Retaining Your Best People

Retention is a growing concern, fueled by lower unemployment rates and people seeking to improve their position or compensation.  It’s worth it to explore some of the reasons people develop a loyalty to their current firm..  If you want to know more about why people leave, just think of the opposite – why your best people choose to stay.

At Gensler, my most important focus as the firm  grew was to create an environment that people didn’t want to leave.  If you’re not familiar with the Glass Door website (, check it out.  While it looks like a job search site, it’s also a series of reviews of companies by present and past employees.  Check any references about your firm, and learn from it what you need to do to be a company people want to join.

Gensler was always concerned about how our firm “felt” to our employees. We did a great deal of work on the culture of the firm, making it a place people were truly attracted to and an environment they were unlikely to find elsewhere. We started with some great advice from The Gallup Organization, which they’ve clearly spelled out in their book, First Break All the Rules ( . Gallup’s goal is to help people become “deeply engaged” in the work they do.  I explore this and many other concepts about retention in my book, Long-cycle Strategies for a Short-cycle World ( In it, you’ll find a list of 12 issues, that, if answered in the affirmative, will determine if someone is “deeply engaged”– in their work, with their clients, with their colleagues, and with the full array of stakeholders with whom they’re deeply involved. Engagement is particularly correlated with the resources in the firm that make the employee feel they’re appreciated, respected and supported. That support involves someone in the firm who is committed to helping the employee to continue to grow as a professional.

In the book, I also discuss styles of leadership, the way in which it is deployed and how people feel about the leaders in their firm. I adopted a simple idea when I first found myself in a leadership role at Gensler.  My mantra was: “You don’t work of me; I work for you. It is my job to be sure you have the tools, colleagues and support to do your very best work.” Seems to have worked for me.

I found another definitive reason for longevity of the best talent and continuity of team members in the firm.  We were organized around studios of 25 to 35 people, although the scale of projects today has caused those limits to be expanded. The same holds true for an office size which I always felt functioned best at around 150 people. In fact, there are firms who feel this is so important the if a business unit exceeds this size, they break a piece off to start a new business unit. The basic reasoning about why these numbers work begins with anthropology. In early times, a tribe rarely exceeded 150 people because that was a threshold for the brain to know and recognize who is a member of the tribe. If you’ve ever worked in a larger office, you know how easy it is to ask someone you don’t recognize if they work there.

On the 25-to-35 scale, this is a working unit where each person knows everyone else well enough to understand their individual strengths and weaknesses sufficiently to make great assignments. One of the Gallup book’s 12 indicators of “deep engagement” is: am I doing work that I’m well suited to do? In other words, am I expected to do something I’m not very good at? Am I and others on the team each working to our individual strengths? Making those kinds of assignments becomes a key leadership skill of a studio leader.

Finally, I learned a great deal from a book by Steven Quartz and Terry Sejnowski titled Liars, Lovers and Heroes

I was fascinated by a section that talked about how the brain actually alters itself based on the environment in which it lives. I was curious enough to find someone who knew Terry and asked for an introduction. After an hour on the phone together describing why I thought this was happening in our studios, he said, “Of course it is! If people work together for a significant period of time, they learn how to become a truly integrated part of a larger construct. They get smarter by knowing how to leverage each other’s strengths and knowledge, producing much smarter work.” I was glad to have this wild-eyed notion validated and have told this story for many years, strengthening the bonds between studio members and the quality of work they accomplish together. It also improves their “deep engagement” with each other and, through the better work they’re doing, with their clients.

A brief footnote, don’t underrate the value and opportunities created by allowing, in fact, encouraging yourself and others to be boundlessly curious. Otherwise, how would I have ever met Terry?

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Recommending “The New Grand Strategy”

My daughter was at a sustainability conference in Santa Clara, CA recently. She heard a talk by Mark (Puck) Mykleby describing his book, The New Grand Strategy –Restoring America’s Prosperity, Security and Sustainability in the 21st Century.  Knowing how well his ideas aligned with mine, she told him, “You’ve got to talk with my dad.” My daughter, a municipal public policy analyst, continues to introduce me to some of the most interesting people.

A few weeks later, I spoke to Puck, an ex-marine aviator who goes by his call sign. I had no idea what we were going to talk about, but talk, we did – for about an hour and a half.  A little background: Puck and one of his co-authors are both ex-military, so I expected a strong lean toward the armed forces and how we should be positioned globally as we move forward in the 21st century– especially since Admiral Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was the one who commissioned the two officers to devise a new grand strategy for America. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

From the book’s liner notes, “It had been 56 years since Dwight Eisenhower defined the last grand strategy, and Mullen needed a new strategic direction that focused on America’s twenty-first century future, not its twentieth century past.” The authors’ white paper argued for a strategy to recapture America’s greatness at home and abroad by elevating sustainability as a national strategic imperative. After leaving government, Puck, along with co-authors Patrick Doherty and Joel Makower extended their research and strategies into this book.

A fundamental premise and the subject of the book’s Part II (entitled “Three Pools of Demand”) is a focus on walkable communities, regenerative agriculture and resource productivity.  You may now be starting to understand how we ended up in such a long conversation. The book follows very closely our direction for West 2nd District here in Reno ( ) which I’ve written about in previous blogs.

Puck and I, along with co-author Patrick Doherty decided we needed to have an extended conversation in Reno with our team to find more ways in which we could work together. This took place January 17. By the time the day ended, we all agreed it was the most directly-applicable discussion any of us had experienced.  Puck and partners are now raising a fund for lending within projects that further their premises for steering a better course for America, including home mortgages that favor sustainably planned and executed communities along with capital for streetcar and light rail mobility. Their research and examples fortify the fundamental changes that are coming in the way millennials, the dominant generation of our time, are going to want to live, and why.

Puck had personally done the extended research, and I found this impressive. I tend to focus on books in this domain that have been supported by academic research. But the research in this book is as good as I’ve ever experienced, with more than ample explicit resources supporting their strategies and a bibliography that can easily draw the reader more deeply into any one of the specific strategies that the authors explore.

Part III of the book takes the reader beyond planning and city- and place-making to how to pay for this, described through excellent sections on “Capital and Stranded Assets,” “A Business Plan for America,” and “Waiting on Washington.”  I found the  closing sections of the book,  “Not Waiting on Washington” and “We the People” the most provocative and compelling chapters.

I learned what we’re doing here in Reno is not so crazy after all., I came away with a strong desire to highly recommend this book to anyone involved with community building – planners, architects, engineers – and probably more importantly, city councils, planning commissions, city staffs, and, most important, legislators and leaders at the state and federal levels.  I’d say to them: Here’s your instruction manual and your grand strategy to propel our communities to greatness. Let’s go for it!

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Where Will You Lead in 2017?

As I read the various architecture, interior design and engineering journals, I see many people, firms, principals and designers described as “leaders.” But I don’t see much evidence of where they’re leading, how they’re leading or what’s changed because of their leadership. In fact, I’m not sure, from what I read last year, that much has changed.

Entering 2017, I see a lot of things I’d want to change, and I’m sure you do as well. What will your role be? Here are a few ideas:

  • Energy and the Environment: Debates about global warming and climate change aside, there is much we can do from where we sit to create healthy environments and preserve natural resources. Here are some thoughts:
    • There is only a finite amount of petroleum on this planet. Our supply may last 500 years or 10,000, but it’s not infinite. I’d rather see us using dramatically less oil than we do today so there is some left for future generations, not for power but other things for which oil is an important ingredient.
    • Other natural sources of power – sun, wind and tidal action in our oceans will go on until our sun burns itself out. By that time, I suspect we’ll be colonizing other planets. I continue to aim toward a deep reduction in oil consumption as a most appropriate path and would be happy to share with you projects I’m working on that are moving strongly in that direction.
    • New glazing products are entering the market, such as photo-voltaic clear glass that can generate a great deal of electricity from our buildings’ vertical surfaces. We’ll be using this on a building we have on the boards currently. Combined with a photo-chromic coating (like on sunglasses that darken when exposed to direct sunlight) on the #3 surface of a dual pane window system, we’ll reduce heat gain and may obviate the need for expensive shades or draperies.
  • Water: As our planetary population continues to grow, we’re seeing a reduction in potable water as well as water for irrigation around the globe.
    • Water is a much-talked-about diminishing resource. I’m a strong advocate for and am working on water recycling from our waste systems. This should be done on both a district level in our communities and at a municipal level as our sewer systems are expanded or rebuilt. Sadly, it’s not appropriate (yet) for a single building, so if this is a path you would like to pursue and you’re not building a whole district, nor are part of a municipality, partner with others who are building in the immediate vicinity and form your own district.
    • Hydroponic gardens in enclosed structures are an extremely water-efficient way to grow produce. I’m working on a business plan to use a portion of our recycled water from our waste water recycling system to grow things extremely efficiently in parking decks that will soon become redundant in an era of autonomous, electrically- powered vehicles. This is a win-win-win – less oil and water consumed, along with fewer or no pesticides required.
  • Building Materials: We’re rapidly depleting the natural resources on this planet – copper, aluminum, iron, titanium and many others. Are you taking leadership on the projects you’re working on to recycle – recycling construction waste and using resources that are recycled from buildings that are being dismantled? When I built my house in San Francisco in 2001, I clad it in copper shingles made entirely from recycled copper. Are you working with renewable materials, like wood? We’re coming very close to being able to erect a 20-story building using Cross-Laminated Timber made from rapidly growing trees grown for that purpose.
  • Building design: Are we designing buildings that can adapt to future, yet undetermined needs? For years, I’ve done adaptive re-use plans for every building I’ve designed. The reuse is never exactly as I’d envisioned it, but thinking about in ahead of time steers you to design solutions that can be adapted in several ways. I’ve pulled many of these out of the drawer when the current occupant could no longer use the building for the unique purpose intended and needed to sell it. A good example is a three-story data processing and call center with 80,000 sf floorplates for a credit card processing company. We insisted on putting courtyards into the building so that no area of the floor was more than 40’ away from daylight. Along came a TV station who used the courtyards for TV studios. Another was a corporate headquarters which desired 40,000 sf floorplates. The average tenant size in the area was between 3,000 and 5,000 sf. We suggested putting bays along one side that would allow a series of 3,000 sf office suites to each have a corner window.  Within a few years, the corporation was acquired by another company and moved out.  Guess what? The building leased up virtually immediately.

So, what does leadership look like in our professions? Leading involves innovation and inspiration.  One person or a group of people can have an idea or pursue  a direction that will change the world or people’s lives for the better. The topics I’ve proposed offer many opportunities to lead.

But leading means being bold and convincing others to follow. On a project, it may be as simple as inspiring the team – your in-house team, the contractor, subcontractors, building officials, lenders, everyone – to embrace your vision and take the message to others.

Leadership is not just talking. It often involves a long and difficult path with many obstacles along the way. It takes persistence  to make a difference. You must create the proof statements and evidence of success that give others the ammunition to embrace and carry forth your innovation.

We’re in dire need of leadership in so many areas beyond what I’ve outlined above.  Every new direction must be based on a way of doing things that has become out-moded., Each of you can make a difference if you become a student of the world and identify something that needs to change or evolve.  I encourage you to muster the energy, focus and tenacity to bring your ideas into your profession and the market place. I challenge you to create a way of doing things that will redefine our world.  We need you. If you can’t do it yourself, enlist a team and keep the fire burning under each other until you’ve gotten to a new world that you’re proud of, with new ways of doing things that others can adopt.

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Preserving Finite Resources

I just listened to an excellent edition of National Public Radio’s TED Radio Hour titled “Finite,” which speaks of the way in which we, as a civilization, are squandering so many of our resources. The episode begins with a lengthy description of two of the most perilous for human civilization – water and oil.  Forget about global warming for a moment, think about a planet without either water or oil.

A Stanford University professor I heard speak a few years ago tackled the controversial topic of the connection between carbon dioxide and global warming, but he declared his deeper concern was the finite deposits of complex hydrocarbons on our planet, formed over millions of years, with no way to replenish the supply.

We use petroleum for much more than burning it for power.  An example from the TED talk described oil being pumped out of the ground in Saudi Arabia, refined in a neighboring country and shipped to China where it is used for plastic to manufacture children’s toys. These toys are shipped around the world, frequently used for a short period of time before they become broken and tossed in a landfill.  That’s not a very effective chain of events when you add in the cost of fuel for transport along the way.

Water is an even larger problem because of our inefficient use of this finite element in farming.  An example from the TED talk: in California, we grow an enormous amount of alfalfa, one of the most water-intensive crops grown on earth today, which is then shipped to the Middle East and other parts of the world to feed animals.  This is not very efficient either when you consider that California is suffering from an on-going drought.  And, in fact, farm animals and livestock themselves are extremely resource-intensive and polluting, not just because of water consumption.

Encouragingly, some manufacturers who rely on mined resources for production are taking up the recycling torch. Vehicle manufacturer BMW is one of them. Virtually every element of a BMW can be recycled at the end of its useful life. The materials are captured by type –glass, steel, aluminum, plastics, oil from shock absorbers, tires, etc. – to be reused in future manufacturing by themselves or by other manufacturers.

As architects, engineers, designers, developers and building materials manufacturers, we can have a profound effect on the usage and preservation of precious natural resources. It takes awareness, ingenuity, vigilance and holding each other accountable for stewardship in areas where we can make a difference.

One of the most effective programs for recycling everything has been Interface, a carpet manufacturer which, through its CEO, set about to achieve a zero-waste, zero-emissions program when he had his “Spear in the chest epiphany” about what his company was doing to the planet.  Read more at:

When I built a house for myself in San Francisco in 2001, I set out to do it as sustainably as possible at that time. Every pound of construction waste was recycled through a local firm that carefully sorted and repurposed every scrap of waste.  The exterior copper siding was made from 100 percent recycled material and, of course, could be reused if ever dismantled.  I incorporated solar electrical generation and a number of other processes and systems to conserve energy or reduce or eliminate waste, using recycled wood products in much of the construction.

I firmly believe we can continue to inhabit this planet for a far longer time than Stephen Hawking suggested recently: While several of his suggested reasons for having to vacate would be out of our control, such as an asteroid strike, much of it is coming from our own hands.

It’s time for each of us in our own personal way and through the businesses we’re a part of, to pursue the path of recycling each material that we mine or use from our planet.  I previously cited an example we’re pursuing here in Reno. We’re  building flat-deck parking structures that, upon the advent of autonomous, self-driving vehicles which will be prowling the streets instead of occupying a parking stall, could be repurposed as hydroponic gardens, utilizing recycled water from our on-site waste treatment plant and power from solar cells on the roof, to grow the produce needed for restaurants and residents in the district.  No trucking or packaging required.  I’m on a mission to spread the gospel.  I want my grandchildren to have a future as generous in resources as I’ve had.  And to have it without a finite end.

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Conscious Capitalism is Back

It’s energizing to be around young entrepreneurs with exciting ideas. My wife and I are honored to be mentors to a few start-ups in Reno, a delightful experience allowing us to work with and learn from a new crop of business owners, many of whom are focused on company culture and values as they launch and grow their enterprises.

It occurred to me that what’s old might actually be new again. At a recent mentor meeting, two colleague mentors told us they are starting a local chapter of Conscious Capitalism (, an organization with chapters globally.

As I’ve advised clients over the years on how best to define the culture of an organization they would be proud to be a part of, I’ve used anecdotal stories from my career and other firms I’ve worked with.  But when I read “The Conscious Capitalist Credo,” I found a wrap-around definition I will use from this day forward as I work with clients.  I’m publishing the group’s credo here in the hope you find it as helpful as I have:

We believe that business is good because it creates value, it is ethical because it is based on voluntary exchange, it is noble because it can elevate our existence and it is heroic because it lifts people out of poverty and creates prosperity. Free enterprise capitalism is the most powerful system for social cooperation and human progress ever conceived. It is one of the most compelling ideas we humans have ever had. But we can aspire to even more.

Conscious Capitalism is a way of thinking about capitalism and business that better reflects where we are in the human journey, the state of our world today, and the innate potential of business to make a positive impact on the world. Conscious businesses are galvanized by higher purposes that serve, align, and integrate the interests of all their major stakeholders. Their higher state of consciousness makes visible to them the inter-dependencies that exist across all stakeholders, allowing them to discover and harvest synergies from situations that otherwise seem replete with trade-offs. They have conscious leaders who are driven by service to the company’s purpose, all the people the business touches and the planet we all share together. Conscious businesses have trusting, authentic, innovative and caring cultures that make working there a source of both personal growth and professional fulfillment. They endeavor to create financial, intellectual, social, cultural, emotional, spiritual, physical and ecological wealth for all their stakeholders.

Conscious businesses will help evolve our world so that billions of people can flourish, leading lives infused with passion, purpose, love and creativity; a world of freedom, harmony, prosperity and compassion.

You can find the credo on the organization’s web site which contains a wonderful and brief set of four principles of a conscious business (

  1. Higher Purpose
  2. Stakeholder Orientation
  3. Conscious Leadership
  4. Conscious Culture

These principles are consistent with the way I have tried to guide the firms I’ve worked with over the years. I wish I had been as articulate. I feel I spent my life rambling on about these things but never with such clarity and brevity.

I’ve written about Reno’s West 2nd District recently, a project I’m very proud to be involved with.  As I perused the full Conscious Capitalism website, I was astounded at the consistent parallels to the way we’re pursuing this project.

Wikipedia also has some excellent citations on “Conscious Business,” including several principles we at West 2nd District have embraced from the beginning:

  1. Do No Harm:
    1. The product or service of a conscious business should not be intrinsically harmful to humans or the environment
    2. Adopt more beneficial social and environmental practices
  2. Adopt a Triple Bottom Line Model, aim to provide positive value in the domains of people, planet and profit:
    1. Profit is what distinguishes a business from a general social enterprise. How much is too much, where does it go, how is it applied? Does it only go toward lining the owners’ pockets or does some of it make the world a better place?
    2. People: here are some trends conscious businesses are pursuing:
      1. The forming of wellness affirming workplace cultures
      2. Improved employee benefits programs
      3. Use of fair trade materials for manufacture or sale
      4. Assistance to communities who supply raw materials and who manufacture materials or products
      5. Local community outreach programs
    3. Planet
      1. Robust recycling programs
      2. Building “green” or “zero-impact” workplace facilities
      3. Using solar or wind energy in the workplace
      4. Purchasing materials from organic or sustainable farmers
      5. Purchasing renewable and sustainable materials
      6. Working with environmentally conscious distributers to adopt better environmental practices
      7. Adopting sustainable product packaging

Does this sound like your enterprise today? Would your stakeholders (employees, contractors, city officials, clients) respond favorably and work more effectively with you and your community if you adopted these principles? In my experience at Gensler and now on the Reno West 2nd District project, I’ve seen that these principles in action  are good for business and they receive high praise and very positive responses from stakeholders.  It’s gratifying to know many of today’s young entrepreneurs see these principles as embodying the way they want to build their companies and conduct their businesses. They’re ahead of the game out of the chute.

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Scale & Complexity Drive Creativity – Part 2

Review and approval processes vary greatly around our country, and two extremes are California and Nevada.  I’m from California and practiced there throughout my career. For the past two years, I have been exposed to processes in Nevada.

My experience in California was much different than what I’m experiencing now.  Beginning with the discretionary review cycles with Planning Commissions, Architectural Review Boards and City Councils, not to mention outside agencies such as the Coastal Commission, review and approval often stretched into a multi-year process.  Some requirements were so outlandish that we would often abandon a creative and excellent approach for a more mundane solution.

I remember, in particular, a second home which I was designing for myself. At the end of an informal review session with a planner in Santa Cruz County, which was notorious for its excruciating approach, the planner complimented me on my most creative solution to site drainage, and then asked me how old I was.  At the time, I was 63.  She then asked the following, “Did you plan on occupying this house within your lifetime?”  Enough said.  At least she gave me fair warning, saving me a long, drawn-out variance process, which she assured me I would lose in the end.  On to plan “B.”

The lesson I learned: Do not accept an adversarial relationship between your design and development team and governing agencies.  Start from the beginning by explaining your goals for the project, making certain they align with the city’s, and then, demonstrate a collaborative attitude at all times. Always listen carefully to city agencies’ concerns, and always work to solve them together.  Remember, they have the authority to say “no,” and you’ll never win trying to force officials to change. Over time, I’ve managed to develop strong relationships with most of the elected officials and staff in the cities in which I’ve worked.

Reno, on the opposite end of this spectrum, requires little or no discretionary review and approval on our West 2nd District project.  But that doesn’t mean there aren’t hurdles.  We’re in a redevelopment district which, due to some historic decisions and a horrid recession in 2008 carries a senior debt against our site of $24.1 million.  This and a few other municipal challenges leave the city with zero bonding capacity.  Reno is unable to bond against future tax revenues to pay for the normal public improvements such as streets, sidewalks, curb and gutters, streetlights and utilities which are normally a city’s responsibility.

In this situation, we determined the first and most important issue was to negotiate a Disposition Development Agreement that allows these improvements to be self-funded (by us) and to be reimbursed from the future, presumably higher, tax revenues. We would be reimbursed only after the city’s senior debt has been retired.  We are working with the City as partners, not adversaries.  This allows the city to facilitate dramatic redevelopment improvements to a blighted area of its downtown while taking on no risk.  Obviously, we must be successful in this project in order to recover our investment. We assume the risk, as do our investors in land purchase and construction, so we do not consider failure to complete a successful project to be an option.

This collaborative approach extends to virtually every other major piece of the project. With our waste water treatment system, which dramatically reduces our potable water consumption, we’re dealing with two entities: the City, which has built and manages the sewer system and the Truckee Meadows Water Authority.  Current law precludes building a private utility within a public utility district.  Working collaboratively, rather than as adversaries, all parties agree this is the right thing to do, setting a precedent for the future.  Together, we’re committed to making compromises in a thoughtful fashion, so this approach can be replicated in future developments.

Another issue, which we are not by law required to do, is the relocation of people living in the weekly motels on various parcels we are buying.  We know these low-income residents of the district will be challenged to find accommodation elsewhere in the area. We believe that, as responsible developers, we have an obligation to facilitate dignified and effective relocation. There are numerous housing and social service agencies in both the city and county, but they didn’t have a history of working with a developer on this common problem.  So, we convened a strategic session to figure out how we could all work together.  With the various agencies, which were pleased to participate, we have been able to share ideas on a collaborative basis, setting a new pattern of working together that did not exist before.

As a community, we are actively and collaboratively solving problems together. This is not the “normal” function of design and development professionals. I’ve found it sad over the years as I’ve watched developers, and sometimes architects, being treated by government agencies as adversaries, whose every move is doubted and as if we have other, less than noble motives for what we’re proposing.

With the West 2nd District project, we began our work with a completely open book, and encouraged the governmental agencies to do the same.  As the shields began to come down, we have been able to speak and work as partners on a common mission.  It is more fun this way. All it takes is great resilience and perseverance.  Through the same process of figuring out how we can all work toward a common end, we can actually achieve something great . . . and have fun doing it.

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Scale & Complexity Drive Creativity

While having a glass of wine with colleagues from New York, we  reflected on the scale and complexity of the projects each of us has underway today. These are exciting times in the design professions, as many of the cities in which we are working were built out a long time ago, leading to redevelopment, often in severely blighted areas.

Most redevelopment agencies and districts around the country have exceeded their bonding capacity, making it impossible to bond against future tax revenues to fund needed infrastructure necessary to move beyond blight.  We certainly have that problem in Reno.

The site we’re developing, West Second District (www.west2nddistrict), is seven large city blocks comprising 17 acres. Some parcels are vacant, and several properties hold run-down weekly motels filled with compromised individuals, including a criminal element.  There’s an old Greyhound bus station, the toilet rooms of which have become a haven for the homeless, and a former printing plant, currently owned and used by the University of Nevada  for continuing education programs.

First, we have to secure enough investment capital to fund the purchase of the land and for working capital as we begin construction.  That is being accomplished. Properties are being acquired, and we expect to start construction on our first building within weeks.

As an architect, funding was always the developer’s problem.  The only way it affected me and my firm was that we frequently found ourselves being used for free financing for the developer through our unpaid invoices for service. Don and Susan Clark of DJ Clark Group, the developer of the District, invited me to “play” with them about a year and a half ago. They have been incredibly responsible as developer/architects, seeking local investors to help us with cash flow to pay our bills until the major funding was in place.

We received none of what is traditionally the source of funding for infrastructure from the City of Reno to do things such as utility lines, sidewalks, curbs and gutters, traffic signals and the like.  That’s because the City holds $24.1 million in senior debt on this district that must be paid off from the tax increment (the differential between taxes currently being paid and what the project will generate) before we can be reimbursed for our infrastructure investment.

Since we knew that this was going to take a considerable amount of time, and as I came to know the Clarks’ ambitions for the project – to truly become an exemplar for how development should could be done, to become a model standard that the City would use to inform other developers going forward how things are to be done in Reno, and to be environmentally responsible, and to reduceing the cost of ownership and occupancy for the people and companies for whom we’re building West 2nd District  – It became apparent that we needed a world-class team to guide design, particularly in our infrastructure, a process that normally begins after the developer already has City approval and funding in place. Rarely is this process very creative.

I’m fortunate to have worked with some of the most innovative engineers and consultants in the world, so I came forth with my Rolodex to help.  Before long, we had assembled a team that could successfully execute a project of this scale and complexity anywhere in the world.  But we did it in a rather unique fashion. Those that were located in Reno but had offices elsewhere in the country or the world were required to bring their best and brightest, no matter where they resided, to work with us.  If they had no office in Reno, they were asked to establish one, which would be located in our building, allowing all of us to work as a collaborative team under one roof.  It also offered an opportunity for local engineers to learn from professionals who were leaders in their field, thus spreading the innovative approaches to infrastructure to local professionals.

This approach resulted in a level of complexity and challenge that has generated some fascinating creativity as we designed the approach to our infrastructure.  Since we’re paying for it until the City is able to reimburse us many years from now, we’re determined to do it well. Here are some examples:

  • A central plant to provide heating and cooling water throughout the district. Instead of a boiler, a chiller and a cooling tower on each building, we’re building a central utility plant that will save us and our residents 30% in utility costs compared to constructing one building at a time, through economies of scale and efficiency (Southland Industries: ).
  • An on-site waste treatment plant. We’re in a desert climate. By treating all sewer waste through a biological filtering process, we’ll use only 50% of the water that a conventional, one-building-at-a-time approach would use. So, we reduce the cost and use of water for our tenants and owners.  We’ll use all of the treated water for toilets, irrigation and our cooling towers during the summer and most of it in winter months.  By diverting water back into the Truckee River in the winter and by not using the city’s sewer system except in emergencies, we’ll further reduce the costs for our residents (Glumac: and Sherwood Design Engineers: ).
  • Parking structure design to accommodate future use. We’ll be over-parked during the early phases of West 2nd because Reno today is heavily auto-dependent. But by building flat floors in our centralized parking structures, we’ll be able to take floors off line as autonomous vehicles become the norm a few years out, converting them to hydroponic gardens. Since we’ll have many restaurants in the district, we will have the shortest possible “farm-to-table” distance to traverse (Don: and Ed: ).
  • Resilient structural systems. Since we’re located in a high seismically active area, we’ve worked with a renowned seismic structural engineer, using their “performance-based-design” technology. We have a wonderful seismic department at the University and, together, we’ve worked closely with the head of the building department to gain approval of this non-codified approach to structural design (Miyamoto International: ).

Many other innovative programs are emerging, simply because the design and engineering teams have had the opportunity to work together as a collaborative body as we’ve planned and financed the project.  We’ve been able to explore economic tradeoffs during this period, resulting in much stronger financial performance for the project.  The response from our investors to our thoroughness, creativity and working process has been extremely positive.  I’ve been in this business for a long, long time and I’ve never seen such a remarkable response. Talking about this with my colleagues from New York confirms they’re having similar experiences.

My advice is to embrace projects of grand scale and enormous complexity.  Do this with a collaborative team of complementary professionals – architects, engineers and contractors. Get them on board before all is set in stone with the City so you can draw City staff into the creative process. See if it doesn’t bring out your own creativity and that of each of the team members.

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How would YOU answer?

A start-up company I’m mentoring here in Reno asked if they could profile me in their online database. The start-up is a networking company set up to help people in the commercial real estate industry connect with each other and with resources.  I sent a copy of my bio and answered a few supplied questions, which challenged me to think a little differently about my career. The questions and my answers follow, but I suggest rather than reading my responses, you formulate your own answers.

Has the profession of architecture been as much fun as you thought it would be when you started your training in the field?

I’ve always had fun in everything I do.  In architecture, I’ve noticed many of my colleagues and competitors over the years take themselves way too seriously.  Particularly with clients, I’ve looked for ways to inject fun in our relationships.  It’s why we’ve always ended up as good friends.  Here’s an example: When shopping for stone in Europe with a client and our contractor, we teased each other about gargoyles, as in “That one looks just like you!”

When it came time to install the stone skin on the building, I commissioned a gargoyle to look just like our client.  We secretly installed it above a dining patio on the second floor and had a champagne reception to unveil it. Everyone had a great laugh and, when my client retired, the owner of the building removed it and gave it to her as a retirement present.  I love staging pranks that put a smile on everyone’s face.

What’s the coolest project with which you were associated? What made it special?

The cool projects are too numerous to mention, but the thing that made each of them special was our commitment to using design to enhance our client’s business performance.  One very special one was a call center which had a terrible employee turnover rate with an average longevity of less than 6 months. The client told us we couldn’t spend a penny over the budget, and anyway, the client said, “Call center jobs are lousy, and no one is doing it as a career.”  We didn’t allow the negativity to influence us, and a few special design features at no extra cost got longevity up to 11 months. While I would have liked that figure to be higher, the client was thrilled because the reduced cost of recruiting and training had more than paid for the facility.

Another example of a special project was an airline terminal at LAX in Los Angeles. The client’s goal was to increase market share over its two biggest competitors.  The result was a market share increase of almost 20 percent. We did it by carefully analyzing passenger experience within the terminal and designing renovations that were truly responsive to what passengers told us they wanted. For me, that’s what makes a project special and brings great client referrals.

What’s the single most important lesson about leadership that you seek to impart?

A leader “aspires” and “inspires.”  People watch the leaders in their organizations and, if they think the leader’s aspirations are worthy, they’ll work hard to help the whole organization to achieve them.  The leader’s role is to inspire everyone – not just fellow employees, but subcontractors, suppliers, even the planning commission – to support his or her vision. I did this by learning what each of the stakeholders was trying to accomplish, weaving the aspirations together to make it a collective vision.

How do the skills involved with good architecture apply to effective leadership?

Architecture is a highly collaborative team sport.  Because an architect has no authority over the contractor and subcontractors who are executing the design, the architect must create an atmosphere of trust and respect.  Without that, little gets done, and nothing gets done right.  Every business leader should adopt an attitude of humility and respect for every member of every team, inspiring an atmosphere of trust and commitment to achieve excellence.  I think we all face that same challenge, regardless of our businesses.

If you had a mulligan on one decision you made in your life, what would you choose to do over?

Early in my training, I made the decision to shift from mechanical engineering to architecture and then to associate with a small firm that mirrored my values and operated in a manner that allowed me to do my best work and realize my potential as a leader. I’ve never regretted that decision or my path. I’ve been very lucky to be surrounded by incredible people who challenged and supported me. They gave me the knowledge, experience and confidence to make quick and mostly wise decisions, oftentimes under pressure and with potentially costly ramifications.  While I don’t have one decision that stands out as a do-over, I’d say a strength taken to an extreme can become a weakness. The ability to make on-the-fly decisions quickly and confidently is a requirement in our business, but there are times, both personally and professionally, that a thoughtful pause is advised.

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Bringing Back Civility

Reading the Wall Street Journal this morning, I became convinced that civility had disappeared from our planet. We’ve got angry and abrasive politicians (think Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders). And there’s brutality, with ISIS rounding up 5,000 civilians in Fallujah to use as human shields against attacks from the Sunnis and Shiites. There’s the strangling of business, particularly small companies, with over-regulation. The Dodd/Frank bill, for example, brought us 22,200 new pages of regulations, adding $35 billion in compliance costs annually. JP Morgan alone had to hire 19,000 new compliance officers. After a year, Illinois, a state that’s underfunded by $7 billion, is still in a standoff over the state budget as fighting continues between the governor, who wants reform in state employee pensions, and the legislature, which is beholden to the public employee unions. Instead of reform, the legislature wants to raise taxes on millionaires, motorists, sodas and real estate.  And that was just this morning!

While these are extreme and disparate examples, I began to wonder if incivility is contagious and if we can bring true civility back into our daily lives and dealings.  I hear more and more stories about scrapping among participants in projects – city staff and elected officials treating developers and architects as adversaries; contractors looking for ways to trip up architects and engineers.

I believe it’s possible for us as design and engineering professionals to affect change in our relationship with the teams with which we’re building things.  I believe we can disagree with respect. I believe it’s possible to seek common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences. I believe we can listen past our preconceptions and teach others to do the same. I’d like to inspire you to try a new approach, one in which you take leadership in creating a trusting and collaborative atmosphere. Civility is hard work, but I think you’ll find your efforts will be contagious and begin to build antibodies against dysfunctional and unproductive behavior.

  1. Start with trust (see my recent blog on the topic at If you can build trust and respect among all members of the team charged with building the project, there’s a good chance civility can be restored. Trust and respect are foundational elements for dealings with architects, engineers, and contractors as well as clients, city agency staff, and elected and appointed officials.
  1. Work with your clients, along with everyone else involved with the project, to identify the “greater good” that will result from the thing you’re building. Make sure your client can articulate why and how the community and its people will benefit. Take this charter to elected officials and staff.  Listen to their concerns and act collaboratively to make accommodations in response. Help the city agencies and officials to see that your intentions are good.  The objective is to inspire them to “own” the project because it will make the community a better place.  Remember that every elected official has a first priority – to get elected on the next ballot challenge they face.  It’s important for them to be able brag about what they’ve done to improve their community.  Together with city officials, take the project to the community so they can see that there is a common agenda between the project developer and the city, listen to their concerns, adapt appropriately until you have a common agenda among all constituents for your undertaking.

Never accept that it is impossible to achieve civility.  Keep at it until you do.  You may find that bringing back civility can change the world – or at least the world in which you operate  Civility begins with each of us.

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Fostering Deep Client Relationships

Personal engagement with clients determines so much of a firm’s success.  A client’s satisfaction with the personal relationship with you and your team affects the recommendation they will give to other clients or prospects. It affects whether or not they turn to you for additional work. It affects what they’ll say to their friends about the experience they had, and it even affects the degree to which they pay your bills on time or argue about changes to your scope of services that require additional fees.

Here are some recommended “Rules of Engagement”:

  1. Mirror your client. Learn how they learn. Be a student of their personality traits, values and attitudes.  You don’t need to be a chameleon, adopting their mannerisms, but you do need to understand who they are and where they come from to avoid offending them or getting into unnecessary arguments about things that have nothing to do with what you’re working on.
  2. Learn how they absorb information.  Are they visual or verbal people? Would they rather see or be told?  Do they rely heavily on the opinion or advice of others because, secretly, they have difficulty translating something they see pictorially into how they are going to experience it in real life?  Field trips to, or photos of solutions similar to what you’re presenting can help a great deal.  Do they struggle with technical information?  Can you find a peer of your client, whom they trust, to endorse what you’re recommending?
  3. Innovate. Think beyond the scope of the work you’ve been engaged to do. Start by learning what’s important to your client. Determine what will make their business perform at a higher level.  Are there aspects of what you’re going to do with them that you never talked about in the interview, or wrote about in the contract, that can change their or their organization’s life?
  4. Become friends. Learn about your client’s family, likes and dislikes, fears and hobbies.  Share your own.  In my career, I became very close to almost every client, remaining friends long after our business had been concluded.

I’m reminded of Stephen Ambrose’s book, “Undaunted Courage,” which follows Lewis and Clark’s journals of their expedition to America’s West. Ambrose wrote extensively about the nature of friendship, which was so evident in the relationship between Lewis and Clark. It was the element which gave them the strength to endure the hardships they faced as they worked together to cross this continent as the first explorers ever to do so.  Working for a client can often seem as daunting.

The description made me appreciate the deep and lasting friendships which have been so much a part of my life, and to realize how important friendship has been in achieving the things we were able to accomplish together.  I hope you find this passage from the book worthwhile and wish for you true friendships with the people with whom you share your work.

“Friendship is different from all other human relationships.  Unlike acquaintanceship, friendship is based on love. Unlike lovers and married couples, friendship is free of jealousy. Unlike children and parents, friendship knows neither criticism nor resentment nor rebellion. Friendship has no status in law.  Business partnerships are based on a contract, as is marriage. Parents are bound by the law as are children.

“But friendship is freely entered into, freely given, freely exercised. Friends never cheat on one another, or take advantage, or lie.  Friends do not spy on one another, yet they have no secrets. Friends glory in each other’s successes and are downcast by their failures. Friends minister to each other. Friends give to each other, worry about each other, stand always ready to help.  At its height, friendship is an ecstasy. For Lewis and Clark, it was an ecstasy and the critical factor in their success.”

Follow these “Rules of Engagement” and you’ll be richly rewarded. You’ll enjoy your work more, you’ll take greater pride in what you’ve accomplished with your clients, you’ll receive more repeat and referral business with people you’ve genuinely come to like, and your brand will be richly embellished.

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