• Credit: PJ Loughran

Planes, e-mail, and video conferencing have been making the world smaller for a number of years, and architecture firms have become increasingly global along the way. There are fewer obstacles to designing projects in other cities, or even countries, but many firms still find that having people in the area for a specific large-scale project or for a rash of local work is beneficial. For some, these branch offices are only temporary, but for others, they become permanent fixtures and are an increasingly common way of expanding the business.

While some architecture firms grow at a slow, methodical pace, opening offices when opportunities arise, Nelson, a Philadelphia-based firm, is sprinting ahead to create a worldwide office network by taking over existing firms and running a merged practice out of acquired offices. Each of its current 36 branch offices provides the same design and architecture services for a broad range of clients, from corporate to residential and institutional. “We see the world differently from the traditional model,” Nelson president John Nelson Jr. says about the company's aggressive strategy.

A fast-paced takeover strategy is one way to grow a business, but it isn't the only approach. More cautious architects prefer to gradually build a local presence in a new city after first testing the water. Or they set up shop after landing a big project and then pursue other commissions.

For example, Hany Hassan, an architect based in Washington, D.C., was hired in 2000 by Beyer Blinder Belle (BBB), the New York firm that specializes in historic preservation, to open an office in the capital. “There was always a glimpse of opportunity in D.C., so we said, let's build an office by having one person, me, and one project at a time,” Hassan recalls. Until that time, Fred Bland, now a BBB managing partner, worked in D.C. a few days a week and commuted from New York. That didn't fit the firm's philosophy of being closely integrated into the city where it builds. “To work in D.C. and live in New York would be against what we believe in,” Hassan says.

  • Credit: PJ Loughran

The pioneer spirit paid off : In 2001, BBB's D.C. office won a prestigious $100 million project to renovate a historic landmark, the Old District of Columbia Courthouse, establishing the firm's local reputation. Even a firm like BBB needs street cred in a new city, Hassan says, because “when you go beyond your hometown, people don't necessarily know you.” Today the D.C. office has 26 architects, designers, and planners (compared with 130 in New York), and its roster includes several projects for the Smithsonian Institution, a connection that helped BBB become executive architect with Gluckman Mayner Architects on the renovation of New York's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.

Further a field, BBB's foray into China came about almost by chance in 2004 when a Chinese associate in the New York office, Yuni Wong, returned home and suggested opening a BBB branch in Beijing. While some partners were skeptical about doing business in China, Bland says the combination of a booming building market and having a trusted colleague there was hard to resist. “The market was robust and intriguing, and we had a person who was fully committed and knew their culture and ours,” he says. “Otherwise we would not have done it.” Now the Beijing office has 10 architects and projects ranging from expatriate housing in Shanghai to a science and technology park in Dalian.

For Brad Cloepfil, principal of Allied Works Architecture in Portland, Ore., the decision to open the firm's second office, in New York, more than three years ago was entirely project-specific. At the time, the firm had won the commission to renovate 2 Columbus Circle for the Museum of Arts and Design. “The museum requested a local office,” Cloepfil recalls, and with the commission for a residential project in New York's Dutchess County, the firm had the critical mass to establish a permanent New York presence.

As with the BBB move to China, another factor for Cloepfil was that a trusted associate in Portland, Kyle Lommen, said he would lead the New York operation, which has grown to 15 architects after starting out with three recruits from the home base. Without Lommen, Allied would have run the East Coast projects from Portland, as it does now with work in other cities, like Dallas. “I'm not opposed to expansion, but it has to have a natural life, with the project and the people,” Cloepfil says.

  • Credit: PJ Loughran

Still, having a local presence has enhanced Allied's local reputation, bringing in new business, including a project at Bennington College in Vermont and a residential commission in lower Manhattan. “Our East Coast clients appreciate having us closer and more accessible,” Cloepfil explains. He says that although the New York office would have gone after those clients anyway, “knowing that we could do it out of New York may have helped.”

A similar strategy of satisfying clients through proximity also works for the rapidly expanding Nelson. While many of its new offices are the result of mergers and acquisitions, the company also sets up its own offices, usually to cater to a specific client at first, such as Wachovia Bank in Charlotte, N.C. With several clients as anchors, the office can then branch out.