branching out

“At a certain point, it gets to be hard to do work as just one person or a couple of people. You start to understand that some of one's personal limitations can create limitations for the office,” says Geoffrey Warner, AIA, Alchemy Architects, St. Paul, Minn. To help fill a management gap, in 2003, just after his 10th anniversary, Warner set up a partnership that lasted less than six months. “It was a miserable failure,” he says.

Ten years marked another, more successful, turning point as well: Warner launched the weeHouse, a line of prefabricated structures that now represents 75 percent of the firm's work.

He hit upon the concept almost by accident—the result of his design/build background and a prefab cabin he designed for a client. That project sparked his interest in supplying architecture as a product.

“After the initial wee-House was produced in 2002, the media had a lot of interest in it,” he continues. We always want to be as good as we can and we expect to get good press, but when it happens you're surprised, and that creates a shift.” After he and his partner split, he soloed for awhile before adding four employees, and he's now on his way to an optimal size of eight or 10 people. “As you start to develop a bigger practice, there's a very critical point where you decide who you are going to choose as your working partners,” he says. “Now I'm working with people who are talented and have diverse backgrounds in architecture, art, and filmmaking. I'm working on getting the right mix of people who can work together efficiently and creatively.”

Omaha, Neb.-based Randy Brown, FAIA, is also in expansion mode, but he's following a script conceived when he hung out his shingle 13 years ago. In addition to doing custom residential work, at year eight he created a sister company, Quantum Quality Real Estate, with the goal of buying land, developing commercial buildings, and owning them long-term. “I don't ever want to be totally dependent on one type of project or project delivery,” Brown says. The firm has completed four commercial buildings and is working on a speculative residential community called Hidden Creek, which consists of 13 Modernist homes featuring green roofs, native grass landscapes, and recycled materials—“something Omaha hasn't seen in a long time,” he says.

Despite his early ambitions, Brown says startup was painfully slow. Five years passed before he designed his first building, and it took another three years to get the design/build segment running smoothly. (With three carpenters, plus a welding and woodworking shop, the firm builds 75 percent of the projects it designs.) Then, at the magic age of 10, the firm suddenly began winning national AIA awards. That's when he realized he needed to ramp-up with staff members who could take on more responsibility. “How to keep a few key people for longer periods of time so I could transition more of the workload to them—that's been the biggest challenge,” he says.

The physical office is also changing. This fall Brown will wrap up construction on a 4,000-square-foot office that the development partners will share. “When we started the office we were drawing by hand with parallel bars,” Brown says. “We have gotten caught in this change to the digital age, which led to totally rethinking workspace issues and how to work as teams.” With eight employees carrying 15 projects now, Brown is balancing between teams, making sure things are done to his standards. And as his entrepreneurial side evolves, he is spending more time managing the office and attracting top-notch business opportunities.

Indeed, one of the hallmarks of maturing firms is the chance to be strategic rather than opportunistic. Do you grow for growth's sake, or do you think more about what you want to accomplish? Will too much growth diminish quality? Do you want to be all things to all people or stay focused on one thing in particular? These are questions Boston-based David Hacin, AIA, is grappling with 13 years on. A firm believer in taking stock and setting goals, Hacin is reading Small Giants: Companies That Choose To Be Great Instead of Big by Bo Burlingham (2005). He also solicited advice from his 12 employees—and says their responses were inspiring: “They helped make the next phase of the business plan even more ambitious than what I would have done on my own, in the sense that we could do more wide-ranging project types.”

For the next five years or so, they've decided to maintain a mix of large and small select projects, because as the firm grows in size the smaller projects become harder to support. “We recognize that they're important for our office as far as exploration, identity, and relationship-building go,” Hacin says. The firm is doing so much multifamily work now that a single-family home requires a disproportionate amount of Hacin's time. “The clients really want my involvement,” he says, “so managing time becomes a very big issue.”

Thinking strategically has led Hacin to consider his firm's legacy, too. What kinds of organizations should Hacin + Associates be involved with, and how does he want to connect back to the profession or the community? “As you become a more mature organization, these issues become more significant,” he says. “You know more people and have more opportunity to connect. At some point it's really about being able to sustain a company that pays its people well and creates an environment that allows you to do good things.”