Michael Woodley, AIA, leads a double life. An avid ice hockey fan, he has season tickets to see the Colorado Avalanche in Denver and the Mighty Ducks in Anaheim, Calif. He's an active member of the AIA and the Building Industry Association in Orange County, Calif., and he plays on an ice hockey team in Littleton, Colo., where he also coaches his 13-year-old daughter's soccer team. “For a long time, people didn't realize I wasn't living in California, and some still don't,” says Woodley, whose firm, the Woodley Architectural Group, operates out of Littleton, Colo., and Costa Mesa, Calif. He moved his family from California to Colorado eight years ago and splits his time between the two offices, bouncing back and forth about three times a month.
While most architects probably don't think of themselves as full-fledged members of two communities, doing business in more than one place has become easier than ever. Thanks to cheap airfares and technology like BlackBerries, laptops, and networked offices, it matters less and less where architects with wide-ranging practices operate these days. Woodley happens to work for production builders all over the country, so the Colorado base puts him closer to his clients. Other architecture firms are setting up satellite shops to hone multiple specialties such as planning and mixed-use development or to take advantage of new markets.
But it's not just the large firms with a broad scope of services that are expanding their presence. Paralleling the baby boomer trend toward second homes, some small firms have a city office and a country office. And as architects increasingly compete for gifted employees, second—and third and fourth—locations get launched for reasons as basic as trying to attract top talent by giving them choices about where they want to live. In the new migratory pattern, satellite offices are ranging from 20 miles apart to hundreds or even thousands of miles apart.
Of course, being responsible for more than one office has its headaches. It means more overhead costs and administrative paperwork, not to mention accounting and management hurdles. And shuttling between locations can be expensive and time-consuming. “It's easier today than it was in the past,” says Carson Looney, FAIA, founding partner of Looney Ricks Kiss, a Memphis, Tenn.-based firm with six offices in Florida, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Texas. Still, the time and effort must pay off. “If an office isn't self-sustaining, we'd shut it down,” he says. “The only way we'd keep it open is if the office was serving an important client, or if the opportunity it was bringing to the rest of the firm outweighed its performance.”
use it or lose it A surprising number of architects say that the main reason they open a branch office is to hang onto talented staff. Market opportunity often comes second. “We've found it very challenging over the last decade to find the team members we're looking for,” Looney confirms. LRK's Nashville office was born after a stellar employee quit to move to Nashville. Sometime after the move, the former employee let it be known that he loved Nashville but wished he'd never left the firm. “We said, ‘Why not stay and open an office there?'” Looney says. It was a similar story at Rosemary Beach, Fla. When one of the firm's long-time principals built a house there and decided he'd rather live on the beach, LRK gave the green light to branch out.
“We've learned never to open an office without having a principal-level person there,” Looney says. “The Nashville office struggled for a year or two because we didn't have a principal who was well-versed in how we service our clients. Anyone who's licensed can open an office, but you have to do it right. We set budgets for it and plan on a year for it to make its way.”
The prospect of losing a highly valued employee also prompted Vero Beach, Fla., architect Scott Merrill, AIA, Merrill, Pastor & Colgan Architects, to open an Atlanta branch in 1999. David Colgan, AIA, who heads up the two-person office, had worked for Merrill for five years when he took a break to help a former classmate build a winery on the West Coast. After Colgan returned to his hometown of Atlanta a year later, Merrill offered him a partnership, sweetening the pot by letting him stay put. “We've never had work in Atlanta, and I don't care if we ever have it,” Merrill says. Colgan is kept busy on projects that aren't close to either office.
Merrill recognizes that although the firm's nationally acclaimed work on New Urbanist communities and luxury custom homes attracts young, single graduates, the sleepy town of Vero Beach may not meet their social needs. “In the future there might be others who start in Vero Beach and end up wanting to go to a bigger city as well,” Merrill says. “It wasn't that expensive to open a small office. It's more expensive to lose the people we train.”
going local The lengthening commute time to offices in sprawling metro areas has also helped fuel the trend toward decentralization. Some partners have left their urban offices behind, setting up a second shop in the outlying areas where they prefer to live. Russell Versaci, AIA, of Versaci Neumann & Partners, lives near Middleburg, Va., an hour-and-a-half drive on a good day from the firm's office in downtown Washington, D.C. As it turns out, two of the architects who've been with the firm the longest also live there. In 1989, six years after launching the practice, Versaci opened a second office near his home in the heart of Virginia hunting country. “Spending three or four hours in the car each day was pretty grueling,” says founding partner David E. Neumann, AIA. “Opening the Middleburg office was a quality-of-life issue.”
It's no coincidence that the bucolic Middleburg area is also rich in the traditional architecture Versaci Neumann is known for: gracious Colonial-era estates, farmhouses, and summer cottages. The partners had a number of projects under way there and felt that a local presence would be more convincing to prospective clients. Now, the rural office is twice the size of its urban counterpart, numbering eight architects and one marketing person to Washington, D.C.'s four architects and one business administrator. “We have had remarkable success in having long-term employees in the Middleburg office,” Neumann says. “Everyone has a 10-minute to 15-minute drive through the Virginia countryside to get to the office. I can't imagine that the two people who became partners out there would have stayed with us had we [only] been in D.C.”