Small Firm Makes It Big
The architects do 3D modeling on Power Macintosh G3 computers with form-Z, which they feel is a comfortable, graphic environment for design. They do 2D design development of elevations, building cores, and so on, on Dell Dimension XPS Windows PCs with AutoCAD R14, which they have in common with their engineering consultants.
They believe these advantages outweigh the high per capita investment in hardware and software necessary for a dual-platform office. Translating files between platforms with the DXF and DWG file formats keeps all work-in-progress digital, so they never have to redraw what's already been designed.
Although few experienced architects today are familiar with both form-Z and AutoCAD, the firm's goal is to soon make all staff proficient in both. Form4 still has "wish list" for future hardware purchases, intended to further extend the firm's capabilities. These include a high-speed Internet connection for the principals' home offices and a digital camera for documenting problems found in the field and instantly transmitting images to consultants and other team members.
From the beginning, Giannini's passion for "giving form to ideas," coupled with the technology focus, has led Form4 to concentrate on relatively large projects. They specialize in corporate and hospitality facilities and have entered international competitions for large office buildings.
In one recent fast-tracked project, Ferro, Marx, and two staff members completed design and working drawings for a half-million-square-foot corporate campus in four months. This was possible, according to Marx, because computer technology enabled the designers to also be the decision makers. Such direct principal involvement in the design of every project is a key selling point to potential clients.
Marx has been working with form-Z so long that he usually does not begin with manual sketching but starts on the computer from the outset. The software's ability to display the building-in-progress from any view is essential to his creative process. And its ability to model curvilinear forms gives his designs their distinctive drama. Form-Z incorporates rendering capabilities, which the firm uses for in-house and informal evaluations as well final presentations.
Form4 follows what Marx refers to as the "Silicon Valley model" of office management. "Unlike in firms where decision-making is top-down," he explains, "we foster an atmosphere of trust, creativity, and collaboration." One way they do this is by communicating openly about all projects in the office.
Meeting notes and other construction administration documents, for example, expose the junior staff to a broader spectrum of professional experience than they might see in a more conventional setting. Office management tasks, such as correspondence, scheduling, and contact management, are integrated through Microsoft Office and FileMaker Pro applications and internally circulated by e-mail. Keeping all staff informed enhances team cohesiveness and makes them more effective and independent decision makers.
This philosophy of openness is reflected in the firm's floor plan. Instead of fixed walls, half-height partitions enable everyone to see, hear, and interact with the rest of the office. (The partners frequently telecommute from home when they need quiet for concentration.) The office is scattered with fully wired tables for impromptu conferences. Employee workstations on wheels shift positions frequently to adjust to varying sunlight angles and changing needs for nearby reference drawings.
It's not just in house that Form4 excels in management innovations. Computer technology is also used to expand client services. Management partner Gary Adkisson has recently demonstrated the power of integrating financial planning with architectural planning. He designed and commissioned a custom computer program that would link an architectural program to a system that helps the building owner track the financial performance of the various program areas.
For a 64,000-square-foot wellness center in Livermore, California, Form4 worked with the client, owners of an adjacent hospital, to make the facility serve double duty as an up-scale private fitness club. They designed spaces that carefully balance luxury and privacy to serve two disparate populations of those who come to relax and exercise and those who come for cardiac therapy.
Fueling this dual-purpose facility are the financial and operational models which Adkisson developed. With the custom software, the owners can evaluate the profitability of particular areas daily and react immediately by renovating space for alternate purposes. This not only ensures the profitability of the private club, but it enables the surplus to help subsidize the community-based medical services.
Adkisson says the clients' confidence that this unusual experiment would work was bolstered by the fact that the financial management model and the architectural planning originated from business and design partners in the same firm.
The phrase "virtual firm" is becoming cliched, but the ability to collaborate with anyone anywhere, supported by digital communications, is key to the success of a small firm with big ideas. It enables Form4 to extend their capabilities without expanding their staff.
For example, when a project calls for a highly polished rendering, they send computer models by e-mail to San Francisco Bay-Area-based digital renderer Michael Sechman. They can communicate with him about the renderings-in-progress by digitally redlining the drafts within Photoshop. If the image files become too large to send easily by e-mail, they transmit them through the Internet's file transfer protocol (FTP). Face-to-face meetings are seldom necessary.
The Form4 architects similarly send digital files to their engineering and landscape consultants and receive digital files in return. They prefer not to work with those who use manual methods because that disrupts the continuous flow of electronic drawings from team to team and from phase to phase.
This digital collaboration is particularly useful for working with geographically remote professionals. Form4 is currently working on projects with architects-of-record in China and Brazil. These collaborations work well because of the varying levels of knowledge and resources. The foreign architects often do not have easy or affordable access to the state-of-the-art design software, yet they uniquely possess the necessary knowledge of local codes and practices. Form4 also collaborates with other U.S. firms on large competitions.
Key to the success of this young firm has been the technical and business savvy of the four partners. They did not have to overcome the inertia found in existing firms characterized by an established culture and headed by partners and managers who pre-date the computer age. As more young firms emerge fully in control of technology's levers, the profession will witness new models for doing business and new ways to succeed.
Copyright 2000, B.J. Novitski
This article originally appeared in Architectural Record, February, 2000.