Business planning notwithstanding, it is often serendipitous events that lead architects into new project sectors. In its early years, the San Francisco–based firm of Zack | de Vito Architecture worked almost exclusively on single-family houses. Then one day, a restaurateur riding his bicycle past the office was impressed by their sign and asked principals Jim Zack, AIA, and Lise de Vito, Assoc. AIA, to make similar signage for a restaurant that he was planning. Did he have an architect for this restaurant project, the married couple asked? He did not, so the firm went on to design the interior and fabricate many of its components.
At the opening party, the architects clinched their second restaurant commission, a warehouse conversion for a chef who owns several local eateries. Since then, Zack | de Vito has designed almost 100 restaurants, which make up half of its portfolio.
Former clients, too, are a go-to source of game-changing connections. In Boston, Elizabeth Whittaker’s first foray into designing a ground-up multifamily building came after a house client introduced her to his brother-in-law, a developer. He commissioned the Penn Street Lofts, which won awards and was widely published. “It was a real break and labeled us as a firm that does housing,” says Whittaker, Assoc. AIA, principal of Merge Architects. Through another residential client she met a YMCA director, which led to an unbuilt commission for a health and wellness center.
The issue of diversifying beyond single-family homes looms conspicuously for firms in this post-crash era. For many, the housing bust was a call to action to expand their repertoire and profit base. “Pre-recession, we were fairly happy doing high-end residential work around the Northeast,” says Andrew Kotchen, principal of Workshop/APD, in New York. “Then we realized we needed to broaden our services to avoid being a phone call away from almost being out of business when a few clients stop a job.”
For architects, one of the vexations that comes with trying to land a commission for a new project type is convincing potential clients that they can handle the job. Overcoming typecasting is a matter of skill and luck—being in the right place at the right time, in Kotchen’s experience. For example, Workshop/APD got its first nonresidential project—L’Apicio restaurant and lounge on Manhattan’s Lower East Side—through a house client whose son-in-law was a partner in the restaurant. But Kotchen also notes that the firm’s residential sensibilities are a natural segue to the restaurant scene. The common thread, he says, is “the materiality, composition, and texture we bring to spaces. Our aesthetic was aligned with what they were trying to achieve, which was a livable, warm, inviting hangout spot.”
On the heels of that project came larger-scale multifamily work—a renovation of the Printing House condominiums in the West Village. For their screening interview, the architects put together a presentation based on program and typology—living spaces, baths, and kitchens—rather than individual projects. “We talked them through the sequence of a multifamily project—streetscape, entry, hallway circulation, apartment circulation—showing disparate work that had a unique aesthetic to it, so it wasn’t necessarily relevant whether it was single-family or multifamily,” Kotchen says.
Next up for Workshop/APD is a ground-up 13-story apartment building, the firm’s tallest structure to date. Kotchen sees the building as an opportunity to distribute its residential knowledge on an even larger scale: pulling daylight into dark spaces, transitioning through tight hallways, and making spaces live larger than their area by defining ceiling planes. But being nimble has meant bulking up the office skill set, too. After winning the commission, the firm hired an architect with experience managing a team and large projects. “When you’re presented with a new opportunity, it’s how you position yourself to have relevant experience that ultimately allows you to move out of your bread-and-butter work,” Kotchen says.
BarlisWedlick Architects, with offices in Manhattan and Hudson, N.Y., has also found that innovations germinated on custom homes open the door to other building types. For example, the architects spent the recent recessionary years honing their interest in energy-efficient homes. More than half of the firm’s dozen or so architects have become certified Passive House consultants. “Being seen as experts in high-performance homes, and talking about it as a way of approaching architecture, has given us an amazing entrée to other kinds of projects,” says principal Alan Barlis, AIA. Since designing its first speculative Passive House several years ago, the firm has completed 10 projects, one-third of them nonresidential, that perform to Passive House standards.
In Germany, where the Passive House concept originated, the term is not associated with any one building type, Barlis says. “We are working on institutional buildings, offices, a church, a theater. Before, we might have gotten one nonresidential project every couple of years because of a client relationship, but now we’re attracting them because of this way of building.” In fact, he adds, the standard is easier to achieve with large buildings because the ratio of air volume to building envelope is high. Getting the training, Barlis says, helped to improve the firm’s design skills across the board. “This is what we believe in. When you stay true to the stuff that matters, other things will follow,” he says.
In Washington, D.C., Muse Architects also uses nonresidential projects to build on what it believes is one of the underpinning fundamentals of good design: context.
While 80 percent of its work is rooted in single-family houses, it has also established a solid niche designing schools and religious institutions. The firm was introduced to educational work through some of its residential clients, many of whom sit on school boards. Although these projects are more complex in terms of paperwork, shop drawing reviews, and construction administration, they allow the firm to explore their ideas about context in a different realm. “Our sensitivity to context is something that occasionally appeals to institutions, and is what led us in that direction,” says principal William Kirwan, AIA. “We began to slowly get recognized for those project types and get on lists; it snowballs that way.”
While some firms use houses as a stepping stone to what they think are bigger and better building types, Muse Architects doesn’t see it that way. “When we’d go to a project interview, we’d be clear on exactly who we are,” Kirwan says. “If an institution is looking for a school or church architect, that’s not who we are. We tell clients we can bring a sensibility to scale and context that’s heavily influenced by our residential work, and we think that makes us better institutional architects.”
When Dallas architect Dan Shipley, FAIA, went searching for new frontiers, he started with a family connection: his daughter’s private school. What began as a pro bono job rebuilding a classroom porch grew into paid work, and as Shipley’s reputation spread, he was invited to submit RFQs for other educational facilities. Currently on the boards is a five-story dormitory and dock for Sea Scouts in Galveston, Texas.
The world of private education is less competitive than public schools, he says, and private educators are interested in creating a non-institutional environment and a strong connection between inside and outside, which is very different from what a public school would want. The classrooms tend to look like living rooms and sometimes include kitchens.
Dallas’s parks department also has been fertile ground for Shipley. “Architects are selling the ability to make a place, and a lot of the places they make relate to the landscape, such as porches and loggias,” Shipley says. “Civil engineers can’t do small buildings; they have no touch at all.” When he learned that the city was embarking on a program to improve its park pavilions, he applied to get his firm on the list. That was fairly easy, he says, because the parks department is run by a sympathetic audience of architects and landscape architects. “To present our qualifications, we showed them houses with porches and outdoor pavilions we had done,” Shipley says. Even though some of these projects are small and have all the overhead of bigger commissions, such as presenting to neighborhood groups, it spread the firm’s influence. Larger projects and design fees followed, including a recreation center, golf course clubhouse, and maintenance barn.
For most firms, branching out happens incrementally, the result of doing rigorous design work and relationships with past clients and collaborators. Some seven years in, with 90 percent of its portfolio coming from custom-home clients, San Francisco–based Aidlin Darling Design set to work broadening its range. First came the residential client who commissioned a restaurant design, and then more restaurants, and then wineries. When a custom-home builder the firm had worked with developed his own mixed-use building, it opened another door. Around year 10, the firm hired principal Roslyn Cole, AIA, who had extensive experience with public work. “All of that in combination started to raise our profile in all different sectors, and we started to be invited to competitions,” says principal Joshua Aidlin, AIA. One of its latest commissions, a chapel at Stanford University, is currently under construction.
In the competitive RFP world, “often potential clients are just checking the boxes—have you done this and that?” Aidlin says. “It takes open-minded and creative people to see how residential work translates to public work. Sometimes it literally takes a key decision-maker willing to look outside the norm.”
Kevin Alter, principal of Alterstudio in Austin, Texas, agrees with that assessment. “I much prefer the more idealistic model that the quality of our work will be transferable to bigger scales,” he says. “But that often requires the leadership of a benevolent dictator—someone in authority willing to push forth their vision to do something special.” After designing the Texas Hillel Center, a Jewish student union next to the University of Texas, where Alter is associate dean of the architecture school, the firm was short-listed for several similar-scale commissions. “We didn’t get them,” he says. “They asked how many we’d done, and the intimation was that we didn’t have a long track record, which was disappointing to me.”
Sometimes the initial work of getting noticed means sacrificing profits, if a firm can afford it. A year or so ago, Aidlin Darling won the commission for a new 35,000-square-foot charter school in Santa Rosa, Calif., partnering with another small firm specializing in educational facilities. The school is for an underserved population, and it won’t be a moneymaker, Aidlin says, partly because the architects are going to great lengths to innovate construction efficiency. They’re also participating in the fundraising.
“Certain public projects are back-breakers because the fees aren’t realistic, but the building will be seen by millions of people every year,” Aidlin says. “We’re making sure no stone is unturned to do a remarkable project. It’s how we always work, but most public firms don’t venture into that level of craft because they can’t survive if all of their work is in that realm.”
Lost in Translation
While a firm’s design DNA certainly carries across project types, transitioning beyond single-family commissions introduces different challenges. That’s the appeal for Merge Architects, whose current work-in-progress includes a lobby and café for Northeastern University and a 5,000-square-foot classroom for Lincoln Laboratory at MIT. The firm’s mash-up of building and program types allows it to test ideas in different contexts. “Things change radically if you use a particular detail on residential versus retail,” Whittaker says. “It’s exciting to see how we can mix and match. And we like multifamily buildings because we get to deal with the streetscape and multiple people living together.”
The client relationship is quite different, too, she adds. “Many architects find single-family work profitable; I don’t. Residential clients revisit ideas over and over and change things at the last minute, whereas institutional and developer clients are working with a strict budget and timeline. There’s a different sense of urgency, and it’s less personal to them.”
Kansas City, Mo., architect Matthew Hufft, AIA, who is working on a $60 million multifamily commission, prefers custom-home work for the level of detailing and client relationships. “However, unless it’s an elaborate home, we can’t staff it efficiently,” he says. “While a big multifamily project keeps four to six architects busy for six months, a single-family home ties up one architect for two to four months. You have to keep an eye on the workflow.”
It’s not always easy integrating projects that run at a different pace than a busy residential practice. Yet “architects are trained to solve problems, not deal with a particular program type,” Whittaker says. “And there are so many resources out there. If there’s something we don’t know, we call a consultant.” In the next decade, it’s a skill architects likely will need more than ever.
Principal Roslyn Cole joined Aidlin Darling Design five years ago and has helped the firm perfect its RFPs for public projects.
How do you decide which RFPs to pursue?
First I look at how far of a stretch it is from what we’ve done before. You want to take steps toward the right kinds of projects. Some RFPs are very quantitative, while others are qualitative. If it’s a building type our office has not done, a data-specific RFP won’t be as good a fit as one that allows us to showcase our approach.
How do you prepare for the interview?
We include the founding principals and the director who would manage the project. We find out how many people will be in the interview and whether it will be a big or small room. You don’t want to bring too many people to the table, because everyone should be part of the conversation. If it’s a complex project, we might bring in an additional person who will focus on a specific part of the project.
What presentation materials do you use?
With our focus on designing for all of the senses, we like to bring in materials and design boards and have the lights on for a close-in conversation.
What happens after the interview?
We encourage potential clients to go and see our work, because to experience the spaces is far more informative. In presenting ourselves, we encourage the conversation and hope the rest will follow. —C.W.