This is part of an ongoing series in which we explore critical issues facing emerging and established architects. Past stories include “Why Architecture Firms Should Use Pinterest,” “15 Tips For Starting A Firm,” and "Starting Your Own Architecture Firm: Challenges for Women." Photo: EHDD's Monterey Bay Aquarium © Peter Aaron/Esto
After the years of schooling and the hundreds of thousands of dollars you’ve invested in becoming an architect, it’s frustrating how much of this business comes down to luck. Winning projects is just as much about the people sitting on the other side of the conference table as it is about your pedigree. “In some sense we all bring merit,” says Susie Coliver, principal of the San Francisco firm Herman Coliver Locus Architecture. But come interview time, “so much comes down to chemistry.”
Coliver was speaking at a recent panel at AIA San Francisco, the last of a yearlong series for emerging architecture practices organized by the chapter and Mark Cavagnero. (Check out our previous posts on starting your own firm, finding public work, designing while female, and teaming with practices large and small.)
Here’s the part no one tells you in grad school: Hard work alone won’t get you where you need to go. You could prepare for eons and still fall on your face at the blind date that is the first-round interview. And while there’s no LU credit in dazzle or aplomb, you can position yourself to be ready for your dream client if (or when!) your luck turns.
In a conversation with Cavagnero, the panel discussed how to land that elusive returning client, finding your passion, and the importance of picking up the phone.
From left: Chuck Davis, Susie Coliver, Dan Solomon, and Mark Cavagnero.
Meet the panel:
Susie Coliver, principal, Herman Coliver Locus Architecture
Chuck Davis, founding principal, EHDD
Dan Solomon, partner, Mithun
Moderator: Mark Cavagnero, principal, Mark Cavagnero Associates
1. Repeat clients = hard work + chemistry.
Before an organization can be a returning client, they have to hire you first. Solomon found one of his longtime clients, the Chinatown Community Development Center, through a routine RFP, which he proceeded to dominate by overpreparing for the interview. “We studied the site and studied massing and density and did the kind of front-end work that the AIA should forbid but doesn’t,” he says. “Then we built a great relationship with people whose values are very compatible with our own.”
For Davis, his relationship with the late Hewlett-Packard cofounder and philanthropist David Packard—which started when Davis and EHDD went out for the Monterey Bay Aquarium back in the early 1980s—began with a big leap of faith. “It’s the only interview where [the client] stood up and said, ‘Well, when can you go to work?’” he recalls. Davis responded by moving a team down to Monterey over the weekend. On Davis’s second day there, Packard visited the site. “He came by in a pickup with boots and a red plaid shirt on and said, ‘Let’s take a walk.’ I thought, Oh my God, I’m going to be fired before I even get started. On the walk he said we would work week to week, he would come every Friday, and if he liked what we did, he’d pay us. If he didn’t like it, he would pay us and send us home. That’s the arrangement we had for six months. It grew into a relationship that has lasted 30 years.”
Mithun completed the Broadway Family Apartments in 2008 for the Chinatown Community Development Center. Image courtesy Mithun
2. Relationships require nurturing. Pick up the phone.
Davis, who has also cultivated a long relationship with the University of California system, makes a point of keeping up with his clients. “I’m not talking about pandering,” he says. “I’m talking about making phone calls every three or four weeks. ‘What’s going on? My God, What’s happening in Sacramento? What’s happening in Washington?’ Nobody can answer those questions, but it’s fun to talk about.”
3. Just be yourself. No, really!
Your design sensibility shines through everything you do. When Coliver and her partner Bob Herman got married, they designed their own version of a Jewish wedding. The executive director of Berkeley’s Magnes museum happened to be in attendance, and he liked the wedding so much that he put their firm on the RFQ list for a Jewish student center at the University of California, Berkeley. “Who knew when we were planning our wedding that it was going to lead to an alternate career in a whole new building type we had never imagined?” says Coliver. “Chance favors a prepared mind.”
After the firm won that project, their shared interests with the client helped the relationship thrive. “If you can identify what you love and somehow figure out where to go to put yourself in the sights of others who are passionate about the same things, it’s a good start,” Coliver adds. “Then you don’t have to pretend. You don’t have to become something you’re not. You can enhance who you are.”
Davis's relationship with the University of California, Santa Cruz, goes back three decades and spans the tenure of three different campus architects. Among his contributions to the campus is the Center for Adaptive Optics. Photo: Richard Barnes
4. …Because it’s really hard to be someone else.
Like a good marriage, a healthy client relationship is built on shared values and trust. “The relationships that don’t last are ones where the client perceives that you have an agenda that’s not the same as theirs,” observes Solomon. “Architectural practice creates an interesting tension between completely assimilating your clients’ values and having your own interests, whether they’re urbanistic, formal, or sustainable.”
The relationships that do last are the ones where the design team and the client care about the same things—which, when you think about it, is a crucial in any situation involving large sums of money. “You don’t want the client feeling like you’re spending their money on things that they don’t value,” says Solomon. “You can’t fake it. If you think that the urban design obligations of a building are of paramount importance and the client doesn’t, it’s very hard to conceal your own values.”
In 2009 Herman Coliver Locus completed the Bishop Swing Community House, a supportive SRO for formerly homeless adults, for a returning client, Episcopal Community Services. Photos: Cesar Rubio
5. Consider yourself warned: some jobs are too small.
You’ve heard it before—and you’ve heard it here—no job is too small when you’re starting out. You do a little handiwork for a desirable client, and they know your name when the next big project comes around. The danger, says Coliver, is that the client will never see you as anything more than a handmaiden. “We have learned the hard way that doing closet remodels does not get us in the door,” she says. “It turns us into the superjanitor. It becomes, ‘Oh, those are the people you call when you need to add a shelf. But when we want to do a new building, we’ll call the real architect.’”
6. Except the ones that aren’t!
Despite the pitfalls of shelf installation, there’s still something to the no-job-is-too-small approach, says Davis. Before you pass up a piddly offer, consider whether some aspect of the work might help you set yourself apart later. In the late ’70s, Davis took on a small project for the then-nascent Long Marine Laboratory at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “Nobody was interested in it at all,” says Davis. “All the other architects said, ‘It’s too small. It’s just a maintenance job.’ We did that job, and when Monterey Bay came along”—that would be David Packard!—“I was the only one who knew what I was talking about in terms of sea animals.”
The Monterey Bay Aquarium, by EHDD, opened its doors in 1984. Photo: Peter Aaron/Esto
7. Sometimes even a great relationship won’t survive a leadership change.
Some institutional clients, such as schools, have a lot of turnover, and all that goodwill you’ve built up with parents and board members over the years will follow them out the door. “The landscape of San Francisco is littered with really disappointed architects who have done incredible work for independent schools, only to find out that when they move the whole campus, they’re not even consulted,” says Coliver. “You could have done your finest work and busted your butt and given 1,000 percent, and five years later no one knows your name.”
The best way to increase your chances of surviving in the new regime is to listen. At UC Santa Cruz, Davis has outlasted two campus architects and built EHDD’s relationship with a third. “As architects we have to look in the mirror a little bit, because a lot of times the leadership that a firm provides is not the right leadership for the client,” he says. “If something like that is happening and another partner has a past relationship [with the new head], we will shift horses immediately. We’re not gods or anything, so we have to be very sensitive to the new leadership.”
8. Life is short. Strategize about the kind of work you accept.
No client will ever be your soul mate, but the coupling analogy is no joke. Some projects will go on as long as a fairly serious Hollywood marriage. Choose them wisely, says Coliver: “When you go out on your own, projects will come at you, hopefully. It’s probably worth spending a moment thinking, Is this what I want to spend the next four years of my life doing? Or is this going to sidetrack me? To the extent that you can afford to pick and choose, think about it. Be intentional about where you spend your energy.”
The Canon Barcus Community House, designed by Herman Coliver Locus for Episcopal Community Services, provides housing for formerly homeless families in San Francisco. Photo courtesy Herman Coliver Locus Architects
9. Also strategize about the work you reject. When you see red flags, run.
Back in the mid-'90s, Coliver and Herman were going through a dry spell in the affordable housing market in San Francisco, doing a lot of repetitive rehab work. One day they had an hour to kill in Santa Monica, and they went to a fortune teller. Coliver remembers, “This woman, who was very intuitive, said, ‘A large job is going to come your way. It’s going to be very appealing, but you shouldn’t take it. It will be trouble. If you turn it down, within six weeks a way better project is going to come in.’
“Sure enough, we get back from Santa Monica and the phone rings.” A developer they had never heard of wanted to build hundreds of units of new housing. Remembering the fortune teller’s advice, Coliver and Herman did their homework on him. “In terms of creditworthiness, he came back as something of a shyster,” she says. They declined.
Six weeks later, a call came in from a nonprofit housing developer, who wanted to build the first new SRO in San Francisco since the Depression. “Everything we had done led us to be the right fit for that job,” says Coliver. “It could give you faith in fortune telling. But I think it’s about being prepared to say no and being ready to jump when the right thing comes along.”
For a renovation and expansion of the main library complex at the University of California, Berkeley, in the mid-'90s, Davis and the EHDD team created a new terrace over an underground addition. Photo: Mark Citret
10. Cultivate your interests.
Put yourself out there, says Solomon. Keep up with conferences and professional organizations, and consider writing. “Position yourself vis-à-vis a body of ideas, around things that you care about and want to build your skills around,” he says. When you listen to yourself and pay attention to your own interests, “your travels and your reading and your circle of friends grows out of that. You cultivate yourself, and that creates the opportunity for serendipity.”