We’ve been receiving a healthy dose of emails lately from friends and fans of BUILD asking about the inner-workings of our design-build firm. Questions have come from as far away as Medvode (we’re huge in Slovenia!) to as close as just down the street. We think the answers may have a broad appeal or, if nothing else, they’ll provide our readers with some good blackmail material. So today’s post features the questions that we think are most relevant for architects, designers and builders. Take our answers with a big grain of proverbial salt. They’re not necessarily right, wrong, good or bad, but they’ve been producing results for us. So we’re here to share what we’ve learned.
How did the firm come to be?
We, Kevin Eckert and Andrew van Leeuwen, met in 1993 while studying abroad in Denmark, and as luck would have it, Scandinavia is the epicenter of modern design. Years later, we each graduated from our respective universities, and went to work for a variety of firms. The most notable of these offices was Swenson Say Fagét where we worked as structural engineers and — literally — learned the nuts and bolts of the industry. In 1999, Kevin started BUILD LLC to build a house for Eric Cobb and family as well as to design and build a modern cottage for long-time friends Greg and Margo Plaunt. During this start-up, Andrew went off to graduate school in Manhattan, returning a year later to put that master’s degree to good use at BUILD.
While working at other firms, we each became increasingly disturbed with the frequency of architecture projects that died very late in design because they couldn’t hit the budget. We decided to start an architecture and construction company that directly addressed that. Our company was deliberately named BUILD because we do whatever it takes, with a high level of intentionality, to realize (see: build) projects. That process involves listening to our clients, being conscientious of the budget, and designing with practicality. We keep both feet on the ground.
What is the history of the firm?
Over the last 12 years there have been some stellar people working and interning at BUILD. The current staff includes Duff Bangs, who was plucked out of his undergraduate architecture studio; he’s since gathered a handful of degrees and has been with the firm ever since. Construction Manager, Bart Gibson, was working with BUILD for years and finally became a card carrying member of BUILD in 2005. Charles Caldwell came on board in 2011 and Sandy Ha joined BUILD in 2012. There are five of us predominantly in the office, one in the field and a rotating intern position. (Tip: if you’re sending us a resume we highly recommend reading this and this.)
While the office has changed locations over the years, Seattle has always been home base with our stability really coming into place once we completed and moved into Park Modern nearly six years ago. This is in pretty stark contrast to the first BUILD World Headquarters which was an ’86 Volkswagen Syncro. It was an awesome vehicle — driving the thing was like an extension of the body — and while we miss it, the six of us would have a difficult time being productive in its cramped 60 square feet. Plus, it just wouldn’t quite communicate: Trust us with your largest personal investment!
We’ve worked on some 175+ projects (granted some of them have been small) in and around the Pacific Northwest with a few exceptions in Idaho, California and even New York. We used to try and put all of this into a slick graphic presentation, but then we just got too busy on the project end of things. It’s more of an early days time capsule now.
What sort of projects were you doing when you first started out?
In the beginning, many of our projects were small and unglamorous, but we were always honored that our community was bringing work our way and we worked our tails off. Many of these projects included basement remodels, kitchen remodels and second story additions. It allowed us to get our hands dirty, learn the business and pay the bills. It was scrappy work at first but we noticed increasing returns around the 5 year mark. It also gave us the opportunity to hone our systems in project feasibility, design, construction budgets, scheduling, cost tracking, etc.
How are the roles in a design-build office separated?
Kevin is primarily in charge of the business, finances, and construction management, while Andrew heads up the design, marketing and blog. These roles overlap a bit as any good, (dare we use the word) synergistic experience does. Kevin may lead design on certain projects in addition to his other roles when the fit is right. Bart is in the field most of the time staying a few chess moves ahead of the trades. Duff, Charles and Sandy are in the office and on the job sites doing everything from as-builts and permit documents to cost-estimating and specifying materials. We all wear a lot of hats at BUILD.
Is there a perfect size for a design-build firm?
There is for us, and it’s 6-8 people. We intentionally designed limitations into our physical office space so that we couldn’t inadvertently grow bigger; this way we won’t wake up someday in the future only to find that we’re running a firm of 40 people. At our current size we can get our minds around everything going on in the office and, although we have intentional processes and systems for just about everything, we can still self-organize. No overarching “manager” is required. It’s also easy to take everyone out for lunch.
What were some of the formative experiences while you were building the business?
Early on, we went to a lecture at the UW given by master architect Will Bruder. He said that he always has the highest admiration for his clients because they could have just as easily gone out and purchased a house with their credit card. He was honored that they walked through his door to support good design, and he had such respect for their patronage. That has really stuck with us.
On the flip side of the coin, someone once gave us the excellent advice to never sign a contract with an unstable person. It’s a laughable notion until you realize how easy it is to fall into this inadvertently. Both of these lessons have taught us to carefully assess potential client relationships to ensure a good fit for both us and our clients. We greatly honor the people that choose to work with us and who trust us with their big, oftentimes personal, investment.
And, it wasn’t glamorous, but since our firm consists of both licensed Architects and construction managers, we used the first five years to sort through the background regulations of a business model that was viewed differently. We were audited by a handful of agencies such as the Department of Revenue as well as our insurance agencies which ‘helped’ us sharpen the lines of what we were allowed to do and not do, how we should structure our agreements, etc. It was a trying time and we have more gray hair (and unfortunately less hair in general) as a result, but we can now operate with confidence that we are checking all the appropriate legal boxes.
Who are your greatest influencers?
The Scandinavians. And we don’t just mean the architects and designers, but also the people and society. They set healthy expectations, make rational decisions, take care of their environment and enjoy their lives. We noticed a simple philosophy in Denmark: as a society, they took good care of their traditional buildings so that they lasted for hundreds of years. At the same time, when they built something new it didn’t get in the way of or try and copy the traditional buildings. Everything represented its own time and place; it created this wonderfully authentic environment. We even created a design manifesto (clichés be damned) based on our Scando-experience that still very much resonates with us decades later.
What were the ingredients of establishing a successful design-build practice?
We crafted our lives so that we can stay totally on top of our projects. We have homes in a building above our office so that we can still participate in our family lives while keeping a close eye on our projects and taking care of our clients. It’s amazing how much time you get back in life when you don’t have to commute. A strong partnership between principals is also crucial given the amount of tasks on the design and construction sides. We often laugh (because it’s true) that we have more legal agreements, waking hours together, and important decisions to make as business partners than we do with our respective spouses.
What differentiates you from other design firms?
Everything we design and draw is thought about in terms of constructability and cost. We don’t do theoretical work, design for competitions or go after awards. We spend that time taking care of our clients. We also like to share information, which is an anomaly in a profession that guards its methods and uses a cryptic language to explain its design. That just seems so backward to us. A rising tide lifts all boats, we like to say (thanks, Chase).
How do you feel about competition design work?
It really seems to diminish the value of the architecture profession; we’ve seen so many architects held back because they get wrapped up in competition work. Architectural competitions teach young architects to dump ridiculous amounts of time into theoretical projects, give their work away for free and expect very little in return. If you look at the whole picture and study the return on investment, it’s a disaster of a business plan.
What did you learn from the recession?
We learned the importance of staying busy and being industrious, even if it’s not billable. During the entire recession, we kept our office hours and, even though work was slow, we focused on strengthening our brand, promoting our work, creating the BUILD Blog and contributing wherever we could. Doing so paid off ten-fold: we came out of the recession earlier than most firms and the systems we put in place are still hard at work.
Is there anything that surprised you about the trajectory you’re now on?
We’ve done several small commercial and tenant improvement projects now for start-ups, and we’re getting good at them. Coming from a heavy structural, nuts-and-bolts background, we didn’t really foresee ourselves selecting wallpaper and furnishings, but with adventurous clients on-board, we enjoy it. And it’s producing some spaces that we’re extremely proud of. It also brings a different design strategy and more intimate feel to a sector of design typically dominated by corporate interior firms. There’s a saying that a good architect should be able to design anything from a chair to a high-rise and we’re putting it to the test — still waiting on that high rise project though.
Do you have construction builders in-house or do you use outside companies to do the work?
We have project managers on staff (Kevin and Bart), and we work closely with trusted vendors who supply and perform the work. As we alluded to above, there are a host of things we can do for our clients and, under Washington State regulations, there are some lines we have to be careful not to cross as professional Architects and construction managers. In addition to the designing and building of structures, BUILD, along with our very talented partner David Hentzel, owns a cabinet shop we call Special Projects Division. The shop allows us better control over the crucial interior components of any project.
Do you select key contractors per project based on price or are you always working with the same team of builders?
For our team outside of BUILD, we have a pretty reliable roster of hired guns. We have a handful of small/solo carpenter companies that we hire for much of the project parts and good options for everything else (mechanics, specialty trades, etc.). Taking care of our vendors, and helping to keep everyone alive during the lean times has built a very loyal team. It’s important to point out that we aim to take care of our clients and everyone else on the project. It may sound trite, but we’ve created an environment that breaks from the traditional paradigm of winners and losers. We work for everyone to win, as do our contractors and clients. This establishes a high level of trust and compatibility. It’s also a key component in delivering what we promise to each client. If someone’s price isn’t where we want it to be, we work it out. With the knowledge that we’ll take care of them, every subcontractor is willing to negotiate with us as needed.
Which projects do you find more rewarding to design, ones for a client or projects for yourselves?
The two project types are just different beasts. When we’re doing our own projects the design process is quick, effective and decisive simply because we’ve been through this so many times that we know exactly what we want. Working with good clients is also very enjoyable because they push us in ways that we wouldn’t expect. The design phase of our favorite client-based projects usually includes moments where the owner suggests a design idea and we say, “Yeah, let’s do that. I wish we’d thought of that!”
How do you go about marketing your business? In addition to your social media presence, are you also active in printed marketing, word of mouth?
One of the first steps in our social media efforts was identifying our audience. We went through a pretty thorough exercise years ago to figure out who our clients actually were. Before then, we had no idea how people would come to us or how to reach out to them. Once we distinguished what a BUILD client was interested in, that gave us avenues to reach out to them.
As far as being active and making new connections, one of the things that can’t be overstated is to make real connections with other professionals whenever possible. We participate heavily in cultural activities in our area and we have an extensive network of alliances with people in professions (software, engineers, creatives, doctors, etc.). It’s enjoyable and it keeps us in plain view of a lot of folks who may eventually have a project or know someone who does. We have architect friends and peers who we stay in contact with, and we try to make the most of sharing information and our limited social interaction with those friends. But, we try to cast as wide of a cultural net as possible.
Word of mouth is a good place to start, but we found we needed to get our name and work in front of eyeballs on a more consistent basis. The pattern shows that most folks have had a couple points of contact with us before we ever meet them in person. They discover us online, they know someone we know, they’ve seen a project. Those multiple layers of familiarity allow potential clients to feel comfortable with us even before that first meeting.
How did you go about creating such an accurate construction cost estimation system?
We met with a builder-friend many years ago who was generous enough to help us set up a budget format for our construction pricing. We’ve since fine-tuned that process over the course of many years, but the initial start was very helpful. There’s no substitute for working out construction pricing with the people who are doing it every day. Now that we’re actively engaged in construction management, our pricing templates are kept up to date with each active project.
How has the world of builders and architects changed due to social media? Has it made information and details more accessible?
We’re still baffled that so few architects and builders have embraced social media. There’s so much potential to share information, self publish, and get your ideas out in the world that you’d think architects would be the pioneers on that front. But despite those opportunities, we can count the number of successful architecture blogs on two hands. That said, our world has evolved tremendously with the new tools for connecting and communicating. We’ll share a construction detail on the blog, and a few hours later we’ll have advice and ideas from people all over the world on how to do it differently or better. Sharing information doesn’t get any more powerful than that. Clients moving to Seattle find us from places like France and China, which we never would have guessed as a benefit of hosting a blog or managing a Facebook page. We also have the opportunity (and expectation) to publish our projects whenever we like. It’s been a labor of love, and we don’t regret for a minute that we dove in feet first when we did.
Thanks for the questions and cheers from team BUILD.