How BIG Architects Became a Big Deal

by
Barbara Horwitz-Bennett
Deep dive into the unique architectural style, marketing strategies, and collaborative culture that transformed Bjarke Ingels Group from a small shop to one of the most sought-after design firms in the hi-rise, multi-family housing, and cultural building markets.
How BIG Architects Became a Big Deal

Today we’re going to take a look at how Danish architect Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) went from working as an architect for Rem Koolhaas’s OMA office in the Netherlands to leading one of the fastest-growing, sought after architecture and urban planning firms in the world.

BIG now has about 800 employees worldwide and generates about $92 million in revenue in 2020 according to zoominfo. Bjarke Ingels himself is estimated to have a net worth of $14 million.

Bjarke Ingels Group Statistics in 2020
Bjarke Ingels Group Statistics in 2020

In this case study, we’ll examine what BIG is all about and the secret to the firm’s meteoric rise on the world architecture scene.

 8 House - Bjarke Ingels - panoramio.jpg
8 House Bjarke Ingels Panoramio
(Photo Credit: Jens Cederskjold, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

How Bjarke Ingels Started

Ingels began his career working for the Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) in Rotterdam in 1998, where he gained much under the tutelage of starchitect Rem Koolhaas. Three years later he founded PLOT with his Belgian OMA colleague Julien de Smedt. The pair delivered several well-known projects in Scandinavia before disbanding in late 2005.

BIG sprang to life in January of 2006, in Copenhagen. The firm began gaining notoriety in Europe when Ingels’ team designed the award-winning Copenhagen housing complex The Mountain Dwellings.

A departure from the usual multi-level underground parking lot, each of the 80 single-level homes has their private parking with green roofs, wooden terraces, and glass facades rising up an artificial mountain anchoring the 10-story building. The highly creative design makes the urban development appear as a suburban neighborhood with sunlight, fresh air, and views.

Mountain Dwellings BIG Architects
Mountain Dwellings BIG Architects
(Photo Credit: News Øresund – Jenny Andersson, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

How Ingels Grew From Small to BIG

In a relatively short period, Ingels became one of the most famous names in architecture. BIG and Ingels have:

  • Delivered highly imaginative, innovative, and high-profile projects on four continents from a waste-to-energy plant that doubles as a ski-slope in Copenhagen, Denmark, to the triangular VIA 57 West in midtown Manhattan to a museum built out of LEGOS.
  • Become The Wall Street Journal’s Innovator of the Year for architecture in 2011, and one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2016.
Wall Street Journal’s Innovator of the Year for Architecture in 2011
Wall Street Journal's Innovator of the Year for Architecture in 2011
World Architecture Festival Future Project of the Year in 2015
World Architecture Festival Future Project of the Year in 2015
AIA New York Chapter Honor Award in 2016
AIA New York Chapter Honor Award in 2016
  • Been profiled in several documentaries including an episode on ‘Abstract: The Art of Design’ released on Netflix in 2017 and the full-length ‘BIG TIME’ released in 2018.
 Abstract: The Art of Design on Netflix in 2017
Abstract: The Art of Design on Netflix in 2017

Here’re the unique marketing and business management strategies on how Ingels became one of the biggest names in architecture today.

The BIG Marketing Strategy

The Merge of Video Content

Around the same time at PLOT, Ingels began creating videos and clear pictorial diagrams as his main marketing strategy to explain and convey his architectural and urban design ideas directly to the media.

SuperHarbor PLOT

Considered a very novel strategy at the time, as an example, BIG produced an engaging tutorial spelling out their proposal to consolidate all Danish harbor traffic into a strategically located Superharbor. The video makes a compelling case for freeing up the valuable residential and commercial waterfront in relocating the harbors into one centralized location.

5 Pillars of Bawadi

Another example is a video pointing out the flaws of transporting traditional Western glass building designs to the desert environment of the Middle East. In this 2009 video, BIG proposes a unique hotel district design in Bawadi, Abu Dhabi, which flips the hotel towers upside down creating a natural shading canopy and optimized location for shops and dining. 

“If there’s an architect who knows how to take advantage of video communication, it’s Bjarke Ingels,”

- Davide Tommaso Ferrando, Architecture Critic
Souce: Uncube Magazine blog

“Since the very beginning of his career, he has shown a particular ease in front of the camera, starring in several short videos in which digital animations are used to visually enrich the explanations of his design ideas,” Davide wrote.

Ingels’ video content does a great job of breaking down his ideas to their origin and then building them up, step by step, with the aid of his narrative, hand gestures, and animation.

Takeaway: 74% of marketers say video has a better return on investment than static imagery according to Bitable Video marketing statistics in 2021.

Video Return on Investment
74% of marketers say video has a better return on investment

Video content lets you deeply connect with your audience quickly as 52% of marketers say that video helps them build trust with potential customers.

Build Trust with Video
52% of marketers say that video helps them build trust

As architects, we can create videos to:

  • explain our design process to potential clients
  • showcase our firm culture to future candidates
  • or break down our architectural concepts to our clients and the general public as Ingels has mastered

Building Connections with Developer Clients

The year 2010 marked a turning point for the young architecture firm as they journeyed stateside to bring their unique, out-of-the-box design services to the Big Apple.

In an interview with Enoch Sears, AIA, former BIG Business Development Director Iben Falconer recalls that while BIG was known in some sectors in Europe, this was not the case in North America at the time.

“In the beginning, it was very much about researching who we should know, who would be interested in working with us and then doing everything we could do to get in front of them,”

- Iben Falconer, BIG Business Development Director
Source: Business of Architecture Podcast

Initially, the small New York office tried to tap into whatever connections they had to reach developers who could appreciate the unique style of architectural design that BIG had to offer. In addition, they responded to a large number of Requests for Proposals (RFPs) as a tool to introduce themselves to developers, companies, and organizations.

Takeaway: We all know that building client relationship should be the core value of any architecture firm. But Ingels took it a step further by inviting developers to his lecture circuits. At these lectures, Ingels gives them a look into his work, his values, and his unique points of view.

Bjarke Ingels at SXSW 2019
Bjarke Ingels at SXSW 2019
(Photo Credit: nrkbeta, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

This approach gives the clients value first even far before there might be a potential project coming. As part of your marketing strategies, don’t forget to provide value first to build long-term relationships before you ask for something in return.

Personality Driven Marketing

Another highly effective marketing strategy was leveraging Ingels’ unique charisma and power of persuasion.

“I often felt like my job was to point the cannon and say this is who I think you should talk to. Bjarke is incredibly charismatic and fun to be around so you could throw him into any situation with a client and he would land on his feet,” 

- Iben Falconer, BIG Business Development Director
Source: Business of Architecture Podcast

Bjark Ingels in Frankfurt
Bjarke Ingels in Frankfurt
(Photo Credit: Epizentrum, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Takeaway: Here at Monograph, we like to think that the future of marketing is personal. Ingels’s success is a great example - he cracked the code of injecting personality into an architecture firm - from his talks, his presentations, to his building design style.

Most architects tend to put on a professional front first, but people are craving more relatable and personal brands with the rise of social media. What can you do to inject your unique personality into your architecture brand? 

The Art of Storytelling

Part of BIG’s marketing success can also be attributed to his ability to avoid the technical jargon that architects typically use when discussing ideas.

“BIG has really thoughtful ways of telling the story of a project so that laypeople can really understand it,”

- Iben Falconer, BIG Business Development Director
Source: Business of Architecture Podcast

Yes is More

One unique way this approach came to fruition was BIG’s foray into the comic book world with Yes is More, An Archicomic on Architectural Evolution. The book takes readers on a journey of BIG’s innovative designs from theory to practice.

BIG Yes Is More exhibition at DAC 2009
BIG Yes Is More exhibition at DAC 2009
(Photo Credit: Bujdosó Attila, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

“Ingels, to his credit, is not one to sit around and wait for the phone to ring,” writes Mark Lamster in an Architecture magazine book review. “Yes Is More finds him, time and again, generating audacious ideas and finding a place for them. As a vehicle for delivering Ingels can-do dynamism, it works.”

Architecture Magazine Book Review for Yes Is More
Architecture Magazine Book Review for Yes Is More

The book serves as a unique publicity platform for conveying BIG’s design ideas to the media. Recognizing the novelty of the medium and its focus on blending utopian ideas with pragmatic execution, the New York Museum of Modern Art added the book to its permanent architectural collection in 2010.

Takeaway: Architecture is very intimidating to most people, but Ingels was able to break down the walls and create relatable content - both in his videos, lectures, Yes is More, and his project presentations.

Avoiding architecture jargon can help you:

  • Connect with your potential clients easily
  • Explain ideas and concepts to the general public who didn’t get an architectural education
  • Win more projects as the story behind your design concepts will become more relatable

Now you might not want to create an entire comic book or even create videos, but at the very least try using words that the general public can understand when presenting your projects.

Breaking into New Markets

The connections that Ingels built have paid off for him to break into the North American market. BIG secured its first major U.S. commission with the Durst Organization to design the VIA 57 West court scraper. Ingels had the good fortune to be introduced to real estate developer Douglas Durst through a colleague back in 2007 and they had kept in touch.

Via 57 West, New York
Via 57 West, New York
(Photo Credit: Jim.henderson, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The 34-story pyramid-shaped structure is a hybrid between an American skyscraper and a European courtyard block with its 22,000 sq. ft. internal courtyard garden. The project won numerous accolades including the 2016 Emporis Skyscraper Award and winner of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat’s 2016 Best Tall Buildings Americas.

Emporis Skyscraper Award in 2016
Emporis Skyscraper Award in 2016
Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat’s 2016 Best Tall Building Award
Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat’s 2016 Best Tall Building Award

The Importance of Media

Next BIG was hired to design the twisting, cantilevered 59-story residential Vancouver House and the North American press started taking note.

“You want the world to hear about you through the media, in both industry and non-industry press. That really helped legitimize who we were.”

- Iben Falconer, BIG Business Development Director
Source: Business of Architecture Podcast

Meanwhile, BIG continued its European work with projects like Denmark’s LEGO Museum, elevating toy LEGOs to the architectural scale with its 21 overlapping structural blocks and colored LEGO roofs.

Ingels also got involved in the Asian market, winning many design competitions here. One project which came to fruition is the Shenzhen International Energy Mansion.

Shenzhen International Energy Mansion, China
(Photo Credit: Charlie fong, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Owned by the Shenzhen Energy Company, the Chinese megaproject is a 1-million-square-foot structure composed of two towers and a nine-story connecting block. The taller building features a folded, origami-like façade that optimizes performance with enhanced thermal insulation, shading and directs solar rays to photovoltaic panels.

Takeaway: When you’re trying to expand into a new market, utilizing media and the press can play a tremendous role. It can help you:

  • Build social proof with claims
  • Legitimize your reputation as an architect
  • Connect with local press and businesses to expand your network

And you can start small - start by reaching out to your local news or press to feature some of your projects or announce new hires. You can also work with a PR firm to reach a bigger audience as you grow.

Bjarke Ingels Group Culture and Business Management

Fostering a highly collaborative company culture, Ingels actively delegates roles and responsibilities to his carefully chosen teams.

Delegating Business Management

A unique aspect of the organization, said Falconer, is Ingels’ willingness to delegate and his openness to hire thoughtful business development folks, who are not necessarily architects, and have them interact directly with potential clients.

Complementing Falconer’s marketing role, Ingels brought in Sheela Maini Søgaard as the CFO in 2008 and soon promoted her to become BIG’s CEO.

“Bjarke has always trusted the team around him,” stated Falconer. “He brought in Sheela Søgaard who is not an architect and comes from a managing consultant background. He wanted to be designing projects and doing business development, and he wanted someone else to oversee the infrastructure of the business.”

Offering some insights into BIG’s unique, highly collaborative company culture in a DesignIntelligence article entitled, “The Business of Design Success: How Did BIG Get So… Big?” Søgaard explained that roles and responsibilities are tailored to the designers’ strengths and rewards are shared equally.

DesignIntelligence Article on BIG Architects
DesignIntelligence Article on BIG Architects

Further, the partners don’t bear the responsibility of meeting a certain revenue target. “We look at the entire office at the end of the year and then we share the credits for that,” she said.

Takeaways: As your firm grows bigger, you’ll have to delegate work as much as you can. Ingels decided to focus on design and business development himself because as we all know those are his strong suits. But it might be different in your case. Find out what your strengths are and trust other experts to do their jobs.

Create Unique Positions for Employees

DesignIntelligence Publisher Bob Fischer explains that design firms typically hire in 2 ways:

  • Recruit people who fit the culture and create a role around their skills and interests
  • Determine what skills the firm needs and find the right people to fulfill those needs

What’s unique about BIG is that they also utilize a 3rd approach:

  • Allow staff to grow from smaller roles into positions of greater responsibility and contribution
“I constantly create positions and help people create their own positions to make sure the office really becomes more like an organism where everybody has their favorite role in that organism,” 

- Bjarke Ingels
Source: ArchDaily video interview

Another trademark of BIG culture is what’s called true meritocracy where partners and senior design leaders are largely accessible and designers are encouraged to share their ideas regardless of their experience level.

Takeaway: Do you hire for an immediate role that you need to fill? Or do you hire for the long term? Letting your employees grow in your firm into their favorite role can not only create a healthy and happy culture, but it can lead to better retention and closing that knowledge gap.

Business Expansion into Product Design 

Beyond award-winning buildings, BIG is actively involved in product design and technical simulation. Called BIG IDEAS, the company launched what they describe as part R&D lab and part incubator for BIG design concepts that can be spun off into independent products or companies.

BIG Ideas Bjarke Ingels
BIG Ideas Bjarke Ingels

In collaboration with industrial design companies Kilo Design and Skibsted Ideation, BIG is working to develop products in the realm of personal technology, urban mobility, and furniture. The focus is closing the gap in making product design a literal extension of architecture. Toward that end, the team designed the Friday Smart Lock, a hi-end, electronic door lock from Friday Home.

Friday Home Bjarke Ingels
Friday Home Bjarke Ingels

To enhance BIG’s ability to deliver highly sustainable designs and speed up the feedback loop between design and analysis, BIG IDEAS also incorporates its own in-house environmental analysis experts. While still consulting with outside technical experts for certain performance issues, BIG performs its own daylight, sunshine, thermal exposure, airflow, turbulence, wind, space syntax, and traffic flow simulations.

In addition, the firm has gleaned lessons learned from select projects and has developed its own parametric design engine that allows teams to tailor building envelopes and façade geometries to respond to different climate conditions worldwide.

Takeaway: When your firm is ready, creating a product line is a great way to supplement your architecture service - especially if you do interior design work. 

We see this strategy being used by other household names like Studio McGee. Their entire design studio is acting as the marketing platform for their product line McGee & Co which drives 85% of their revenue. Architecture design work is not scalable, but product is.

Now It’s Your Turn

There you have it. That’s how Bjarke Ingels grew his business into where it is now. The best part is that you can use some of these strategies in your own practice to exponentially grow your business. Which one will you try today?

About the Author
Barbara_Horwitz-Bennett_Photo

Barbara Horwitz-Bennett is a veteran architectural journalist who has written hundreds of CEUs and articles for various AEC publications, design firms, and product manufacturers.

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