In honor of TECHNE’s 25 year anniversary, I sat down with our founding principal to discuss the past, present, and future of the firm.
Q: Before you made the leap to TECHNE, what were you doing before hand?
A: I was working for another firm and had collected a number of side projects. I had a full-time job and came home to another full time job. My administrative assistant asked if I would meet with her mother, who was a mechanical engineer working with a group of people on a small project. I knew nothing about the project, but I met her mother Ruxandra for lunch - she will tell you to this day I was 20 minutes late (I was). She described a small addition for a dining hall that a Romanian Orthodox Monastery in Michigan required in order to meet the needs of their community and the many visitors they received. It was a surprise to learn there were active monasteries, and as we talked the project scope grew from a small addition into an entire masterplan. In understanding their needs, it became obvious that I could not do this project and keep my job. They had a beautiful model of a monastery, which could have been built in the 1500’s in the Moldova region of Romania. I asked them, “is this what you want? A walled defensive, traditional style monastery?” and they said, “no, no, no!”, that wasn’t what they wanted at all – they wanted the monastery to be open and welcoming. From there we began to explore what that meant.
Q: So did you think you were prepared to dive head first into this?
A: I did. At that point, I was ready. I was running large multi-million-dollar projects and felt very comfortable leaving to start my own firm.
Q: Hindsight is 20/20, looking back did you feel like you were prepared?
A: In hindsight, maybe it was hubris, I learned quickly all the things I didn’t know.
Q: So then what was it like to get your feet off the ground as a young professional with a new business?
A: Terrifying [laughs]. You leave the safety nets and the structure of a firm where somebody else is dealing with the nuances of the business, and you’re responsible for design and managing 3 or 4 clients. Suddenly, your managing that along with all the aspects of business. You think to yourself, now I’ve really stepped into it. At the same, I don’t think the risk was too great that if I failed, I would stop and go back to work for someone else.
Q: How did you and Jim decide this was a path you wanted to go down together?
A: We had interned together at a firm in Akron, and then went our own ways to get our master’s degrees, and work for other people. We continued to talk and meet for vacations. He was living in Florida; his wife had been accepted to Case Western for graduate school and was moving back and needed a job. I got him a job where I worked, and 6 months after I left, we were stable enough that he was able to leave his job and joining me in our first office, which happened to be in the spare rooms of my house.
Q: So what are the different spaces that you’ve been in?
A: We started in my house, which was great, but there’s nothing like an 8-pen plotter running every night until 3 in the morning to aggravate the household. We moved from there to Jim’s attic, then to a storefront on Lee Road. It was a cool space, we had 8 workstations, and back door access to the Colony Restaurant. It was great having the energy of Lee Road available. We could walk out our door and have access to all the merchants and restaurants. I remember on some of our later work nights, people would wander in and ask us what the heck we were doing. It was interesting. We worked on a series of smaller projects at first, and the first bigger project was a school for St. Paul Church in Westlake. Our interview was a very novel concept, we sketched opportunities and potential solutions in the interview. It was very raw and engaging, and we walked out of there – a 3-year-old firm with very little experience - with the job. We were up against bigger and more established firms, and the message that making genuine connections with clients resonated with us. We outgrew that space and moved down Lee Road to an old Jewish bathhouse we renovated, from there to Little Italy and the spaces we now occupy at The Sculpture Center.
“We aren’t just putting up a building; we are making environments to support people as they grow, learn and develop. We need to inspire everyone to approach it that way.“
Q: That’s a nice way to keep your momentum going.
A: It was the realization that process matters. How do you make sure you truly understand your clients need, and that communication with them is clear and effective? We’ve had that moment many times. At the monastery, everything they do is a prayer – washing clothes, making bread, weeding the garden – its all a prayer. Thinking about the responsibility of providing an architectural solution to a community where everything is a prayer, requires you to capture something beyond just bricks and mortar. This is the theme that we’ve carried for the last 25 years, this idea that architecture is supportive and a scaffolding for the growth and development of individuals and communities.
Q: It sounds a lot like, “Techne” -the art of making, that reflects that nicely. So what came first? The name or the process?
A: They both seemed to arrive at the same time. As an architect, we are making spaces for people to inhabit. It is the only reason to build. How you build becomes as important as what you build. The firm name needed to reflect this, it needed to define a belief and mission. The ancient Greek philosophy of “Techne” – the art and craft of intentional making, aligned with our beliefs that architecture is a process- making a place that people can inhabit and experience as meaningful requires intention, an understanding of materials, how sunlight fills and animates space, and how it supports its inhabitants.
Q: We’re talking about Techne, the art of making, and the whole process of the monastery, with all the special moments that we’ve created, so what’s the deal with the Godzilla, a monster of destruction?
A: [laughs] That’s easy! Godzilla is the monster of destruction, born out of a nuclear reaction, a bomb, a mistake by man. It’s a reminder that we have a greater responsibility to ourselves and to nature. Understanding our ecosystems and social systems are interconnected techne is a guide to making decisions to benefit our long term well being.
Q: How poetic. That covers the beginning phases of studioTECHNE, so looking back, did you envision studioTECHNE where it is today, and does it meet your expectation?
A: That’s a difficult question. Somebody recently said, “your 25th is coming up, that’s really exciting”. It is a milestone, but I really don’t know that I see it as exciting. Life is about experience it’s a process and a journey. I see this milestone as another day in the journey. They also asked how many projects we’ve done? I have no idea! I’ve never thought to count, the number isn’t important, the work is, what did we make? How did the design solution help improve someone’s experience? Their final question was “what is my favorite project”? We have completed a lot of projects that I really love, work that I’m exceptionally proud of, but a favorite? I don’t know that we’ve done my favorite project yet, that is still to come.
Q: Do you think you ever will?
A: I also don’t know that I ever will [laughs]. There’s always compromise, and the goals of the project aren’t my goals, rather, they are a complicated arrangement of budget, client need and construction environment. There’s always a place where ideal meets reality. We are still growing and learning, and I hope will always will. This isn’t a formula, there is no a+b. Each opportunity is unique and dependent on so many factors. Moving forward into the next 25 years, our biggest focus is motivating people to understand and care. Working to help all the project team members (clients, engineers, contractors, suppliers, etc.) to understand the vision and the importance of what were doing, We aren’t just putting up a building; we are making environments to support people as they grow, learn and develop. We need to inspire everyone to approach it that way.
“This is the theme that we’ve carried for the last 25 years, this idea that architecture is supportive and a scaffolding for the growth and development of individuals and communities.”
Q: What didn’t you expect you’d have to do, but have inevitably fallen into as TECHNE’s principal?
A: I think the biggest thing that we’re still learning is how to convey the vision effectively, so that everyone moves in sync. We work with clients who build once every 20-50 years. Its understanding how to be a coach and a mentor, working with a diverse group of people and guiding them through a process. In school, you’re fed a diet of epic architects, who seemingly singlehandedly make works of art. That’s not the reality. It’s a complicated collaboration. The job is understanding how to interact with everyone in a way that achieves exceptional results. Understanding how to guide a process where everyone does their best work and the project becomes something meaningful for our clients.
Q: There’s no doubt that what we do internally in the office is reflected in front of the clients, because of the way our relationships are. We [Techne] pride ourselves on culture and authenticity. How have you been able to encourage that and keep that spirit alive?
A: I think its just allowing the opportunity. Understanding that everyone is unique, and we all have our own drivers, history, and reason for being here, and letting everyone be true to themselves. I have a certain love for chaos and disruption (Godzilla). I try to guide that into a productive energy. I want the office to be a noisy messy place because through these spontaneous interactions, we do our best work.
Q: What do you think TECHNE offers to clients that makes us unique from other firms?
A: Its our process. It’s the intensive initial period where we engage clients in a dialogue and develop a common understanding. What are the goals they need this project to accomplish? What is their culture, their mission and vision? What is their community? Who are they trying to help? These discussions allow us to develop a set of specific and unique design criteria and project requirements. We aren’t just seeking to meet one need; a successful project is holistic. It supports mission and vision, meets financial goals, meets operational goals, and builds an organizations culture enabling their people to achieve their best.
Q: I could imagine running a business grants you with an equal amount of immense accomplishment and devastation, which would certainly take a toll on someone. How has this entire process, being the principal of TECHNE, changed you as a person?
A: I will answer that a different way … I have two kids. Early I realized they knew exactly who they were, and I had no idea. I needed to learn who they were as individuals. My role isn’t to stop them from skinning their knees, but allow them to skin their knees, pick them back up, let them know they’re safe, that they’re okay, and provide them a safe space to learn, to fail. I am better able to lead this firm because my kids made me a better person. Running a business includes a lot of worries, concerns and sleepless nights. Overall, you’re trying to accomplish something bigger than the roadblocks. There will always be problems to solve, the art is not letting the difficulties stop you, but looking for better solutions. What needs to be done so that we can be successful?
Q: What do you see as success?
A: Success is a varied thing. For me, it is really about the work. In the past 25 years, we have done wonderful projects for our clients, and we have been able to build a strong foundation for the future. Who we are is very established, and I am working with amazing people. What TECHNE does and is, the way it works with clients is exactly what I hoped it would be.
“You’re hiring us for our expertise, leadership, and stewardship. Knowing that the places we design are thoughtfully planned, experienced as meaningful, exceptionally well detailed, and easy to operate and maintain.”
Q: Then looking 25 years forward, where do you see Techne in the future?
A: In the future, I think we are a more regional company, we’re certainly moving that way, we are currently working throughout the Great Lakes and Mid-Atlantic states. We’ve developed a specific specialty over the past 25 years - we help clients through major organizational transformations, while architecture is the vehicle through which we do this, the real goal has always been about supporting people and communities and transforming places to build authentic culture.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who is in the same position you were before you decided to start studioTECHNE?
A: Just come work for me. [laughs]. I pursued a dream. I think if you have a vision, and you have a passion, you need to pursue it. We’ve had a number of people who had that same dream and have gone on to start their own firms and studios. I was listening to a podcast the other day, and one of the comments that resonated, “At some point, we have to stop being just great companies, we also have to be great places to have been from, because that’s how you change an industry,,,”. When people left and started their own firms, we stayed connected, and provided guidance and advice. We have been fortunate that very talented people wanted to work in our studio. If everyone one of them successful starts a firm of their own, our profession will be very well established for a very long time.
Q: Lastly, why should someone hire TECHNE?
A: We’re a collective of curious, creative, energetic, vigorous and artistic individuals who genuinely listen and become a true partner in our client’s project. You hire us because the places you work, worship, learn and meet no longer support you in achieving your goals and fulfilling your mission. There can be any number of reasons, your facilities are too expensive to operate, they have significant deferred maintenance, they do not support the change necessary for your organization to grow and succeed. Your hiring us because our project approach and process create a clear planning guide to implementing foundational change. You’re hiring us for our expertise, leadership, and stewardship. Knowing that the places we design are thoughtfully planned, experienced as meaningful, exceptionally well detailed, and easy to operate and maintain. Most importantly, our buildings are warm authentic places that seamlessly support individuals and communities and allow them to grow and thrive.