Design for Innovation


24 December 2015 - TIM HAWK

As 2015 winds down, I thought I would get my thoughts down on paper in preparation for the new year. What better time than this season of contemplation and introspection?

It seems that 2015 is the end of a transitional time for architects or the beginning of a new chapter (he says positively). Our profession was decimated by the latest significant recession. To many of us, the recession was more like a depression… a deep, dark abyss that rocked our belief systems to the core. In the depths of the recession, unemployment in architecture was near 40% in our area and many other regions of the country. Most major cities were impacted and the recession was not kind to any type of architect, big firm owner or small firm player. I can’t count the number of friends who lost their jobs on one hand. Nor can I count the number of times I questioned my choice to become an architect. For many reasons, it seemed that my father’s 1983 insight was accurate. When I was nineteen and declared I was changing my major to architecture, my father advised against it. His specific statement was “architecture is dependent upon the economy, whereas engineering is always needed.” Somehow, I knew he was right, but I really couldn’t see my talents and interests fitting into a lifetime of engineering (no offense, you guys). So I set my course to prove that I could do it and I have tried my best. I applied and gained admission to a competitive graduate school where I was able to be educated by the likes of Peter Eisenman. My first job upon graduation was with a great entrepreneurial firm in Chicago where I became a registered architect by the time I was 27. By the time that I was thirty, I was managing and designing a 500,000 SF corporate facility for Wandel & Schnell (WSA) where I became a principal at the age of 34 and later took over the firm’s top leadership position at 40. In 2014, I became a younger fellow of the AIA and I have led many projects which have impacted communities.

So, given that I have been able to accomplish a lot, I can’t help but wonder… why is our profession so tough? Why is it such a struggle to even participate in the process, let alone make a living at it? Architects are held to a high standard. The educational hurdles are not small. How many folks do you know who can do well in Physics, Math, English, and also draw well? Did you have to submit a portfolio to get into your undergraduate program? And then add in the time commitment. It doesn’t take a few hours to draw up plans for a design presentation; it takes days. When I was in undergraduate, I stayed up most Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday nights in preparation for my M/W/F studio class. And thereafter is the three year practice internship and the seven test examination. The bar is set pretty darn high. I am sure there are others who have sacrificed a lot to get their credentials in place (think medicine and law among others), but few who have suffered through educational and professional rigors to this level in order to be awarded a starting salary comparable to someone with considerably less education and preparation.

Anyway, to say the least, the profession is a bit numb coming out of the recession. We are all tired and working very hard to make up for lost ground and fighting the good fight to hang on to our integrity while we search for the answers to the what is to come next. It is amazingly different. Many of our peers retired. Client representatives have moved on to other endeavors, since their organizations were not building. And, as architects, we are left with this HUGE investment of time, energy, and money…and we really wonder if we have the passion to survive.

So what is next? What does 2016 have in store for the profession and specifically how are we coping here at WSA Studio? Well, things are looking pretty bright, depending upon your perspective. In many ways, we believe that the recession simply exposed why our studio methodology is a better fit for the future and we have been working hard to let potential clients know why. We have always provided services beyond those typically provided by architects, but in the past few years we have worked diligently to share this information. We are convinced that our process is superior, a better fit for the current and future needs of client groups.

At WSA Studio we find that our KNOWLEDGE is a differentiator. We know how to design spaces that spur innovation for our clients and we work diligently to communicate these ideas. The aesthetic portion of design is important and, don’t get me wrong, we still take pride in our aesthetic sensibilities. More importantly, we feel that our firm presents greater opportunities for clients to gain real value towards achieving their organizational goals through functional design and financial analysis. Each organization presents a different set of parameters, and each client has a unique challenge that needs to be addressed. Some want financial value. Some demand speed. Other clients are most concerned about the long term impact to their organization. At WSA Studio we have shifted the resolution of these client challenges to be our highest priority. WSA Studio utilizes a process where clients are able to work collaboratively up front to articulate and prioritize specific project goals. We call the deliverable that results from this process the pathway. All clients are delivered a Pathway Packet including project parameters, renderings, estimates, and timelines for the implementation of prioritized goals. The Pathway Packet removes some of the mystery from the design process. Early collaboration leads to a greater understanding and fewer surprises when fieldwork turns up the manifestation of the design. We are working hard to remove the mystery from the process of design and prove our value each day. Design is not superficial. Good design that supports organizational missions is integral to success. We know this. In 2016 we pledge to help clarify and support your specific pathway.