Medium-Size Firms Hit Happy Medium

Event: SUPERMODELS: MEDI_20-100, Expanded Mediums
Location: Center for Architecture, 09.05.07
Speakers: Rob Rogers, AIA — Principal, Rogers Marvel Architects; Charles Renfro, AIA — Principal, Diller Scofidio + Renfro; Christopher Sharples — Principal, SHoP Architects
Moderator: Julie Iovine — Executive Editor, The Architect’s Newspaper
Organizer: AIANY New Practices Committee
Sponsors: Exhibition Underwriters: Häfele Americas; SKYY 90; Associated Fabrication; Patrons: 3form; ABC Imaging; Sponsors: Severud Associates; Thornton Tomasetti; OS Fabrication & Design; The Conran Shop; Supporters: Arup; Bartco Lighting; Fountainhead Construction; FXFOWLE Architects; MG & Company; Microsol Resources; Structural Enterprises; Friends: Barefoot Wines; Cosentini Associates; DEGW; Delta Faucet Company; Perkins Eastman; Media Partner: The Architect’s Newspaper

The challenge of running a medium-sized firm lies in retaining the flexibility and intimacy of a small firm while taking on a variety of project types and scales. Ranging from 20 to 100 employees, it is difficult to define overarching issues relevant to all medium firms. Rogers Marvel Architects (50 employees), Diller Scofidio + Renfro (45 employees), and SHoP Architects (66 employees) are similar in number of employees, but the principals run their offices differently. The one term agreed on by Rob Rogers, AIA, of Rogers Marvel Architects, Charles Renfro, AIA, of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Christopher Sharples of SHoP is “in flux” when talking about identity, management styles, and type of work.

The biggest benefit of a mid-size firm is that it is large enough to work on a variety of different projects, but small enough that every employee can be involved in all aspects of design. Rogers claims that Rogers Marvel is run like a 20-person firm even though they have 50 employees. The open studio atmosphere allows everyone to be involved in every project. Because the three principals at Diller Scofidio + Renfro oversee all design aspects, running the firm like an art studio — complete with group critiques — allows everyone to contribute and own a piece of the work. SHoP Architects’ five principals originally come from different disciplines. By hiring employees with specialized talents, work is distributed equally, and the firm is able to maintain its diversity.

Freedom to be creative is key, and keeping bureaucracy at a minimum is something to strive for in medium firms, especially when the firms need to grow. Often, firm growth is a result of a specific need, not necessarily a goal. Diller Scofidio + Renfro is moving to a bigger office, and therefore has space to hire more employees. The number of employees at Rogers Marvel fluctuates based on the needs of its current projects — sometimes they hire professionals who specialize in a specific field and other times they need more employees for large projects. SHoP grows as they obtain more projects; according to Sharples, with 19 active projects in six different market sectors, growth is a necessity.

While large firms can afford to pay higher salaries, employee retention is a priority to mid-size firms. Rogers Marvel aims to provide a challenging and interesting work environment so employees are excited to come to work. SHoP removed the names of the principals on the door to facilitate a collaborative atmosphere. By eliminating the hierarchy, employees can take ownership of the firm and the SHoP brand can change as the work develops. Diller Scofidio + Renfro maintains daily intrigue by working on small boutiques as well as long-term projects. Because smaller projects have a faster turn-around, employees can be involved in every stage of design and construction, and momentum is sustained with the larger projects.

Moderator Julie Iovine, executive editor of The Architect’s Newspaper, quoted the three firms’ online mission statements without stating which belonged to whom. While the stresses of medium-sized firms may be similar, it is apparent every firm approaches challenges differently.