By Jack Stubbs
Many Seattle-based architecture firms are striving to be at the forefront of design strategies in the currently booming real estate market, which calls for innovative and leading-edge buildings across all industries, including the commercial and residential sectors.
B+H Architects, a firm originally founded in Toronto, Canada in the 1960s—and the B+H Advance Strategy and the USA practice founded in Seattle in 2013—is one firm seeking to change the way that industry professionals across the board think about workplace and building design.
We recently spoke with Doug Demers, managing principal at the firm’s Seattle office, and Bryan Croeni, director of B+H Advance Strategy, about the firm’s founding and current philosophy, how client collaboration is a key component of the firm’s practice, and how technological and cultural shifts are playing an increasingly prominent role in architectural design.
What can you tell me about B+H Architects’ overall business philosophy and strategy as a firm (as well as when and how the company was founded)?
B+H Architects was founded in Toronto, Canada in the 1960s. The firm grew up working collaboratively with boutique designers like Mies, Liebskind and Gehry, delivering large, complex projects in the Canadian market. In the ’80s the firm began to diversify its portfolio, becoming one of the leading healthcare planning and design practices in Canada.
In the 1990s, B+H was one of the first North American firms to establish a permanent presence in Asia—today, that presence represents 50 percent of our global footprint, with robust practices in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore and a growing design practice in Ho Chi Minh City. It is a legacy founded on collaboration—an essential foundation for success in the economies of the future.
We founded B+H Advance Strategy and the USA practice in 2013. With me [Doug] coming out of several years in the commercial real estate world (founding Colliers Advisory Services Group) and Bryan inspired by his recent Masters in Organizational Design, we saw the opportunity to build a new kind of design practice for the times of rapid change we live in. The focus of the Seattle Studio is three fold: consulting strategy, major accounts and innovative architecture and interior design services.
We work collaboratively with our clients to create design solutions that are founded in sound business cases. For each client it’s different. We help them find sites for their visions, help them determine highest and best use for their sites, find them business partners to complete their vision and help facilitate culture through organizational design and change management. About 60 percent percent of our current work represents projects we’ve helped create, versus responding to an RFP.
Per its philosophy, B+H “believes in the power of design to transform spaces, communities and economies.” Can you elaborate on what the ‘power of design’ means? How scalable is B+H’s strategy across such a wide range of projects and contexts?
Data-driven design is powerful—it is the intersection of data exploration, aggregation and “design thinking” to create truly powerful scenarios and solutions for our clients. Most of the data out there is quantitative and therefore, by definition, historic. We live by the maxim that “the past is no longer predictive of the future.”
Our process is informed by qualitative data, but where we really drive change is in uncovering the qualitative insights that tell you “why” people do what they do, versus “what” people do. The actual principles of our Strategy practice—the approach, tools and processes we use—are agnostic to sectors.
It seems that B+H emphasizes an engaged approach with its clients, implementing active listening and collaborative strategies, transparency and accountability between B+H and its clients, and a practical, hands-on approach. How has does this strategy and ethos inform what B+H does?
We ask probing questions to stretch our clients’ thinking. Wherever possible, we advocate an inclusive process that brings all the stakeholders together—the insight often lies in the conversation a question engenders, rather than the initial response. We listen actively, facilitate, support and ultimately bring the last 10 percent to bridge the gap and translate business strategy into scenarios and solutions that deliver on business objectives. Because we’re trained to think visually, in terms of design, nothing gets lost in translation.
We are firm adherents to Peter Drucker’s belief that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Culture drives engagement. Engagement drives performance. Our studio is our laboratory. We test what we learn on ourselves before we take it to our clients. Our proof of concept is power of the culture we’ve created in the Seattle studio. It’s what has allowed us to grow from a tiny team of four to 50 of the most talented, young creatives, designers and architects in the Pacific Northwest in just four and a half years.
Our culture is based on the manifesto: everyone is a founder, challenge the status quo, best idea wins and take risks to succeed faster. Today the Seattle Studio is collaborating with our sister studios around the world to advance the strategic consulting offering, to deliver global client contracts and to evolve the firm’s culture. We are translating our brand promise into action. We look to continue to grow – to deliver integrated services to a broader market. In the U.S., that means pushing into California and Texas in the next year, locations we already have projects in.
Through these approaches, it seems that in some ways, B+H tows the line between being a management consulting firm and an architecture firm. What is the relationship between these two industries, what are the key similarities and differences, and why is this distinction important?
We are passionate about being a consulting firm that uses architecture, planning and interior design as tools to deliver the real estate solutions our clients need. Our team has practiced on all sides of the equation – from founding the real estate consulting practice of Colliers International, to supporting the implementation of Microsoft’s first workplace strategy program. We have planners, architects, designers, MBAs, real estate strategists, organizational designers, research analysts, experiential graphic designers and branding experts.
The distinction between us and the management consultants is that there are great firms out there that slice and dice data sets to support quantitative understanding (our friends at Deloitte for example), [and] there are wonderful firms that are deeply immersed in experiential- qualitative analysis, like IDEO. We do both—and our training as architects and designers allows us to bring the two together in a holistic and integrated solution.
B+H operates across a wide variety of sectors including commercial/mixed-use, corporate workplace, healthcare, education, residential and transportation, among others. What are some of the challenges involved in ensuring that B+H’s methodology scales effectively across such a wide array of industries?
Building a practice that can scale across the sectors is about people—as mentioned earlier, the tools and processes are agnostic. Convergence between sectors is an inevitability, and the distinction is somewhat arbitrary when you consider that the same people show up in our hospitals as ride our trains, work in our offices and live in our residential towers. When you focus on people, then add in the special needs or qualities of a sector, that’s what delivers value. Our goal is to continue building a diverse team with a broad range of expertise, globally.
Can you elaborate upon the firm’s engagement in the commercial/mixed-use/residential and retail sectors in the real estate market? How does the context and ethos of Seattle in particular and the Puget Sound region in general contribute to B+H’s projects in this real estate market? What are some of the current commercial/residential projects that B+H is currently working on?
Seattle’s booming economy, anchored by disruptive, innovative companies, has proven a terrific home for developing new thinking around mixed-use (every project is/should be), reinventing the urban edge, multifamily housing, the un-campus campus, etc. The clients we work for, and the projects we are focusing on around Puget Sound, are all looking to connect culture, experience and a sense of place (what we prefer to refer to as putting the “there, there.”)
We are working on mixed use projects—including the Elan in Bellevue—new projects in Tacoma and North Seattle, large multifamily for clients like WPPI and strategic planning assignments for Virgin Hotels and Marriott. We also are very active supporting our global contract with Amazon and a myriad of projects for Microsoft, something like 130 projects in 4 years.
What is it like to be located in the heart of Seattle’s dynamic, bustling and constantly-changing South Lake Union neighborhood? SLU is an area of the city—and, indeed, the larger region—where business disruptors and pioneers are continually trying to invent and implement innovative business strategies. How and in what ways is B+H a participant in this dynamism? Why does this sense of place matter?
We’ve always believed that architects should not be up in ivory towers, but connected to people and place. In 2003, Demers opened the Perkins+Will Seattle office on the Harbor Steps in a former Kilt store. South Lake Union has the vibe—it’s multigenerational, growing and exciting— that we wanted our culture to embody.
Today, we are out of space (we grew by over 100 percent in 2017), and the market in SLU is so crazy that it’s impossible to find a big enough space in the timeframe we need. We’re disruptors ourselves, so being among them in the city is natural and fuels our practice. As we look at moving to our new space, we’re asking ourselves the same thing we ask before every new project: “how has this been done and how can we do it differently?” 60 percent of our commercial architectural work is driven by our strategy practice; strategy is the umbrella. We don’t try anything with our clients that we haven’t tested on ourselves first!
B+H as a firm has imminent expansion plans, too—what can you tell me about the firm’s move to a high-rise downtown? How does this represent a new chapter?
As one of our favorite clients likes to say, “this is our ‘Day 2.’” This is the next step in scaling the consulting practice—expanding the design practice, resources and bench. We are moving into a new space, just above an elaborate amenities podium, that will help us deliver even more on consulting workshops through a variety of additional spaces and venues on site.
Our new office looks out to some of Seattle’s most iconic buildings. It will have a new expanded version of our branded “Sandbox,” a special meeting space designed to empower and enable strategic and complex design discussions that create a unique experience for our clients. The sandbox utilizes a variety of technologies, from Surface Hub to new visual tools we are partnering on with LG to integrate Virtual Reality.
In an era of commercial real estate tech, companies are continually trying to implement technology into their services and strategies. The intersection between architecture, management consulting and technology is an interesting one. What can you tell me about B+H’s AR/VR/MR technology, and how it is used, practically, with client projects? How does B+H participate at the nexus of these three fields?
We have been using these technologies for several years to create great user and client experiences. The tools for strategy are always evolving, from GIS mapping for data aggregation, Mindjet, thought mapping to integrated scorecards and surveys. Now we are using Grasshopper software to connect data points from strategic analysis to massing, form and function. Because we work in Building Information Models (REVIT), we can easily translate any solution we are developing into a Virtual Reality model. This has enormous implications and uses for our clients, as it creates entirely new immersion experiences for leasing strategy discussions with consultants, for hotel owners and operators and for our own design teams as they explore, experience and actually evolve complex designs in VR together.
The nexus of these technologies will empower us to even more to seamlessly connect strategy, scenario and solutions—optimizing ROI and specifically, what we call ROA (return on architecture).
Is there anything else that we should be talking about?
We are always testing new tools to inform our thinking and, recently hosted a two-day “futuring” workshop around the future of the Mall. We brought together individuals who had taken a risk and tried something different in their sectors (retail, commercial real estate, biomimicry and product design) and teamed them with our multi-generational design team to explore what a mall might look like in four different, fictional (but plausible) divergent futures.
This type of exercise intentionally shifts context and allows us to bring some really innovative thinking back to the marketplace. In 2018, we will continue to explore the potential impacts of the big disruptors on a variety of market sectors.