Building an inclusive studio culture at SpaceFabrik
Choosing the right team members, setting aside preconceptions and valuing people's diverse opinions
August 9, 2017
Written by Stephanie Tan-Branquinho
Photos by Ed Simon of Studio 100 and Stephanie Tan-Branquinho
What is my design philosophy? What kind of architecture do I want to do? What kind of principal do I want to be? What principles do I stand for? I didn’t know the answers to these questions when I finished Architecture at UST. I knew I had to experience and learn more about the world to know who I wanted to be.
I took my Masters in Germany, focusing on architecture and social anthropology, critical thinking, and generative algorithmic design. I was exposed to the works of Deleuze and Walter Benjamin, who espoused exploration and growth as a non-linear process. I learned to see beauty in the unstructured and unplanned, design as a fluid process, and architecture as a phenomenon of multi-disciplines rather than one set definition. After completing my studies, I still didn’t have the answers to my existential questions. I was unsure of what I wanted. But I knew what I didn’t want: to be identified with a single style and genre; to think of architecture and design as a linear process, and to approach problems from the top down. It was after working in London that it became clear to me my firm—if I were to start one on my own—would operate with a studio culture rather than a corporate one.
Work at Foster and Partners
Notorious for awesome amounts of overtime, Sir Norman Foster’s practice in London lived up to its fearsome reputation. I was put in a team famous for winning competitions and a managing partner who exemplified workaholicism. We pulled 100-hour workweeks, which meant coming to work 9 AM and leaving at 4 AM six days a week. It was a culture driven by attention to detail, dot by dot, line by line, letter by letter, then again, review, and repeat the process. We were trained to chase perfection even with little things, or for concepts that had little chance of getting built. Burnout among employees was high, but motivation and inspiration were higher.
Our senior partners were masters in telling stories—that is, creating stories where architecture is not only design, but also a way of understanding, and identity. We were not asked to conform to styles, but consider each project unique. Even with hundreds of employees, we operated with a studio mentality.
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It was a highly collaborative environment though there were numerous groups in the office specializing in various expertise, such as presentation and generative modeling. We even had a writing division! It was comprised of journalists and literary folks to help architects write concepts, proposals, and presentations.
Foster is a keen businessman who understands that architecture is a service, and therefore its practitioners must take pains to understand the client, his business, lifestyle, and needs. Rather than have a set of preconceived “styles” or solutions, they constantly ask: How can this project be successful? How will this help our client’s business? They also took pains to ensure that clients understood the product, for them to believe the architecture as proposed is the best solution. The almost fanatical concern for the clients’ and stakeholders’ welfare made Foster’s firm innovative, enjoy repeat clients, and build a portfolio of successful projects that bring value to the cities they are located in.
“The almost fanatical concern for the clients’ and stakeholders’ welfare made Foster’s firm innovative, enjoy repeat clients, and build a portfolio of successful projects that bring value to the cities they are located in.”
Back in Manila
I wanted a studio that would explore projects with naiveté. This means looking at a project without preconceived ideas. Looking at projects removed from the idea of “Architect” as the “creator,” we search for a profound understanding of what the client and the project needs, how and what the building’s lifespan would be like, before even informing its architectural elements. Such a naïveté would prompt us to ask questions, dig deep and help us arrive at unique rather than tired solutions.
The studio culture and operations
We structured my firm, SpaceFabrik, as a studio where members of the team are involved from a project’s conception to its completion. In the studio structure, all members of the team are involved and given the chance to design, voice opinions and learn from each other. They don’t feel isolated doing only one specific task.
- We start a new project with a project kick-off. Everyone in the studio attends to discuss possible design direction.
- We assign the architect in charge and he/she comes up with the design process, timeline and presentation strategy.
- Once a week, we have a studio-wide design review where we all look at each project and give our inputs. The architects in charge are tasked to present their references, concepts and possible project development.
- Also once a week, we have construction review meetings for ongoing projects, to discuss site progress, problems, solutions and strategies. Construction review meetings often result in new or improved processes of documentation and drawing guides.
- Every quarter, we have FabrikLab, a workshop with professionals from other trades and ask for their input to help the team to see design problems from a different viewpoint.
In this setup, it is important to keep minds open and ideas flowing. A richer design process comes about from collective input rather than a strictly top-down approach.
Organization affects operations
How your firm is organized or structured affects the design process, delivery of services, effectiveness in bringing in work, as well as the level of collaboration and employee growth and satisfaction.
Some firms are organized around key clients who bring in so much work, they have teams dedicated exclusively to their projects. Some firms even take in projects from clients in the same industry and in competition with each other. To maintain the confidentiality of each client, they organizationally and physically separate employees assigned to competing clients, placing them, for example, on different floors.
Other firm structures are built around the partners. Each partner has his own set of clients, projects, and staff—they just share office resources. It’s like having two firms under one roof, each working independently. It’s easy to operate separately and de-merge when the time comes.
Other firms are organized around project types—high-rise, residential, etc.—while others that are multi-disciplinary, are organized around the services they provide: engineering, architecture, interior design, landscape architecture, environmental graphics, etc.
Building your team
- Find people who believe in what you are doing. I started SpaceFabrik three years ago in my house. We had a homey and casual atmosphere, used plastic tables and chairs, and it did not look like an architectural studio. I was lucky to find people who saw beyond the physical space, and had the same vision I did for SpaceFabrik. We are still together in the team! Their passion for the studio goes beyond just making a living.
- Know the team’s strength and weaknesses. We have meetings where we analyze mistakes committed, and how to improve our systems and processes. I encourage all team members to work on their weaknesses, and be comfortable with being uncomfortable. At the same time, we celebrate our strengths, and use these occasions to empower the team. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of each member of the team enables us to support and complement each other.
- Build a mentoring system. We pair junior architects with experienced associates to impart knowledge and know-how.
- Location, location. I hire people who live near or can travel easily to the the office. It’s unwise to expect your team to perform at 100% when they’re stuck four hours each day in traffic. When I get applicants from far away, I encourage them to apply to offices closer to their place of residence. If you wish to invest in a particular employee or applicant, an allowance that will allow him or her to relocate near the office is worth considering.
Freeing up time from work gives us opportunities to learn other things in other disciplines. I encourage the team to come in on time, leave on time, and keep weekends free. Disciplining your people against working overtime encourages them to work smart, and plan their weekly and daily schedules to complete tasks within regular office hours. At my previous offices, I observed that when people don’t follow set hours for work, productivity goes down and procrastination goes up. They spend time on numerous coffee breaks and cigarette breaks because they have the option to stay longer, to work overtime. An office culture like that cuts a quick path to burn out.
I think the most important thing you need to start your own office is to believe in yourself. Not in a boastful sort of way, but in the quiet confidence that things will work out, and that whatever you don’t know, you can learn. If the confidence is not there, fake it. The answer will come with diligence. I also learned that it is important to enjoy the process of starting, even if your life’s goals are still undefined. Your life is a work in progress, and mistakes are part of personal and professional growth.