Fred A. Bernstein

How Giant Architecture Firms Encourage Design Excellence

Internal competition is one of several successul methods

Published in Interior Design, January 29, 2014

by Fred A. Bernstein

"A little friendly competition goes a long way," says architect Ed Feiner. When the former director of the General Services Administration's Design Excellence Program was recruited by Perkins + Will, some of the firm's 26 offices appeared to be lagging in creativity. So Feiner founded a biennial awards program -- comparable to a program he had run at the GSA - to spark innovation throughout the giant architecture firm.
As head of the firm's Design Leadership Council, Feiner also organizes peer reviews - sessions at which works-in-progress are critiqued by designers from other Perkins + Will offices. (The reviews are centrally funded, so the offices don't have a financial incentive to avoid them.) And to keep young architects engaged, he created an annual design competition that this year drew 62 entries from around the firm, with the winners announced during the Chicago Architecture Biennial. (Like friendly competition, a little public recognition goes a long way.) The contest, Feiner says, "provides an additional opportunity for Gen Y designers to be enthusiastic about their work," which helps the firm maintain an edge.
Perkins + Will isn't alone in working to encourage, and reward, innovation; each of the biggest firms has ways of keeping size from stifling creativity. At Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the SOM Journal, a publication in which outside critics evaluate work submitted by the firm's designers, is in its 14th year. "People anticipate that it's coming up, and it keeps the offices on their toes," says Brian Lee, the design principal of the firm's Chicago office.
SOM is known for big buildings, so Lee has made it a point to look for smaller projects where there's a chance to experiment, he says. He recently completed a branch library in Chicago's Chinatown, which has been widely praised for its inventiveness. The firm actively pursues research projects, such as a 3-D printed house powered by energy from a car, in partnership with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee's College of Architecture and Design.
Todd DeGarmo, the CEO of Studios Architecture, believes the best way to remain innovative is to work with innovative clients. If a client is risk-averse, there's only so much you can do, he says. The firm's first client, 30 years ago, was Apple. "We got them out of the garage," DeGarmo says, adding that Apple sees more risk in not innovating than in innovating. (Another such client is Barry Diller of IAC; Studios did the interiors of IAC's Frank Gehry building.) Within the firm, DeGarmo avoids creating silos, in which groups begin to specialize - and stagnate. By letting people try new things, he says, " You keep the innovators happy, especially this new generation, who expect to be learning every day."
Shawn Sullivan, a partner and studio leader at Rockwell Group, agrees that allowing designers to specialize can stifle creativity. Despite the efficiencies that might be realized by allowing the firm's studios to take on specific building types, they don't. And as a studio leader, Sullivan goes after projects that will require out-of-the-box thinking. So when the firm, which hasn't done many nightclubs, got the chance to design a nightclub in Las Vegas, Sullivan jumped. Then his team interviewed star DJs about their likes and dislikes, because, Sullivan says, if you get the right DJs, the crowds will follow. The result, called Omnia, is a space less like a boxy nightclub and more like a theater, with the DJ controlling not only sounds but lights - an approach that came from tackling the problem without prior experience, or preconceptions.
Another way large firms up their creativity quotient is by buying firms whose work they admire. Perkins Eastman, the New York-based firm, recently acquired ForrestPerkins (no relation), a Dallas interior design firm run by Deborah Perkins. With the acquisition, Perkins Eastman has a younger generation of designers that it can deploy around the world, says Shawn Basler, executive director and principal of the firm, and himself the designer of New York's Quin Hotel.
Mehrdad Yazdani know what that's like from the other side; his small L.A. firm was acquired by Cannon Design. His team became Yazdani Studio at Cannon Design, a group of some 20 architects and designers who leverage their skills by collaborating with other Cannon offices. A one million-square-foot research center in Korea, just completed, was designed by Yazdani Studio with teams from Cannon offices in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Boston, San Francisco and Shanghai. "Our clients are dealing with new challenges, their projects are getting more and more complex, and old solutions don't quite work for them," Yazdani says. "Design thinking at every stage of the process is the way to address that."