Tags: management
Episode 192

Taking Your Firm to the Next Level with Josh Blumer

Enoch SearsApr 4, 2017

In this episode, AB design studio principal Josh Blumer talks about how to take your architecture firm to the next level.

AB design studio is an award-winning architecture firm based out of Santa Barbara, California.

Josh Blumer began his Santa Barbara architectural career working ten years with a top Southern California architecture design firm where he gained valuable experience in design, project management and construction while designing and executing custom high-end residential projects and award-winning commercial Tenant Improvement projects. In 2005, Josh joined forces with architect Clay Aurell to create AB design studio.

In today's episode, you'll discover:

  • A cool, low cost tool for increasing your firm's efficiency
  • How to create business systems that work
  • How many projects a project architect should manage

Go here to watch the second half of our interview on Architecture Firm Business Operations 101

Resources for today’s show:

AB Design Studio Inc

Interview Transcript and Members Only Resources:

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Josh: As firm owners starting a firm, we were two architects working together, side by side.

Enoch: Business of Architecture: Episode 192. 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's interview is with Josh Bloomer. He's a principal AB design studio based out of Santa Barbara, California. Without further ado, let's get into today's episode.

Josh, welcome to The Business of Architecture.

Josh: Thank you for having me.

Enoch: This is pretty cool, because we actually get to round out, I think, all three principals at the firm. We had Clay Aurell on, we had Eric Beyer was recently on an episode. And now we get to talk with Josh Bloomer.

Josh: That's right. Last but not least.

Enoch: Last but not least. You said you had the opportunity to listen to the interviews with your colleagues before this episode, and you said it was kind of interesting to talk about the firm from their perspective. Do you mind sharing some of those insights that you got from listening to them talk about the business side.

Josh: We're a very intimate firm. Clay and I have been working together for just about 16 years now professionally, and have developed a very close friendship. It's always interesting to hear Clay or Eric speaking to others about their interpretations of the work we do. It's just a different perspective. We take so much for granted having such an intimate work relationship, the day in, day out kind of … I was gonna say the grind of it. But at the end it's kind of typical work interactions they go a certain way. It's always inspiring to hear others speak about your work. It's one of the unique things about being an architect that I think we get to enjoy, because most people go to work, and they don't have a critical review of their work, especially in a public way. They just do their job. Part of architecture, with us, at least in the way we're doing it definitely includes putting it out there for others to interpret, and hopefully give us critical feedback, but have it be a part of a larger critical discourse on what we're doing in the movement that is architecture in Southern California and the Western United States, and hopefully pushing those boundaries as we move forward more and more.

I thought it was just refreshing to hear them speaking about it. It's kind of like a shot in the arm when you start to get out of your office and studio mindset, and just review it from the outside looking in, so to speak.

Enoch: Do you remember a particular insight that jumped out at you? Either from the conversation I had with Eric or with Clay, that maybe a little light bulb went off. You thought, “Oh, that's interesting that he put it that way.”

Josh: I'm trying to remember that, and for some reason it's not clicking. I listened to Clay's interview a while back. I guess the way I'd answer that though is in a more general way, is that as we've developed the firm, Clay and I, I think he mentioned some of this in his interview, but he talked about at one point we talk about a lot. Back in 2011, Clay and I sat down. We had kind of a moment in our firm where we realized we need to make some moves to kind of unhinge what we were doing and take it to the next level. One of the things we came to was more of a divide and conquer strategy. As firm owners, starting a firm we were two architects working together, side by side. Around 2011, we created this out of conversation in the firm to start to relax that notion on how to do the work, and divide and conquer. Clay went in a more business development marketing direction, and I went to more operational studio management kind of focus. I think that also opened the door really at that same moment to let Eric in as a partner, or as a principal, because we started looking at the firm in terms of bases that need to be covered, and how much bend with any one of us could handle and handle effectively.

I remember at the time looking at some articles written about how many projects can an architect handle effectively within reason. I think those things that we were researching, like eight to 10 is kind of an established number for an architect in terms of what their capacity is to manage with due care and all those things. That was a real exciting shift, and there was a ton of growth and forward movement for our firm when we actually made that shift. One thing that I will say that we decided at that point, and we're maintaining to this day, is we decided that we wouldn't divide and conquer on design. That design would be one element that we would not divvy up. I think part of that was mainly for Clay and I getting into the profession as architects, and our love for being architects, and our passion about the design part that's central to that. Neither of us wanted to delegate that or have that become somebody else's responsibility. It's also kind of the place where we, together, as a friendship, as a partnership, and as fellow architects that's the table we come to to get together and really, I think, center ourselves inside of what we're up to. Because for those who are running architecture firms, there's so many bases that have to be covered. There's the business part of it, and of course, this is the business architecture we're talking about here.

The business of architecture has the tendency, or it can, pull you away from the fundamentals of being an architect or being a project manager or designer. I think a lot of us have a lot of pride, and a lot invested into training and developing ourselves into architects and designers. Of course, for us, interior designers too it's been a good way for us to manage the threat of the only loss of that participation as we've taken on firm ownership, and really learned what it takes to run a company of people, which is a different training with different discipline. To manage those two things side by side, and still maintain yourself as an architect, that's not an easy task. It's challenging, and it goes through phases, I know. As the years have progressed there's been a lot to learn in that reconciliation as well between the two of them.

Enoch: How did you get to the point where you recognized that you needed to … something needed to change? You talk about this pivotal moment when you started dividing up tasks. Draw a picture for me of what that looked like so you were able to recognize that.

Josh: Fundamentally if you really want to be honest about it [inaudible 00:07:51]. A big part of the fuel that fuels a good architecture firm, or at least speak for myself, what's been there for me is inspiration. We joke around about how passionate we are, and where that leads us to. Sometimes from a business standpoint our logic is more based in a passion to pursue our interests as architects and move ourselves forward in terms of what we're trying to accomplish in terms of whether it's a design typology that we want to master, or just the quality of detailing, or certain style of architect that we want to really take ourselves deeper into, and form a new aspect of design opportunities that align with kind of a deeper investigation with certain types of architecture and building types. I don't know, I think at the end of the day it's just not feeling grounded in that. The passion it starts to kind of get eroded by the day to day grind with trying to cover a lot of bases.

I think also, too, as business partnering there's something to be said about starting … A lot of architecture firms start with partnerships. Sometimes you see husbands and wives take it on, or other partner relationships that folks have, or people who work together, and find that they work well together and go off to start [inaudible 00:09:28]. It's easy to take the competitiveness of a studio or just try and compare each other … I think in some way, they try to maintain a 50/50 partnership like we had. You want to make sure that you're doing just as much work as the other person. Fundamentally, Clay's got talents in areas where I just can't compete with him, and I think the same's true for me in the other way. I think it what kind of a normal where we acquiesce to that to say, “Look, I can't compete with you when it comes to your ability to go out and find me work with clients, and develop initial relationships.”

Clay's very visionary, and he's looking out with a certain level of … there's a boldness to his vision, and sometimes it intimidates me. I'm always there to back him up, but it's great when he's out front with that. When he does land projects, or when he does accomplish or get us to certain plateaus, I'm really reliable to cash those checks. My focus has been on the delivering the big promise that he's making. I think truly we both make that promise together, and we both deliver it together, but when we get into the emphasis of what goes on behind the door when we close it and go do our work that nobody else knows but us. There is an emphasis there, and we play that power. The thing I guess that was really notable outcome is when I notice is when we unhinged each other from each other in that way. I notice that Clay's and my growth in our respective areas where we had the abilities exploded was almost like we unhooked each other from one another, and we were able to grow in the new areas much more rapidly but with a lot more freedom. I notice that Clay's ability to move out and push families in terms of how we share in our work really increased quickly after that.

And then we have, I think, some pretty big step forwards in terms of our production in our internal operations, and I focused that to be more direct and clear at that point that I was going to cover all the little bases at that point. And again, as we divided into that, Eric showed up in the middle as somebody that we really needed. Where we're headed now with it, for me, I'm getting an opportunity to focus myself as a centered element of the firm. I spend a lot of my time focusing on architecture detailing, how we're putting projects together, thinking about [constructability 00:12:20]. I spend a greater amount of time on the job site than the two of them. That's where my passions lie, that's where my energy to do this comes from. Not to take anything away from the other principals, they love those things too, but for me it's fundamental. I have to be at the job site, I have to put my hands on the work, I have to be in a learning process with builders for me to really enjoy this. It's refreshing. For me that's just … I like to experiment in the studio. I like to take it out to the job site, and see how it lands, and take the information that I'm learning from the job site back, and that's the cycle for me.

Enoch: Josh, you talked about getting to this point where you decided you wanted to grow. I know there's a lot of architects. They have the question, “Do I want to grow?”

Josh: Yeah. That's a good question, and I don't know that we've asked the question properly, and certainly I don't have the sense that we've answered it yet. We're always, first of all, looking at that question and looking at it newly each year for each time it comes up. I think the notion of what that means to you as a firm owner changes as you evolve too. Certainly from the lens of sitting in a studio with four or five, you know, two or three to four to five, maybe six or seven folks, and looking at going to 20, 25 people or even further. There's some obvious growth concerns that you're looking at as you weigh that. Once you've actually done that, which we have, I think we've gone as far as having 20 … I think the maximum size of the firm that we've reached it in the last few years is about 29. We seem to have landed at about a 20, 25 person firm. That seems to be where we're currently hovering.

The question initially is looking at a return on investment, so to speak. We had put a lot of investment into systems. A few years back we'd put an investment in the building of space to do the work. It's as simple as looking at counting how many desks, and computers, and what kind of office support you want to have. All those things become expenses. So then, the question is, “How much revenue do I need to cover these expenses, and still be profitable? What's the magic number?” I think that was the initial concern. Depending on where you are, and what region you are, and the type of work you're doing, there's some variance there. Most architects, I think, have enough training and skill, and probably ability by the time they're looking at that to kind of navigate that themselves. At least, most of us think we can pull it off, and I think if you're willing to work very hard, and be willing to drive yourself crazy a little bit, sure, you can do that.

I think what we learned along the way, and it goes back to my earlier comments, it starts to become a dilemma between running a company and being an architect. If you have a passion for running a business, and being an entrepreneur and you're an architect, well then you've taken on some pretty steep challenges. Those things don't tend to agree with each other always. What I think showed up for us is the way, at least it has been and it continues to be, the way we've dealt with that I think is opened up the leadership of the firm to people like Eric Bayer, who is a principal now. He's a young principal, but he was able to understand how the business needed to run, and therefore became a vital component to it. It wasn't so much him having 30 years of experience that we were relying on, it was his understanding of how the company, at a certain part of our studio, frankly, needed to operate in order for us to continue doing what we're doing. It freed Clay up to do the things he wanted to do. It freed me up to do the things I wanted to do.

Recently, we've actually been fortunate to bring in some of the, probably I think would be fascinating for you to interview if you're really looking at the business of architecture, is Al Harris. Al Harris has come into our firm at an executive level, and he's our director of operations. It's interesting within a typical corporate structure, you have a CEO, and a CFO, and a COO. When you have two architects who own the firm, you essentially are pushing in a direction where you have two CEOs. That's tricky, because there's something that works about the conventional structures. They're not there by accident. They're tried and true stuff out there that … especially as an architect it doesn't really make sense to go reinvent how people do business. We've got enough on our plate. It's probably better to go figure out how business gets done, and trying to figure how to have your architecture work, and flourish inside of that. But Al coming on board as an operational person with business acumen, has been another step for us to achieve this ability for clearing the state architect focused and design centric, allow Eric the opportunity to manage a really productive studio environment, and now we have Al working with us to create a much more sound business practice that doesn't require Clay and I to burn ourselves out. I think that is creating a certain amount of sustainability to the firm.

We talk about sustainability as a practice for environmentally sound architectural design. I always think of sustainability in a business sense. Can you provide a certain level of service and quality and maintain it over time, and not have it break underneath you because you're really pushing too hard into areas where one failure leads to another. We've got multiple layers of management now, and people are focused in areas where we really are able to make impact with design, or impact with our business ability, or impact with our marketing ability, or impact with our studio in terms of production. [crosstalk 00:19:27]

Enoch: Do you feel that you have your full team built out now? It sounds like you recently brought Al on. That fills in one piece of the puzzle. Are there any other team members that you guys feel that you need to really feel like, man we have our team right here.

Josh: The last few years we've spent a lot of time in the room talking about, and creating a better executive level of leadership in the business. We've got office administrators, and people supporting us in the sales and marketing part of the firm. We've a good, solid accounting department. We have executive assistant. We've got a lot of support at the top, and I think with Al, it's really, yes, he's brought a final piece to that. It's really needed to have an excellent business, and I think we've created a very high standard, and I think it's typical of architects as well. We have this high standard for our work, and we've carried that over and created a high standard for our business environment that we've created. Our clients are very important to us, so we want to serve them as best we can. I think he's helping us, and we've developed together a good place to do that.

I think where the focus next goes for the firm that I'm seeing, and this is really centric to my mission, is really looking to the studio. What are we doing as a studio of production architects? Being able to take design through the process and the construction, and really feed power to that part of the firm. That's my focus, and that's where I see a lot of growth opportunity for the firm. We've recently invested in ArchiCAD, which a BM type software. We're exploring the new opportunities in Bluebeam, which is, I think the industry's going to a more paperless environment, and we've been using that at construction sites, and learning to evolve with that process. We're looking at 3D modeling opportunities that talk well with our CAD program. Growth in our firm may look like a … I think we're starting to have conversations about developing positions for a typical CAD manager for our production specialists. We've always maintained a hand illustration capability. A lot of our work goes into 3D modeling, and then it goes back to the table, and hand illustration kind of develops more emotive designing presentation that gets that conceptual part of the project really solidly handled.

One of the things I've really been pushing for and excited about with my younger staff architects graduating from college coming in to work for us, and our interior designers as well, is that I'm really interested in design work flow, and putting that design work on their desk as a part of their typical work process. We have designers and drafters, the entry level positions to architecture. I'm always trying to open that up. I want the design work to be on their desks, frankly. I don't want to have those conversations reside exclusively with myself and the principals, and then working with the senior designer to create a evocative or convincing image through illustration or design, and then hand it back to them as something they need to work out. I'm constantly trying to put them at the front of that conversation and have them in the gears with us as we do that.

One of the things I've been exploring is the use of ArchiCAD is a … ArchiCAD has an opportunity to create a 3D model in a SketchUp format. SketchUp's a program that everybody uses. There's so many different programs out there to use, but what I'm interested is trying to consolidate them into one process. And have our staff being able to generate three dimensional conceptual design digitally, and still have it work as a concept, and not have it have that hard finished quality but keep it loose and [inaudible 00:23:51]. We've been playing with that a lot. And then having them have a hands-on experience with that, and then have them take that to the next step where it starts to get refined into a more of the working drawing set, and seeing that transition. To me, one of the most important things that I see for architects to practice is how to go from concept to a working drawing that you're using it for design approvals or getting your clients to the next step or engaging consultants and so forth.

On the other end of it is this piece where we hand drawings in the field for construction. What happens there, and have you translate between those two activities, and constructing and drawing schematics or doing specification in working drawings, those are two different activities that connect. Really, the architect goes to work to make that connection where the better we do in that transition from our desk to the field, the better the buildings, the better the design, the better the outcome. I think the other end of that again going back to the other side of the concept, we're kind of taking our clients dreams, desires, what they want to do, their program or their initiative. We're translating that into something tangible. It's kind of similar. There's a leadership opportunity for architects to facilitate the process on both ends of that. Everything that happens in the middle, I'm sure this is an oversimplification of it, is kind of what happens in the studio. It's like how we process it with our engineers and put our specs together and all that, but there's this two ends of the process where we're bringing in an idea and then we're putting the idea into the ground.

I think those are the areas where I'm always fascinated, and trying to figure out how to have the software, the design work for the process, be a match to that, and not have it be consolidated just one or two people in the firm. That it becomes kind of like a firm wide phenomenon, or an opportunity. That's also, I think our obligation to teach our younger architects how to be architects. I think the apprenticeship and mentorship process is still alive and well in our profession, and it serves us. The introduction of digital software, and old school, new school conversations that we're grappling with. They have an effect on that. I think how to implement it. What I'm always looking for is how to get maximum participation.

We're definitely heading in the … This is something that Clay and I have talked about for years, and want to always be a part of our firm is the collaborative leadership, collaborative design. Top down thinking is probably a thing of the past. If you look in business today, there's a lot of discussions about collaborative leadership. It seems to be how things are getting done now. Architects we've been, I think, hip to that for quite some time when it comes to design. I think as you start to poke your head into the business world and hear those terms, you realize, “Oh that's the same thing going on there that's going on in our profession.” Our collaborative design process is really just collaborative leadership, 'cause we're actually pointing the direction for the client, and we're doing that with contractors in the field. We're actually leading a process that gets things built from an idea. It's exciting.

Enoch: Josh, what would say is your core focus right now in the firm?

Josh: I'm always interested in clients in what's going on with clients and trying to … because anything that's sourcing the opportunity of a project is something I'm interested in. If we're up against a challenge with a condition in the field where we have bad soils or we have a tricky structural system to overcome. I tend to want to go figure out how to solve that problem to keep our design in the original side of the project alive. A lot of times that ends up being the client. The clients come in with expectations and needs, and they have to adjust them as they move through the process, 'cause the project starts to become its own thing at some point. It wants to design itself. It starts pointing itself at the code and zoning regulations, and all that with city ordinances. It has to respond to all those things as it cascades through the process.

A big part of our job is to help our clients move along in the process with it, because most the times they've never been through that. There's some of that with builders too, getting them to understand why things have to be done certain ways, and very regulated and pretty tricky environment to build in. I'm always interested in what's impacting the quality of our projects. That takes me around the office a bit, but I'd say if I really look at what I'm spending most of my time on, I'm spending most of my time working with the people in our studio, trying to grapple with complicated projects, and I think holding a pretty strong line to make sure that they get the best design and best solution as possible for what the work becomes to hire.

Enoch: Fantastic. Just to make sure I understand, it sounds like what you're saying is that you are a problem solver, you're heavily involved in the construction document side of things, taking those designs into how does that get translated into drawings, and then how does that get translated into the field? Did I catch it right there?

Josh: Yeah, and I think the one thing that carries through that whole process for me is the focus on design. I want our work to have a signature. I want people to come with us and be able to have a signature design. Even if it's a simple thing as a bathroom in a restaurant, I want the end user, I want the client, I want the recipient of that work to look at that and say, “Somebody thought about this a little bit.” If it's not inherently beautiful, then there's an inherent smartness to it. There's a quality of care, like a thought that went into making it better. I actually … It's just about trying to make a difference. I want the stuff that we're doing to have impact. I don't want to just do something because it's … But not everything avails itself outright, but your passions take you where they take you. Architects tend to mess around with stuff.

Enoch: When you're thinking about making a difference, there can be a conflict there if you feel like you're trying to push some agenda on the client, versus working with clients who agree with the kind of impact that you want to make. How do you guys select the projects that you want to work on, and then how do you get your design and what you guys are passionate about, how do you get the client to buy off on that? I'm imagining, from what you said, it sounds like you guys have a definite direction you want to head the projects. Tell me about the process of getting the clients to align with that vision.

Josh: I think first of all, a big for architect in a firm in a position of firm ownership, or making decisions about what projects come into the office, you have to arrive at a certain point where you can actually be a good measure for what's the right project for your firm? Sometimes that's about timing, and sometimes that's about capacity, and sometimes it's just assessment of the conditions of the client. What are the offering? How many resources that they have, or what resources they have. I don't think we tend to … I guess just to close that thought, we're starting to get a certain level of confidence around that. It's different than where we started. Our firm's 11 years, going on 12 years. In certain light, that's a pretty young firm. We've been at this, both of us, for 20 years and all that. We come from other firms that have a long history. We're part of a lineage of thought and productivity and work, but same time you take on your own firm there's a certain level of decision making that you have to make, and you gotta learn how to make those decisions.

I think we're starting to head into a phase where … I want to be careful how I say this, 'cause I don't like the idea that architects get picky about what projects they do and don't do, and start picking and choosing. I don't think that's where we're coming from. I think it's just having a better response to projects, and being more able to see down the lane. Maybe it's probably a more honest assessment of your capabilities, and being able to show up to the project in the beginning more honestly. I think there's a big dilemma for architects to navigate the turn from being a solicitation of their work to being a trusted confidant or consultant to the owner or to their client. When you get to work, but the best thing to do … Yeah, and it's got articles that I've read on this, and you can read about this if you look for it.

The best thing that I understand from my experience, and I have heard others talk about it is turn that corner quickly and effectively, because being able to say no is a very, very useful tool. Or even, I don't know, and I need to go find out the answer to that. We need to be careful about the decisions we make on the behalf of our clients and our projects. And knowing how to be an advocate for the project, and for the client, and for your firm, and do it in equal proportion and well, it takes some experience and it takes some confidence. I think that as you develop that muscle it starts to influence the way that you analyze work coming, and how you start the project, and how you set those initial expectations are critical. It can be an extremely frustrating place for architects to learn, because I think we typically learn by making horrible mistakes for ourselves in that area, and it can be tough. But those are the dues you pay, and I think the prize for getting that settled is as that starts to fade in the rear view mirror, there's another sign to that, where you start to show up with confidence, and it becomes, I think, much more fun and natural.

Again, looking at the projects that we like to do, I think … Look, there's folks out there in our community of architects who, and I've read that different trains of thought from different architects, especially the ones that are more published. There's this idea of architects. Architecture needs to be like a transgression. It needs to have impact. It needs to do something. I admire that and I like that thinking. I get inspired by people that can go out and really slash into something and change things, but at the same time in my own practice those opportunities are not always right there and evident. Oftentimes, what we're being asked to do is solve a problem, or provide an opening for something to happen. Somebody's got a business idea, and they need a space to do it, and we want to be productive, and we want to unleash that. We're facilitating that. I really like doing office TI work, because I just love the direct result. It happens quickly, and you can see it.

You get to see a company with a certain potential, and especially creative companies are this way, and you go and work with them, and you become kind of part of their company, and you design their workspace that inside and out really matches to the business plan, and their culture. And then you go back and look at that firm, and all a sudden, something's been unleashed. Their productivity's gotten to a new level, and you can actually see the impact of the design on the quality of their work. I certainly get that expression from doing homes for people. You see families who are upgrading their lifestyle or being able to make a statement about how they want to live in their design. You're designing to their family's needs and wants and growth, and how people they have coming and going. How they park their cars, how they eat their breakfast. You can actually unleash the productivity of a family through the work we do.

Some other stuff, we do childcare, we've done a museum recently. Those are interesting, and they're much more public projects. They're a little bit obvious, because you start with the notion that you're creating something with a highly programmed kind of mindset. Again, you don't have as much control sometimes on those larger projects, because you're serving so many needs. Some of them are intimate projects where you get to focus on a family or a business or a restaurant, hospitality, smaller hotels. Those can be pretty exciting. Our door's open to anybody that wants to have a discussion about making a difference, and doing problem solving and doing work that can be measured. That's another big element of what we're having to confront on all of our projects is the cost of doing this work.

Enoch: And 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 four part architect profit map by visiting freearchitectgift.com. The sponsor for today's show is ArchReach, the client relationship management tool built specifically for architects. If you want to systematize your marketing and business development, ArchReach will help you do it. Visit archreach.com to learn more.

The views expressed on this show by 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 conquer 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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