Five revenue and morale boosters for small firms in 2024

What a year, right? Well, if you’re in charge of an architecture firm, there’s often little time to reflect as you keep the cash flowing and while you’re prospecting for new business. Maybe you want to position yourself for that plum project everyone wants, or maybe you’re looking to staff-up because you know you’ve got a big project on the horizon. Then again, maybe you’re looking to get into new areas of practice or invest in new technologies, while also keeping your bread-and-butter clients happy (not to mention your employees). At the end of the day, it’s all about shoring-up that revenue and the morale of your firm. Here are the top five things you should think about at the end of the calendar year to improve your position next year—especially if you’re a small business. 

  • Conduct a financial analysis and set some realistic goals: By conducting a comprehensive financial analysis, you can understand the current state of your business’s revenue, expenses, and overall financial health. Evaluate the previous year’s financial performance and set realistic revenue goals for the upcoming year. Assess profit margins, identify areas for cost-cutting, and establish achievable revenue targets as tactics for sustainable growth.
  • Court feedback: Gather and analyze client feedback to gain insights into the strengths and weaknesses of your business. Did they have preferences that maybe aren’t as quirky as you thought and are possibly more and more common? What evolving market trends are they tracking about materials or design ideas—for better or for worse—and what’s your plan to address them? Everyone says architects are part-time therapists to their clients, but thinking along these lines (with all kidding aside) will help you increase their satisfaction. It’ll also increase the chances they’ll come back to you again and again for future projects. 
  • Hold a proper communications, messaging, and marketing strategy review: What are you saying about yourself and your services, and how are you saying it? Have you evaluated your current marketing strategies and campaigns before rubber stamping the next one? Identify the channels that net you business and the campaigns that have yielded a return on your investment. Explore new social media channels, even if you don’t think you have time for “another thing” because, guess what, your clients are on those channels. Investing in messaging, social media, digital marketing, and content creation can significantly expand your business’s visibility and customer base.
  • Technology brings innovation, but also headaches: Evaluate the efficiency of your business operations and consider workflow software to keep projects moving (And especially if you’re collaborating with other firms on a regular basis). But, if you suspect that you spent too much time in front of a Miro board or a Gantt chart, you’re probably right. Nothing beats pen, paper, coffee, and a face-to-face conversation to work out thorny problems. Adopting digital tools and software can enhance productivity, improve customer service, and reduce operational costs—there’s no doubt about it. But, adopting doesn’t mean assimilating with the Borg. 
  • Develop employees to retain them: Whether you employ three people or 13 people or 30 people, the key word here is “employ.” Their satisfaction and development are part of the landscape for them, just as their hard work and commitment are part of the landscape for you. Provide opportunities for skill development, training, and career advancement to boost their morale and productivity—even if that’s a quarterly outing or even a game of pickleball in the courtyard with beers. (Pro tip: don’t make it “forced-family-fun.” Make it a day that’s alluring and relaxing and that gives people options rather than obligations.) Recognize and reward outstanding performance to motivate employees, too, which is too often overlooked as a simple but effective morale booster. Why? Happier employees lead to happier workplaces, which is an added value beyond revenue you can’t afford to ignore. 

By prioritizing these key areas at the bottom of the year—and before hitting the new year— small businesses can position themselves for success.

William Richards is a writer and editorial consultant based in Washington, D.C. From 2007 to 2011, he was the Editor-in-Chief of Inform Magazine.

Tangential Timber creates something out of the things we usually deem nothing

Cast-off lumber is just part of the cost of doing business for the timber industry, sold for pulp, wood chips, or otherwise discarded. It’s the lemon peel nobody wants or the broccoli stem nobody seems to care for. But what if we could do something useful with timber industry waste—upwards of 55% of harvested wood that’s deemed unusable for lumber because it’s a little (or a lot) irregular, damaged, or undesirable? 

That’s the question Kyle Schumann and Katie MacDonald asked who—along with their project partners at the UVA School of Architecture, alumna Abigail Hassell, the school’s FabLab team, the UVA Sawmilling folks, and students—wanted to do something more with the stuff everyone thinks less of. That’s the idea behind their project “Tangential Timber,” which recently received an Honorable Mention in the Small Project category by AIA Virginia in its annual Honors and Awards program.

Tangential Timber started in 2021 as a research project focused on developing what After Architecture principals call “non-linear wood masonry.”

Using more of what’s around is kind of a sweet spot, research-wise, for Schumann and MacDonald, whose firm After Architecture was the subject of an Inform piece last year that focused on their award-winning project “Homegrown,” a small room constructed of walls made of invasive plants and yard waste and installed at the Knoxville Museum of Art in 2020. 

Like Tangential Timber, “Homegrown” boils sustainability and decarbonization down to two facts that are true in virtually every arena: we manufacture more than we need as global industries and we ignore a lot of what nature has to offer as a species. Resourcefulness is a good virtue and a good practice, say Schumann and MacDonald, and it’s probably a lot more scalable than we realize. Call it upcycling. Call it recycling. Call it MacGyver’ing.

Call it whatever you like. But, resourcefulness and doing more with what you have is a scalable idea that works for an architecture school just as well as a C-suite’s P&L report.

This year, Tangential Timber was recognized in AN’s Best of Design Awards, as well, put on by The Architect’s Newspaper, on the heels of last year’s R+D Award from Architect Magazine—both offering a well deserved boost to one of the most creative and principled firms in Virginia. Here’s what Schumann and MacDonald had to say about what’s quickly becoming one of the most memorable projects of the last couple of years.

You developed what you’re calling a “low-tech, parametric digital imaging workflow” to photograph and trace the cookies—or wood rounds—in 2D and then translate them into 3D models. What exactly does that mean?

KS: Why we’re doing this is we’re interested, in general, to leverage digital tools to make them easier to use across our projects. In this case we had 164 cookies used in the final construction—when you have that many pieces, if you scan them individually, there’s a lot of data there and it quickly becomes difficult to use them when you’ve got all that data in Rhino on a laptop. So, we wanted to use a lower-data way to do this. We photographed each cookie and processed the image using custom software, which automatically scales it, corrects for perspective, and extrudes it to produce a simple 3D digital model. This process means that we can work with hundreds of pieces of digitized material in the same file with ease. It’s the digital version of Incan stonework—and after the scanning process, there are different Grasshopper scripts that are run through Rhino. We modeled the vault shape to make sure it was a compression structure. We arrayed the cookies into a grid, side by side, and then used spring simulations to pull those cookies together with some overlap—a couple of inches—to produce joinery. Once we have that in 2D, we translate it back into 3D form and then make the joinery. 

“We’re also interested in the inventory of tree species being broader than what are usually selected for the production of buildings,” says After Architecture’s Katie MacDonald. “We want to broaden the definition of what’s usable or deemed appropriate for construction.”

KM: The expression of the geometry is related to how engineers have created compression structures. We were interested in how the cookie became a masonry block. As Kyle alluded to Incan structures, we also zeroed in on masonry compression structures as a precedents. Rather than thinking about stone, we thought about wood. We were looking at Heinz Isler’s hanging fabric structures as one model. 

KS: On one hand, we found that the timber industry is materially efficient—offcuts are broken down into chips and composited into things like oriented strand board. But, then, when you use formaldehyde glue, it makes it hard to deal with that material at the end of its life. So, we want to figure out how to use technologies in a new way to make these materials accessible to everyone to use, and to leverage the embodied intelligence of materials like bamboo, native grasses, and timber in a way that’s about incremental change. We see dimensional lumber as being optimized for labor, ease of construction, and codification. I think we can branch out from that with the growing complexity of computer simulations. 

“This process means that we can work with hundreds of pieces of digitized material in the same file with ease,” says After Architecture’s Kyle Schumann. “It’s the digital version of Incan stonework.”

KM: We’re also interested in the inventory of tree species being broader than what are usually selected for the production of buildings. We want to broaden the definition of what’s usable or deemed appropriate for construction. There’s an interesting split between dimensional lumber for light-frame construction and the emergence of the mass-timber market, which is about cranes.

It seems that part of architecture school for incoming students is unlearning what they know about materials so they can really understand how those materials work. How do you get students to see things the way you do?

KS: Students were involved in every step of this project, and when we teach, and we’re teaching fabrication, it’s about letting go of preconceptions about materials. We have some abstract exercises to get them to see materials they know differently. We ask them to cut and operate on a log, and they find that the geometry of a log is at odds with most of the tools we have in our woodshops. So, they have to develop tools to overcome the embedded bias that comes with common woodworking machinery.. 

Do you see this as a scalable solution, since we talked about both this project and Homegrown as prototypes?
KM: We hope this provides a transferable solution about adapting to local tree species, but also adapting to local inputs. This is about taking an inventory of material and assembling it to maximize the geometry and thickness of each piece. The vault is something we’re doing with cookies today, but it could be timber in different orientations, too.

KS: As a prototype, it’s at the far end of the local prototype spectrum. We used logs from UVA Sawmilling, so it’s a hyper-local solution in this case, but it doesn’t have to be. 

KM: Following up on Tangential Timber, we’re working on developing tools to deal with non-linear wood. Tools that allow us to respond to the varying qualities of a piece of wood rather than assuming a straight log. 

KS: With that, we’ve worked with collaborators to invent a robotic sawmill system that allows us to cut curving and twisting geometries from logs at a large scale. A lot of the work in architecture schools now is with robotic arms, often used in industrial production for cars, but far less common in the production of building products. One of our aims with working with a sawmill as our tool rather than a robotic arm is that it is something that’s deployable and something that the timber industry is already working with—increasing the chances of wide scale implementation. Tangential Timber was a fairly laborious process—time and energy and machining—so we are hoping with the new robotic sawmill to make that easier in the future. 

How do you draw others into collaboration with you?

KS: We’ve seen growing excitement in this. The annual conference of Computer-Aided Design in Architecture (ACADIA) just had its meeting recently, and it’s all about digital fabrication and computation and materials—and almost all of those projects have a relationship to climate. So, there’s a lot of excitement about this work and we see people doing it in various ways. One way we try to approach it is to work between a strictly technological view of the work but also valuing design, itself. That’s why we refer to our projects as prototypes. There’s a believability with something you can touch and walk into and even see in a photograph. 

KM: The last big thing to upend architectural education—or really to change architectural discourse—was the digital turn and the introduction of digital tools. Some celebrated that with smooth parametric designs. Some see BIM as the big product of that development. But, what we posit is that the biomaterial turn is going to be the next thing—or currently the thing that’s changing architectural education. We’re seeing that evolve really rapidly now. Mass timber really gave that fuel. Today, there’s a real willingness to experiment with it. We have a lot of talented people doing a lot of innovative things in this field, so we’re lucky to be in this space and get to experiment. It’s funny, even submitting to things like AIA awards, a “pavilion” is so outside of what’s commonly recognized, but it’s important to us to present it in this way and to participate in those awards programs. It’s part of the effort to highlight biomaterials and what we feel is an important evolution for architecture.

William Richards is a writer and editorial consultant based in Washington, D.C. From 2007 to 2011, he was the Editor-in-Chief of Inform Magazine.

Project credits:

Tangential Timber, University of Virginia and After Architecture

Principals: Kyle Schumann (Assistant Professor, University of Virginia / Cofounder, After Architecture), Katie MacDonald AIA (Assistant Professor, University of Virginia / Cofounder, After Architecture), Abby Hassell (B.Arch ’22 University of Virginia)

Wall Prototype Students: Abby Hassell, Audrey Lewis, Jacob McLaughlin, Rohan Singh, Abbie Weissman (developed in ARCH 3021: Design Thinking Studio II: Material Cybernetics, taught by Kyle Schumann in spring 2021) 

Vault Research Assistants: Sonja Bergquist, Cecily Farrell, Alex Hall, Caleb Hassell, Dillon Mcdowell, Annabelle Woodcock. 

Funding: UVA Jefferson Trust Flash Funding Grant; UVA Center for Global Inquiry and Innovation Faculty Global Research with Undergraduates (FGRU) Grant; UVA School of Architecture Dean’s Office.

Springfield loses bid for FBI HQ to Greenbelt

The General Services Administration (GSA) confirmed this week that the new FBI headquarters will go to Greenbelt, Md., which was chosen over nearby Landover and Springfield, Va.

Inform reported on the debate back in February as lawmakers in Maryland and Virginia appealed to GSA and FBI officials one final time. The arguments were fairly simple: Springfield has easy access to Quantico and other national security facilities, not to mention Metro access; Greenbelt and Landover in Prince George’s County also has Metro access, is home to 15 federal agencies, and seems perhaps less snarled by rush hour traffic than Northern Virginia. Maryland lawmakers also made a compelling that both county sites could satisfy the FBI’s racial equity requirement, with more than 60 percent of residents identifying as African-American.

In recent years, however, the choices around weighing amenities and demography had been bogged down by political wrangling on Capitol Hill and tit-for-tat sniping across the Potomac by boosters in Fairfax and Prince George’s Counties. The ghosts of former D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray’s administration also appeared in the press, who still felt that keeping the FBI within the District’s borders best served the agency and its workers. (The Washington Post published an excellent piece on Nov. 8 covering all of it, but you will need several hours and a big piece of paper to keep track of the factions.)

Now that the choice has been made, what will become of the jilted Virginia site? It’s anyone’s guess, but Fairfax County officials say demand for affordable rental housing for households with low- and moderate-income remains high, offering a strong highest-and-best-use case. It’s also near several behemoth employers like Amazon, Boeing, and Raytheon, not to mention the Franconia-Springfield Metro station, making the site viable for both federal agencies and peripheral private sector players. The government isn’t getting any smaller, after all, and the booming tech industry inside and outside the Beltway continues to, well, boom.

Think you have a good idea? Let Inform know. Better yet, send over a sketch. If we get enough replies, we’ll report on your great ideas.

Rolling Back the Rolling Clock: Five takes on NCARB’s gambit to improve equity in the exam

By AIA Virginia JEDI Committee

Since 2006, all candidates for Architecture licensure in the U.S. have been bound by NCARB’s Five-Year Rolling Clock, which required that all divisions of the Architect Registration Examination® (ARE) must be passed within a five-year window of the first passed division of the exam. If the window ended before all divisions were passed, test-takers had to accept that a new clock would begin from the next oldest passed division, and the first division would expire and need to be tested again.

As of April 30 of this year, the rolling clock policy is no more, replaced by NCARB’s new Score Validity policy. Previously expired divisions of the ARE 4.0 will be reinstated for consideration under the Score Validity Policy going forward after May 1, 2023.  This allows all passed divisions to remain valid through the lifecycle of the exam version they were taken under and used for a translation credit for the next version of the exam. What it means is candidates who passed ARE 4.0 divisions will be able to apply them towards the ARE 5.0 following previously established transition tables.  

Once the ARE 6.0 starts delivery, those 4.0 divisions (and any 5.0 divisions they were translated into) will expire.  As the ARE 3.1 and earlier exam divisions are already 2 versions out, they will remain expired.  Additionally, NCARB will be providing refunds to candidates who have an exam appointment scheduled or have purchased exam seat credits that they will no longer need due to this policy change.  Finally, NCARB has promised to provide at least 18 months’ notice before transitioning from ARE 5.0 to ARE 6.0.

Here’s the bigger picture:

It is important to note that while NCARB is changing their policy, Virginia’s Department of Professional and Occupation Regulation’s Board for Architects, Professional Engineers, Land Surveyors, Certified Interior Designers and Landscape Architects (APELSCIDLA) still has its own timeline specific requirements.  To be eligible to sit for any division of the ARE, candidates for licensure through Virginia must have an active eligibility.  This eligibility period is a three-year window and starts when your application to test is approved.  Candidates who do not pass all the divisions within that window can apply to be made eligible again.  Under the current rules this must be done within 6 months of their eligibility expiring, and at least one division must have been attempted during the expired three-year window.  All candidates who need an extension on their eligibility must file a new Architect License Application.  If one or more of these requirements is not met candidates can still apply to reinstate their eligibility but will also be required to provide new references in addition to the application form.  It is important to note that having a lapsed eligibility does not impact the validity of a candidate’s previously passed exams; what it does do is prohibit them from making an appointment to sit for any new divisions.

Here’s why NCARB hopes it will improve equity and inclusion:

NCARB has stated that their policy change is a direct result of their efforts to combat unconscious bias in the licensing process. A review of their data showed that the Five-Year Rolling Clock was disproportionately impacting women and people of color, who additionally already had lower exam success rates. As members of AIA Virginia’s Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion committee, we applaud this move by NCARB to help remove structural bias in our profession.  Additionally, we call on our state board to review our current three-year eligibility policy to confirm that it does not put an undue burden on women and people of color.

Here’s what people are saying about it:

We asked around to see if these changes were welcomed (they were, we found), but also to see what impact will be on a emerging professionals and professionals, which our respondents said, are distinctions that conceal a much greater degree of diversity and a more complex reading of career “stages.” Our respondents illustrate that people of color and women have most definitely been impacted by the previous Rolling Clock requirement regarding their progress through the ARE. They made some other good points, too, about barriers of licensure in general for individuals who are candidates sometimes engaged in a second career, or who are parents, or who are entering the workforce with lower pay and/or higher student loan balances than previous generations, or whose first language might not be English at all.

To better understand how NCARB’s rolling clock has had an impact on our profession here is what four individuals said, which we’ve anonymized for their benefit by assigning numbers, but it’s a group that includes Connie Owens, RA, Brian Gore, Amina Oulmi, and Linda Coile, RA.

What has your experience going through the ARE process been like?

  1. My experience started when I decided to embrace Architecture again after being away for many years. The most challenging part was trying to gain more experience and improve my skills along with taking care of my kids. Finding the right time and dealing with the anxiety of brutal exams while trying to have a balanced life has been a big challenge.
  2. It’s been long and tiring!  I’m finally down to my last few exams, but it has been a STRUGGLE getting here. 
  3. My husband and I completed our M.Arch. at the same time but he began working in the field before I did and therefore had more IDP hours completed before me.  We decided he should do his ARE first. We  had some overlap in studying and test taking because we wanted to start a family after waiting four years. I began studying and took my first test on Aug. 1, 2014 (I also passed the CDT exam four months earlier). I wish I’d started my ARE’s prior to starting a family and I tell every young woman in architecture that: finish before you think of having a family.  I do think it’s easier now, as candidates are allowed to test early before finishing the AXP hours, but that was a new thing when my husband and I were starting our IDP/ARE, and we weren’t aware of that advantage.  I started under 4.0 and then it switched to 5.0 midstream.  I ended up taking a total of eight tests, two of which I failed, so a total of six to pass.
  4. So far, I’ve had to squeeze study time in between project deadlines and workloads from week to week.

How has the rolling clock affected you?

  1. It added a lot of stress and made me think about not proceeding because of fear of hitting that time deadline!
  2. It’s added a lot of extra pressure. Juggling work, life, and studying is hard enough without having, what has felt like, an arbitrary looming deadline over my head the whole time.  One of my exams was about to expire at the end of this year, so it was a relief to hear it was being retired.  Obviously, I don’t want to be testing forever, but it’s nice to know that I can now do it at whatever pace works for me.
  3. Having three kids derailed my testing and while I was grateful for the six-month extension for each new child, if it hadn’t been for the pandemic and the extensions everyone received, I would NOT have made it!  Six months is kind of laughable to think that a new mother would be ready to jump back into studying, when she’s probably just jumped back into the workforce too.
  4. The rolling clock has not affected me personally, as I have recently started the examination.

How has the Virginia 3-year timeline affected you?

  1. I am not affected yet since I am still taking tests.
  2. It’s also added pressure that feels unnecessary, especially since it was out-of-sync with NCARB’s rolling clock and costs money and time to renew if it lapses.  I don’t know the origins of the three-year timeline, but it isn’t clear why this needs to exist at all.
  3. I had to reapply multiple times, and during the pandemic it fell off my radar and I ended up having to fully re-up instead of just renewing. It also oddly doesn’t align with the rolling clock or ARE’s timeline.
  4. It has not affected me yet.

How long has this process taken you, whether you have completed it or not?

  1. This is my third year.
  2. 6 years.
  3. It took me eight years, with three kiddos and a pandemic, and I finished the last one 10 days before my first exam was set to expire on the rolling clock.  I signed up for Amber Book when I only had two tests left, the PPD & PDD beasts, with two months to go before that test expired.  I finished their content within 1 month and took the tests two weeks apart!  My husband took care of the family and I basically had to ignore them all for that time to actually get it done.  The only good thing about the rolling clock is that it lit a fire under me that I needed. However, it only really worked because that summer was the first time in nearly eight years (besides a six-month period when I had a one-year-old and a three-year-old) that I hadn’t been pregnant or nursing/pumping, there was no pandemic, and/or my kids were on longer hours at summer care giving me time to actually study.
  4. I have been in this process for about seven months.

Has this process affected you in your role at your office?

  1. I am fortunate to work in a healthy office atmosphere without pressure, who value my input and expertise despite the licensure status.
  2. It doesn’t seem like it’s affected my role in a significant way (I can’t say for sure), but it has held me back from larger pay increases.
  3. My boss was very understanding and supported my taking time to study when I didn’t have kids underfoot and making up hours at odd times.
  4. It hasn’t affected my role in the office, but it has affected my personal life and how much time I have to do anything outside of my job-related duties/activities.

How many years of professional architectural experience do you have?

  1. 8 Years.
  2. 8 Years.
  3. 14 years
  4. Going on 3 years of experience.

Do you identify as a minority group?  Which group or groups do you identify with?

  1. Women and ESL
  2. Yes, I’m a Black woman.
  3. The only minority group I identify with is as a mother practicing architecture, and a mother of young children at that. Many mothers stop practicing architecture while their kids are young and come back later, but I’ve been told it can be difficult to get back in, so many move on to other things.  A mother of young children is a very underrepresented group in architecture.
  4. Yes, African American and male.

Were you aware of the variety of resources available to you?  

  1. Not really
  2. I knew about study resources through my office and colleagues who had recently passed or were taking their exams but didn’t know much about mentoring when I first started testing. I’ve recently found a mentor through another organization who has been really supportive and encouraging as I get through testing.
  3. I had study guides provided by my office, and the ability to talk to colleagues who had recently taken their exams but I don’t think I was aware of other resources.  But, if I had known about it, I’m not sure I would or could have taken advantage of it.  
  4. Yes, whether provided by my job or elsewhere.

Did you have access to mentoring and support, and how did it look?  

  1. Yes, but not in a formal way.
  2. I’ve recently found a mentor through another organization who has been really supportive and encouraging as I get through testing.
  3. Mentoring and study groups always sound nice but it’s one more thing to put on someone’s plate.  Work, parenting, possibly nursing, studying, and now fitting in mentoring, it’s enough to mentally break anyone.  
  4. Yes

Was the mentoring and support through your firm or another organization?

  1. AIA, Young Architect Bootcamp and friends. 
  2. Structured mentoring through another organization.
  3. It was through my firm. My firm has a Teams channel focused on ARE support and resources. I can also rely on coworkers who have recently gone through, or currently going through the process for any I need.

What would help or would have helped you achieve your goals more easily?

  1. Well organized and accessible resources, study groups and psychological support.
  2. If I’m being honest, reduced work hours would be extremely helpful.  It’s difficult working 8-9 hours a day (sometimes more for deadlines), studying for at least a couple of hours a day, and keeping up with everything else (sleep, groceries, housework, exercise, etc.). I know it’s wishful thinking, but finding the time to study consistently has been the biggest hurdle for me.
  3. Being able to push pause on the rolling clock would have helped.  Longer breaks during testing for a nursing mother. Those breaks are very short for a mother who has to pump and then jump back into the test on time. 6 months credit on the rolling clock for a new birth is laughable, 1 year minimum is when it actually might be helpful.
  4. I think that even with the rolling clock being removed, the cost of the exams and the cost of materials and resources are outrageous. I would’ve started the examination process a lot sooner if the cost wasn’t so great. I think the next task is to tackle the high cost of the ARE.

Three takes on innovation at ArchEx 2023 in November 

Everyone knows what innovation means, but ask ten people to offer a definition and you’ll get nearly as many versions. Technology will surely be a common thread, since it has come to be almost synonymous with the “i” word, but its root—novus—means new, which is a much broader dragnet for architects when they think about making claims about their innovative design or processes.

Architecture Exchange East (Nov. 1-3) has doubled down on what’s new about innovation with sessions about connectivity, technological or otherwise. Here are three takes on a contested word that you’ll want to check out if you’re also interested in doubling down on your firm’s future.

This year, Manoj Dalaya, FAIA, co-founder and president of KGD Architecture (and subject of an Inform interview last year), will talk about connecting a complicated program and stringent security requirements for the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) in Arlington with the need to create an open and modern workplace. The result? A luminous office that offers a range of open and secure work environments. For a place built on secrets, the IDA is a remarkably airy and welcoming place. Michele Amt, AIA who directs VMDO’s sustainability efforts, has another take on innovation—how to transform both the culture and practice of her firm to embrace what she calls “radical transparency,” align design decisions with sustainability goals, and leverage data to advance project outcomes. (She was also part of a roundup earlier this year of impressions published by Inform on Architecture 2030’s CARE calculator for carbon savings.) 

Speaking of digital tools, this wouldn’t be a preview of sessions on innovation without a word about technology. T.J. Meehan, VP of Technology Solutions for CADD Microsystems, will be on-hand at ArchEx this year to talk about what’s beyond your BIM workflow using Revit and how to meet client needs for facilities management—long after the punch list has been completed and the backbone of a project’s promise to, say, reduce operational carbon or be generally efficient. Best of all, says Meehan, it’s a revenue stream you can consider, not to mention a value-add for the project.

Innovation comes in lots of flavors, and this is far from an exhaustive account of what’s on tap at ArchEx this year. Find out more about these sessions and others, and register today for ArchEx.

Michelle Amt, AIA: Radical Transparency (Or, How To Transform the Industry And Your Practice)
Thinking about signing on to the 2030 Commitment but you’re nervous about hitting the target on schedule? Have you been reporting for a few years but you can’t seem to move the needle on your percent reduction? Wondering how you compare to others in the same boat? Join us for a deep dive on how the 2030 Commitment can transform how you practice—even if you’re not hitting your targets–with VMDO Architects. Through their embrace of radical transparency, this session will shed light on how this forward-thinking firm leverages tools like the AIA’s Design Data Exchange (DDX) to align design decisions with sustainability goals, setting   new standards for accountability and industry transformation. Learn about the challenges and benefits of this approach, and discover how it’s reshaping VMDO’s firm culture, enhancing their projects’ impact, and charting a more sustainable future for architectural design.

Manoj Dalaya, FAIA: Connection, Cognitions, And Balance Through Design
What is the importance of a connected and engaging workplace from the owner’s perspective in a hybrid setting? How can the architect lead the dialogue between the Owner and Consultants to shape a modern workplace? This is a case study of a new headquarters serving 1000 employees for the Institute for Defense Analyses. The client answers the most challenging U.S. security and science policy questions with objective analysis which is technical, and data-driven. The focus on art, lighting, and wellness is a counterpoint to the data-driven, high-security culture, providing relief and amplifying the capacity of the employees to achieve their mission.

T.J. Meehan: Additional Revenue Streams For Your Firm From A BIM Process
As a firm, you need to constantly stay ahead of your competition by providing more value. If you have already adopted a BIM workflow using Revit, there are several services you could provide to meet their needs. More and more owners are utilizing the models generated during design to manage their facilities, so how can you – with little more effort – provide models that assist owners with their FM goals and do so without fundamentally changing your business structure or requiring large investments in staff or technology. We will review specific steps you can take with your models and related processes to help owners meet their FM goals and how you may be able to not only add value to help set yourself apart from your competition, but also how you may be able to monetize these services.

HGA’s Capital One Hall turns the tide at Tysons

By William Richards

HGA’s handsome marble-clad Capital One Hall at Tysons Corner announces a totally different direction for an ex-novo urban area that has been defined less by architectural vision over the years and more by cloverleaf interchanges and white-knuckle merges. The façade’s alternating marble and glass strips was conceived by HGA’s head Tim Carl, FAIA, and design principal Nat Madson, AIA, and was reportedly inspired by Gordon Matta-Clark’s photography—a nod to the interplay of our perception of urban space as its framed, sometimes tightly, by gaps and fissures in the urban fabric. 

It’s hard to imagine Gordon Matta-Clark mentioned in the same sentence as anything related to Tysons, but there it is—and HGA’s work to realize Capital One Hall, itself, offers a possible window into a more promising future for the area. One promising future is about scale—and the entertainment and community venue finally completes a corporate campus that has struggled to find a human-scale focal point after the banking behemoth began developing the site a quarter century ago. The other possible future is about community—and Capital One Hall also completes Fairfax County’s plan to make Tysons Corner a cultural destination for more than 25,000 residents who live nearby. 

As corporate campuses go, Capital One’s development over almost 24 years has meant a diverse set of design decisions juxtaposed in one place. There’s the gleaming glass tower (the tallest in the metro area), a joint endeavor between HKS Architects, Bonstra Haresign, and CallisonRTKL. A quick walk away is the comparatively low-slung original office block that harkens back to federal office buildings from the 1950s in its massing. (About 50 miles away, the 1960 Altmeyer Social Security Administration Building comes to mind, for which HGA was architect-of-record for its 2021 renovation.) Other small- and mid-size towers dot the site along the periphery of the bank’s triangular property—more bank offices, residences, corporate housing, and a massive, 80,000 square-foot Wegman’s grocery store.

Capital One Hall is the literal center of the pizza pie-shaped property that Capital One has owned (and has been developing) since 2000. Blending spare, almost Nordic gestures, a rich materials palette, and flexible spaces to suit a range of programming, Capital One Hall is really several connected entertainment and community spaces. But it didn’t start that way, says Scott Cryer, AIA, Associate Vice President and Principal at HGA. It started as a brief for more meeting space for intra-bank groups, a community space, and a way to deal with the Wegmans loading dock (which occupies the four sub-floors beneath the concert hall).

“All that together then brought us to our proposal for Capital One Hall, which includes all of the meeting spaces the client needs while also creating a performance space for the community,” says Cryer. “It’s highly flexible for the community’s needs and for Capital One’s needs, and it’s an anchor for the entire campus now”.”

The 1,600-seat main theater, clad in walnut and perforated aluminum panels, has acoustics so perfect it compelled Josh Groban to sing acapella on opening night (a first for him, reportedly). The adjacent black-box theater called “The Vault” holds 225 people the chance to see more intimate productions, one-person readings, or experimental performance pieces. 

“From the standpoint of the arts community here, the fact that multiple arts organizations can put on shows here now—it’s been transformative,” says Cryer, who also happens to be an area resident who is involved in several local committees and boards. 

Cryer says county residents can apply to have their shows put on in either the Vault or the main theater by going through Arts Fairfax, who vets applications on behalf of Capital One. “These were shows that had to be put on in cafeterias and church basements around the county—and now people can come to the Vault or the main stage,” he says.

Watching a concert or play or operetta is preceded by another kind of performance, which is the physical procession of spaces that all good theaters invest in as a preambulatory experience, from Charles Garnier at his Paris Opera to Edward Durell Stone at his Kennedy Center. You enter the building from the street under an old fashioned marquee, up a grand staircase, into a foyer, and into the atrium, itself on the piano nobile, which can be configured and reconfigured for sitting or standing events (or simple pre-show or intermission chatter). Atop it all on the roof is “The Perch,” a public rooftop co-administered by the county’s park authority, that holds an additional 10,000 people complete with biergarten and park, a number the roof hit on opening night.

For years, area residents have driven to Tysons for Halloween costumes, prom dresses, monogrammed flatware, or the novelty of eating conveyor belt sushi between two escalators. These days, you can take the Metro there. These days, you can also have lots of reasons to never set foot in the mall, too—meeting venues, no fewer than 11 hotels, and dozens of other corporate HQs along NoVa’s tech corridor on the approach to Dulles. There are even some great area parks with real trees. But, with the arrival of a Capital One Hall there is now one more reason to skip the mall and one less reason to complain about a grand urban experiment that might just work out in the end. 

Capital One Hall received an Award of Honor for Architecture from AIA Virginia in 2022. Learn more about HGA work, and Capital One Hall’s future performances

Mueller Associates, Inc.: MEP Engineering

Cushman & Wakefield: Project Development Partner

George Sexton Associates, LLC: Exterior Facade Lighting

Stages Consultants: Theatre Planning, Acoustics and A/V

Thornton Tomasetti: Structural Engineering

Arup: Façade Consultant and Code & Life Safety

William Richards is a writer and editorial consultant based in Washington, D.C. From 2007 to 2011, he was the Editor-in-Chief of Inform Magazine.

Harpers Ferry at the edge of the world

The headwaters of the Shenandoah River emerge in two locations in the Appalachian Mountains to create the North and South Forks, which flow northeast in tandem before merging at Front Royal. Forty-two miles later, the unified Shenandoah merges with the Potomac River at the town of Harpers Ferry, an enduring stopover for travelers, dignitaries, presidents, and pioneers. Like the Natural Bridge or the caves at Luray, Harpers Ferry is one of the geological wonders of the region. There’s no other way to describe this confluence of two formidable rivers other than to say it’s a spectacularly dramatic landscape. It’s also an incredibly busy landscape, run by a cadge of Peregrine falcons circling above and overrun by a flock of tourists in search of trash cans for their plastic spoons. 

The town, enveloped by a National Historic Park since 1944, caters to more than half a million visitors each year whose stores sell rocks and socks and sandwiches and sundaes. On a recent summer’s Sunday visit, English, French, German, and Hindi could be heard over the din of chatter and children, and daytrippers from D.C. mingled in what’s called the Lower Town with cyclists, backpackers, and overnighters. The Lower Town and everything above it unfolds along a tight urban plan that squeezes as much of a regular grid as possible into an irregular mesa barely 2,000 feet across. Two streets run like train tracks along the flattest part until one ekes out the other and runs down to the fabled Point marked by bronze plaques and an uninterrupted view of two rivers beyond. 

Mercifully, the Point is also unbothered by hot dog vendors or t-shirt hawkers. Visitors are free to gather for selfies or to read the faded Park Service panels illustrating the natural phenomenon before them. They come to learn the history of a place all but destroyed during the Civil War (and long since rebuilt by local merchants and the National Park Service to its pre-war glory). They come for the industrial beauty of an active trestle bridge next to abandoned viaduct piers, not to mention the defensive structures that define the riverfront itself. They come for the natural beauty of this respite near the midway point of the Appalachian Trail between Georgia and Maine. They come for a good time, too, and the ancillary industries of tubing, kayaking, and canoeing.

But, mostly they come to see John Brown’s Fort and the place where, in 1859, Brown attempted to raid the federal armory at Harpers Ferry (one of only two in the entire U.S. at the time), galvanizing the abolitionist cause. Brown’s larger strategy centered on the snowball effect—to generate enough momentum and accumulate enough people to fuel a slave rebellion. In Harpers Ferry, he hoped to capture (along with 22 abolitionists) upwards of 100,000 muskets and rifles and hold the armory long enough to attract area slaves and sympathizers. Then he’d arm them for a bloody campaign that would move south along the ridge of the Appalachian Mountains in the hopes of freeing and arming other slaves along the way. Of course, that would not be the outcome and the eponymous fort that is associated with John Brown today was never part of his plan—nor was it a fort at all, but the armory’s garage for fire engines that became a fallback position for Brown and his dwindling party of raiders who would all be killed by federal troops or later tried and executed in Virginia (Brown among them). 

Most scholars agree that their deaths cemented Lincoln’s first presidential victory in November 1860 over his three opponents (including, notably, Stephen A. Douglas) and catalyzed the secession of 11 southern states—in the “cause of Disunion”—beginning in December 1860 and lasting into 1861. Sitting as it does today at the nexus of West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland, Harpers Ferry certainly had a special political significance for Brown. And, sitting as it does at the nexus of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the town continued to have a special tactical significance throughout the war for two armies. Harpers Ferry changed hands several times over the course of five years in bloody and bloodless ways, its military structures often set afire by both sides to thwart the enemy and its town left battered. One Union officer noted in March 1862, about halfway through the war, “It is really, or rather was, a town of some note, but the ruin, absolute devastation now in its place is beyond anything I ever dreamed or saw or heard tell of.”

Today that history has been expunged by new development and its ramparts have been cleaned up for tourists and history buffs. You’re more likely to see a discarded carabiner on the side of the road than a bullet casing. Much of the Lower Town has been reconstructed and even John Brown’s Fort—whose bricks traveled quite a bit after the war before being reconstructed at Harpers Ferry—bears virtually no sign that it was an abolitionist’s last stand or the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Harpers Ferry no longer serves a tactical purpose for a reunified U.S. Army (and the Army Corps of Engineers has moved on to improve another Harpers Ferry more than 850 miles away). It doesn’t even have much political significance for the north or the south (although hikers along the Appalachian Trail will tell you it’s significant for them). 

But, what it does have is the thing it always had, long before the war—a spectacularly dramatic landscape at the confluence of two formidable rivers. People might come for John Brown’s memory, but they likely end up remembering something else entirely on the drive (or hike) home. 

William Richards is a writer and editorial consultant based in Washington, D.C. From 2007 to 2011, he was the Editor-in-Chief of Inform Magazine.