Page N2.2 . 30 May 2001                     
ArchitectureWeek - News Department
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Culture of Listening


Inventing a Firm

The focus on people began with William Caudill himself, described by former "CRSer" and current president of New York's Purchase College, Bill Lacey, as someone who, "besides being an architect, was something of a preacher, a teacher, and a home-grown philosopher with a little bit of P.T. Barnum thrown in."

Caudill's belief in working for both the present and the future generated a corporate culture in which people felt encouraged to experiment. The firm was referred to, only half-jokingly, as the largest graduate school in the country. When CRSers left the firm, they carried with them its commitment to innovation and teamwork.

In an age when Howard Roark, from Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, was seen as the prototypical architect, Caudill believed fervently in architecture as a team effort. "That's the basis," he wrote. "That's the big idea behind the firm."

Commenting on the significance of Caudill's approach, Norman Hoover, FAIA, told the conference, "We take for granted today that teamwork is so much a part of the practice, but the concept that architecture was created by a team was, if not unique to CRS, very, very new at the time."

For Caudill, architecture consisted of three disciplines: design, technology, and management. For every CRS project, a team was assembled from the three disciplines, with a lead designer, a lead manager, and a lead technologist sharing joint responsibility for the project.

"And some spirited battles went on," reported conference organizer Charles Lawrence, FAIA. But, in the end, the three-headed leadership, or "troika" as CRS called it, achieved consensus on where they wanted to take the project. "I can't remember a time when any team voted on a project," said Lawrence. "I hope we never did."

In the panel on team organization, Jane Stansfeld, FAIA, suggested three reasons for the troika structure's success: it reinforced the team as a whole by giving each discipline and participant proper leeway, credit, and responsibility; it allowed each discipline to know it had a career path that didn't have to end in project management, which attracted good people to the firm; and its success bred success more good projects and more good people gravitated to the firm.

Working with Clients

The CRS emphasis on people extended to the firm's clients. "The client users want to get into the act," wrote Caudill, "and when they do, approval is automatic. Therefore the problem is solved."

One of the firm's signature innovations was the concept of "Squatters," programming-and-design charrettes conducted over a period of days with client participation. Whether a project was to be built in Texas or Oklahoma, Riyadh or Saigon, "you just go and squat on the client's doorstep or in his backyard or in his offices or wherever the project is going to be built," Lawrence explained. "You involve them."

And when the schematic design that grew out of this process was presented, Lawrence added, "the clients would be nodding their heads up and down, because they really were a part of it."

Because the processes CRS developed responded to fundamental human needs to be heard, to be communicated with, to have one's opinion taken into account the processes could be successfully applied internationally.

In Germany, for example, CRS innovations now form the basis of a successful local programming firm. And in Seoul, where a Korean firm, accustomed to doing business with a particular client, suddenly found itself subordinated to an American firm, a Squatters session transformed what could have been a resentful relationship into one of mutual respect and cooperation.

Steven Parshall, FAIA, one of the conference organizers, summed up the goal behind client involvement as "making users the subject, not the object, of innovation, and moving from a focus on results to a focus on context that enables results."

The Legacy Today

Since these ideas were pioneered, technology has transformed the day-to-day practice of architecture. E-mail, teleconferencing, and the ability to share files over the Internet allow instantaneous communication with people around the world without the necessity of face-to-face meetings.

In some cases the advances of technology promote cooperation and problem-solving. In other cases, as one speaker said, it seems as though technology just allows us to make more mistakes faster, without the distilling effect of human interaction.

But in either case, suggested Ronald Skaggs, FAIA, human relations are as essential as ever. Technological change, he says, "requires architects to be far less concerned with maintaining boundaries, and more and more adept at forming alliances with whatever disciplines are necessary to anticipate and meet the needs of the clients."

Clients now are looking for long-term relationships with teams they know and trust, Skaggs adds. "The ability to work on interdisciplinary teams, where design is the result of a collaborative process an ability Bill Caudill and CRS developed and practiced for many years is as relevant today as it was then."

Ultimately, as Jim Kollaer, FAIA, said in his keynote address, "you can't automate human relations."

In the early 1970s, CRS became a publicly traded company and embarked on an ambitious program of acquisitions. In the panel exploring the reasons for CRS's decline, it was suggested that CRS did not listen to the newly acquired firms the way it listened to clients and to each other.

One panelist admitted: "We were kind of arrogant about it. We assumed we had the right idea, we were doing the buying, we were growing, we were succeeding, and all we had to do was show these companies the right way to do things."

Charles Thomsen, FAIA, concurred: "The powerful culture, conviction, and values that we had at CRS got in the way, to a certain extent, of making some of our acquisitions successful."

Ironically, even this is perhaps a testament to the significance of CRS's corporate culture. CRS was successful because it listened to people, respected the unique contributions of team members, and welcomed innovation. When the firm stopped living by this philosophy, it began to decline.

Katharine Logan is an assistant editor of ArchitectureWeek.

A book about CRS methods, Problem Seeking: An Architectural Programming Primer, by William Pena, Steven Parshall, and Kevin Kelly, is available at



ArchWeek Photo

Cypress Junior College, Fullerton, California. Architecture by team in a culture of innovation discouraged the development of a single CRS style.
Photo: CRS Archives, TAMU

ArchWeek Photo

Architecture by team: From left to right, CRS founders Wallie Scott, Herbert Paseur, Thomas Bullock, Charles Lawrence, Ed Nye, John Rowlett, William Pena, and William Caudill.
Photo: CRS Archives, TAMU

ArchWeek Photo

At the conference on CRS's legacy, Jim Kollaer, FAIA, demonstrates the "Squatters kit."
Photo: Jean Wulfson, University Relations, TAMU

ArchWeek Photo

Bell and Howell Schools, DeVry Technical Institute, Chicago, 1972.
Photo: CRS Archives, TAMU

ArchWeek Photo

College of Petroleum & Minerals, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, 1974. Because they addressed fundamental human needs, CRS processes could be successfully applied internationally.
Photo: CRS Archives, TAMU

ArchWeek Photo

CRS Office Building, Houston, Texas.
Photo: CRS Archives, TAMU

ArchWeek Photo

Roy E. Larsen Hall, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. CRS's architecture tracked the baby boom generation from elementary school to university.
Photo: CRS Archives, TAMU

ArchWeek Photo

Jesse Jones Hall, Houston, Texas. Caudill's belief in working for both the present and the future encouraged experimentation.
Photo: CRS Archives, TAMU


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