Peter Bennett

Imagine you're about to graduate from architecture school when the economy is struggling, much as it is now. You're part of a close-knit group of master's program colleagues disaffected by the idea of an internship at a big firm and looking for a way to bridge academic camaraderie and practice. What are your options?

For John Jennings and Sasha Tarnopolsky, ASLA, principals of DRY Design, Los Angeles, the solution was to form a design collective. Launched in 1995 by 15 newly minted SCI-Arc grads, the HEDGE Design Collective, which only recently disbanded, became a one-stop design shop made up of architecture-trained professionals with interests ranging from architecture, landscape architecture, and engineering to graphic, floral, and clothing design. As members teamed up to take on client projects, the collective quickly reached its main goal, which was to help them find more fulfilling work than what they could attract on their own, and yet allow them to preserve their identities as individual designers.

At the time, there were few precedents for such alternative practice models within the architecture profession, and as the idea began to catch on, HEDGE members were often invited to lecture on how the collective worked. Since then, interest in nontraditional firm structures has grown exponentially, driven in part by the rising intensity and complexity of the marketplace. Some architects devise alternative business models as a way to leverage resources or add energy to a small office. Others are looking to expand their reach by broadening their products or services. What they all have in common—besides a love of architecture—is the desire to have more control over their everyday lives and destiny than either a solo practice or a top-down firm affords.

All architects crave smart clients, challenging work, and a measure of independence. But in the case of a sole practitioner, there's a practical limit to how much work one can take on. Cash flow can be erratic. And independent architects often find it hard to break into new project types, because they can't gain widespread experience when they're by themselves. Independents are also vulnerable to professional loneliness. A single architect may have assistants but no real peers with whom to consult. Those were the problems HEDGE was initially hedging against. (In fact, the name came from the idea of creating a hedge of individuals who make up a single larger organism. “A hedge can create rooms,” Jennings explains, noting the collective's mix of design disciplines and that Tarnopolsky is a landscape architect.)

sharing resources and ideas To observers, the HEDGE Design Collective seemed to have everything a young architect could want. It was a relaxed, creative place, and for the first five years, the group met on Wednesday nights around pizza and beer to discuss everything from design philosophies to how the collective should be run. During its lifetime the group moved four times, sharing the rent, office equipment—even a table saw. In each location, open desks surrounded a central table, reflecting the nature of the work, and fees were usually structured as billable hours. Simultaneously, some members continued to work part time in larger firms to fulfill licensing requirements. Along the way, new designers were voted in, but only after they proved themselves by working collaboratively on at least one project.

Early on, HEDGE provided a platform that few architects could match on their own. “It was easier to promote HEDGE as an idea than John Jennings as a recent SCI-Arc graduate,” Jennings says. Its novelty attracted publicity; magazine coverage brought in jobs, and members farmed themselves out to other firms when work was slow. However, the group soon realized that there were legal implications of working in different design fields under a single name, and within three years they started forming their own firms under the HEDGE umbrella. They used its name recognition only, since the collective was never a legal entity.

Of course, all good things evolve. As recently as three years ago, HEDGE had almost 20 members operating independently with their own staffs, but ultimately the advantages played themselves out. At some point group members could have chosen to legally formalize their diversified design shop, but some felt the need to create an identity around their own firms. Others pursued different interests or relocated to other cities, and while DRY Design and two other original members still occupy HEDGE quarters, they no longer officially use the name. “We all started off interested in this diversity of design practices, and the idea of the collective as an incubator was a function that continued on as we owned separate firms,” explains Jennings, who, with Tarnopolsky, heads a staff of six. However, “most of us came to realize the absolute complexity of trying to work in multiple design disciplines—it's something that can take a lifetime to master. Some of us also realized that maybe our interests lay just in doing residential or commercial architecture and we started focusing on that, and the need for HEDGE went away.”

Residential architects serve a relatively small percentage of the population, though, and even veteran practitioners are vulnerable to economic ups and downs. In a competitive and fast-paced professional world, teaming up with partners can be a smart way to cope. In the case of SALA Architects, a unique business structure allows a relatively large number of partners to work collectively without abandoning their independence. Sizewise, with eight partners, 45 employees, and $4 million in annual revenues, SALA occupies a middle ground between small offices and larger corporate-style firms.

Almost from the very beginning in 1983, the founders adopted a couple of key principles to help stabilize the typically freighted nature of partnerships, basing it loosely on a law firm model. Each of the 16 project architects runs his or her practice as a separate profit center, with a free hand in deciding which work to take on, how much to charge, and even how many hours to work. Half of the project architects are partners, and each project architect is expected to manage at least $200,000 annually in fees. The three offices—in Minneapolis, Stillwater, and Excelsior, Minn.—are not computer-networked and rarely share work or employees. Still, the original Minneapolis office functions as command central (it sits mid-point between Excelsior, roughly 25 miles west, and Stillwater, 25 miles east), and a revolving group of three managing partners meets monthly to run the firm.

Put into practice, those founding principles have some interesting consequences. “Because we have a collection of partners as opposed to, say, three, and everyone else is an associate, we don't have a vertical hierarchy,” explains managing partner Eric Odor, AIA. “Each project architect is an office in itself—work is not coming from the managing partners. The Web site is like our storefront: people can shop individual architects and their work,” relieving the partners of the burden of figuring out who would be best for a project. And since the firm focuses almost exclusively on residential work, from kitchen and bath remodels to $5 million new homes, it has profitability down pat. “We're pretty streamlined and good at what we do,” Odor says. Collectively, the work is varied enough to weather business cycles. That's because the Minneapolis office does mostly remodeling and urban infill work. Excelsior is near Lake Minnetonka, which is a magnet for cabins, and the Stillwater office attracts a bit of everything.