As a young architect a few years out of Notre Dame in the late 1960s, John Torti, FAIA, had an awakening. "I was working at a boutique firm in the Midwest, idealistic and starving, and realized you couldn't make money doing the kind of architecture you dream about in school," he says. "I bundled up all those ideals and put them in a box under my bed." In 1973 he took a job with CHK Architects and Planners, an established production housing firm in Silver Spring, Md., and contented himself with designing unimaginative suburban subdivisions.
But this awakening was a false one. He didn't realize it until the recession of the early '90s, when the formerly prosperous CHK plunged into dire straits. Two of the original partners, Jack Cohen and Leonard Haft, had long since retired. In 1993 the third, an ailing Jack Kerxton, did, too, after naming Torti his successor as president. Now in charge of a foundering firm and with little to lose, Torti made a bold decision. Combining a New Urbanist philosophy with company CFO Tom Gallas' recommendation that CHK pursue a more diverse client base, he announced a radically different, design-oriented direction for the 40-year-old firm. This gutsy move marked John Torti's true awakening. And it led to a rebirth of the firm now known as Torti Gallas and Partners.
Of course, the full story is a bit more complicated. CHK had built a solid reputation as a firm that could deliver cost-effective developer housing. During the 1950s, '60s, and '70s it designed more than 200,000 homes in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. In the 1980s it branched out into hotels, office buildings, and high-rises but always kept merchant housing as its backbone. "They did not have an agenda that related to making great cities, towns, communities," says current principal Neal Payton, AIA, who also worked for the firm in its CHK days. "They made great housing, but it didn't relate to anything larger."
That was OK with Cohen, Haft, and Kerxton. They knew they'd never be esteemed in design circles. Their strength lay in their ability to give developers what they wanted, on time and on budget. Their tight professional and social relationships with clients meant they didn't have to market at all, and their employees were well compensated financially. Talented designers like John Torti came to the firm and stayed, because it gave them a chance to practice architecture while earning a comfortable living.
Cohen, Haft, and Kerxton were strong businessmen, but their training was still in design rather than financial matters. When Cohen and Haft began to phase out in the mid-80s, Kerxton cast his net for a business director to handle the company's affairs. He ended up hiring a hotshot Price Waterhouse accountant named Tom Gallas in 1985, and the other half of the Torti Gallas equation clicked into place. Gallas wasn't a designer, and to CHK that was one of his strengths. He could look at the way the firm functioned and make judgments based on his experience in the financial world. The fresh eye he brought to the firm would eventually become the catalyst Torti needed to make his design vision a reality.
By the time Torti officially took control, CHK's deep well of clients had dried up. It wasn't that they'd gone to another architect--they'd simply gone out of business. CHK's payroll dropped from 165 people to 37. If the firm didn't find new sources of work soon, it was in serious danger of going the same way its clients had.
At Torti's suggestion, Gallas started a marketing division. He researched the possibility of working with recession-resistant, public-sector clients like the military, city housing agencies, and local governments. Though CHK had no experience in such areas, Gallas managed to convince Torti that the future of the firm lay with public-sector work. "Because Tom knew the firm so well, he was not shy about telling the partners what to do," says Torti. "Three years later, two-thirds of our business was with public clients, up from zero for the 40 years before that." Gallas also began pursuing national private clients to take the place of the bankrupt local ones.
In addition to the change in client base, the firm underwent a drastic structural revamping. The planning, design, and project-management divisions of CHK had always been entirely separate. "Under the old system, the designer did the design and then walked away," says Gallas. Not anymore. Under the new model, a design team would be responsible for a project from start to finish--getting the job, designing the site plan and architecture, and overseeing construction until the last brick was mortared into place.
The system gave the architects more control over the execution of their work, and it got CHK closer to its goal of achieving high-quality design while still turning a handsome profit. For the first time, the firm started a profit-sharing program that involved every employee, as well as a bonus system based on project team performance rather than individual accomplishments. "When your team succeeds, you succeed," explains Gallas. "It creates an interdependence."
plan of attack
CHK's new setup wouldn't matter much if the firm couldn't sell itself to the new client types it wanted so badly. That was where John Torti's conversion to New Urbanism came in. Having grown up in a front-stoop-and-corner-store neighborhood in the Bronx, N.Y., he knew well the charms and benefits of urban living. But he hadn't considered the marketability of old strategies in new neighborhoods until he heard the charismatic New Urbanist pioneer Andres Duany, FAIA, speak at Catholic University's summer lecture series. "I began to listen to him in the '80s," Torti says. "It tapped into my own discontent with what I was doing in the suburbs, compared with my goals as a young architect."
Listening to Duany's ideas moved Torti to educate himself about Traditional town planning, and then to decide that CHK should become a completely New Urbanist firm. He didn't approach that goal halfheartedly. He learned the movement's principles inside and out, joining the Congress for the New Urbanism and eventually becoming an influential member. And he aggressively recruited talent from the worlds of academia and practice, seeking out others who shared his desire to create pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use communities.
As they'd agreed, he and Gallas redirected their energies toward public and national private clients. They used New Urbanism to market themselves, trying to convince potential customers they could offer something different from standard developments. The going was tough at first. Because CHK had no experience working on the kinds of projects it now wanted to do, developers harbored understandable skepticism. The firm's background seemed so unsuited for public-sector work that the Navy actually asked Torti and Gallas to stop applying for work on its bases, telling them (mistakenly, as it turned out) it would never hire them.
But they'd already committed themselves to pursuing new client types and to New Urbanism, and they weren't turning back. In 1994 they had two breakthroughs--a commission for public housing in Baltimore under HUD's HOPE VI program, and a Progressive Architecture award in urban design for the plan of South Riding, a Traditional Neighborhood Development in Virginia. Shrewdly, Torti and Gallas talked up these successes into other opportunities. Spinning them as examples of their firm's ability to create thriving neighborhoods, they began to land key commissions--Army base housing at Fort Meade, Md.; a TND called King Farm in Rockville, Md.; more and further-flung HOPE VI commissions. Persuaded by Torti's convincing rhetoric, one gifted architect after another joined the firm. "Our work, especially the HOPE VI work, is an exact mirror of my interests in architecture and urban design," says principal Cheryl O'Neill, Associate AIA. "It's rare to find that."
By 1995, it began to look as if Torti, Gallas, and their rapidly growing staff were going to pull off the transformation of CHK. But their very success worried Torti. He feared that a firm taking on so many new jobs and employees would lose its hard-won focus. So he instituted a "Design Discourse"--a two-year series of debates and lectures on urban design given by in-house architects and attended by everyone from principals to administrative staff. "The Design Discourse sent a signal out that we believed in something," says Payton. "It said we were committed to a value system."
The outside world was catching on. In 1997 the firm won a national AIA Honor Award for regional and urban design, for the Baltimore HOPE VI project, Lafayette Courts. By that point CHK had work going on all over the country: military privatization, seniors housing, downtown mixed-use complexes, and Neo-Traditional neighborhoods. It was even designing a couple of new towns in Turkey. It had gotten so far away from the CHK model of suburban tract housing, in fact, that the time had arrived for a name change. CHK became Torti Gallas and Partners that year. Torti's name represents the firm's strength in design and Gallas' its business acumen. "We're one-hundred percent design, one-hundred percent business," Torti says. "That's the pact Tom and I made."
Wisely, they didn't throw away the entire CHK legacy. The old incarnation may not have won AIA Honor Awards, but it knew how to produce housing that people wanted to buy and live in. "It's not like they had a bad heritage," says Jonathan Barnett, FAIA, head of the urban design department at the University of Pennsylvania. "They had a good heritage that they had to transform. Their technical knowledge about the implementation of housing has been one of the reasons for their success." Architect Maurice Cox, who is also the mayor of Charlottesville, Va., concurs. A commercial-corridor study Torti Gallas did for his city won an AIA Honor Award in 2003, the firm's fifth to date. "Not only are they urban designers, but because of their long experience in building houses they were able to speak to the housing types needed in Charlottesville," Cox says.
here and now
Now, in 2004, the question of whether Torti Gallas could successfully transform itself has long been answered. The 51-year-old, 150-person firm has projects going on in 47 cities across the country, and its principals are regulars on the urban design and development lecture circuit. In 2003 it had its best financial year ever.
Developers sing its praises. "They combine style and vision with practicality, and they truly respect the community," says Maureen McAvey, a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute who has also worked with Torti Gallas on the developer side. The firm's high percentage of winning RFPs has allowed it to take unusual risks with its fee structure. In certain cases, it's started to charge developers a reduced design rate in exchange for an extra "success" fee if its plan is selected.
The appeal of its phoenixlike history notwithstanding, the most interesting piece of the Torti Gallas puzzle is its continuing effort at self-improvement. Torti and Gallas seem to have drawn courage from the initial CHK makeover, for they and the other 15 principals are constantly tweaking the way they operate. The quality of the firm's architecture is uneven at times, especially compared with its urban design. Rather than accept this situation, they're challenging themselves head-on. They've started up a second Design Discourse that is devoted specifically to architecture, much as the previous one centered on planning. "We're trying to develop an ideology around our work that is identifiable and explainable," Torti says. "As a large firm, we need a way of coming to some common ground." In addition to how-to workshops and philosophical discussions, the series also includes studies of work by architects the firm admires, such as Robert A.M. Stern, Pyatok Architects, Michael Dennis, and Hartman-Cox.
Gallas, now executive vice president, has led an effort to expand the firm's sustainable design capabilities by bolstering its roster of LEED-certified architects and bringing in green-building experts to speak to the staff. As a result, Torti Gallas has several sustainable projects in the works, including Fort Irwin, energy-efficient military housing in the California desert, and Salishan, a new rainwater-conservation community in Tacoma, Wash. The firm is also forging ahead with innovative retail design ideas for its many mixed-use projects. "We're trying to rethink some of retail's basic concepts," explains principal Maurice Walters, AIA. "We want to figure out how to bring mom-and-pop businesses back in by taking affordable housing ideas to retail."
The vogue for New Urbanism among developers may be an obvious trend now, but it wasn't in 1993. By remaking CHK the way they did, Torti and Gallas took a huge gamble. Most firms in their position would have waited for the economy to turn around, hoping that they'd get their clients back and be able to do the kind of work they'd always done. But John Torti's ideals escaped that box under his bed. And they're not going back.