An Interview by Susan Kolber (Part 1 of 2)
The Equity in Architecture 2014 Survey Report revealed respondents identified three key elements to success in their careers, “Working with the A-Team, Significance of Meaningful Work, and Work/Life Flexibility.” With these three themes in mind, Equity by Design wanted to continue the energy of INSPIRE% Best Practice blog post in January, an initiative that features Architecture firms that support equitable practice. We wanted to learn how Ehrlich Architects (EA) winner of the 2015 AIA National Firm Award fosters equity in their practice and firm culture. Known for their design approach deeply rooted in the needs of inhabitants, the surrounding culture and site context that has been coined as “multicultural modernism,” EA believes their firm culture should be equally focused on participatory and healthy community. How many firms do you know use words like “high level of trust” and “family” to describe their firm culture? We explore EA’s firm life with interviews from Principal Patricia Rhee (PR) and staff members: EJ Fernandez (EF), Will Korchek (WK), Amanda Snelson (AS), and Lyannie Tran (LT).
You practice multiculturalism in your work, how does this translate to your firm culture?
(PR) Our firm is its own unique blend of People and Place. Our Place--the building itself--is a living breathing creature with a life of its own, that we interact with every day. Its size, compactness, its blend of casual, homey spots and intense coming-together spots--is an inspiration to work in. Our People, the greatest resource of EA, are what make our firm culture. The varied personalities, backgrounds, histories, knowledge and experience are ever-changing yet we maintain constant threads of openness, humor, familialism and of course, a love of food!
Can you walk us through a week at the studio? Do you have daily/ weekly meetings that everyone participates in? What firm wide activities foster community? (PR) A week at the studio? Sorry, that would take too long! We do have a bi-monthly office-wide meeting to review project/staff status, where every single person shares with the group what they've been working on since the last office meeting. Because our project teams vary in size and type, there is not a standard way of running all project meetings--and each principal has their way of managing their projects.
We have been using an intra-office website--a virtual "water cooler"--for posting events, inspirational/fun images or blurbs, recent construction photos, and soliciting responses for questions on a variety of issues: code, Revit, the next softball game. It's a great way to be inclusive and crowdsource contributions from our people--the most invaluable resource of our office.
As for firm-wide activities, once or twice a year we will rent a bus for a field trip day and visit local projects recently completed or under construction. We have a tradition of summer multi-culti barbecues, hosted (sometimes lavishly!) by the current interns. We also have themed pecha kucha nights on the patio, which have been a great way for staff to share something about themselves. A growing number of action committees have also sprung up, with staff eager to delve deeper into arenas of interest and to make things happen in tandem with their project work. It's this balance of project work and non-project work (that sounds so dry!) that makes our office special--the amazing community of people working together, accessible to each other with a wealth of experience and knowledge that allows us all to learn from each other every day. It never gets boring.
(EF) Our studio is a very active space in which there are constant meetings happening either within the project team or with clients. We have quarterly office meetings that allow every person in the office to speak about their current project. If there is one firm that loves to have a good time and knows how to foster community within our office and those affiliated with us, it is Ehrlich Architects. We engage as a family in countless office events and gatherings that are catered by different individuals in the office which allows for everyone to participate in creating community.
(AS) There is usually one event at least every other week, either a lunch and learn to hear the latest product or technology or sustainability update, or office-hosted BBQ, or softball game, or movie night, or a Friday happy hour at a nearby bar. EA differs from other firms because we all play hard – frequently together!
(WK) We relish times during the week that we are able to come together as a staff and enjoy a birthday celebration, an office announcement, or other quick gathering. We don’t have formal meetings very often, but are working to start meeting office-wide every other month. As we grow, it is becoming more important that we meet as a full office to hear what everyone is working on and build camaraderie. After-hours events like summer barbecues and movie nights are essential to fostering community.
What is the team structure of a normal project? Is it highly collaborative? Do junior staff have opportunity for design input or other opportunities/roles besides production? How do you promote team building and collaborative design?
(PR) The team structure varies depending on project type and size, but essentially, there is a principal in charge, project manager and project architect (sometimes one person) and supporting design staff. Junior staff have always been a very important part of the practice--typically coming out of our internship program or former students of ours--and depending on their unique skill set, will contribute to the design process and productivity of the overall firm. It always amazes me what the junior staff will come up whether it's design solutions, a new or better way of using software or a different approach to social media--because they are engaged with these elements and see things in a way that the older generation may not--and that makes our group all the more educated and enlightened. We encourage everyone, regardless of experience level, to speak their mind and contribute (and trust me, they have!) on their projects and to also have the freedom to reach out to the rest of the office for advice and support.
The open environment and density of the office also lends itself to collaboration. We've learned this through co-location with client and consultants in our design-build projects as well--the closer in proximity you are to your fellow teammates, the more in-tune you are with the issues of the team and equipped to help. Building 3d models to study design, physically and virtually, is integral to the way we work--and is also a great way for junior staff to contribute their design ideas from the beginning of a project.
What characteristics does Ehrlich Architects encourage in their employees?
(PR) I encourage the staff I work with to be self-motivated, confident, responsible designers who are not just focused on the project tasks at hand but also understand the bigger picture of the work they are doing--the economics, the politics, how it affects our clients and our communities. These are the invaluable lessons that are best learned on the job.
(EF) Honesty and hard work. Ehrlich Architects encourages everyone to be true to their work and honest in their architecture. Working with different teams you develop trust with everyone you work with and every employee is encouraged to participate and support each other.
(WK) Self-reliance, determination, and hard work. Compassion, understanding, and sympathy.
(AS) Positivity, Rigor, Curiosity, Confidence, Friendliness
(LT) To be current, to be able to relate to stakeholders and to be a communicator.
How is Ehrlich's firm culture different from other firms you have worked at?
(EF) Ehrlich Architects is a family. We have strong leadership and young staff that collaborate together and learn from one another, which is one of the many strong qualities we have at our office. There is a sense of community and genuine appreciation for one another that resonates within our projects and the clients we work with. We are different because our firm culture extends beyond the walls we work in and is cultivated through activities outside of architecture. This develops trust and builds team character even before we begin working on projects together which is what some firms do not offer. We like to keep things light yet take our work very seriously.
(AS) I’ve never partied as hard with my boss before working at EA! At work, we are given many responsibilities, which forces one to learn a lot quickly. It all stems from a high level of trust between everyone.
(LT) The culture here is more interactive in the sense that it is important for employees to not only get along but to build friendships. There is a work hard play hard mentality here but it seems that the firm also supports the play hard factor as well.