Follow your design north star: How your firm can forge a signature ethos & identity
Many architects go into design because they want to create memorable buildings.
But if you approach each client, project, team member, and office with intention, you might find that your firm becomes memorable and renowned in and of itself.
For 30 years, Trahan Architects has pursued a singular vision.
From the clients and contractors they choose to work with to their office culture and the computers they buy, every action—large or small—contributes to that overarching vision.
Trahan partner Brad McWhirter and Director of Urban Design Margaret Jankowsky joined us to share how your firm can forge a unique identity.
Bring the best idea forward
Today Brad is a partner at Trahan, but started as an intern.
From day one, the philosophy at Trahan has been to pursue the best ideas, no matter where they come from.
“I was always amazed at how much Trahan would allow. There was just this support from top to bottom to push the limits of architecture,” he said.
No matter what the project was, no matter how big or small, the message to employees was clear: push the limits.
Even more important, anyone’s contribution to a project was welcome.
“It didn't really matter where the sketch or the concept of the idea came from, or who it came from. It wasn't about hierarchy. It was just more about what is the best approach, the best idea, and let's bring that forward,” Brad said.
If your firm is guided by a top-down, seniority-led ethos, consider democratizing your process. You never know where the next good idea will come from. It may be that your lowly intern in a future firm partner in training.
Start the design process from square one
Some firms have a set idea of things like what a job title entails, and when certain project stages begin and end.
At Trahan, the approach is more fluid.
As the Director of Urban Design, Margaret knows that even a discipline like urban design is thought of differently by different people. In her mind, it encompasses things like landscaping and environmental context.
That’s why at Trahan, the design process truly starts in the research phase, when the team considers the full history and future of the project site.
“Your design process starts from the minute you start researching what the project is,” she said.
“When I'm looking at a potential project and I want to understand what it is, I always need to ask myself, okay, who was here before it was a project? Who was here before colonization and settlement? What is the land use? What is the ecology of the place? What are some of the stories about this place, especially ones that aren't the main story that have been told through dominant culture, but that are latent underneath?”
Asking these broad questions is critical as the team determines the meaningful narrative of the space.
Bring the client along for the design ride
Trahan’s projects are a true creative journey. Often, their final designs mean thinking outside the box.
If you wait too late to involve the client in your thought process, you could leave them scratching their head.
“One of the things that we've tried to do is start a little bit earlier with bringing them along on our process and our research, before it becomes architecture, or landscape architecture, or urban design,” Brad said.
“We fold them into that early process and let them be a come a part of that exploration of what is the concept, and what is right for their site and their project.”
Bringing the client behind the scenes during project brainstorming gives them a deeper understanding of how and why key design decisions are made.
“It helps with them understanding why we're going where we're going. It doesn't always work, but it's okay. We like to say let them see how the sausage is being made,” Brad said.
This is also why it’s important to work with the “right” clients in the first place.
Not every client is compatible with every architecture firm. It’s a process of determining if your firm’s ethos aligns with the client’s.
As Margaret said, the best firm-client relationships push each other forward.
“Some clients and architects are not compatible. Their ethoses are different. They have different priorities,” she said.
“You want to be able to find the ones that obviously have an incredible project, but who are looking for someone like you, and you can both push each other, but in the same direction hopefully.”
Foster collaborative partnerships
All firms work with subcontractors and professionals from other disciplines to complete a project.
But not all firms view those contractors as collaborators and equals.
Margaret said that Trahan is focused on building deep and long-lasting relationships with collaborators in other disciplines.
“We have a lot of really long-standing collaborators in specific disciplines with engineers, theater consultants, lighting designers, landscape architects. And we're continuing to find new partnerships,” she said.
When you seek out true relationships with other experts, your projects become both richer and more grounded.
Brad said that disciplines collide on equal footing at Trahan. From design to construction, they rely on the full support and expertise of landscapers and subcontractors to bring their unique visions to life.
“We've really tried to blur the lines between some of those disciplines, architecture and landscape architecture, on many of our projects,” he said.
“There's the obvious in a design collaboration, but also from a construction standpoint. Finding some unique collaborators, trade partners, subcontractors that are willing to go out there a little bit and explore processes of making the building. We're coming up with some pretty unique and out-of-the-box solutions.”
The more you design outside the box, the more you need open-minded partners to execute those ideas.
Maintain the ethos of a single firm as you grow
Trahan is a global architecture firm with offices in New York and Atlanta.
But those offices are not separate satellite studios with separate project styles. All offices share projects and are guided by the same ethos.
“We are a New Orleans-based firm with a New York office, not vice versa,” Brad said. “It's always been in my mind meant to be one firm, not two different studios.”
It’s taken a concerted effort to maintain the identity of a single firm, but it’s something that’s important to Trahan.
Technology helps make this happen on a logistical level.
“Now we're cloud-based, completely seamless between the offices,” Brad said. “People working from home, you are plugged into Trahan Architects infrastructure. There's no New Orleans, there's no New York. It is truly a seamless integration of software and technology that took an unbelievable amount of time to get right.”
A weekly office meeting serves to bring everyone at Trahan together. On a daily basis, Microsoft Teams accomplishes a similar purpose.
Embed your firm’s ethos in everything you do
From project proposals to office culture, there is a dedicated focus on brand voice and values at Trahan.
“We have a brand voice document that the firm invested time and energy in creating. This is not just an aesthetic document with typefaces and colors. It includes our ethos as a firm,” Margaret said.
“It’s really starting to infiltrate the way that we are approaching our projects. This includes concepts about kindness and dignity and respect and beauty for the land and for the environment and for people, the users of our projects, the clients, and for ourselves as well. I think that's an incredible basis for an office culture to continue to evolve.”
As your own firm takes shape, consider deeply what your own ethos is. What does that mean for the firm? How do you incorporate it into your office culture?
Next, work to intentionally embed that ethos into both your projects and your interactions with collaborators, clients, and one another.
Join us 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 Brad McWhirter and Margaret Jankowsky of Trahan Architects.
Brad McWhirter, AIA is Partner at Trahan Architects. “Design is a search for the right response.” A New Orleans native, Brad left the Crescent City to study architecture at the Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Graduating in 2002, he joined Trahan Architects as an intern and through the years quickly grew into a managerial role, becoming a Partner in 2017. Growing up with a father who worked in the machining and fabrication industry, Brad has a keen interest in precision — developing a trained eye for detail at a very young age. He is passionate about process and execution, and takes pride in ensuring that the end product meets and exceeds the conceptualized design. Brad’s expertise includes a wide range of building typologies and scales of projects, designing and executing numerous sports venues, cultural spaces, event centers, hospitality spaces and office buildings to name a few. He oversaw the rebuilding of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome following its devastation by Hurricane Katrina, a $200 million dollar renovation which was designed and constructed in just 9 months, as well as the award winning Louisiana State Museum and Sports Hall of Fame, widely praised for its low construction cost relative to the complexity of the architecture and materiality. Brad thrives on the academic nature of the studio environment Trahan Architects has created, and views each project as a unique opportunity for study, discovery and implementation. In his free time, he enjoys boating and fishing in the unique and naturally beautiful bayous and byways of the Mississippi River Delta where he grew up.
Margaret Jankowsky, ASLA is the Director of Urban Design at Trahan Architects. Margaret aims to improve cities through their public realm and open space. With a background in landscape architecture, urban design, architecture and theory, her deep love for cities and the energy found in urban public spaces is paired with an understanding of how large-scale environmental, social and infrastructural systems interact with and impact one another. Margaret has over fourteen years of design experience, from working on large-scale public realm projects in Seattle and Miami, to highly detailed garden design. Jankowsky was one of the Urban Design Forum’s 2018 Forefront Fellows, where her collaborative work researching homelessness in New York City led to a proposal to create a citywide Office of the Public Realm. She was the co-editor of The High Line (Phaidon 2015), documenting the design and cultural impact of this transformational piece of urban infrastructure. She has been a guest critic for design studios at PennDesign, RISD, Columbia University’s GSAPP, Kean University and Rensselaer University. Prior to joining Trahan Architects, Margaret was the Director of Development at James Corner Field Operations for 5 years.
In this 45 minute chat, we'll talk to Brad and Margaret about collaborating across disciplines.
Trahan Architects is a global architecture firm with offices in New Orleans and New York founded on the belief that the mindful design of everyday spaces can elevate human experience. Learn more at trahanarchitects.com
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