In Architecture Firms and Economies, Size Matters

With the new year here, a lot of people are making resolutions and thinking about reinventing themselves. Sometimes what you need is to stop working for someone else, and go out on your own.  That’s what Thomas Kerwin did when he left Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and planted the seeds of bKL Architecture.  Today we talk to him about his six-year-old company, where it’s been, and how it’s different.

Editor: bKL has had almost explosive growth over the last year. Not that long ago you had one skyscraper and a school, and now your name is on projects all over town.

Thomas Kerwin, Principal, bKL Architecture

Thomas Kerwin, Principal, bKL Architecture

Thomas Kerwin: We’ve been fortunate. We have great clients who come back to us and new clients as well. I think it’s a testament to our team. We have a team of incredibly talented people who people respect and want to work with. But we work hard for it, too.

Editor: What are you doing differently at bKL, compared to when you were working in other firms?

Kerwin: I think the biggest thing is that we’re able to set a vision and a tone and an ethos for the firm in a more clear way than a bigger shop. We can be more nimble. We can be more entrepreneurial. I think we are able to create a level of energy and excitement that’s harder to do in a big shop. There are forces that come into play that aren’t necessarily productive when it comes to creating buildings. There are things that sap your energy. The fact that we can devote more time and energy to creating buildings as opposed to other extraneous activities is, to me, the biggest difference.

Editor: So bigger firms get sidetracked?

Kerwin: I don’t know if “sidetracked” is the right word. I think it’s easier to lose focus when you’re a bigger firm. Having said that, there are some incredibly prominent, talented, smart, big firms. But this is really more of a personal choice for me. How I want to work. How I want to create something. It works for me. I was very fortunate to have a long career at Skidmore and I have a lot of good things to say about the firm. It was a place of history. But it came to a point for me where it was time to create something more focused and more in line with my views of the world. And that relates to both how one makes buildings, and also to how one creates a business.

Editor: Now that you’re the grand poobah, do you get hands-on time to actually create buildings, or is everything delegated?

Kerwin: That’s the great thing. We have a big team, but I get to spend most of my time working on buildings. I can tell you when I was at Skidmore I spent most of my time on planes finding business. I was pretty successful at it, and you need to do that at a big firm because you have to keep a lot of people busy. Here I have to do that, too, of course; but we have others who are really engaged in that, as well. I’m trying to create a place where everybody’s a part of that, it’s not just on one person’s shoulders. But we’re a smaller firm — we’re 60 people — and we’re getting sizable commissions, so it doesn’t take a lot to keep us moving. So that does allow a lot more time for me to work on the projects. I’m back to being an architect for most of my time.

Editor: How has the economic recovery been treating you?

Kerwin: We’re busier than ever. We’re busier than we’ve been in our almost six year history. But you have to look at that with your eyes wide open because it doesn’t take a lot for all of that to turn on a dime.

I’ve been through enough cycles that that’s something I think about a lot. How does one position a firm to weather the downturns which eventually come? I don’t have a crystal ball, but I talk to a lot of people, I read a lot. It’s still peaking. I hope we have a couple or three more years of runway.

Fortunately this has been a slower, longer recovery, which I am glad about. A faster recovery in a shorter amount of time leads to greater growth. But if you look at history, then the recessions come faster.

Editor: You went into China pretty aggressively early on. Now we’re seeing companies in all different sectors rethinking their China strategy or getting out of the mainland altogether now that it’s cooling down. Are you feeling any of that?

Kerwin: We are some. We are a smaller shop, so I think the bigger shops can speak to that more.

We have two buildings under construction, another one in design, and we got invited to compete for a 600 meter tall (1,969 feet) tower in Shenzhen. I was just in Hong Kong to show our ideas for that project. So there’s still activity, but it’s definitely slower. And in talking to our clients, they’re seeing it.

I think one of the exciting things about China being slower is that they’re directing their energy to the U.S. So there’s a huge amount of activity in the U.S. These developers have been incredibly successful. They’ve built up big teams. They’re sitting on lots of capital. Now they need to deploy it, and they’re choosing to deploy it in the U.S., and it’s helping drive our economy. I can tell you of several projects that have foreign money behind it — primarily Chinese money — and there’s still more coming.

One of the challenges that Chicago faces is that the first port of entry for that money has been the coasts. The major companies have focused on L.A. and San Francisco and New York, and maybe some in D.C. I think Wanda was their entree into Chicago.

Editor: bKL is part of the Wanda Vista Tower team. Is that because of your relationship with Magellan Development?

Kerwin: We’re the architect of record for the Wanda project, so our team is part of a larger team trying to execute the design that Jeanne [Gang] and her team have come up with, which is quite wonderful.

Editor: Do you get the sense that the Chinese money is more attracted to the larger, flashier projects like Wanda, instead of the more mundane residential blocks that are the bread and butter of the local development industry?

Kerwin: I think the Chinese are attracted to the larger projects because that’s what they know. The norm in China is that land is very expensive, so it drives higher density. And the developers that we work with [in China] are working in Class A locations, so they’re paying a premium for the land. Those big premiums require a greater level of density. And that requires a mixture of uses because building too much of one thing on one site can be a problem economically. But if you diversify the uses by introducing office, hotel, residential, you get to leverage that diversity for the sites, and that diversity helps the economic performance. Those developers are used to building large, complicated projects, so that’s what they know.

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at chicagoarchitectureinfo@gmail.com.

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