Tags: interviewlarge firm
Episode 008

Designing Destination Resorts at a Large Architecture Firm with Al Cross

Enoch SearsMay 5, 2013

Al Cross is a Vice President at PGAV Destinations, a St. Louis firm that designs theme parks. Some of PGAV's latest projects include the Space Shuttle Atlantis Complex and Lost Kingdom at the Tulsa Zoo. Al brings a large-firm perspective to Business of Architecture. In this episode, Al talks shares some of the business strategies that have helped PGAV succeed.

We discuss:

  1. Two important business strategies: differentiation and execution
  2. The one thing architecture students must do to increase their chances of getting a good job
  3. The current state of architectural education

This interview is on iTunes. Subscribe above, and be a hero! If you know another architect who would benefit from watching this video, share away using the social share buttons.

Show Notes:

  1. Read more about PGAVDestinations.com

Interview Transcript and Members Only Resources:

[DAP errMsgTemplate=”SHORT”]
Enoch: Well, hey, Architectos! Welcome to Business of Architecture T.V. Today, we have the special privilege of having Al Cross with us. Al is a Vice President at PGAV.


Al: I am.

Enoch: Now, he’s going to tell us all about what PGAV does, who they are. I really look forward to this conversation. So, Al, welcome.


Al: Hi. Thanks. Welcome. I appreciate you having me on. It’s fun.

Enoch: You bet. Well, as I mentioned before, when we were talking previously on the phone, we haven’t had the chance to have anyone on the show so far that has a larger firm experience. So, you’re going to bring a new perspective that we haven’t heard from before.


Al: Okay. I’ll try not to incriminate the large firms of the architectural world too badly.

Enoch: That’s good, that’s good. Now, tell us where you’re located; tell us a little bit about who you are and where you’re at.


Al: Okay. I live and work in St. Louis Missouri, the demographic center of the United States of America. The company, PGAV, we have two offices: St. Louis and Kansas City. Historically, we’ve been in other places, but we’ve settled on leaving it with two offices. So, that’s it. We’re Mid-Western guys, but the truth is, we actually get all over the world. Our work is international, and we’re in Asia, we’re in Europe, and all over North America.

Enoch: What’s the size of the firm?


Al: We have a 125 people – we have roughly 80 in St. Louis, and the remainder at Kansas City.

Enoch: So, two offices, a 120 people. Give us an idea of where your firm’s doing work right now. You say you’re doing some stuff internationally?


Al: One of the things we happen to do includes what we call “Entertainment Design” or “Themed Entertainment Design.” That usually takes the form of theme parks, water parks, shows, rides, attractions. So, that marketplace, if you will, is really thriving in Asia. We have multiple projects in China, Korea, and we are pursuing work in Singapore, and other places in Asia.
We have, historically, been kind of on a one-project-at-a-time-depending-on-the-year basis. We have done work in Europe. We have two theme parks that operate in Spain. One of them is called PortAventura. It’s actually the fourth most popular theme park in Europe. We have just been recently contacted by someone who wants to do something in Germany. It’s actually an old, trusted alliance, and they finally want to use us to help them develop a project. So, maybe Germany.
We’ve done quite a bit planning work in South America over the years. It’s never really amounted to built work. We’ve toyed with the idea of pursuing work for the Olympics, but that has not amounted to anything yet. Then, we’ve worked in Canada. That’s a different country, so that counts as…

Enoch: Yeah. The Canadians, they would hate us for saying or that we have to explain that, but, you know, that’s Americans.


Al: So, we’ve done quite a bit work in and around Niagara Falls, including an entertainment attraction that actually explains, in an entertaining way, the geology and the history of why the falls exist. It’s called “Niagara’s Fury.” It’s in a thing called a “Table Rock,” which is actually a building to sits on one of the promontories adjacent to the falls. It’s very popular; it was a lot of fun to work on.
We’ve done a lot of planning/consultation in that area also both to private developers and to the Queen Victoria Parks Commission, which is kind of an interesting client. Now, we’re consulting to the people on the American side. It looks as though we may get to do an exhibit at the Tesla sculpture, the Nikola Tesla sculpture which is actually on the American side. A lot of people don’t realize that one of the first really big hydroelectric power stations is at the falls, and it was designed by Nikola Tesla – who is famous for the argument he had with Edison over direct current VS alternating current.

Enoch: Which he won, by the way, right?


Al: He did win. That’s right. Tesla is, in the current “maker” culture that is rising again, is sort of experiencing resurgence in popularity, a sort of pop culture popularity. We have “Tesla nerds” in our company who follow him and follow his wife, and are constantly wearing me out about it. Anyway, it’s going to be exciting. We’ll possibly get to do an exhibit and a piece of Architecture related to Tesla’s history.

Enoch: Well, Al, as a Vice President, what are your specific job duties? What do you? Are you managing projects or are you doing business development? Tell us.


Al: The people who lead our company have to do all those things. We are all fundamentally seller-doers. So, there are six of us in St. Louis, and our job is to acquire the work, lead the work, which includes varying degrees because each of us has a broad background. Of course, we’re better at one thing than another.
So, “lead the work” means in some cases literally design it. In other cases, just be the “Job Captain,” if you will, the “Job Pusher.” Execute the work, produce it, and make sure that it gets done the right way, and that we don’t get fired.

Enoch: Does that happen often?


Al: No. It’s against the rules. It’s against to get fired. We’re not supposed to get fired. Then make money, of course, to the extent that we can, then follow up.
So, we have a relatively flat structure in our company. We don’t have very many levels. We like to not even acknowledge that there are levels. It’s a big company in some ways. Obviously, most Architecture firms, I think 90% of the Architecture firms, in North America fewer than five people. In that context, we are a large firm, but it’s not so big that we can’t know everybody, and that we can’t try to keep it relatively flat.
I’ve worked in a firm, a bigger firm that did have kind of a Matrix organization. We don’t want to be that way. We want to be personal, we have a lot of really good people who work here, and we work very hard at making sure that those people fit in our company. We want those people to have fun every day – in the context of the fact that we do business – there is some work still, there is still drudgery, and difficult days.
We pride ourselves in the fact that we do our work in a fun way, we actually like to think that our clients enjoy working with us, and we work at that. We work at our clients having fun along the way.
I realize, I sound like I’m selling me all of a sudden. But the thing is, the culture is really personal. So, we don’t want to have a lot of levels. Our leadership is deeply embedded in the projects that we do. We organize our studio and our work around the projects. We pursue work in particular marketplaces, but we don’t haves studios led by individual people. When we get the work, we then decide who best to do the work. Then we’ll completely organize that project around the talent that we have, and vice-versa.

Enoch: That’s a very, I’ll call it, a “high-noble” concept of having fewer levels. How is that applied? What is the real application of that? How do you apply that concept in your company?


Al: Yeah. Well, there are a group of us whose job it is, is to lead the projects and lead the company, and we talk to each other; we also sometimes talk to ourselves. But, we talk to each other on a very regular basis. It’s not a standing meeting because we travel a lot, and so our schedules are difficult to manipulate. But, we talk to each other on an almost weekly basis, and we look at every project and every opportunity to ensure that it has the proper resources associated with it.
That is the number one go


Al: that we are doing the best job with the right people for each project at any one point in time. Then when we believe we have that solved, we then look at the people in our company to ensure that they are getting the right assignments and the right amount of exposure to the leaders of the company, to the project types that we do so that they grow. That’s the primary way that we invest in our staff to ensure that their development is as well managed as we can do for them. Our people are the most important thing in our company. We have to have projects, we have to have clients, and we have to make things, but we can’t do any of that unless our people are doing their best work and our happy to be here.
So, I’d like to tell you that we have some plan or some program, but we’re actually kind of anti-program. We like to think we’re very smart people. Since it’s just us talking to each other who is going to argue, right?
So, we invest heavily in the notion of let’s make sure that the projects are properly staffed to the extent that we can. We can’t take one guy off of one project just because we’ve got another project. But, then, are our people getting the best opportunities for their career along the way? Those are the only two topics in that regular meeting when we talk about how we’re doing and what we’re doing. It’s as simple as that.

Enoch: Well, when we talked about having you on the show, there were a couple of things that interested me particularly about you and your firm. One of them was the more interesting projects that you do. I guess they’re not as run-of-the-mill as some of the projects as most of architects work on. I do healthcare, now lots of architects do residential/commercial projects. There are very few firms out there that do theme parks. So, I wanted to sort of figure out what that’s all about and then also, like I said before, your perspective as a vice president of a larger firm.
So, going to the theme park aspect – I know you do some museum work and some theme parks – I have this book that I found at a book store. It’s about the creation of Disneyland.


Al: Yeah.

Enoch: So, forgive me for mentioning Disneyland.


Al: It’s okay.

Enoch: But, it is one of my favorite books because you open it up, and the artwork in it is just incredible. The way these people imagined and created this imaginary just out of their minds. So, the question I have for you is, in your work and in the kind of theme parks that you do, how much artistic license do you guys have when you’re coming up with these projects? Before you answer that – sorry – give us a couple of examples of the kind of projects you’ve done so people can have that in their mind.


Al: Yeah, sure. We are evolved from mainstream Architecture. So, in many ways, we are a lot like classic Architecture firms. About six out of every ten of us is, in fact, trained in the classical method – we have Architecture degrees, we come from Architecture programs.
Ultimately, even a theme park – and like you said we do many things, theme parks are one of them – but a theme park is really just a little city. It has office buildings in it, it has restaurants, and it has shops. It happens to also include the sort of crazy, other things: roller coasters, shows, attractions.
Because we worked for Busch Gardens and SeaWorld, and some of the other major theme park developers in North America and the world, we also happen to deal with animal enclosures and animal exhibitory as a regular even also. We are not only unique to Architecture in that we do themed entertainment, but we’re also unique to themed entertainment in that we handle animals. We’re also unique to the zoo and aquarium world in that we handle entertainment. So, I’m super unique.
Back to the original point, a lot of what we do everyday still amounts to schematic design, design development, construction documentation, bidding, negotiation, construction administration. Construction administration is unique in our world because we also do field-based art direction.
So, we have guys who are literally sculptors or illustrators who happen to have grown and become senior designers. They will go to the field, and put their work boots on, and stand in the mud, and reject the work and start over. They’ll stand alongside sculptors and painters in the field, and literally art direct, which we think obviously goes beyond construction administration in the standard AIA’s documentation. We do field reports, and we certify payment applications and all that stuff, but we do other things.
So, help me out,

Enoch:, and remind me what the question was.

Enoch: Tell me about the artistic liberties you had when you’re designing these projects. Is the sky the limit?


Al: Well, it depends on the role, the project, and it depends on the client, the assignment, and what we’re trying to do. We like to believe that we understand how to create an entertainment product, not just accept an entertainment program and then execute it.
So, yeah, there are times when – the industry likes to refer to it as “blue sky thinking:” The Disney guys, in particular Walt Disney Imagineering, or Universal Parks and Resorts Creative (that’s actually an entity inside their company), and then the clients we work for where we would actually play that role – yes, there can be an early product-creation where perhaps you’re not thinking about budget.
Now, we actually don’t like to be that way. We prefer to get after it, if you will. Believe you can be wildly creative and open your mind to the right solution in any one project, but still be – and I hesitate to use the word “realistic – but still realize that we have something to make here; that it’s going to involve someone’s resources, and those resources have to be wisely… We have to be the stewards of people’s resources. We take that role with precious care.

Enoch: So, when you’re designing these, the creativity, you have in the back of your mind, “How much is this costing? Our clients are going to pay for this.”


Al: Yeah. We never don’t think about that, but it doesn’t mean we don’t do some wild things. Yes, our drawings look like the very drawings in the book you referred to. We do think, especially in the case of an individual entertainment attraction, we often think in storyboard format as opposed to “plan,” “section,” and “elevation.” I like to pretend that we can imagine, and experience, and describe an experience in three dimensions before we draw the plan.
Ultimately we can draw that plan, and the section, and the elevation because that’s how you communicate with the building industry and even sometimes your client. But, yes, in our projects we do get the opportunity to think in that way. We are huge 3D visualization guys. I don’t mean that we’re BIM guys (we are) or SketchUp guys (we are).
The point is we visualize first. We are capable of explaining a project to a client from the point of view of how their guest might see, how they’re going to experience that thing. You can call it “Experience Design” if you like, that’s a new term. People like to use that. There are actually Experience Design curricula in American universities now, which I’m enthusiastic about. We even support a couple of them. But, the point is, experience first; plan, section, and elevation second.
So, the answer to your question is, yeah, we love to think like that. We actually draw from Industrial Design programs in America in addition to Architecture schools because [Unintelligible 00:20:55] are taught to illustrate first, and then design and create. That’s enormously valuable to us.

Enoch: You mentioned that story-telling is a large part of what you do. What have you learned from the process that you could share with other architects – about telling stories when they present their projects?


Al: Sure. I guess I fell like, to me, Architecture is about making places for people. I went to Washington University in St. Louis, and we actually dabbled – when I went there which is a gazillion years ago – we actually dabbled in what we now call Experience Design. It sort of grappled with the idea of not only what an individual place at an individual, frozen moment in time feel like or look like – I like to use the word “feel” like because I’m interested in the psychology of how people in particular enter a place; how they are moved by that initial moment and not only what it is like to be there, work there, be healed there, but what’s it like at that really golden moment when they arrived – but in addition to that, what’s it like to move through a sequence or a series of places and have those moments occur in succession. That’s a story in a way or it can be a story in a way in any building.

Enoch: Is this something you’ll present to the client? You actually have story boards: this is the first experience, this is the second experience.


Al: Absolutely, yes. Often before the plans ever get rolled out, my preference would be to always think that way. In the case of Entertainment Design, you have the additional opportunity to not only realize that you’re manipulating a series or a sequence of experiences, moments, places, spaces, rooms. All those words apply, but you also have the opportunity sometimes to add content, to add entertainment content; to talk to the guest either through our character, through an animal, or through interpretative messaging, which of course in the case of our zoo and aquarium work, we’re always doing, we’re always talking to the guest about, “What should this stuff mean to you?”
Our particular vantage to avoid being didactic and preachy, and because we’re entertainment guys, we like to first grab our guests by the heart and toy with their emotions or manipulate their emotions. It ultimately is a manipulation. We’re trying to put our guests in a place where their feelings and emotions are in play. Then, when we have them, when we hook them – “hook” is actually a story term, right? A movie always has a hook – once I’ve got you, once I’ve set the hook, then I can take you where I want you to go.
The purpose of a story is to either convey an emotion or to get you to think in a different way about a particular issue, or to just make you happy and to make you think about a particular thing in possibly a new way. So, yes, we are daily engaged with the application of story as it relates to entertainment, interpretation of a particular institution’s voice. We talk like that with zoos all the time because they have something to say.
In addition, pure Architecture, just the joy and the meaning of that golden moment when you get to reveal to the guest what you have planned for them. That sounds a little more lofty and poetic than I had planned to be with you today, but I hope I’m getting at what you’re asking me.

Enoch: Yeah. You also mentioned in our previous conversation that you guys have innovated and looked for ways to change the way that, for instance, animals are viewed. Then, you told me about something really cool that you guys are working on right now about. I won’t give away the secret, but hopefully you can remember what I’m talking about.


Al: Yeah, okay.

Enoch: So, tell us that story. That’ll make sense once people hear it.


Al: Luckily, the firm has existed for a long time. We’ve been fortunate enough to be successful. We have been around forty-five plus years now. I think we’re on forty. I think we might be on year forty-eight. We have worked in particular in zoo and aquarium world for most of that time. One of the things we’ve been along for the ride on is the evolution of how people see animals in animal exhibits.
In the 60’s and the early 70’s in an aquarium, or in a place like SeaWorld, or in a zoo, a human viewed an animal that was in the care of humans in a relatively straightforward enclosure. It was either a cage or a blue pool that happened to have very clean swimming-pool like water in it. Of course, these are still great, wonderful institutions. Ultimately, the guests started to raise their hand and say, “You know, we’re not sure the animal is happy there. They don’t look happy.”
The funny thing about that is our job as zoo designers or aquarium designers is certainly to ensure that the animals’ welfare is intact. So, you can argue that we’re making the animal happy. But, it’s also to make the guests’ welfare to be intact. We want the guests to be happy too.
So, we were part of a movement to change all that and to exhibit animals in their natural habitats, and to allow the guests to be more fully immersed in what it’s like to see the animal in something closer to their more natural surroundings. Obviously, these things are all artificial. In the pure sense of what that word means, it’s man made, but it’s closer to immersing the guests in at least in a closer view of their natural environment.
Then, that allowed the guests to get closer. Then what the guests was telling the industry was, “Now, that we’re closer, we don’t want to feel the barrier any more. We see the barrier, we see the animal. Now, we sense the barrier, and we want the barrier to go away. We want to know what it’s like to actually stand on the savannah with a cheetah. We still want to be safe, you know, we don’t want the cheetah to kill us.”
We worked on that and we realized what really meant was the guests wanted to touch the animal. So, we got to do some pretty remarkable work. There’s a place, it’s owned by SeaWorld, and it’s in Orlando. Some of the people who are listening to this may have heard of it, it’s a place “Discovery Cove” where a place can go in the care and the safety of the world’s best animal trainers which are SeaWorld and Busch Gardens. They can actually get in the water and swim with Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphins. They can touch them, they can feed them, they can send them behaviors, and get them to do the tail dance, and do the dorsal pull. It’s very cool.
It felt like we had created that product. It was a remarkable opportunity, and it’s actually difficult not to get chocked up about how wonderful that is. It’s an enormously wonderful experience, it’s a luxury experience. It’s kind of expensive, it’s $320 a person, and it’s wildly successful. The story there is people want to do it.
Then, we continued to learn and realize that, okay, there’s another step to take. Once we allowed the guests to touch the animal, now they want to be the animal. So, we started to try to push that envelope.
With storytelling, and experiential place-making, and ultimately, entertainment, we’ve created… One of the most successful things we’ve done is actually a ride experience, a combination ride and aquarium experience at SeaWorld called “Manta” where a guest can see the story of what these animals are like and what they do in the wild, and they can also then feel what it’s like to be a manta.
They get on something called a “Flying Coaster.” So, you board the coaster, and then once you’re in the harness, the machine tilts you prone – you’re going to go like this now – then when you launch, you actually fly on your belly. Then, you do these awesome, beautiful, exquisite maneuvers just like a manta does underwater; they do this ballet in the wild.
So, the evolution of all this was: see the animal, touch the animal, be the animal. Yes,
PGAV has had the remarkable opportunity to be along for the ride of all that. Of course, these all comes with technical expertise and Architecture. We have to know how much all the stuff cost, we have to know how to get those things built, we have to know how to enclose those animals in that way, and then we have to know how to tell that story and unveil all that to the people who come to see these wonderful experiences.

Enoch: Do you get in to that process pretty deeply, or do you have consultants that you work with that help you design the aquariums, help you design the enclosures?


Al: Well, we lead our projects. We certainly have consultants who come along with us. Some of them are trusted, regular partners, because some of these things are obviously niche expertise places. But, we are ride experts, and we are animal enclosure experts, and we are aquarium experts.
We’d like to believe that we are right there with Esherick Homsey Dodge & Davis, and Peter Chermayeff and Cambridge Seven. Well, we don’t like to believe it. We are. We compete against them on a regular basis for major aquariums. We did the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta with TVS, but that’s the world’s largest indoor aquarium.
The answer to your question is we certainly have certain expertise that we posses in-house. Then there are people along the way – lighting as a particularly important specific consultancy. We don’t have lighting design in-house. We think we understand lighting design, but to do an aquarium is a very important and difficult lighting task. We don’t do that in-house, we pick from a group of people. Mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection, structure for rides, we have trusted partners that we like to go to.

Enoch: Let’s move over to architectural education.


Al: Sure.

Enoch: Now, with the new, fresh recruits that you’re getting out of schools, in your opinion, are schools doing a good job of preparing architects for their profession?


Al: Well, some do and some don’t. The profession is obviously a big thing and there are various roles one can play in the profession. Schools have a point of view. I went to Washington University in St. Louis. It is a very design-oriented school. We jokingly refer to it as “Doormat Ivy League.” It has a curriculum similar to Brown, and Harvard, and Yale, and Columbia. It’s
[BLANK 00:35:06 – 00:35:17]
But, there are several distinguished alumni of Wash U, some of which graduated, some of which didn’t. Charles Eames, for example did not graduate from Washington University, although I never figured out why. One of the jokes was he got kicked out. Anyway, it’s a great school, but it is an extremely design-oriented school.
The practical aspects of the curriculum are limited. I say that even knowing that I would never trade my educational career at Wash U for anything. It’s just so happen that I work through our college, and so I gained my practical knowledge on the boards. So, when I graduated, I was ready to go to work in any way that I could. I had lots of options when I graduated.
I think that sometimes that are overly design-oriented perhaps do graduates a disservice. I really don’t think it costs anything to teach the practical aspects of building, assembly, and construction. I don’t see why we can’t do a better job with that regardless of the point of view of any one school.
Now, we draw from all over. We draw from the southeast, the southwest, New York, and China as it turns out. There are some great schools in the mid-west, the University of Illinois does feed us, and Washington University feeds us, Kansas State, Kansas University. Most of the graduates in St. Louis and Kansas City are actually graduates of K-State and KU because the University of Missouri System does not have an accredited Architecture program. So, kids in Missouri and Kansas can attend both of those schools for state tuition. There are accredited schools. Wash U is accredited, Drury is accredited.
Anyway, that’s a bit of a tangent, but we draw from there. Arkansas has a great program, and I love graduates of Arkansas. Fay Jones used to teach at Arkansas because he lives in Fayetteville, and that’s where the school is, and they have a great curriculum. Southern Illinois University Carbondale has a wonderful program also. They have a great mix of design and practical education.
So, anyway, I’m kind of beating around the bush. But, we have a tendency to look for really particular kinds of graduates also. We’re looking for kids who fit in our system. The people who are looking for an alternative to mainstream Architecture – number one.
Even though we do mainstream here, we want people who can move from one project to another seamlessly. So, you have to want to do the kind of work we do: zoos, aquariums, museums, exhibit design, Science and Technology, higher learning, and themed entertainment. That’s a pretty broad mix. We want guys who can understand what it’s like to take a storyboard, then turn that in to a set of working drawings. That is literally sometimes the assignment. The storyboard is the program. Okay, execute the project.
Like I said before, we invest heavily in our staff for we want our staff to stay here their entire career. So, obviously, we’re not so bombastic as to think that every graduate that we hire will do that. It’s just hard, you know? Things happen. Your wife wants to move, or your husband or your family, or you want to pursue the tortured poet dream or your professor calls from Finland who says “Hey, I’ve got a windowless basement in Norway. I’d love to have you do my work for me.” That’s happened to us.
The point is we invest heavily. We engender loyalty here, and we reward loyalty. So, that’s a special kind of person. We recruit. We go to Savannah College of Art and Design, we go to University of Illinois, and we go to both Kansas’. What we have learned is that universities are now finding us. I think this is something, perhaps, a combination of necessity.
The last four years of the economy taught Architecture schools, “We have a responsibility to try to place these graduates in the workforce. It’s become difficult. We have to find alternative methods.” So, they’ve done a good job of reaching out or realizing firms like us exist. There’s nothing wrong with sending our graduates to places who ten years ago they might have said, “You know, these guys that do these Disney stuff, we shouldn’t send our kids there.” Well, that’s different now. That’s good. We’ve reached out to them, and now they found us, and it is working better.
We have found some graduates who didn’t know about us, who have been very positive about it, and ended up lasting here. We’ve also found people who found us in their sophomore, their junior year in college and they stayed with it, and they’ve gotten a Master’s degree, and we’ve given them an internship. It has worked out, and they got to pursue their dream of pursuing themed entertainment here. So, it’s working both ways now.

Enoch: One thing I hear, sort of an undercurrent, is that students need to seek out practical experience.


Al: Yes.

Enoch: You probably look on that pretty highly when you’re interviewing candidates if they’ve actually worked for firms?


Al: It is immeasurably important. It makes you valuable day one, which you must be. All we sell is time. So, as soon as we hire somebody, we start selling their time. The more valuable that time is immediately, then the more likely we are to want that person to work for us.
Again, it does not diminish your potential for being a designer, or being a creative. You can still pursue your dream even if you spend some time in your career assembling working drawings, or learning how to do construction administration, or answering requests for information. That’s part of your growth, it’s necessary, it makes you a better designer, and all those things are important.
Ultimately, the economics of Architecture is really pretty simple. Schematic design is about 10%, design development is about 15%, and construction documents is 40%. You can see where I’m going, okay? 10% of us at any one point in time are in schematic design. If more of us are working in schematic design, only two things are possible: those people aren’t being paid enough, and that’s bad; or the firm’s losing money, and that’s bad. That’s how it works. So, there.

Enoch: One of the purposes of this podcast, the Business of Architecture, is to help architects increase the profit-margin of their firms. Basically, to pull out best practices out there so we can rise up, and sort of avoid the calamities and buffer ourselves against not making money. So, what things have you seen in your role at PGAV that have then helped you guys maintain a healthy profit and provide that oil to help us do what we need to do?


Al: Execute as well as you possibly can. Be a business man or business person. I’m not gender-specific. Differentiate yourself. Architects (God love us) and I do believe we pursue a noble thing, listen to each other far more than we listen to other people in the world far too much. I believe that we should all talk to each other all the time, help each other as much as possibly can, and listen closely to what we are developing, and innovating, and driving toward in our professional pursuit. Then, we should following each other blindly around and doing what each other does. Instead, do what we ought to do.

Enoch: Give me an example when you say “Doing what each other does.” Give me an example to understand.


Al: That’s a good question. I’ll give you two examples. On the simple, sort of the mundane side, how many Architecture firms have invested hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of dollars in software that the industry told them they had to have? Or that Autodesk told them that they had to have? Not to be disrespectful. We have all the licenses that we’re supposed to have from Autodesk.

Enoch: We got that on the record by the way.


Al: Yeah, thank you.
On the other hand, do you need it all? Back in the old days when you had to upgrade AutoCAD in versions – AutoCAD 2008, AutoCAD 2009 – did you really need to buy it new every year? I watched an awful lot of firms waste an awful lot of money. I don’t mean waste in the sense that the program wasn’t valuable, because it is. But, be a business person. Think about that investment from the point of view of “What are you going to get out of it?” and “Does it help you do a better job for your clients and create a better product?” If it doesn’t, don’t buy it.
I watched a really big firm year after year say, “If we just hadn’t spent all these money on expenses, we would have actually turned a profit this year, we broke-even, but we got to buy all these stuff.” I raised my hand once in their meeting and said, “Why?” Nobody had an answer.
So, first – and I know that sounds like, “Okay, I think architects are dumb.” I don’t think that – but question, deeply. The second thing is: differentiate. We at PGAV, we like to believe we have expanded the services we provide. Do we do schematic design, design development, construction documents, and construction administration? Yes, we do. But, that’s not all we do.
We do creative writing. For example one of the projects we’re enormously proud of is Kennedy Space Center Orbiter Home project where the world will go to see the Atlantis Vehicle, and see the story – there I am telling the “story” word again – of that remarkable spaceship artifact in the context of Architecture.
What we did there was we helped a client get the job by being creative writers. So, that was actually a competition to be given the opportunity to manage the Kennedy Space Center. It was a capital expenditure competition. So, we did the creative-writing, we assisted in the creative writing of what the future of the Space Center ought to be.
Then we did product development. We imagined what the new products at Kennedy Space Center should be. Then, we did program management. We helped that client how those expenditures should roll out over a fifteen-year period, a logical way that would draw new attendance, and create revenue for that client, and grow. Then, once we got the job, we did schematic design, and design development, and construction documents.
My point is we differentiate by creating different products. We extend what we do, and we do things other people don’t do. Then, we do them in the best way absolutely possible. We are seen now – not only in certain niche industries which I admit we work in – we’re seen as story tellers, and product creation guys, and creative guys. We are also seen by those same people as delivery guys.
The entertainment world is awash with architects who are highly creative, but who really would rather not take the project beyond schematic design. We don’t believe in that. We believe that we can be as creative as one of those guys, and do all the things you and I have had so much fun talking about today, and deliver all the way to the end, right down to the nitty-gritty, and be there at the opening party, buying everybody beers and saying, “Didn’t we all do a great job.” Then, the next day be doing the post-occupancy evaluation and re-evaluating what we did for those guys, and get paid to do all that stuff. So, great delivery is a way of distinguishing yourself from your peers.
One of the things I think is very compelling and cool about the concept of your podcast is the notion of helping each other. How can we be better businessmen? How can we make more money and earn a profit? One of the ways is to face the fact that we all compete against each other, so we can all admire each other, and work toward being better colleagues. I love that.
I think I’m generally enthusiastic about what you’re trying to do with your podcast. But, you have to face the fact that Architecture is a business, and business demands competition in the marketplace. So, you are personally trying to do better the thing that you do than the guys you compete against, and you must face this. I honestly think architects and artists in general struggle with that. They want to believe that there is some level of nobility that somehow transcends whether we ought to have to do that. To be blunt, that’s dumb. Don’t do that.
Lesson one is realize that we are competing. Good competition is a noble pursuit. Drive your competition to better at what they’re doing by being better at what you’re doing.

Enoch: Well, Al, it’s been a great conversation. Did we leave anything out?


Al: I had notes. I had a fun time talking to you. Obviously, I can be a little verbose, and I appreciate you letting me run on, and string multiple sentences together without interrupting me. But, I meant what I just said. I do support and endorse what you’re trying to do with your podcast. I think it’s a very cool thing. Keep it up. Keep doing it. And stay in touch with me, I’d like to do that.

Enoch: Oh, we will. Where can people find you to connect with you? You’re on Twitter? Any of the social media sites?


Al: Sure. My Twitter handle is @alcrossjr. The company is @spot_the_zebra. We have a mascot who is a multi-colored zebra. So, find @spot_the_zebra on Twitter, and that’s kind of how you watch our company. Then, of course, we’re on the web: www.pgavdestinations.com.

Enoch: Well, enjoy the rest. This is a Friday; enjoy your weekend, Al. Thanks for joining us.


Al: Thanks again,

Enoch:. You got a cool thing going, keep it up.

Enoch: Alright. Thanks a lot. Bye-bye.


Al: Bye.[/DAP]

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Enoch Bartlett Sears is the founder of the Architect Business Institute, Business of Architecture and co-founder of the Architect Marketing Institute. He helps architects become category leaders in their market. Enoch hosts the #1 rated interview podcast for architects, the Business of Architecture Show where prominent guests like M. Arthur Gensler, Jr. and Thom Mayne share tips and strategies for success in architecture.


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