If SALA's Architects were a public company, Wall Street analysts would be warning investors to steer clear of its stock. The 17-year-old Minnesota firm recently changed its name, giving up the national brand recognition it had earned as Mulfinger, Susanka, Mahady & Partners with its 1999 Life magazine Dream House design. One of its two founding partners resigned last summer. Most of SALA's 35 employees cheerfully admit that they still do their drafting by hand, rather than on the computer. And the firm continues to include small remodels and additions in its nearly exclusively residential portfolio, rather than concentrating only on more lucrative, attention-grabbing big houses.
But Wall Street analysts aren't the ones who decide who gets the most work; clients are. And clients have been beating down SALA's door, at its offices in bustling Minneapolis and picture-perfect Stillwater, Minn., for years. They're attracted to the firm's relaxed atmosphere. They're intrigued by its sensible design strategies. And they're delighted by the personal attention they receive as a consequence of its lateral structure. None of these qualities are part of a planned positioning scheme or a carefully controlled image. They're simply the ideals upon which SALA was founded, and to which the firm has held fast throughout its history.
In 1983, Dale Mulfinger was a professor of architecture at the University of Minnesota (he still is) and Sarah Susanka was a teaching assistant. Both architects were doing small additions and remodels on the side, "to pay the rent," as Mulfinger puts it. The pair collaborated on a house based on the seminal architecture text A Pattern Language, and the partnership of Mulfinger & Susanka was born. "We never thought we'd end up as a primarily single-family residential firm," Mulfinger remembers. "Sarah's specialty was energy-efficient design, and mine was really multifamily. But houses were what people were asking us to do. The market told us what they wanted, and we realized that's what we should aim for."
That instinctive ability to connect with their market--and to recognize an even larger, untapped market--set the firm apart from other residential architects struggling to find commissions. Mulfinger and Susanka realized right off the bat why people weren't hiring architects to design their houses: They didn't know they could afford to. "Dale and I were absolutely convinced that there was this market, under our noses," says Susanka, who left the firm after the smashing success of her 1998 design book, The Not So Big House, to concentrate on writing and lecturing. "We just kept tapping into it."
They spread the word about their populist-minded firm in smart, common-sense ways that most residential architects hadn't thought of: setting up a booth at the annual Minneapolis Home and Garden Show, writing articles for local and national publications, and conducting community workshops on how to work with an architect. Their efforts paid off. Within a few years, the pair was busy designing everything from kitchen remodels to million-dollar homes.
All the while, they kept their rates reasonable, with a vast menu of services clients could choose from, starting with rough sketches and ending with full project management. In doing so, they lured clients away from builder- "designed" houses and convinced them to trade a little square footage for a lot more livable house. "We figured out how we could give people the most bang for their buck by eliminating wasted space," Susanka says. "Even rich people could appreciate that."
By 1991, Mulfinger and Susanka had more work than they could handle. They added another partner, Michaela Mahady, and changed their name to Mulfinger, Susanka, Mahady & Partners. The name reflected a desire to continue expanding. "We always knew there would be other partners," Mulfinger says.
The horizontal structure they had established was designed to accommodate growth; each partner handled a project independently from start to finish, so more architects simply meant the firm could accept more commissions. The unique setup, more like that of a law firm than a traditional architecture firm, also gave young architects the opportunity to do more substantive work than they'd be able to do elsewhere. "Right away, I was able to dive into projects and develop relationships with clients," recalls Mahady, a former student of Mulfinger's.
The firm continued to grow throughout the '90s, creating an associate level for newcomers. Incoming architects serve at the associate level for a minimum of two years, then are eligible for promotion to partner. Associates manage smaller projects autonomously and work with partners on the larger ones. The system requires a hefty amount of trust between the experienced and less experienced architects; luckily, that faith is in abundant supply in both the downtown converted warehouse that houses the Minneapolis office and the quaint storefront containing the Stillwater branch.
"This office is unlike any architect's office I've ever seen," says associate Paul Hannan, who had his own practice for 10 years. "Everyone helps everyone else improve. You do better work when you've got that kind of support." Interns and students, too, are part of the equation--a big part, according to Mulfinger. "We've probably had 200 of them work here over the history of the firm," he says. "We have to spend time educating them about the way we do things. But they bring a lot of positive energy to the office."
That exuberance propels the firm briskly into the new millennium. SALA had revenues of $2.3 million and completed 233 projects in 1999. The firm has projects on the drawing boards or under construction in 18 states and in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Along the way, it has rewritten conventional wisdom, turning what may look like liabilities into assets. The new name, which translates into "a special room" in Latin-based languages, zeroes in on the firm's philosophy. "Having our name be a single word instead of the partners' surnames shows that we're not structured traditionally, with just a few principals in control," says Mahady. And Susanka's departure hasn't left the architects feeling abandoned. Instead, it's demonstrated the strength of the firm's organization.
Why, in the computer age, do most of SALA's architects still draw by hand? Because they enjoy it. Many of them claim it's faster than drawing a house digitally. And their reluctance to relinquish smaller projects is based on practicality, not sentimentality: Doing remodels and additions, they say, keeps their design skills sharp.
SALA's wisest strategy of all may be its kid-glove treatment of its employees. Each architect is encouraged to discover and hone his or her particular talents. For example, partner Katherine Hillbrand specializes in designing timber-frame houses, while partner Joe Metzler is known for historic preservation work. To encourage the pursuit of their passions, all full-time employees receive a $1,200-per-year "professional development" stipend, which they can use as they please. A company retreat at a nearby lake resort is held every couple of years, and each January the firm holds an open house for its employees, clients, and colleagues in the home building industry.
Career development isn't the only perk SALA offers. In fact, it supports any pursuit that contributes to its employees' quality of life. Partner Kelly Davis works a flexible schedule from 6:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. so he can indulge his enthusiasm for afternoon rowing on the St. Croix River. Michaela Mahady is a talented stained-glass artist whose work graces many SALA projects. And employees at the Stillwater office drink out of mugs created by partner Wayne Branum, who is also a potter.
SALA's holistic approach attracts skilled people and frees them to do their best work. It's largely responsible for the firm's rising-star status, and it virtually guarantees an ever-widening universe for the practice. "They ask you what you're interested in and give you a chance to do that," says one intern. "It's an incredibly nurturing environment."