Considering the economy’s dire state, that any firms experienced upward mobility may come as a surprise. But Boston’s DesignLAB picked up sizable projects, hired new staff—and rocketed up to 21st place in the Architect 50, up from 114th last year. And at a fledgling five years old, DesignLAB is just getting started. The firm’s design for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) headquarters, completed in 2008 on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, explains some of this momentum. According to partner Scott Slarsky, “IFAW is a typical DesignLAB project—it began with an idea or attitude about the landscape as much as the architecture.” Collaborating closely with landscape architect Steven Stimson, the group positioned buildings around a restored landscape, mindful of existing site conditions and regional precedents. The project won an AIA Honor Award for Interior Architecture and an AIA/COTE Top Ten Green Projects Award last year.
“How does sustainability manifest itself at IFAW?” asks partner Bob Miklos, who previously worked at Ann Beha Architects, Schwartz/Silver Architects, and Machado and Silvetti Associates (where he was the first paid employee). “Not at all—it’s completely integrated into the design.” Slarsky adds, “We are entirely committed to sustainability, but to us, it’s about understanding the environmental context.” That sort of research-intensive approach defines the firm’s ethos (and explains its name). “Research and analysis is how we approach our work,” explains Slarsky, a former Ann Beha and Sasaki Associates staffer.
DesignLAB’s success isn’t simply a function of design methods, though. Miklos has a knack for business—“He’s the consummate entrepreneur,” says Slarsky—and he fashioned the firm as a horizontal business model, to maximize design innovation but also profitability.
The 10- to 12-person team has no full-time administrative or marketing personnel on staff. Instead, such tasks are distributed across the firm. “We’re nimble enough to deal with challenges,” explains partner Sam Batchelor. “Everyone can quickly pivot into a different role. We work [on] four to six large projects [at a time], which enables us to do fewer of them, and which brings down the threshold of management.”
This approach keeps the firm lean but profitable. “Last year, we brought in $90 million of construction—pretty astounding for 10 to 12 people,” says Miklos. “Our overhead model is so small, it allows us to spend more time on projects,” he says. “Last year, our gross revenue was up 85 percent, and our profit up 45 percent.” Miklos was the firm’s sole owner until this April, when Slarsky and Batchelor were elevated to ownership partners.
The partners credit the firm’s design process—“unpredictable, but never chaotic,” says Miklos—for much of their success. Likening the firm to a jazz ensemble, the partners work to find the best emerging talent, then allow the team members to forge an improvised, organic relationship with one another. The hope is that everyone, from the partners to the most recent hire, designs with equal stakes in the project, and feels free to develop and critique ideas.