How to grow a small architecture firm with a big vision
Your firm can’t deliver incredible projects without a great team working in the wings.
Building and leading a team is an art form in and of itself. It requires transparency, setting clear milestones, and providing room for talent to grow.
Adam Ruffin is doing just that at ARCHITECTUREFIRM, a small design firm that is split between two locations and adeptly managing remote work.
Adam shared how they are creating a unified vision while being physically separated, how he approaches leadership, and the steps they’re taking to develop their style and culture while growing the business.
Develop one office voice
ARCHITECTUREFIRM has two office locations -- one in Brooklyn, New York, and one in Richmond, Virginia.
You would think that would mean two different sets of clients and two different approaches, but that’s not the case.
“My people here are working on stuff in Virginia, and people in Virginia are working on projects in New York, and that's normal,” Adam said.
Since they started the firm, they’ve made a concerted effort to work on all projects as a team.
“We always make time for the design process to include all of our voices on every project,” he said. “That really is the way we wanted to set up so that there wasn't a siloing and there weren't separate voices being developed.”
Instead, they’re developing one office voice. Even as they’ve brought in more architects, they’ve kept that cohesion.
“The whole thing is always a conversation,” Adam said. “It's never a directive from a person to do a thing.”
Build with cloud-based tools
Modern tech tools have let Adam’s firm grow without huge expenses and allowed them to work remotely with ease.
Where before you’d have to pay for your own server to be able to run a design business digitally, modern cloud-based tools have made that much more cost effective.
“It let us get off the ground in a really lightweight way,” Adam said of the subscriptions they’re able to use to run the business.
Because of the firm’s distributed setup and remote work during the pandemic, they’ve gotten used to visualizing designs on a laptop scale instead of large drawing sheets.
“I don't think I've sat in front of 36 x 48 sheets of anything,” Adam said. “I recognize that as a potential pitfall, but it's just how we operate and how we sort of need to operate.”
While many large firms put faith in the process of iteration (where things improve every time you redo them), Adam doesn’t really believe in the idea.
For a small firm that’s not charging huge fees, it’s much better to get things right the first time instead of burning up time on iterations.
“Form making is usually a fairly straightforward exercise,” Adam said. “We want to find the beauty and the proportion in these forms, but we're going to figure out what the site is about. Go straight to those qualities and then pull them into the building.”
They don’t wrestle with the small things like how to find just the right curve.
“It does help us get to the point more quickly and start thinking about details and materiality more quickly, and start thinking about the way light moves through a space immediately rather than have to worry about the hundredth iteration being the perfect form,” he said.
Adam’s team has milestones they need to complete in a certain amount of time, for a certain amount of money.
It comes down to balancing art with practicality and deadlines.
Hire people you like and stay in growth mode
You can’t create a clear vision and style without a great team.
Adam has approached hiring people by focusing on finding people he likes, not just finding the most talented people.
ARCHITECTUREFIRM has been lucky to find a few very talented and likable architects.
The challenge now is figuring out how to make room for them to grow and develop their careers there.
“We want everyone to be whole architects, see buildings built, get in the reps to understand how does the drawing set translate to a building and how do you then translate that back to the next drawing set,” Adam said.
That takes time and work and projects. And the partners have to find those projects and keep pushing their team forward so that they’ll stay with the firm.
“That means continually bringing everyone new challenges,” he said. “And we're very conscientious about our role in that process.”
That means not doing only houses forever and being open to new types of projects.
“We have made a concerted effort to sort of remain in a growth mode at least for now,” Adam said.
Work with a business director
Many firms don’t bring in a business director until they’re larger, but Adam and his team brought one in almost right from the start.
They had a solid partnership, a vision, and a growing team, but what about the financial side?
“At first for a small office, it's like, how do we get paid? How do we do invoicing? How do we set up our own sort of internal financial structure?” Adam said. “So he did that for us and he did a really great job of it.”
Now their business director has moved on to more strategic tasks, like managing the finances, investing, making smart financial decisions.
That’s morphed into including business development and marketing, as well.
“Once the structure of invoicing and billing and stuff had itself set up, he was enabled to focus on other parts of the business and the strategy part and the growth part,” Adam said. “And he's good at it, because he's not an architect.”
Their business director’s focus on finances and strategy allows the partners and team members to focus on what they do best: architecture.
Spread company information however you can
It used to be that when working at a firm you’d hear everything going on in the business just by being in the room.
But now with more remote work, that type of information sharing has to be more purposeful.
“It's no longer the ideal structure to have everyone know everything all the time because we're no longer built that way,” Adam said. “And I think the work from home aspect has really put a dent in that to a certain degree.”
Yet having a way to share information is very important when you’re building a unified team.
Adam makes sure everyone knows about business development endeavors and conversations with prospective clients.
“We're very open about how we try to grow the office and how we try to move it in a certain direction to the whole team,” he said. “And I think that matters.”
It’s also part of developing your team into leaders. Having knowledge and understanding of the business is what will help them to do that.
“The only way you can know what you're going to do next is to see it and hear it and hopefully start to internalize some of it before you start doing it,” Adam said.
Take initiative if you want to move up
Some of the responsibility of developing leaders is on the current leadership of the firm, but there’s also a lot that falls to the individual.
Adam said architects early in their careers should make their interests known and take on new opportunities when they present themselves.
“It's taking initiative and trying to show that you are curious and wanting to do something beyond the thing you just did,” Adam said.
For Adam, he wants to make sure that’s part of the culture at his firm.
“As an owner, I don't always have the lay of the land exactly,” he said. “To know that like this person needs this thing and I need to provide them this thing at this particular moment. So this internalizing of your own challenge and your own kind of curiosity to grow is really important.”
Early career architects should make their interests known, even if they haven’t had experience with the thing they’re interested in.
“If someone comes to me and says, ‘Hey, I would love to try this. I would love to do that thing. I saw these guys do it, or I've been very curious about this particular method. Can I try this?’ We will always support that,” said Adam.
In a firm like ARCHITECTUREFIRM, having an open mind and looking toward growth is part and parcel of their vision.
A solid and flexible team can be a mighty one, with the right culture at the core.
Join us on Thursday, March 25th for Best Practice, a virtual fireside chat series dedicated to practice operations at architecture firms and beyond. From pain points to potential, hear how leaders in the architecture and engineering industry are innovating through new business models and managerial techniques.
We’re chatting with Adam Ruffin. Adam is a partner at ARCHITECTUREFIRM where he manages the Brooklyn office, overseeing projects at the Corning Museum of Glass, the Museum of Ice Cream, multi-family projects in Washington DC and Virginia, and private residences in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Montauk. He is a licensed architect in the state of New York, the state of Georgia, and Washington, DC. For 15 years he worked with Thomas Phifer and Partners in New York City. As one of the longest tenured members of that team, he managed and developed some of the firm's most important cultural and residential projects, including the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning and the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh.
In this 45 minute chat, we'll talk to Adam about leading the design and construction of award-winning projects.
- How Adam runs a 10-15 person office with 3 partners and 2 locations
- How he shaped the office culture at Thomas Phifer and Partners
- and more!