Collaboration In Architecture

I gave this lecture June 25, 2019 at Carnegie Mellon University to a packed house of OSHER members at Carnegie Mellon University.  In this talk I communicate my personal thoughts regarding how architects can best collaborate.  I suggest that it is imperative for strong architects to choose skilled teammates. I suggest that they must communicate the project vision with exceeding clarity while at the same time listening closely to their teammates’ opinions.  I conclude with some thoughts regarding the value of heterodoxy in team design – challenging the status quo.

Architects design better buildings when they collaborate. But how can they resolve this 21st century reality with their desire to create uncompromising, personally expressive work? The new reality is that architects must lead teams of professionals who each contribute their expertise to the building design process.

It’s simply wrongheaded for architects to not share work with others for fear of diluting their design brands. This lecture will discuss the paradox that design quality actually improves when design experts share the load.

Architects are now not only collaborating with engineers and contractors, they are bringing artists, politicians, computer experts, clients, and even other architects to the table.

As you likely are aware, collaboration has always been a normal part of how an architectural design evolves. In ancient Greece, and later in Renaissance Europe, there was not such a distinction as today between different areas of knowledge.  Back then the project architect was also the project engineer and the head project builder.

In fact the Greek word “techne” referred to,

“Various kinds of work demanding special skill and knowledge that is intended to produce a specific product”

Work that was “techne” included agriculture, construction of all sort, art, architecture, music, and poetry.  The categories, Arts and Crafts, were not thought of as different things.  “’Thinking’ and ‘Doing’ were unified in one thought process”.  Certainly Master Builders would collaborate but the process was much more organic and fluid than it is today.

So how do architects collaborate now?  These days, a project team at a conventional mid-sized Pittsburgh firm contains both members who are in house (meaning employed directly by the architect) or out of house (meaning hired as consultants by the architect).

In house the project may contain the project architect, a project manager, computer drafts-folk, and an interior design team.  In a large firm, a human resources manager may also be involved.  Also there will be a model-making team who will craft models both on the computer and by hand.  There may be an employee involved who is an expert in building systems and pricing and perhaps another who will be involved in marketing and communication.  Of course the billing team will process invoices and coordinate payments to the firm.

To say that all this can be overwhelming is an understatement.  But then you need to add to that list folks who will become involved with the project who are not employed directly by the architecture firm.  Out of house collaborators include the plumber, the HVAC consultant, the structural engineer, the civil engineer, the landscape architect, the sustainability consultant – if the the project will be LEED certified – the acoustic consultant, the code consultant, and the kitchen consultant – if the project will contain a restaurant.  These folk need to be introduced to the project team as well.

Yet that’s not the end of it.  These are just the people that the architect needs to work with.  The project developer and owner have their own complex list of stakeholders.  It sometimes takes years to assemble the right project team and acquire funding for a project.  There are endless spreadsheets to be run, endless applications to be filled out, and endless meetings to be held.

The Problems with Too Much Collaboration

You know the old saying, a camel is a horse made by committee.   No wonder, as Katie Swenson – vice president of Design and Sustainability at Enterprise Community Partners, a national nonprofit community development organization – announced two weeks ago at the AIA National conference in Las Vegas, “In this constraint driven environment, “success” is considered completing the project”.

This is a major reason excellence in large project design is so elusive.  When you have so many entities who all are involved with a project, the easiest way to proceed is to compromise. So things tend to get done the way they’ve been done before.

Some thoughtful people argue that too much collaboration is actually hurting architecture as a profession.

In fact, the term collaboration has even become something of an overused buzzword in architecture.  What are other buzzwords in architecture?  “Innovation”,  “Diversity”, and “Sustainability” come to mind.

Regarding sustainability: It seems that nearly every time a project in Pittsburgh is built, another piece of Brazilian rainforest disappears and the architecture team proclaims their project to be “green”.  The truth is that the most sustainable projects are the ones that already exist.  Renovations and adaptive reuse projects use resources far more efficiently than projects that start from the ground up.

Regarding innovation: And every time another box-shaped, fiber-board clad multifamily housing project is built, Pittsburgh’s most astute architectural critic, Charles Rosenblum, rolls his eyes as the developer calls the design “Progressive”.

According to writer, Heather Mathias,

“Research shows collaboration enables rapid sharing of knowledge, increasing work-flow efficiency, strategic engagements and a sense of community…  The need and desire for collaboration — fueled by the competitive crunch of the financial crisis, always-connected technology and a shrinking workspace — has pushed us into collaboration overload.”

Many are now arguing for less collaboration, suggesting that the process works against project quality:  In “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” Susan Cain suggests, “If it’s creativity you’re after, ask your employees to solve problems alone before sharing their ideas.”

The idea is that everyone should have a chance to think without interruption before a group meeting.  Team members make many more mistakes and work less efficiently when their work is constantly interrupted.  Examples of introverts include Chopin, Dr.Seuss, and Apple Computer founder, Steve Wozniak.

All of this is no doubt true. Yet the world is simply too complex to do everything yourself.  Back in the seventeenth century, the German theologian, Athanasius Kircher, could still write, “Nothing is more beautiful than to know all”.  However, the last person on earth to know everything that there is to know about everything, according to the French philosopher, Pierre Levy, passed away in the eighteenth century.

I’m trying to learn Italian right now, which is a major challenge.   When I try to speak, I not only mix up my Italian with my high school French, I also mix it up with my German from the time I lived in Berlin and studied at the Goethe institute back in the ’80’s.  I can only thank God I’m not trying to learn Mandarin and Swedish at the same time!

And it’s not just about knowledge either.  There’s simply too much work for one person to do everything.  Even on a residential project, I often have to bill 120 hours a week of labor to keep the project on schedule!  That’s three people working full time to meet a ten week deadline for a set of house plans.

So the reality is that we have to work as part of a team.  There’s simply no way around it.

Obtaining Excellence

Architects have a lot to do:   On the one hand we have to make sure the project will be built on time and in accordance with the client’s program and budget.  On the other, we have to make sure the project possesses what we would call “design excellence”.

Schedule and budget are just something we architects have to deal with.  They are of huge importance to the success or failure of a project.  But an ineffective team member can kill a project dead.  Here is a nightmare scenario I’ve faced more than once:  I create schematic drawings for a project, the contractor communicates with me and with the owner that the project will cost a certain amount, and I complete the drawing set, only to discover that the contractor has significantly miscalculated the project price.  Now he’ll have his reasons for sure; but the result is that either the project stops in its tracks or I have to undertake a complete redesign.  Your team members will make or break a project for sure.

But that’s not what I will be discussing today.  My primary concern is not whether projects will be built – because they will be – but whether they will be built WELL.

The world is an exceedingly complex place.  It is easy to represent our complex world with complexity.  What is exceedingly difficult is to represent it with simplicity.  I heard that said once and the quote stuck in my head.  If I recall, it was attributed at the time to the architect, Rafael Vignoli, who was the David Lawrence Convention Center architect.  I looked pretty hard to find the quote source but couldn’t discover it anywhere on the internet.  So I’ll claim it as my own!

The problem with new buildings in Pittsburgh isn’t that they have too little meaning, it’s that they have too much.  Every aspect of a new project has a strategy.  However the demands of these strategies conflict and overlap, and all that complexity tends to muddle the resulting building.

Conceptualizing a unifying formal concept that does justice to these strategies without resorting to cliché is a challenge for sure.

What is “Design Excellence”?

For most architects these days, the quality of a project is judges by the quality of the experience the project produces.  In the old days, it was enough that a project would produce a certain image, adhere to predefined design principals, and resemble buildings from the past. Architects in the past believed that every building program – whether that program be a library, a museum, or a home – had a limited, defined number of appropriate ways it could be constructed as three dimensional form.  There were right ways to build and wrong ways. A buildings quality was thought to be built into the design.  It was intrinsic.

In the late twentieth century a significant change occurred.  As a result of new ideas in Art, the source of meaning for architecture projects has shifted from the architectural object to the architectural subject.  Now, it is important how people feel when they visit a project.  I care deeply about experience and judge the excellence of a building by the way I feel when I visit.  But that’s certainly not the whole story.  While my experience is important to me, others’ experiences are equally as important to them.  Today, a building’s quality can be judged by the sum total of all inhabitants’ experiences over time.

Unfortunately most new buildings do not pass this smell test.  I know that most of you look around at the buildings that you see going up in Lawrenceville, in East Liberty, and in the Strip and you roll your eyes.  You see the same materials and design motifs being applied over and over. The buildings look cheap and insubstantial. When you step indoors it’s more of the same.  It’s enough to make designer lovers cry.

Certainly there are exceptions.  I’ll name names: I believe the Pittsburgh American Institute of Architects (AIA), led by Michelle Fanzo, is trying hard to promote their particular vision of quality. Every September they invite a skilled jury in from out of town to award Pittsburgh’s best new projects.  This in turn gives these firms the visibility they require to be able to continue their work.

Architecture firms like Front studio, GBBN, Evolve, FortyEighty, and BCJ consistently push the envelope.  And many other Pittsburgh firms have the ability to create nice projects when they have the right client and budget. Although my firm is relatively young I’d like to also include Fisher ARCHitecture in this small group.

“Teamwork” and Excellence”
Let’s assume for a moment that all the pre-design particulars of a new Pittsburgh project are in place.  The money has been raised, the local community is on board, the City has given the project a thumbs up, and a strong project team is in place. How can the architect of this theoretical project utilize his team to create design excellence?

1) Design

The architect must be a strong, committed, experienced designer. He must first think deeply about the project context.  How can his team respond most directly to the particulars of the project situation?  Don’t forget that part of that context itself is his collaborator’s data.

A strong designer needs to listen to ALL.

Yet responding directly to everyone’s concerns is simply not possible.  As Renzo Piano describes in the 2018 documentary “Renzo Piano: The Power of the Archive”, architects simply cannot react to everything is being told them, responding to every single request.

You may have heard of the term “Design Charrettes” in which Architects and community leaders try to shape a shared vision, together with the local residents, for better urban interventions.  Architects should understand the concerns of the entire community and align themselves with solutions that benefit the community at large beyond any single specific situation. Yet you simply can’t make everybody happy.

There’s so much information to analyze from so many different sources that experience really helps. You’ve got to be willing to learn on the fly and make mistakes.

That’s why most great architects don’t reach their prime till their fifties.

Listening to your Employees Example: Merging Media

“Merging Media” owner, Marco Cardamone, asked us to study his lobby and entry corridor back in 2012 to see if we could devise an affordable, interesting way to bring the rooms up to date. Describing his business, he suggested that one of his primary goals was to improve his clients’ marketing communications through the use of innovative ideas. Our goal became to satisfy Marco’s functional requirements while at the same time saying something about his company.

At a certain point in our process, my employees introduced me to the concept of “anamorphic projection”, a distorted perspective requiring the viewer to occupy a specific vantage point to reconstitute the image.

After ascending a set of stairs into Marco’s offices, visitors find themselves in a corridor immersed with brightly colored, swirling patterns. Their meaning is uncertain. It is not until they enter the lobby that they learn the patterns form the outline of his logo.  Merging Media indeed: Just as the client’s search for brand clarity becomes resolved through Marco’s excellent solutions, so too does the image unification process becomes complete as you enter his professional world!

Then, it took my employees computer skills to make the project happen: The projection was made possible by using a sophisticated parametric scripting plug-in to our 3D form generating software, “Rhino,” called “Grasshopper”. Mike Jeffers, along with Clay Kippen, Amy Friedman, and Lauren Bucher in my office made the submission sing. Then, in 2018, Shirley Chen added the 3/4″ plywood panels, updated the lighting, and recast the materials!

2) Leadership

The architect has to be a strong communicator. It’s not enough to create beautiful designs in a small room if he can’t convince people to build them. I used to think that when I would open my own firm people would hire me because word would get out that I was good. Unfortunately the professional world simply doesn’t work that way. You’ve got to promote your ideas vigorously.  Politics is REAL.

I’d like to add that there are many different ways to lead.  I’m not a shouter, and I don’t try to compete with the biggest egos in the room.  I don’t wear the red shirt.  But I get heard by having strong ideas and by expressing my opinion clearly.

In 2018, the AIA National organized a full day of training architects to become better leaders in their communities. One of the panel sessions dealt with architects “Bridging the Gap between Design and Community”. Architect Lawrence  Antoine Jr., an expert in community involvement and master planning, recommended that architects empathize with people, truly listen, and then set the direction of the conversation (and the consequent decisions). He said that it is fundamental to ask for feedback, be open and collaborative, but also to never overpromise.  Gaining the trust of the community is a long process, but losing it is a matter of one meeting only. One way to make sure to gain trust is to follow up with diligence on issues you promised to address.

Community Process Example: The Homewood Renaissance

A couple years ago,  FISHER ARCHitecture was selected to work with “The Homewood Renaissance” team” on a Frankstown Road site in Homewood to design and obtain funding for the fellowship activities and office needs of the House of Manna ministry. 

We designed the project center, which we located inside an abandoned supermarket  and we coordinated the master plan development. 

The site we chose is just two blocks from the intersection of Homewood and Frankstown Avenue, which possesses one the highest crime rates in Pennsylvania.  Our group could have built anywhere, but after a number of community meetings, we decided to choose this location in order to signal to residents, government entities, and potential funders that we were determined to reverse the loss of business in this area that followed the riots of 1968 resulting from the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.

 Fisher ARCHitecture led the project through its preliminary fundraising effort that culminated with a successful presentation to the Heinz Endowments.

3) Heterodoxy (Iconoclasm)

The architect must challenge the status quo. He must be critical.  He must be skeptical. He must ask tough questions.  He must be willing to take risks. No great architect would take the road most travelled, staying the night at a generic hotel that looks the same whether it is located in Juneau, Alaska or Jackson, Mississippi.

When I was a rowing coach back in the day I used to advise my rowers to “feel comfortable feeling uncomfortable”. To be an effective rower you have to stay relaxed and flexible even as lactic acid is flooding your arms and legs.  It’s the same in architecture.  Taking the road less travelled means that you are often face to face with the unfamiliar.  You are always addressing new difficulties and solving new problems.

Here’s a warning though to those who may consider this route: Working in this way may lead you to success but it may not lead you to clients as developers mostly don’t to experiment.

Heterodoxy Example: The Emerald Art Glass House cantilever

Extending three times farther than nearby Falling Water, the Emerald Art Glass House may be the world’s longest residential cantilever. This project was published in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and in a Taschen Press book documenting the worlds most extraordinary homes.

The foundations were considerably more extensive (and expensive) than they would have been on flat ground. The project is supported both by grade beams and by four huge caissons (concrete piers).  Two of the caissons are seven foot in diameter while the two others are four foot six in diameter!!!

The project is built like a see-saw with a 48 foot cantilever and a 28 foot backspan.  As a result there are huge uplift forces in the back.  It’s as though there is a large man sitting on one end of a see saw and you are on the other end standing on the ground trying to keep the man in the air by applying downward pressure. The closer you move to the fulcrum as you push down the tougher the job becomes.

Amazingly, the entire job of keeping the project from tipping over is accomplished by 2, 3 inch diameter rods, each of which is designed to resist 125,000 pounds of force!!! These cables are in turn tied to a baseplate which is fastened into the caissons via a dense mesh of rebar.  Then the caissons extend past the grade beams all the way down to bedrock, where they are firmly anchored. 

All this had to be constructed with almost inhuman levels of rigor and care in both summer and winter on a steep almost inaccessible slope!  To be clear, the concept was mine, and the basic structural diagram was mine, but it took significant study for the team at Atlantic Engineering to put their drawing set together. My team had seemingly endless conversations with the engineers.  We loved talking shop with them.  They bought into the cantilever concept and did everything they could to express it cleanly.

4) Process

The architect in charge and his team need to spend lots and lots of time developing the design. Good detailing can take an OK project and make it good. 

Detailing in architecture  resembles craft in writing.  I don’t know about you but when I put my thoughts down in writing they come out disorganized and poorly formed at first.  There’s no rhythm and no grace.  Ideas don’t naturally flow one to another.

At the same time, poor detailing can turn a great idea into a disaster. It takes patience, skill, and buy-in from both teammates and stakeholders to make a building work.  As the architect you also have to be willing to burn your commission. All of the project particulars require coordination.

Example: “Via 57 West”:  Here’s an example of a project that, from my point of view, is a huge success in urban terms but is far less successful when looked at closely.  I went to and looked at what tenants had to say about their experience.  Here is a comment from one tenant that resembles hundreds of others on the site:

“My issues here were very similar to others: poor service, terrible management, mouse issue, low quality of appliance. everything looks fine when i just got in… After 6 months, we got mouse problem [sic] and is all because of terrible construction work.”

The sort of follow-through that is required to complete a project successfully often presents a problem for architecture firms because it is difficult for the architectural professional in charge of a project to dedicate the billable hours required to make a project sing.  Why is this?

A) Many professionals billing rates are such that they can’t afford to work on their own projects.
Example: Ten years ago when I worked for a local corporate firm I was being billed at twice my current Fisher ARCHitecture hourly rate!

B) By the time a strong architect has reached his prime, he is likely to have been promoted into a marketing and management position.

Example: A Bulgarian friend of mine who is an associate in a Pittsburgh firm would love to design more but spends most of his day in meetings.  He can meet with this team of designers for sure, but he doesn’t have the time anymore to draw the project himself. My former boss, Leonard Perfido at Perfido Weiskopf, who was super-talented and experienced, had the same experience.

C) If an architect demonstrates that he is running his project is running smoothly – if it’s “under control” –  he is likely to be given additional projects to coordinate.

Example: When I was a Project Manager for a strongly regarded firm in LA, I was the architect of four projects at once because the perception was I could draw quickly. That was not good for the design, and it wasn’t so great for me either…

Process Example: Working with Artists

This is a Fisher ARCHitecture collaboration from three years ago with the artist, Seth Clark.  We wrote and illustrated a fairy tale together for a design competition.  Seth is interested in ruins or, as he describes it, “deteriorating architecture”.  His paintings frequently feature carefully composed studies of decaying buildings.  Often they resemble asymmetric cubist abstractions.  Other times they recall crashed planes or Western Pennsylvania barns after a tornado.

If you know my designs, you probably understand why I’m fascinated with Seth’s work and would be eager to team with him. First of all, his paintings feature wonderful craft.  Second, the compositions have a freedom my own work can only hint at.  Third, I’ve been fascinated forever with the way buildings change over time: My interns and former students would no doubt claim I overuse the word, “palimpsest“, which is often used as a metaphor for the way cities develop.

We started in the office by studying photographs of ruins and then “recontextualizing” them by wrapping the pics around cubes and then suspending them in the air.  Then we studied one of Seth’s two dimensional compositions with our 3D software.  What would his paintings look like when viewed at an angle? What it be like to be inside one of his structures?  Thanks to my interns, Lingfan, Shan, Angela, and Isadora, we now know the answer.

Seth agrees with us that our process was been revelatory, although neither of us was quite sure yet what was being revealed…

At the time, we were both reading books on the philosophy of ruins.  It was while reading a Brian Dillon essay on the work of Julie Mehretu that we discovered it may be possible to reconcile these images of destruction and decay with, as Dillon writes, “the seeds of an as-of-yet-unfulfilled future”…

As Seth said a recent Pecha Kucha talk we gave together,

“So we’re pulling together all of this inspiration and going back and forth… we’re using my original painting as a starting point and things really begin taking form! Where we land is on a narrative focused around this sacred ruin in a moment of collapse—some type of memorial that was preserved as it was falling apart.  I see my re-imagined artworks on the wall and can’t wait to build them in a physical reality!!!  I try to collaborate as much as I can, within the restraints of needing to live…because in the long term it’s so healthy to work with super talented people… it always pushes you and inspires you!”

It will be interesting to see how this work will effect Seth’s output and mine in the future.  Will we be touched by our shared endeavor?  We’ll see…


Engineers know everything about one thing while architects know one thing about everything.

Right now I’m starting a project in Stanton Heights that features views to downtown and over Lawrenceville.  There is an existing building foundation on the site that was constructed a decade ago, although the house above was never constructed.  Also part of the site collapsed down the steep slope a couple years ago sand we’ll need to ring the site with a retaining wall.   In order to understand the contours,  I will have one of my interns model the site and its environs in our cool Rhino software.

Then on Friday, I’m meeting with the Civil Engineer who designed it to see what we can reuse.  He’ll likely need a new survey so we’ll bring in a surveyor.

We will be building the project to the Passive House standard so it’s important to bring in our passive house expert right at the start.  (Passive House is a set of principles that architects use to create super-energy-efficient homes.)  I need to share with the consultant my earliest design sketches so he can give me feedback on the massing, and the way the sun will penetrate the building.  That way we can be certain we are on the same page.

I would like to design a home with a roof that will echo the roofs of the neighboring buildings in this neighborhood.  So I will have another intern take photographs to and from the site.  Then I’ll have him draw the buildings up and down the street for reference.

But I would like the roof to float up in the air so it also reads with the sky.  That’s going to take a preliminary consultation with the structural engineer…” He will probably need some new soil borings and a report from a geotechnical engineer to figure out what it’s going to take to support the roof. Also, the rebar from the old foundation walls is rusted out so we could be in real trouble.

My point here is that it takes a variety of professionals to design a building, each of whom will contribute in their own way.  It would make no sense for me not to share work with my team because

A) I don’t know what they know

B) There’s simply too much work.

Architects’ designs improve when they understand ALL the elements of the project context. By listening carefully to everyone, architects can truly respond to the demands of their sites. 

I have one more point I need to make.  We need to be nimble because stuff always goes wrong.  My experience tells me it’s the nature of systems NOT to work so we have to plan for that:  Working with a team of experts is like driving a car with clearly marked gauges that tell you when things are going right and when they are not. When an issue needs to be addressed we can

A) Know the nature of the issue up front before it’s too late

B) Learn how it needs to be addressed

C) Figure out how to undertake the fix without killing the design.

As a result of collaboration, architects’ designs can bend and swerve in response to complex challenges as they arise.

We are all architects in our own way designing our lives, determined to live in the way that’s best for US, crafting solutions to problems, and dealing with folks with opinions different from our own – even if it’s just the neighbor complaining about your overgrown hedge.

Yet the complexities of our lives can be overwhelming.  Simply renting a hotel or turning on the computer can fill us with angst. Despite all, we need to be open to the world and to what it offers us.  Rather than fear the world and the unexpected treats it sometimes leaves on our doorsteps, the task is to face it with openness and respect, and to seek advice from experts when they can help us.

Thanks for listening.  Check out our website. Follow us on social media!

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