scarpa says informal associations can be a liability because clients are more comfortable with clearly defined lines of responsibility. “Every time we go to a client interview as a collaboration with another firm, most of the questions are about who's doing what,” Scarpa says. “They want to be able to point fingers if things go wrong. The irony is that in almost any other profession, such as science, you get these incredibly creative people who team up to produce extraordinary results that they couldn't do individually. We form partnerships so we can go in and say, ‘You don't have to worry about who does what, because we are one legal entity with insurance.'”

When Pugh and Scarpa made their relationship with Kodama official, Scarpa says they became overnight housing experts. They were, in essence, combining their high design profile with Kodama's stellar reputation for building affordable housing on time and on budget. “There's no question about their ability to deliver a viable project,” he says, “and in an increasingly competitive market, you can't leave design excellence out of it.” The partnership has no dedicated employees; all work is assigned to one or both firms. “Like any job in your office, some clients respond better to certain people, and we have the ability to be fast on our feet and make those adjustments when we're working on the project,” Scarpa says. Compensation is also mix-and-match. Whoever does the work gets a paycheck, and profits are shared.

In hopes of presenting itself as the most qualified candidate for a job, Pugh + Scarpa also associates, usually informally, with other creative design firms. Currently it's working on a design competition entry for Santa Monica Village, a 300-housing-unit mixed-use project, in partnership with Moore Ruble Yudell and Koning Eizenberg Architecture, both of Santa Monica. Scarpa says MRY has the size and strength to be the clearinghouse for packaging and assembling the project, which is still in schematics. Koning Eizenberg came up with the most viable design scheme and is responsible for community outreach; Pugh + Scarpa is working on sustainability aspects and refining the massing models.

due diligence

A business affiliation is a trek into unknown territory. “We try it, and some [affiliations] work better than others,” Scarpa says.

What's the secret to making these dream teams work? The folks at BCJ look for partners whose attitude, goals, and vision are compatible with theirs. “Some firms work until the fee for their phase has run out, and then look to wrap it up as quickly as possible,” Reid says. “That's not necessarily our nature.” And although there's always a contract that attempts to define each firm's role, partnering requires the ability to play it by ear. “It's important up front to have a strong relationship with an associate firm because it takes a lot of trust and working things out as you go along,” he adds. “Set up an arrangement that recognizes the need for flexibility, and keep both firms involved in all phases.”

Turf battles are common, too. Scarpa says his staff can become more territorial than the partners, so it's wise to get second-tier architects on board early on. Whatever the challenges, though, he believes the benefits of teaming up go well beyond the bottom line. Working with other firms, the architects pick up on better ways to do things, whether it's cutting foam models or negotiating fees. “We still educate architecture students that if you're a failure in the design studio, you're a failure as an architect,” Scarpa says. “I think it's a much bigger and more complicated profession. There's a lot to be learned, and for us, it's an enriching experience to be able to see how other people work.”

from chemistry to alchemy

Hugh Hochberg of The Coxe Group, a Seattle-based management-consulting firm to the design industry, offers these ideas for striking the right collaborative balance on a project.

  • Goals. Be clear about the project's goals, making sure they're aligned with your partner's and the client's. “How does each firm define success?” Hochberg asks. “If one firm views a project simply as an opportunity to make money, and another firm sees it as a chance to create a presence in the community, they might be at cross-purposes.”
  • Parameters. Define the job's scope, schedule, and process, and decide what happens if the scope changes.
  • Roles. Clarify each firm's responsibilities, sort out liability issues, and be accountable to each other.
  • Competency. Make sure the firm is competent for the joint venture and that its skills are on par with its responsibilities.
  • Personnel. Identify key people within each firm who will be involved in the project and assign them clearly defined roles. “Principals often set up a deal and delegate the daily activity to project managers, who may not have a good relationship with each other,” Hochberg says. “It's important to get those people together early on.”
  • Attitude. Not every aspect of a project can be determined ahead of time. “A good partner is willing to raise questions when boundaries aren't clear, making sure things won't fall between the cracks,” Hochberg says. “In other words, make sure the other firm has a sense of ownership in a successful outcome.”
  • Client relationships. Designate the people in each firm who will be responsible for communicating with and managing the client, thereby heading off problems that arise when the client gets conflicting messages.
  • Contract. A good contract spells out compensation in relation to the value each firm brings to the project. “The value a big-name architecture firm brings to a project may be disproportionate to the hours it puts in,” Hochberg says. “The fee is a negotiation.”
  • Conflict resolution. Agree on a predetermined process for settling team disputes.
  • Public relations strategy. What kind of recognition will each firm get, and how will its associates capitalize on it? “On a significant project, it's important for firms to decide who talks to what media and what the overall public relations strategy will be,” Hochberg says. “There's also the issue of how publicity costs will be shared.”