For six years, the Houston architecture firm Curtis and Windham focused on perfecting its first love: the design of traditionally styled single-family homes. Partners William Curtis and Russell Windham reached a turning point five years ago, however, when they learned of plans to rebuild a burned-out 1860s Catholic church in historic Jefferson, Tex. It took 15 phone calls to convince the church's building committee to grant them an interview as candidates. But once they landed the commission and later delivered a successful project, they began to regularly add institutions to their mix of work. "You do the things you have to do to build up a practice," Curtis says. "There are certain lessons you go through on how to get jobs and make money. We feel like good architects are able to design a wide variety of building types."
For many residential architects, diversifying into institutional work is a basic necessity in order to grow their business, compete for clients and employees, and even out economic cycles. But they're also drawn to the different set of challenges and issues that come with institutional work. Rather than working directly with the end user, suddenly they're juggling committees and building consensus. One week they might be designing a college dorm, another week a park visitors' center in an unfamiliar ecosystem. "You never get stale," says Susan Maxman, FAIA, of Susan Maxman and Partners in Philadelphia. "You're always trying to problem solve and think of new ways to do things."
Public buildings, in particular, offer architects a greater sense of intellectual satisfaction because they're designing something that reflects a community's spirit. Whereas a custom home is gratifying to a small family, a city library, say, touches the entire community across a broad spectrum of people. "There's nothing finer than experiencing a library that provides full service to the community, from kids and the elderly to tourists and businesspeople," says Will Bruder, AIA, of Will Bruder Architects in Phoenix. "Everybody benefits from the art, the craft, and the concepts you've created."
making the leap
For architects heavily invested in residential work, however, getting a foot in the door can be difficult. Curtis and Windham won the church committee's confidence by persistently demonstrating the strength of their ideas and by pointing out the experience they had gained working on similar projects at their previous employer, Hartman-Cox Architects in Washington, D.C. Designing large-scale houses also can be a fast track to institutional work. The firm has designed custom homes that cost as much as $25 million and require commercial contractors and structural materials such as concrete and steel. "Our preparedness to do institutional projects is better today because our domestic architecture has grown in scale," Curtis says. "We can be very persuasive now that we can do it as well as anybody else."
Muse Architects in Washington, D.C., has increased its share of church and school work from 5 percent to 50 percent during the last six years. On its first church project, when the deal came down to Muse Architects and one other firm, Stephen Muse, AIA, had his speech ready. "We know the other firm is good and has made many more churches," he told the clients. "If that's your criteria, we lose. But we'd like to show you the houses we've done and show you why your church could be more like one of our houses. Our family rooms could be your fellowship hall, our courtyards the area outside your worship space." Says Muse, "Obviously it takes a very sophisticated client to make that leap of faith. But they said, 'You're right, that's the feeling we want.' It's a compelling argument to a lot of institutional groups, and we've been running with it ever since."
An architectural niche also can provide a segue to institutional work. In Atlanta, Surber Barber Choate & Hertlein's extensive historic preservation, renovation, and adaptive reuse work with developers and on single-family homes helped it win ongoing contracts with the Georgia board of regents, which oversees schools and universities. The 20-year-old firm Moule & Polyzoides in Pasadena, Calif., also began its practice doing adaptive reuse. Given its strong focus on urbanism, many of the firm's institutional projects are referrals from the town planning side. "People trust us and know us personally, so they hand us commissions," says partner Stefanos Polyzoides. "Not all of our institutional projects go through the competitive process."
Often, a quirk of fate opens the door to diversifying. Leddy Maytum Stacy, San Francisco (see its work on page 70), happened upon one of its earliest institutional projects--a Waldorf school in the mid-1980s--through a contractor who had ties to the school. Since then, "we've found that going after public schools is a different market altogether, and one we've had less success with," says Bill Leddy, AIA, who oversees a staff of 15. "Independent schools are looking for something out of the ordinary and have a different approach to hiring an architect." By contrast, he says, most institutional clients have a very sophisticated bureaucracy. "Even if we are invited to submit a proposal, we're competing against as many as 30 to 40 other firms." continuing education
Looking to add a nonresidential niche? Echo-boomers, new state funding initiatives, and the smart growth movement are all helping to expand the market for public and private educational facilities in the U.S., says Bruce Jilk, AIA, of Atelier/ Jilk in Afton, Minn., and chair of the AIA Committee on Architecture for Education. States with the fastest rate of population growth are the strongest supporters of school construction. Last November, for example, California voters passed a referendum allocating $22 billion for school facilities. Ohio recently earmarked $24 billion to build and renovate its schools. And New Jersey, Florida, Texas, and Arizona are among other growing states pouring money into educational buildings.
"We're needing to renovate existing schools to bring them up to current educational standards or build new to address the exploding population coming out of the baby boom echo," says Tom Kube, executive director of the Council of Educational Facility Planners in Scottsdale, Ariz. "Sun Belt states are seeing the greatest activity on new schools, whereas schools in older areas like New York City are relying on renovations, additions, or adaptive reuse."
Jilk sees two other trends in educational facilities. One is a nationwide emphasis on small schools. "One of the groups putting money behind this trend is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation," he says. The focus on smaller schools fits with what Jilk calls the finer grain of mixed-use development, one of the solutions for balancing growth in congested cities and suburbs.
A lot of communities are leveraging their money by blending school facilities into seniors and recreational centers and public libraries, resulting in multiuse properties as opposed to a school that's only open weekdays between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. In Scottsdale, for example, most of the new middle schools and high schools have public library complexes built into them. "The city is trying to expand services to growing parts of the community," Kube says. "It's a way to get projects on the ground faster than having to find stand-alone sites. Plus, the students have a higher-performance library than they would have had in their school."
Jilk recently worked on a similar project in Apple Valley, Minn.: a small School of Environmental Studies for 400 high school students, built on the site of the Minnesota Zoological Garden. Rather than classrooms, the building has office-like spaces with workstations. "It's part of the new theme-based approach to schools, as opposed to one-size-fits-all," Jilk says.requests for proposals
requests for proposals
Indeed, the most difficult aspect of doing institutional work is going after it. Responding to requests for proposals, or RFPs, is an expensive and time-consuming process most architects view with a mixture of cynicism, resignation, and contempt. Moule & Polyzoides tries to avoid it altogether. "After 20 years of doing RFPs, we find the process idiotic and unpredictable," Polyzoides says. "Sometimes it finds the best person, but often not. They call the people you've worked for before and give you an hour to speak on your behalf. They hear four or five people in one day. It becomes more a reflection of who's the smoothest salesperson; who has the best manners, the best connections, the nicest tie; or who looks best on paper. It favors large over small firms, old over young, and business as usual over those asking questions. It's not a good system for advancing architecture."
Maxman has one staff person putting together proposals full time. The job involves some sleuthing to figure out who else is competing, the politics involved, and any hidden agendas. But detective work can only carry a firm so far. "We scrutinize the project and know our clients pretty well," Maxman says, "but we're never sure where we stand. More often than not, it ends up being chemistry, or the guy in front of us had more experience than we did in that prototype." The firm's strategy is to work hard to understand the clients and the project, responding to their issues and showing how it has addressed them in the past. The rest is left to chance. "Once, a prospective client spent the whole day going through projects with us in Philly, and we came in second," she says. "Those kinds of things are frustrating and demoralizing, but you just have to do it."
Muse attempts to avoid disappointment by asking himself tough questions at the outset. If the firm receives, say, 10 RFPs a month and has allotted 100 hours to work on proposals, he typically winnows the RFPs down to two or three. "We look at the project and ask: 'Do we honestly believe we're the best choice for this project?' If there's one we're best for, let's spend 100 hours on it or 50 hours on two. Let's make sure we spend all the time it takes to send in the best proposal we can, and walk in the door for the interview fully prepared."
RFPs are costly in dollars, too. Bruder estimates he spends $5,000 to $10,000 apiece on graphic design and printing costs, plus airline tickets to fly two or three people to meet the client. Like Maxman, before responding to a request, he and project architect Richard Jensen spend a lot of time calling associates and trying to solve the mysteries. For him, success is winning one out of 10.
"We have a format and keep tweaking it, and we form associations all over the country," Bruder says. "And our RFPs are distinctive; everything we do deals with design at the highest plane." The wild card, of course, is who's on the panel across the table. "Do they know how to listen and what they're looking for? We try to help by writing an intelligent document and present ourselves as unique."
Even so, there's a healthy tinge of fatalism in Bruder's philosophy, thanks to a lesson learned 10 years ago while pursuing a commission for San Diego's main library. A reporter convinced the city to release the proposals to the public. "It was shocking, the biggest wake-up call," Bruder says. "There was nothing of consequence to differentiate the proposals. You have to consider that for all your careful crafting of words--and I write these things like poems--you've got a lay audience on the other side of the table.
"It's about chemistry, communication, ideas, and really remembering that you have to bring passion and skill and portfolio to these projects, but at that moment when you walk out, be able to accept that there's nothing rational that will get you the job," he adds. "When you lose, you have to believe that maybe the next time the irrational moment will be yours."
design by committee
The other major challenge of an institutional project is coordinating the wishes of diverse client groups. The facilities committee of a university is looking for maximum durability and minimum cost; the dean and the university architect want to promote good design and maintain the quality of the school. Student groups may have other concerns. "There are benefactors whose desires also need to be incorporated into the design," points out Mark Hutker, AIA, Hutker Architecture and Interiors in Martha's Vineyard, Mass. "Donors have a special interest in leaving an imprint on the school."
The demand on an architect's time, presentation skills, and organizational skills goes up several notches, too. There are more meetings--many of them at night. "Once a month, you're making a public presentation in front of a building committee or an entire congregation," Muse says. "You're making more serious drawings, putting them on Powerpoint, and thinking about what to say. It's much more involved than sitting 4 feet across the table from a custom home client."
Muse stresses the importance of organizing the building committee and the process. He tells them what to expect: "First we'll work on the site plan. You'll see a plan that has a building on it but no details. There will be a lot of windows on this wall, but we don't know what they'll look like. Then we'll work on floor plans, massing, elevations. Have faith that when we show you elevations, they'll be okay."
The architect also expects the committee to filter the flow of information between him and the church congregation or the various client groups. He wants the committee to decide what is one person's point of view vs. consensus, and he tells them that once they're working on the project awhile, they may be able to answer constituents' questions without coming to him. "It helps speed the process and lets committee members feel empowered," he says. Muse gets the committee's feedback on early schematics, but drawings are withheld from the larger client body until the building assumes a shape that people can visualize easily.
An iterative design process is at the center of Susan Maxman's approach. She listens carefully to budget and program requirements, putting the clients' needs above anything else. And rather than responding with a beautiful rendering, Maxman wants the design to evolve with the client as part of a team. "That's critically important to this kind of work," she says. When the National Forest Service hired the firm to design a visitors' center at Seneca Rocks in West Virginia, Maxman refused to sign the original contract, which required the architects to develop three conceptual designs that the Forest Service would choose from. Instead, Maxman proposed a series of five workshops with the committee members in her office. The end result was a schematic design that everyone loved. "Architects think a beautiful picture will do it," she says. "You have to be able to talk it through with them."
The mark of true success is an institutional building everyone is proud of and conceptually represents a client group's best ideas. When architects encourage clients to ask questions and raise issues, the clients see themselves reflected in the program documents. "When the first drawings come forward, it's very gratifying as an architect to hear the rush in the audience of everyone taking the claim to their idea," Bruder says. His firm designed a library for teenagers, an addition to Phoenix's central library. Over the course of five summer workshops, the architects met with teens to design the layout and select furniture, fabrics, and curtains. At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, the president of the building council ended her speech by telling Bruder, "We really appreciate your listening." Says Bruder: "That was the best comment we could hear." ra
Cheryl Weber is a contributing writer in Severna Park, Md.