Tags: Scaling an Architecture Firm
Episode 173

Lessons in Scaling an Architecture Firm with Eric Behr

Enoch SearsNov 11, 2016

Today we speak with Eric Behr. Eric Behr is a principal at AB Design Studio based out of Santa Barbara, California. He is the Director of Studio Operations.

Today you'll discover important lessons in scaling an architecture firm like:

  • How to delegate effectively so the right things get done at the right time
  • How to get past the “2-person office hump” and scale your architecture firm
  • How to avoid the expensive mistake of hiring the wrong person to work at your firm

Go here to watch the second half of our interview on Running an Efficient Architecture Firm

Resources for today’s show:

AB Design Studio, Inc. http://www.abdesignstudioinc.com/
Brooks Atwood Design: www.pod-design.com
A.I.M. Architectural Information Management: www.architectronica.com

Interview Transcript and Members Only Resources:

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Eric: I think it's very important to have sound foundations in terms of how you do things like a policies and procedures in terms of how your office manages it's projects and not just on the architectural side of things but just in an operational sense how you run your company. You have to be able to clearly define what it is that you do in order to delegate that sort of high level accountability.

Enoch: Business of architecture, episode 173. Hello, I'm Enoch Sears and this is the podcast for architects where you'll discover tips, strategies, and secrets for running a profitable and impactful architecture practice. I'd like to invite you to discover how to double your architecture firm income and create your dream practice of freedom and impact by downloading my free four part architecture firm profit map. As a podcast listener you can get instant access by going to freearchitectgift.com.

Today we talked with Eric Bear. Eric is a principal at AB Design Studio based out of Santa Barbara, California. He is the director of studio operations. Today you'll pickup more important business lessons like how to delegate effectively and how to get past the two person office hump if you want to scale your architecture firm. Let's get down to business.

Eric, welcome to business of architecture.

Eric: Thank you, thanks for having me.

Enoch: Absolutely. Eric, tell our listeners about your background and how you came to start working for AB Design Studio.

Eric: I'll give you the long version because it's an interesting story. I grew up in Defiance, Missouri, which is a small country town of about 500 people outside the St. Louis area. I went to college at Kansas State University. Got my master's of architecture there and ended up taking a job in LA. I worked for [inaudible 00:01:52], which is a pretty high profile, mostly residential architecture firm in LA. I worked there for about a year. I graduated in 08. It was right before the recession hit. I had a job, moved to LA, recession hit, and so I got laid off with about the other 75% of the company February of 09, and then ended up moving back to Wisconsin.

Another side story, long story, but I'll say it short. I moved back with a friend of mine who I graduated with from Kansas State to northern Wisconsin deep up in the north woods and we started our own partnership up there. We had applied to every firm that we would want to work for in the country and there was just no jobs then. We joined forces up in the north woods of Wisconsin for about 6 months while we continued to look for employment elsewhere. We kept ourselves busy, did a few design build projects, and created our own presence as an entity up there.

Enoch: Tell me about this design build products. That sounds interesting. Tell me about that foray into Wisconsin.

Eric: It may not be as interesting as it sounds. We did a few, I think our first project was actually a mailbox which is about the coolest mailbox you've probably ever seen. We designed and built a mailbox, then we designed …

Enoch: What was so cool about it? Tell me about, I've got to know now, about the mailbox. I have to know.

Eric: It's interesting, up there the snow gets so deep in the winter so you have all these mailboxes with these 6 foot orange rods sticking up the back end of them so that when the trucks plow the road the snow plows cover up the mailboxes you can still find them and dig them out. We built ours out of wood and had this … We took a very orthogonal, rectangular mailbox, tilted it at about a 30 degree angle so that the top wouldn't be flat, where water wouldn't pool. We had the wood post that it was supported on shaved down and raised 6 feet up back behind the mailbox to this narrowing point rather than the orange rod that held together one's head so that you'd find it in the snow. The rectangle, the mailbox itself, had an inner rectangle that was actually where the mail went, so it had an inner chamber.

We designed it to where when we had mail that we put in the mailbox we would slide out the inner chamber rather then raise a little flag to let the mail lady know that we had put some mail in there. When she accepted it she would push it back in. She didn't like that very much. We had to meet her out there and explain to her how it worked, of course. She didn't like that very much so we ended up having to put one of those little flags on there and simplify it a bit. That was our first project and we put it up on the website. We were pretty proud of it at the moment.

Enoch: Can you send me a picture of that because I know some of our listeners are just dying to actually see it?

Eric: Sure, yeah. I'll send you a picture of the mailbox. We each got side jobs working in some bars and restaurants in the area. One of our next projects was with one of the restaurant owners. He had this storage shed and it had a lean-to in the back that was all run down and deteriorated, so we decided to help him design and build a new addition to that, basically tear down the old one and do a new one. We did a neat modern addition that had some slotted wood and some lighting [inaudible 00:05:19] at night. [inaudible 00:05:20] he got pretty excited about it. We ended up not building it. He brought another contractor on board that was a friend of his that ended up building something slightly different. We got to work with him and throughout the design process and got it all costed out and bid and were ready to build it before it changed [inaudible 00:05:42].

We did some other work with one of the other bars in town. They wanted us to do a deck along with this lake that we were dabbling in some design work with as well as some camp cottages for a camp that was in the area that we did some design work with. That was keeping us pretty busy. I think about the time December hit we realized how cold it gets in northern Wisconsin so Anthon, my business partner up there, took a job with AB Design Studio in Santa Barbara. I ended up taking a job in New York City. We went from sharing our lake cottage together to moving to opposite ends of the country.

I landed in Manhattan working for a one man shop. His name is Brooks Atwood. It was pod media design. He was a very, very creative person. He was also a professor at New Jersey Institute of Technology. I worked with him for about a year. I helped him as an assistant professor occasionally at the university with his studio class. I helped him on his actual architectural projects. I say creative, that word does not do this man justice. He was just extremely unique and creative and fun. He brought that to everything that he designed, so it was a pretty interesting experience for me to work with him.

It culminated in us getting a project that they do every year with the Showtime network in New York City. It's called the Showtime House. Showtime sponsors this, it's sort of an exposition where they select a group of designers mostly from the New York area to design spaces in a new building in New York City that are based on one of the Showtime shows such as Homeland or Dexter. We got the show United States of Terra.

Getting selected was an interesting process. We basically had to present ourselves in front of the Showtime executives. We showed up with a presentation that was themed off of a Bob Dylan song where he's got the posters, the poster board cards with blowing in the wind written on them. We themed our presentation off of that. We had all these crazy poster cards. We went up there and I don't think we even said a word. We just flipped these cards one-by-one in front of the board while we played that Bob Dylan song. They loved it so they selected Brooks and myself to design and fabricate an exhibit for the show United States of Terra.

We ended up getting a penthouse suite of this new high rise residential building in midtown. We designed this crazy experience that was supposed to be like you were inside the brain of a person with a split personality basically. We ended up getting about $10,000 worth of plywood. We designed it into these ribs that created this very uncomfortable experience, these things that went up the wall and spin on the ceiling and came down and touched the ground. As you came into the space you put on headphones as you walked around the space. We worked with this audio designer who created this audio experience where the sound would change as you walked around the space in very odd ways and increased their level of discomfort. It was neat.

We designed that, presented the design back to the executives, got their approval, and then it took about two to three weeks every day to fabricate it, install it and get it all ready to go. It was up for about a month. We had a big red carpet event where a lot of the actors from the shows came and celebrities, and then we opened it up to the public. We had maybe two or three other red carpet-type events along with all the other designers that designed spaces for the other shows.

That was a really great experience. With my friend Anthon working in California and Santa Barbara working at AB Design Studios, hearing really great things about the company, and I was seeing a lot of great work that he was doing, I think having left LA not on my own agenda after I'd moved out there after college I'd been wanting to get back ever since, I think. With Anthon out at AB Design Studio he kept pushing for me to give Josh and Clay, the owners of the firm, a call and just talk about the option that maybe there for me to join the team. I finally took them up on it. I called Josh and had a great discussion.

I think it was early December of 2010. Josh said, “Look, Anthon showed us your work. We really are excited about what we see with your skills and we love Anthon. So you come with a high recommendation from him. We think you'd be a great member of the team. How soon could you get out here?” I tried to negotiate coming out after the Christmas and New Year's holidays. Josh said, “Can you start on Monday?” I think this was a Thursday. They got me on a plane. They flew me out to Santa Barbara and I started work the next day. It was clear that the recession was easing up because they were very busy and they had a lot of big deadlines there at the end of the year, so they got me in there.

Anthon and I buckled down and spent the rest of December really working hard. That was the beginning of my time in AB Design Studio. There was only five of us at the time, counting both Josh and Clay. There was Anthon, myself, and another member of the company who's still working with us, Aramis, so it was the five of us along with both Josh and Clay's wives were doing some part-time work with the company as well. That was the start of something that's grown into something pretty special.

Enoch: Is Anthon still with you guys?

Eric: Anthon's still with us. Anthon actually, we worked together at AB Design Studio for about three years. He met a girl and moved to LA so he left AB and actually started working at Marmol Radziner which was the firm that I worked for when I graduated from Kansas State so our fate seemed to be strangely intertwined. He came back, we opened up a Los Angeles satellite office and went down and had a talk with him and convinced him to come back and join the team now that we had another office so he could have both of his worlds with his girl and his company so he's back.

Enoch: Your title it Director of Operations. Tell me what goes into that role for you? What are you doing on a day-to-day basis?

Eric: I think on a day-to-day basis I think we've refined my title to be more studio director. I think that explains more what my role is. I'm a principal of the company. I'm also the studio director or our Santa Barbara office, which at it's simplest description is really just managing the studio, which by studio I mean the architectural staff that we have in the company with mainly in the Santa Barbara office. On a day-to-day basis I'm the bridger of the gap between the firm owners and the rest of the architectural staff. I do a bit of managing my own projects as an architect. I'm more so a resource to help all of our other staff manage all of our active projects. I'm meeting with all of our project managers on a regular basis to review their projects and where they're at and how things are going, see if they need anything that I could either help with or help connect them with Josh and Clay to resolve or address.

I'm also working with the remainder of our staff, which is mostly production staff in terms of making sure they have plenty of work to do and that they've got a full plate or to make sure they don't have too full a plate. I'm working with everybody to make sure we've got an even workload. I'm analyzing the projects we have and the projects that are coming in to make sure we're sufficiently staffed. If we're not I'm in charge of recruiting and hiring. I'm keeping a constant pocket full of potential candidates that could step in if we need a new project manager or we need another production staff member. I lead the recruiting and hiring process as well as onboarding new staff and training staff to learn how to do things the AB Design Studio way.

I'm largely involved with getting projects started. I assist with proposals and contracts and agreements and really bringing in projects once we have signed agreements and making sure that they get a project team assigned to them and that they get up and running smoothly.

I'm also largely involved in the design of projects. AB Design Studio, I think one of the reasons we're as successful as we are is we really prioritize design in everything we do, no matter what the opportunity. Some projects maybe small, some maybe large, but there's always that opportunity to bring the best design we can bring to that project. I'm involved with the firm owners in generating that initial concept for the project and getting that created and getting the clients enrolled and excited, and then making sure the project managers are executing that design as it moves forward.

Enoch: How much of your time would you say is spent on project management, facilitating meeting, coordinating with other people versus actually designing?

Eric: I would say the majority of my time is in the first category. I would say as a clean number, probably an 80-20 split. I think the majority of my job is managing, making sure we got the right people in the right seats doing the right things, that things are on track, and then getting the right people around the table when things maybe needing a little tuneup or a focused discussion to make sure that they're staying on track. Most of the time spent designing is in a collaborative group environment where we'll pinup the project on the wall and we'll guide around it and we'll have an hour or 2 discussion and with trace paper and pens. It's fast and furious and exciting. That's probably a more minor part of my day-to-day.

Enoch: I know something that a lot of us architects struggle with is we go to school because we love to design, and yet when we get out and start growing our own careers we take different paths. The question I have for you is Eric, just regarding the majority of your time right now being spent on project management, how does that feel for you? How did that process happen? Are you comfortable with that? How does the reflect to your view of architecture and school? Let's talk about that for a minute.

Eric: Good questions. I think you hit it right on the head. When you first come out of college the majority of the work we do in college is design related. That's the game. You come out of school fired up, ready to take on the world and design everything. You start getting into the actual profession. Your opportunity for that is lesser then you would expect. It's funny, as my career has begun you start to also realize that in order to keep a lot of projects moving forward you just don't have a lot of time to design. You start to realize that there's a balance.

I'm pretty pleased right now with the balance I do have. I think AB Design Studio, one of the things we pride ourselves on and we focus on is seeing what skillset each of our staff members is best at, and then making sure that that's what we're getting out of them on a day-to-day basis. I think with my, our firm owners really saw that I have a strong skillset in managing, having a strong skillset in communication, especially with our clients and hearing their concerns and making sure that we're addressing what it is that's important to them. I think that was a natural fit for me to start to take on more of a managerial type role.

I keep a pretty level head. I think that helps in terms of the roller coaster of emotions that can be in an architectural office. It's been a natural fit for me to, like I said earlier, bridge the gap between both Josh and Clay and the rest of our staff and overseeing them and do a type position. Not a lot of frustration on my end. I think I'm given the creative outlet that I need to express that designer in me on regular basis. That keeps me kind of happy.

Enoch: One thing that's common with architectural firms is it does take quite a while for … You don't see a whole lot of people progressing up to the principal level fairly quickly. A lot of times in architectural firms you'll see people working at the lower levels. It's kind of difficult, some people feel, to reach that level. You've done it fairly quickly. Question for you is what was that process like for you? What suggestions do you have for other people? How did that work for you there at AB Design Studio in terms of being promoted to level of principal? I'll followup after you answer that question.

Eric: For me, just to start by explaining what the process was like for me. I mentioned earlier when I began there was a small company. There was about five of us as full-time counting the two firm owners. I think a situation like that lens itself to a more rapid climbing the ladder if you will. When I began there, speaking with a lot of other friends from architecture school that found themselves in more of a corporate setting in larger offices that that was a lot of their words of wisdom was that there'd be some opportunity there for me in this small company to really stake some ground. Now I'm working with the owners themselves heavily on a day-to-day basis on everything I'm doing when I first began.

The opportunity was there for me to develop that relationship with the owners of the company to develop that level of trust, to really learn quickly everything that they have to offer in terms of mentorship. It was like a boot camp. I was given the experience that somebody might take 10 or 15 years to be allowed the opportunity to participate in within a very short period of time. For me it was more of a 3 to 4 year, like I said, boot camp almost. It was tough. I was hard work. It was long hours. It was a lot of responsibility and a lot of, found myself in a lot of situations where I was pretty anxious and uncomfortable. I was given more accountabilities and responsibilities then I felt I was ready to handle in a sink or swim mentality. I certainly fell down plenty of times along the way but was able to grow quickly and learn quickly and be exposed to a lot of different situations quickly.

I think I was rewarded with how I responded to those situations and how I stepped up to those situations. The company all of a sudden just started to grow very, very rapidly. I think there was the first 2 years or so that I was there it was Anthon and Aramus and I really rolling up our sleeves and getting the work done. Josh and Clay really bringing the high level thinking and the creative side of things and the design. We were cranking out some pretty amazing work on a very fast basis. We started to see that people were recognizing that.

As the firm grew we had to hire and hire and hire. It got to the point where we were growing so rapidly that I think it became a challenge for the company to run in a way that it was accustomed to running as a small office. Josh and Clay were at the top calling all the shots and it became real clear real quickly that they needed some support and that executive level to be doing the things that I'm doing now, training staff, making sure things are getting done the way that our company wants to do them, and bridging the gap between themselves and all these new staff members.

Enoch: Eric, that's a crucial jump in an architectural firm's journey going from directly an owner lead organization where the owners have direct access and are managing things themselves to adding another layer of management where some of them step away from that they can bring someone in like a studio manager to do that. Having gone through that process what suggestions would you have for other people who maybe listening to help facilitate that process? What's important to be able to make that happen and allow that growth to occur?

Eric: Great question. Like you said, it's a critical juncture and it's a very challenging one. I think it's something that we have experienced. It's not a fast process. It's something that we're pacing ourselves at and taking some time. I think the quick answer to your question would be I think it's very important to have strong foundations in terms of how you do things, like policies and procedures in terms of how your office manages it's projects. Not just on the architectural side of things but just in an operational sense, how you run your company. You have to be able to clearly define what it is that you do in order to delegate that sort of high level accountability.

What we've really focused on the last couple years is generating what we call the AB handbook in terms of describing how we do what we do. That really gives a strong tool for someone like me to step up and start to help manage that conversation. It was a mixture of just being around and having developed a relationship with Josh and Clay. We started to develop a shorthand. We trust each other. I'm able to carry out their business in a way that they trust that I know what I'm doing, but then to have the support of a strong foundation of a technical side of things. Like I said, policies and procedures allows me to manage a large group of people in a consistent manner.

That would be my advice to a small company that's looking to grow is be documenting how you do what you do, and making sure down to the level of even how you name your files and save them onto your server all the way up to how you, what style of 3D renderings you do and what are your settings for that to, of course, your drawing standards and things of that nature. Making sure all those pieces are very clearly in place so that you're not having to explain it to everybody every time you hire somebody new. You have to define your way of running your company and make sure that the people you're bringing onboard are clear on what that is and that they're up for playing the game that way.

I think that segways into my other advice is really starting to identify your company culture so that you're confident as you bring in new members of the team that they're going to be a good fit. I think that's been another challenge the last few years is just figuring that out the hard way. We've brought in a lot of people based on skills and experience, and then realized that we do things a certain way. We have a company that has a certain culture and despite very qualified candidates that maybe don't match that culture it's not going to work. Identifying that as well will save you a lot of time and heartache so that you know you're hiring the right people.

Enoch: That is a wrap. Thank you for listening today. If you're looking for more time, freedom, impact, and income as an architect get instant access to my free 4 part architect profit map by visiting freearchitectgift.com.

The sponsor for today's show is Arch Reach, the client relationship management tool built specifically for architects. If you want to systematize your marketing and business development Arch Reach will help you do it. Visit archreach.com to learn more. The views expressed on this show about my guest do not represent those of the host and I make no representation, promise, guarantee, pledge, warranty contract, bond or commitment except to help you concur the world.


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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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