Perhaps no one was more surprised than Rania Alomar, AIA, principal of RA-DA in West Hollywood, Calif., when her four-person, 7-year-old firm’s design won an AIA Honor Award for Interior Architecture for Doc Magic. Alomar, who amassed a decade of experience in designing entertainment and sport venues before starting her own practice, shares her firm’s strategies for assembling a successful award submission, finding work, and hiring good employees.

This was your first time entering the AIA Honor Awards. What are the keys for creating a compelling submission?
We really didn’t expect to win. We entered because you’re never going to win unless you enter. The jury’s comments were spot on, like they were reading our minds. It was such a great feeling that what we’re trying to portray or communicate is received because it’s hard to describe architectural spaces. We presented as though you would present your thesis in school: We broke it down in sections, talked about the research and exploration that went into how we got the design, and showed the in-depth background of the whole design. In the real world, when you’re building something, it’s not just about the final product. Sometimes the process can be more creative than the final outcome.

You founded the firm in 2006. How did it withstand the Great Recession?
We haven’t been about making money—we’ve just been about keeping going. With the knowledge that there is a recession, now is an opportunity to focus on building our clients and building our name. We’ll take on different size projects from tiny stuff [such as graphic design] to big stuff. We try and get stuff that has more design focus and is not just labor.

How does RA-DA find new work and clients?
A lot of our work comes from recommendations. We work really hard and develop good relationships with our clients. The key is to nurture your relationships and [treat] everybody that you come across in your professional life with respect.

How can design new designers and firms establish credibility and a name?
The first thing is to listen to your clients. Your client ultimately is the one that enables you to do good work. You can’t do good work without the client supporting you or believing in what you’re doing.

Second, remember constructability in detailing. [Recent graduates in particular] forget that the reality of building something the way you want to see it is completely different and has a whole other set of issues than creating a rendering that is beautiful. You can achieve good design, and then not have it ever materialize the way you imagined it. Sometimes it means changing the design so it can be built, or moving or changing your whole approach to design so you’re using a basic, off-the-shelf material.

The third one is to nurture your staff. We’re the same group from the beginning. I hired everybody one by one as we needed. It’s not like we get students in, make them work for free, and then kick them out. Everybody is constantly designing. We’re all sitting in the office critiquing projects constantly. It’s very much the idea, and not the ego or dominant character, that wins. It’s all about the work.

Ultimately if you do good work, it does get noticed. You don’t really have to push it that much. There is a need in the world or a desire to finding it.