nuts and bolts
In their earlier days, Marmol and Radziner handled design and construction together. While each still participates in both phases of a project, they've adjusted their method to give design principal Radziner the lead at the schematic design stage, and managing principal Marmol supervision of construction drawings, site work, and the building process. The strategy caters to the partners' particular skills and helps them manage their time while allowing them both to contribute at every stage of the game. The number of project managers assigned to a job depends on the services the company is providing. If it's doing architecture, construction, and landscape design, for example, it will assign three project managers, one from each discipline. On-site personnel receive the same benefits package as office staff, a policy that serves the firm well in the constant industry-wide struggle to retain construction professionals.
Whether their background is in design or building, all employees answer to a company culture of perfectionism. “We're trying to be perfect with all this, but we fail,” says Marmol. “I'd rather be frustrated this way than be satisfied with being mediocre.” That means hand-dipping hundreds of individual tiles on a restoration job to render the new floor indistinguishable from the old. It means a weekly staff meeting devoted to dissecting a specific topic (closet design, waterproofing, and new building materials are some recent subjects) and understanding it from the inside out. And it means exhaustive research. Marmol and Radziner spend so much time at the famous architecture bookstore Hennessey + Ingalls in Santa Monica, Calif., that owner Mark Hennessey chose them to design and construct the store's 2003 remodel. “They were the only people I asked,” he says. “I'd enjoyed their work, and it was a nice way to thank them for being such good customers.”
Like Hennessey, the clients who select the firm tend to appreciate its exacting nature. They're often writers, fashion insiders (ex-Gucci designer Tom Ford, for one), and other creative personalities who share their need to get things just right. Unlike many architects, Marmol and Radziner feel they produce their best work when the homeowner is highly involved in the design process—even if their ideas and the clients' clash at times. “My understanding is that they're very willing to work with clients,” says local architect and Schindler expert Judith Sheine, chair of Cal Poly-Pomona's architecture department. Customers generally approach the firm for design first. Then they choose from a menu of additional services—construction, landscape architecture, and interior design—paying a separate fee for each.
In contrast to larger-scale commercial and institutional projects, which it usually cedes to an outside contractor, Marmol Radziner builds about 80 percent of its house designs itself. Residential clients who don't use them as builders often have a previous relationship with another contractor, or they're simply more comfortable with the traditional separation of roles. Even when it's serving solely as the architect, the firm's fluency in other disciplines enhances its ability to collaborate. It's reaped a handful of jobs from referrals by outside builders, a sure sign of mutual respect. As it does with the architect-client relationship, Marmol Radziner savors the tension inherent between the design and building sides of a project. “It's not that the conflict between design and build goes away,” says Radziner. “We don't want that. That's where a lot of the good in a design comes from.” Though many perceive design/build as a cheaper alternative to the standard, divided process, Marmol and Radziner don't make that claim for their work. They simply view design/build as a better way to create architecture, because of the immediate communication it allows and the quality control it provides them. “It's less about us than about a way of building we believe in, that's responding to the site, that's executed as efficiently as an inefficient process can be,” Marmol says.marquee value
Marmol and Radziner have shown they can wear two hats comfortably, and now they're trying on a third—that of developer. In April they broke ground on two high-end spec houses in Los Angeles, their first stab at developing their own properties. They're also experimenting with prefab housing, putting the finishing touches on a modular second home for Marmol and his wife in Desert Hot Springs, Calif. “Prefab is a tougher nut to crack than many are willing to discuss,” he says. Assuming they can figure out a workable prefab strategy, he and Radziner hope to develop a whole community of modular houses.
They clearly relish their firm's position as one of the few design/builders in the nation to be recognized for high design quality. In addition to numerous awards and publications, Marmol Radziner and Associates received the AIA California Council's Firm of the Year prize in 2004. But it gets lonely at the top, and that ever-present need to connect with others—about the challenge of finding labor, the give-and-take between the field and the office, and other issues that affect design/builders differently than traditional architects—keeps rearing its head. “We wish we had peers we could talk to about design/build,” Radziner says, a bit wistfully. Though they've looked, they've been unable to find other architect-led design/build firms whose size comes close to theirs.
With their triumphs doing much to bolster design/build's image, perhaps Marmol and Radziner's wish will come true. If not, they can always reinstate their voluble marquee to get the word out. “People were disappointed when it came down,” says Marmol. “We're actually thinking of reviving it.”