Tags: best practicecompetingstrategies
Episode 072

7 Strategies For Making Architecture with Daniel Willis – Part 1

Enoch SearsSep 9, 2014

In this episode we discuss 4 of professor Dan Willis' ‘7 Strategies For Making Architecture'.
They are:

  • collaboration and conviviality (or take the client to lunch)
  • the respected professional and the troping of limitations
  • unconventional practices (or the ‘day job')
  • the imaginatively flawed and provacatively incomplete

Daniel Willis is a professor at the H. Campbell and Eleanor R. Stuckeman School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at Penn State University.

Daniel Willis is also the author of “The Emerald City and Other Essays On The Architectural Imagination”. Get it on Amazon by clicking here (before they run out).

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.

Interview Transcript and Members Only Resources:

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Enoch: Today’s guest is Daniel Willis. Daniel Willis is the author of The Emerald City and other essays on the architectural imagination. He’s a professor at Penn State University.

Professor, Dan Willis, welcome to the Business of Architecture.

Dan: Thank you. Thanks for inviting me.

Enoch: You came out with the book “The Emerald City” in around 1999. Tell us a little bit about this. Then, we’re going to talk a little bit about your strategies for making architecture which relate to how architects can create architecture, and some of the different strategies that architects are doing both to market their firm and to do the kind of projects they want to do.

So, can you just give me a little background of the book, and the process, and how this essay came about?

Dan: Okay. Well, I think I wrote most of the book in 1998. Since I’m a full time academic, I had a sabbatical year. I spent the year trying to take a bunch of threads or strands of things that I was interested in, and, sort of, figure out how they might go together.

I have never written a book before, so it was difficult for me to do that. I had a good piece of advice from someone who said, well, it doesn’t necessarily have to be one chapter leads to another. It could just be a collection of essays. That saved me a lot of angst and worry because I wasn’t really sure, as I was writing, how all of it would come together. So, I, sort of, hit on this essay form. I would take something which I had interest and sort of spin out an essay.

The one that you referred to was called 7 Strategies for Making Architecture. It’s sort of a critique of industrialization and the sort of industrialization of architecture.

Most architects probably don’t really think about the industrial revolution or the industrial mindset and how it affects what they do. What I identify in this book and in other things I’ve written is the ongoing effects of industrialization on architectural practice and the production of buildings. In some ways, this is a, sort of, critique of that because, I think, I was looking for ways that may be more akin to this longstanding tradition of the architect as a crafts person or as an artist, and still realizing that the people that practice architecture had to make a living out of it and had to be, at least to some degree, successful in business.

So, it was, I think, in a way, a kind of, oddball way of looking at it, but I still want it to be practical. I wanted them to be realistic suggestions even though they’re probably a little bit whimsical and they’re not the sort of thing you’d agreed with in Businessweek (some articles suggesting how architects can make more money).

Enoch: So, you talked about industrialization with regard to architecture. Can you define that for me and how that relates to architecture?

Dan: Yeah. The key word and the definition would be “Efficiency.” It would be the quest to make architectural practice more efficient just like the industrialization of, almost anything, the production of automobiles, or textiles, or a set of practices that made that operation more efficient.

So, I’m a, kind of, critic of efficiency. I realized that it has great value in some instances, but I also think it’s tremendously overvalued in our society, in part, because it’s relatively easy to measure. We tend to overemphasize those things that we can easily quantify and we have a difficult time putting enough value on things that are difficult to quantify.

It’s relatively easy for an architecture firm to figure out their profitability and whether they’ve succeeded on making a profit on a project. It’s a lot harder for them to quantify the value of the building that they designed as architecture or to say, you know, “This is a masterpiece,” or, “This is a mediocre building,” or “This is a failure of a building.” That’s a lot harder to quantify.

In a way, my strategies all have this, sort of, skeptical attitude toward efficiency. Frederick Taylor was the efficiency expert and was known for time and motion studies and applying that to industrial production. To some degree, a lot of what you read about architectural practice today, things about BIM, and, in the 80’s, about CAD, talk a lot about making the production of architectural designs more efficient. So, there’s a kind of lineage there that goes back to the kind of things Frederick Taylor was trying to do for manufacturing.

Enoch: What ways do you feel that this quest for efficiency hurts architecture firms or the industry?

Dan: One issue is that architects really enjoy what they do – most of them anyway. Since I teach, most of our students are very much in it for the love of designing and doing things creative. They’re not yet at the stage where they’re trying to earn a living. I think, all architects, at least initially, get in to the field because they think that it will be challenging, and creative, and will fulfill their need to make the world a better place, and to create things.

I’m not sure that those attitudes and that reward that you get from doing the work of architecture is completely compatible with the quest for efficiency. I think there are some ways that you can have an efficient practice and still a very rewarding work experience for the people, but it’s often taken too far, I guess, in our society. So, I think it’s a challenge for an architecture firm to make sure that everyone is well-compensated, the firm’s profitable, and yet everyone’s very proud of the work they do, and derives a lot of personal pride and satisfaction from the work they do. I think that’s very challenging to get that mix right.

Enoch: Why do you think it’s so challenging?

Dan: Again, because I think there’s a level of incompatibility. I borrowed from the philosopher Hannah Arendt the distinction between work and labor. Most people use those words synonymously, but she was one of the first people to say they’re two different things.

I’ve refined her definitions a little bit. Basically, labor is industrial production. It’s what Taylor was after. It values output and efficiency of output. Work, in my definition, has other benefits. It may be very productive, and it may be, at times, efficient, but work is its own reward. People that enjoy doing work, somebody that has a garden outside their house and tends the garden – that’s a lot of work for them to have a beautiful garden, but they derive a lot of pleasure from it. So, it’s sort of hard to square that with some of our definitions.

Most of the time when we talk about work, we talk about minimizing it. We talk about how, you know, we would like to work as few hours as possible so we have the maximum amount of leisure time. But, it’s interesting to see what people do with their time off. They often work very hard. They have something like a garden, or they restore an old boat, or they have a classic car that they tinker with and take care of. So, I guess, I believe a lot of our contemporary theories of industrial psychology are still, to me, kind of, trapped in this sort of Taylor-ist definition and conceptual framework, which I don’t think is particularly relevant to a field like architecture that’s creative.

There are some other problems that I have recently been tieng to issues of sustainability too. I also don’t think labor is sustainable. You become exhausted. You get bored with your job. I think there’s an inherent unsustainability about that type of production, whereas people that really enjoy their work… People often remark about how architects never retire and there are many architects working in their 80’s. I think that’s a sign that architects really enjoy the work of designing things and don’t see it as something they should minimize or hurry up and finish so they could go home and watch television.

Enoch: Well, within that framework, Dan, let’s talk about your strategy number one which is: Collaboration and Conviviality.

Dan: Yeah. I subtitled that “Take the Client to Lunch.” So, it really came down to breaking down the barrier of a strictly business relationship with the client and actually developing, if not a friendship, at least a kind of mutual appreciation. I think that that’s somewhat inherent of what professionals have always aspired to do: the idea of a profession and practicing as a professional was really a relationship built on trust with the client.

It was never strictly about making money or maximizing profit. It was really, kind of, founded on this idea that you would win the trust of the client and the client would trust you to offer very good advice or the best possible service. Basically, strategy one, somewhat restates that or tries to revive that professional goal, but I also talk a little bit about collaboration with other people, like the contractors that build buildings.

Again, I wrote this in the late 90’s, but a lot of what I described as a, kind of, convivial working relationship between the builder, the contractor, and the architect is what integrated project delivery is trying to do today. That term, I didn’t know of it at that time. I don’t think people were talking about integrated project delivery exactly in that term in the late 90’s, but at least the goal that I was describing is shared by IPD. I’m a little skeptical of the method, but I do think that that is a worthwhile goal.

Enoch: Let’s talk about the method there because I do see a little bit of a dichotomy here, Professor, with your talk about a certain critique of efficiency, and yet, I know that, IPD, one of the primary purposes behind that is to increase efficiency.

Dan: Yeah. I think that it should do that in an ideal situation or when it works well. I guess, where I very much agree with the goals of IPD is the collaborative working relationship between the parties. I do believe a lot of difficulty in the practice of architecture has come from the somewhat adversarial relationships that can develop between the client and the architect, and the architect and the builder.

A lot of that was the result of the, sort of, design bid and build method. I though, you know, whenever the contractor was under pressure and was in danger of losing money, the working relationship usually went sour because they were at great risk of losing large amounts of money.

So, the IPD by making everyone a member of a kind of business entity where they all share responsibility, they all have a common goal to build the building, and to get it done efficiently, I support those and I think those are worthy goals. My only skepticism– I’ve never actually been on an IPD team. I’ve not done any projects done that way, but I’m aware of some of the projects of my university. Penn State has been done that way. I know friends, architects who have worked on IPD projects.

I’m a little concerned about the role of the architect on that collaborative team – if the architect is really seen as one specialist among many specialists. I know some teams have done things like they’ve got the group of people in the integrated project team together and they’ll give everybody a Myers Briggs personality test, and try to determine who’s outspoken, and who might be an introvert, and what sort of types of personalities are in the room in an attempt, I think, to put everyone on an even playing field. But, I’m a little worried about that.

I think that the architect’s role is really not to be a specialist among other specialists, not to be the design specialists. I think the architect’s role is to be the integrator. People say that architects are the last generalists or they facetiously would say that architects should specialize and not specializing.

What we should try to do is know enough about all the various aspects of a building project that we can help the client make the intelligent tradeoffs that need to be made between competing goals because with every complicated project you’re faced with making tradeoffs and difficult decisions. It seemed to me that that is the role that architects are uniquely qualified to play.

So, again, without having actually gone through a project and been part of the process, I’m looking from afar. I am somewhat concerned if the players in an IPD process are all seen as, sort of, specialists. When it’s an issue of constructability then the construction manager steps forward and that’s the specialist you talk to. If it’s an issue of the electric- electrical system of the building, the electrical engineer steps forward.

I would hope that the architects can somehow retain a role of the person that understands it all, and has a, sort of, global vision, and can, sort of, make decisions between, again, difficult trade-offs, I guess is the best way I can say it. That’s my only concern so far about the IPD process, but I endorse the goals. I think they are good goals.

Enoch: Okay. You’re second strategy for making architecture here is: Respective Professional and Troping of Limitations.

Dan: So, again, I think it’s similar to the first one in that I’m trying to underline the status of the professional and that this relationship of trust be built up. So, another thing that I’m a bit concerned about is this globalization of architectural practice.

In that chapter, I believe I used Fay Jones’ practice from Fayetteville, Arkansas as an example. Early on my Sabbatical I had gone to Fayetteville and I gave a lecture at the University of Arkansas. I spent a day, basically, at his office and met the people working there, and talked to everyone, and sort of got a sense of their practice.

Based on my memory, I think, it was probably about eight people who worked in his office at that time. He and his partner Maurice Jennings, and there was a, sort of, Senior Project Manager who was a guy probably in his mid-forties, and then there was some younger people, some students from the university. It was a very small practice and it was a very regional practice until very late in his career when he became, sort of, nationally and internationally known. It was very much a regional practice, so the bonds that he was able to form with clients and with his community… Again, I’m a little bit concerned with the, sort of, globalized practice if that gets lost. I do think that there’s still a value in making connections to one’s community.

Certainly there’s a marketing component to that, but I also think it goes to that question of trust, and also that you get to know a place and you get to know what’s appropriate for that place. I think it’s hard to replace that kind of familiarity.

Although, I also recognize the building that I’m in. This office was designed by Overland Partners from San Antonio and it’s a LEED Silver certified building. Them being in San Antonio and the building being in Pennsylvania, I thought that they had a very interesting take on that. They also worked with a more regional firm, a firm from Pittsburg, WTW, but they said that by not being from Central Pennsylvania, it allowed them to see the place in a different way than perhaps an architect from this area could. So, they thought that it was important for them to try to understand the place, but also to know that they could bring something new or they could, sort of, reframe it in a different way.

I do think they were right. I think that was intelligent comment. I do think it is possible for architects to practice somewhere where they’re not familiar with the area. I don’t want to go so far to say as everybody should practice in their hometown or where they live, but I do still have a bit of a concern about the globalization of architecture and, sort of, the loss of place or the specialness, the uniqueness of the place. I thought Overland Partners was aware of that and they did everything in their power to try to build that awareness in to their design practice, which I respect a great deal when I heard them say that.

So, this strategy is really about trust and maybe building relations with the community. I’m trying to think what else I wrote… Again, I think, it’s a way of trying to relate to the client, and to break down any kind of barrier that might exist between the architect, and their clients, and their community. So, that was number two, I think.

Enoch: Excellent. Alright. Now, in your number three here – it’s interesting – Unconventional Practices: The Day Job. Tell me about that one.

Dan: I think this one is mainly an awareness that many contemporary architectural practices, because of the pressure to succeed in business, must limit themselves. Maybe they limit themselves by doing a certain building type. Maybe they limit themselves by a certain, sort of, mode by practicing. Maybe they get work primarily through large construction managers and contractors, so they sort of forge relationships that way.

In any case, when a practice does limit itself in a way that makes economic sense, or business sense for the firm, but perhaps the employees are a bit unfulfilled or risks boredom setting in because things become too formulaic, then the possibility exists to do other kinds of projects but maybe outside the structure of the day job or the main practice.

One example I mentioned in the book came from some of our former students. Many of our students who work within the Philadelphia area, some of them working in offices in Philadelphia, would get together in the evenings and enter design competitions. They would do that outside of their firm. The group that would get together, the team that would form to do the competition, would be from various firms, so there was no one firm that they represented.

Then, as I was, thinking about these things and doing some research for my book, I came upon the Japanese firm Team Zoo. That’s basically how Team Zoo functions in Japan. It was a number of architects gathered at different places throughout Japan who enjoyed working together and looked for certain challenges where they could pursue projects together, but initially outside of the organization of their particular firms.

That evolved in to a group of ateliers and they gave an animal name to each ones. They had an elephant, and a monkey, and a rhinoceros, so that’s how it became Team Zoo. They could practice independently or they could come together to make a larger firm to pursue a larger project. So, that kind of flexibility – not seeing the organization structure, the practice, as a, kind of, straightjacket that you can’t get out of, but recognizing that you could step outside of that – I thought was a good strategy.

Some firms, I’ve also since found out that some firms encourage that behavior. AECOM, the Washington D.C. office of AECOM, has something called a “Young Development Group” where they encourage the young architects to work on design competitions after hours and outside of the main, daily operations of the firm. They support them, and they give them help and resources, which I think is really the strategy being played out in a very large firm. So, I still think that this one has some merit. Yeah.

Enoch: Interesting. Let’s move on to number four. Your fourth strategy here is: Imaginatively Flawed and Provocatively Incomplete Architecture.

Dan: Yeah. So, looking back at this, I’m not sure it’s strictly a practice strategy. It’s almost more a design philosophy, but I guess, they do overlap to some degree. Besides my skepticism of the industrialization of architectural practice and the overemphasis on efficiency, I’m also very ambivalent or skeptical about a quest for perfection or completeness. I think, that those tend to be unrealistic goals and that they tend to, sort of, distort a project in a way that’s not typically helpful.

I tend to be a fan of projects that are, kind of, inherently incomplete. I think, again, I’ll use an example that’s close to home here. The benefactor for this building for our architecture school, a gentleman by the name of Cal Stuckeman, when they were designing the building, he kept asking, “Where is the addition going to go?” The architects would, kind of, look at him and he’s like, “Every building ends up having an addition at some point in its life. I want to know if you’ve thought of that.”

I think that’s very wise because I think buildings undergo lots of changes throughout their lives. Oftentimes, the architects not only, sort of, pretend not to be aware of that, but actively try to inhibit that. In other words, “This is the perfect object and you can’t change anything.” But, people do change the building, and the architect really has no control over or very little control.

So, I’m sort of, recommending an idea of an architecture that can adapt and can change. I guess, where that could be, to some degree, a business strategy is that if you design buildings that can adapt and change, and if you as an architect can perhaps have a continued role in the life of the building, the client may come back to you and say, “Okay it’s time to change this. I understand that you’ve always, sort of, you thought that way. Tell us what the best way to make this building adapt.”

I guess I see it a bit as a business strategy but it’s also very much a kind of design philosophy for me that the buildings are always incomplete. Stewart Brand has that book “How Buildings Learn,” and he has statement in there that says, “A building is not something you finish. A building is something you start.”

I mentioned in the book that even in our AIA construction contracts, it’s very difficult to say when the building is 100% complete. So, really, the important date is the substantial completion when the owner can use the building for its intended purpose. The final completion can be dragged on. It can be that they just haven’t submitted some manuals for how equipment in the building works or they haven’t completed some testing or something.

If we look at our construction contracts, it’s very difficult to say that a building is ever complete, kind of, like the story about the Golden Gate Bridge that by the time they put a coat of paint on it, they have to start over and go back and repaint it. I’m not sure that’s true, but that’s the urban legend. I think it’s very misleading for architects to think of a building as something that you can finish.

Enoch: Well, I know that that definitely harkens back to my days in architecture school.

Dan: It was hard to finish then, too.

Enoch: You’re never finished. Never finished. Well, Professor, we covered your first four strategies that were very enlightening and thought provoking. I’d like to, well, finish up the second three strategies in the second part of our interview.

Dan: Okay.

Enoch: So, I want to thank you for joining us on the Business of Architecture. First of all, just tell us where people can find out a little bit more about your work and reach out to you if they have any additional comments or questions?

Dan: Well, the book that we’re talking about, unfortunately, is out of print. It was published by Princeton Architectural Press, but if you go to the department of Architecture at Penn State University, the website, you can link to me. I also have a much more recent book called “Architecture and Energy” that’s out. I was co-editor of that book but that’s published by Routledge. We also have a website called Architecture and Energy, so you can go to that website and find it.

Enoch: Excellent. Thanks for being on the show.

Dan: Okay. Thank you.

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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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