William S. Duff Jr.
Laura Reoch William S. Duff Jr.

When I look at architecture, I see people: clients, visitors, the people for whom buildings are designed. But most importantly, I see the architects who work together to bring a project to life.  According to “Types of Architecture Firms and Their Business Models,” by Charrette Venture Group senior management consultant and business development manager Lucas Gray, Assoc. AIA, firms are typically organized around one of three practice models: efficiency, experience, or expertise. These models capitalize, respectively, on a specific strength: process efficiency, depth of experience, or design expertise.

However, a people-based practice capitalizes on all three strengths. It supports, nurtures, and engages the people who together create the practice’s designs, imbues the designs with their expertise, and shepherds them through the process that brings them to life. Incorporating this philosophy in a few key areas can have a transformative effect on a firm. In fact, it has helped earn our 34-person practice recognition from the San Francisco Business Times as both a “Fast 100 Fastest Growing Private Company” and a “Best Places to Work.”

Create Opportunities for People to Contribute
When people feel connected to their work, they care more about their contributions and get a greater sense of satisfaction from their efforts. Our profession tends to prioritize a finished building over the people or processes involved in its realization. The building design is typically generated by a select few who tightly control its evolution; everyone else serves to support that development.

In a people-based practice, everyone participates in design. To help facilitate this in our firm, we created Design Vision, an in-house book that enables everyone to contribute to design in a manner centered on a guiding vision curated by the firm’s leadership team and reviewed in collaboration with everyone. Every team member refers to their copy of the book, which will be updated over time, as they develop concept sketches, refine details, select materials, and coordinate with consultants on their projects. We also use Design Vision to guide design critiques and to coalesce around solutions to implement into projects.

Empowering people to contribute to project design helps them connect with their work while enriching the design process and improving the quality of the architecture.

Embrace Transparency
Early in my career, I would jot ideas in a notebook for improving project delivery and workflow for the day I started my own firm. One idea was to embrace transparency to show employees the business side of practice. That concept now forms one of the foundational values on which we operate the firm today.

For example, we share our firm’s financial performance and health with all staff members at quarterly town halls. We invite everyone to pick apart the numbers and ask questions, which we answer honestly, even when the answers are uncomfortable. Ultimately, the conversations are rewarding and even liberating because it builds trust, which further connects everyone to the firm, the work, and the outcome.

[W]e share our firm’s financial performance and health with all staff members at quarterly town halls. We invite everyone to pick apart the numbers and ask questions.

We apply that same concept to how we communicate firm goals and objectives. We share our company business plan with the entire staff every new year and make it accessible through a shared one-page summary. The “one pager” includes both our strategic guiding principles—vision, mission, values—and our more tactical quarterly, one-year, and three-year goals. As a result, our team members understand the “why” behind their work, which increases their sense of purpose, creates a deeper sense of engagement with projects, and leads them to better serve our clients.

Invest in Your People
A people-based practice supports professional growth, both financially and educationally. It also actively helps staff achieve balance between the demands of work and life. Offering generous personal time off is one thing, but having a firm in which it is culturally acceptable and operationally feasible for people to take time off is another level.

While reviewing our annual benefits four years ago, we noticed that many of our staff weren’t using all their PTO vacation. People were stockpiling vacation days so they could take longer breaks—at the expense of taking more frequent, short breaks throughout the year. We observed a correlation with some of those same people showing signs of burnout.

We turned to our staff for a solution. We crowdsourced an internal brainstorming effort that resulted in the creation of our Summer Hours program, where we take every other Friday off between Memorial Day and Labor Day in exchange for slightly longer workdays. This provides people with the opportunity to take short, restorative breaks while still accumulating vacation time for longer breaks. The program has revitalized the team and, surprisingly, our summer months are now our most productive of the year.

Architecture is about people. A project requires input from a tremendous number of individuals from design inception to construction completion. Placing your staff—your people—at the center of the process is key to building a people-based practice. A company that commits to giving their staff opportunities, communicates with transparency, and invests in their well-being will be rewarded with team members that create better design, deliver better projects, provide better client service, and grow as individuals who can lead the firm into the future.

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.

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