Collaboration can’t be a remote exercise. A multidisciplinary firm operates differently—and produces better results.
The traditional practice of hiring different disciplines for a single project is just plain broken. You can’t possibly answer the design problems facing projects today by cobbling together design teams that don’t share the same organizational values and have different approaches to solving design problems.
The best responses to the modern challenges of the built environment are integration and collaboration—a decision we made 25 years ago when we saw the business changing. We started by adding landscape architects and eventually grew to include engineers, planners, researchers and interior designers. Today we have a wide range of talent working together, with specialties ranging from furniture and lighting to HVAC.
Internally, we knew that integration would inherently make us a better firm on sustainability issues, which it has. There are so many elements to creating energy efficient, sustainable facilities—site, MEP, structural, lighting—it made sense to approach the sustainability of each project as a unit. But what we didn’t understand was how profoundly it would change the practice when we adopted this integrated model.
Our process is totally different. In the traditional world, the architect probably goes through, at best, schematic and typically conceptual or even design development before they bring in the consultant team. The project is already baked at that point. The consultant can’t have any real input in how the project should be designed.
Before we integrated, we were constantly bumping into the restraints of the traditional practice framework. Consultants typically didn’t want to work on the project until the very end, when the architects were done with their work, so they didn’t have to redraw. To get them to participate freely in our concept of collaboration earlier in the process, was really difficult, if not impossible. We realized we didn’t want to simply hire consultants; we wanted partners in the process.
Bringing the talent in-house allowed collaboration to happen right from the start. It profoundly changed the firm. Automatically, we started to have these explosions of creativity that never would happen in traditional practice. And, all of a sudden, we had a shared collective vision and a shared process.
You can’t create that when people aren’t part of your company. Real creativity lives in those impromptu moments that happen in the work environment, day-to-day and hour by hour. That never happens when you’re working with outside consultants; the engagement is entirely different.
We’ve learned many important lessons over the years. For one, you have to hire the right people—those who want to be part of this process. Not everybody wants to work in a collaborative world. You have to hire people who really understand that any good idea is great for the project, regardless of where it comes from.
Another thing we learned—and this is really key—you have to stop treating each discipline as a separate department. It’s one team. You can’t focus on the profitability of the structural group or the landscape group. That’s counterproductive to the larger goal and ignores the contributions, both large and small, of the different disciplines on projects. The team succeeds together and fails together. It is a collective vision for the project and it’s a collective success.
Lastly, we are not locked into our internal structure. If there is an engineer or team member who has a particular expertise on a specific project, we will bring them into the project. It’s always about finding the right team for that specific project and that is best for our client.
Our clients certainly understand this. In the corporate world, companies are all about collaboration. They are looking for ways to bring people together and create the type of moments and relationships that can’t always happen in a meeting. They are pushing for designs that foster collaboration and connections.
When we started this concept more than 10 years ago, many of our clients were skeptical of the integrated model. They asked us questions like, “I can understand why it’s good for you guys, but why is it good for me?” It is a good question and it allows us to talk about the value of collaboration and the value that an integrated practice brings to their projects with informed design.
Examples of the advantages come up almost every day. For the California State University, Northridge, Student Recreation Center, our engineers designed inverted columns to reduce the spans for the gym. Early in the process we realized the inverted spans provided an opportunity to design a running track through the space. That was completely unexpected.
Our clients see the difference—and it’s why, year after year, 80 to 90 percent of our work is from repeat clients or referrals. Projects are better coordinated because our engineers and architects are all working on the same Revit model. They get quicker answers to issues. The results are there as well: In the past five years, LPA has been awarded 80 AIA national, state and chapter awards for design excellence and 64 integration awards from engineering, landscape and lighting organizations. That’s our peers saying our process is better. We are in the design business and design matters.
More importantly, our projects have helped create better environments for people to live, work and play; projects that work better. In addition to one of the largest portfolios of LEED Gold and Platinum projects in the country, LPA buildings reduced fossil fuel energy use by 67 percent in 2017, compared to a national average of 40 percent posted by companies participating in the AIA 2030 Commitment. Our 2030 numbers for 2018 are proof we have a better process—an incredible 4 million square feet of space designed by LPA met the 70 percent benchmark.
And that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to be a model for the industry, illustrating that a large firm of dedicated people, working together as a team, can design better projects and make a real difference in people’s lives.
Dan Heinfeld is President of LPA and the recipient of the 2018 President’s Award from the AIA Orange County chapter in recognition of his contributions to the community and leadership in sustainability.
This story originally appeared in Catalyst Issue 3 2019. Subscribe today to receive Catalyst, a quarterly publication that takes a deep dive into design ideas, industry leaders and initiatives.