Collaborative Design for Everyday Experiences
For 55 years, BRR Architecture, a firm that’s all about building relationships, has been designing the built environments people use every day – the places where they shop, go to work, eat or relax. With national headquarters in Kansas, 10 office locations and licenses in 50 states and three provinces, the firm’s philosophy remains consistent: Listen first, then create.
When James Hailey, BRR Architecture President and CEO and Rich Majors, the company’s Chief Operating Officer reflect on BRR’s 55th anniversary, the words ‘listen’ and ‘relationships’ come up repeatedly.
“We listen to our clients,” says Hailey. “We listen to our suppliers and consultants. We listen to the jurisdictions where our buildings will be going up, we listen to our employees and then we create. It really gets down to listening to the challenges, what the needs are, whether it be the jurisdiction you’re trying to get approval from or the people who will use the buildings, and then responding quickly and efficiently. That’s where being well-rounded comes in. You can’t just be a great designer; those skills are the basis of everything we do, but we have to have other skills on top of that.”
Relationship building is one of those key skills. Many of the accounts are national accounts which also have businesses in Canada and Mexico, “and our company vision involves multiple projects,” said Hailey. “When we start a relationship with a client it is usually with one that is doing a multiple building program and that fits in with our skill set to develop that relationship and develop a program that can be adapted to different regions across the country. Our goal is not just doing one project but working shoulder-to-shoulder with our clients.”
This includes designing the prototype, developing and drawing the architectural plans, doing site adaptations of the prototype and working through the permits, while consulting with the clients every step of the way.
Adds Majors, “Most of us, as architects and designers, are creative thinkers, so that is the part where we’ve developed processes to create design solutions to problems. One thing we pride ourselves on is that we include our clients as part of that process, because it’s really important for us to work with our customers. By bringing in clients in the design phase we are solving their problems and incorporating their ideas into the design, whether they be big or small.”
BRR also listens to its own employees. “We’ve created research and innovation groups, so we have a hospitality innovation group and ones for grocery, retail and office environments, and they do research, study and track trends, look at future forecasts, learn what’s working and what’s not and then we can use that knowledge base to help our clients advance their projects,” he says. “It’s an investment we’ve made internally, but we think it helps put us in the forefront of markets we want to serve. We want to be trend setters and not followers.”
‘Accelerate’ is another key term that comes up frequently. As Hailey explains, “When someone is building, whether it’s retail or hospitality, they need to get it open for business so they can start generating income and start paying back the loan. So accelerating is important, and we put processes in place to get the drawings done accurately and quickly. And we’ve implemented a ‘sundown rule’ which means when we get a question or an RFI (request for information) from a contractor they’ll get a response from us within 24 hours.”
Because getting the design done to the customer’s satisfaction before construction begins is crucial to avoid costly delays, BRR has implemented cutting edge virtual reality technology, a real game-changer, that lets customers walk through the design. It’s one thing to look at 3D modeling and say, ‘this looks too high or too narrow;’ it’s another to say, ‘this feels too high or too narrow,’ and that is what virtual reality technology offers.
“It’s pretty powerful,” says Hailey. “We took our machine to a client’s office recently, set it up and had 40 of their end users, who don’t usually get into the design process, walk through the building with our VR system, which tracks your location in the model, and they were able to say, ‘These microwaves for the customers are too low. We need to move them up,’ he shares.
“They’d experienced the building before they’d spent any money on building it. Doing a walk-through when construction is nearly finished is too late because you’re going to have change orders and spend massive dollars to correct something that we can do with VR. It’s something we’re integrating into our design process and our clients are blown away by the opportunity to experience their building before they spend a penny or move a bit of dirt.”
The process can be used in existing building as well. “So if we have a client in New York, for example, and he wants a redesign on a building in Arizona, we can scan that building, do a cloud point – which is both images and laser scans of that space – and the client can walk through it even though he’s never flown there. And as the design progresses, he can continue to walk in the new space from his home office.”
Developing relationships with local jurisdictions is another way BRR accelerates the process. “Some designers have an almost adversarial relationship with them,” says Majors. “They’ll say, ‘I have to get this permit and I’m going to try to get it done quick and they’re going to try and make me do something different.’ But we have a different take on it and we include the jurisdiction on the design team to listen to what they’re looking for. We might be working in a jurisdiction that had a problem and their fire department put in a special requirement because of that experience, so we want to know about that and build it into the project. Then when those drawings come across their desk they know we’ve taken it into account and that shortens the duration of the review by providing a set of drawings that work for their community. It’s a win for us and for our clients.”
Looking back, moving ahead
A 55th anniversary is an impressive milestone for the firm started by architect Bill Franklin in 1963. “It was a small firm,” says Hailey, “that did retail, office buildings, housing, anything and everything within driving distance of Kansas City. Then in the late 80s the firm began to develop an expertise in retail, specifically in grocery, and that led to rapid growth.”
At that time, Hailey and Majors were classmates at Kansas State University, graduating with degrees in architecture in 1991. Majors joined BRR that same year, becoming the eighth employee. By the time Hailey joined two years later there were 17. Today the company has 240 employees, with 80 licensed architects and designers, and whenever another gets licensed, there’s a celebration.
There are now 10 offices across the country, including headquarters in Kansas City with others in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Miami, Chicago, Austin, Phoenix, Bentonville, Arkansas, San Francisco and Los Angeles, but BRR will work with clients anywhere and the team has been responsible for a significant amount of architecture.
“In terms of numbers it’s hard to nail down; we got to 10,000 or so and it was hard to keep track after that because these are projects of all scales,” Hailey says. “Some were new buildings, some were existing spaces we adapted from the ground up. We’ve done hotels, theaters, restaurants, office buildings and most of the top 25 grocery retailers. We can reliably say that half of the U.S. population has been in one of our projects.”
Most recently, BRR has designed distribution centers which Hailey says is a natural fit since many of the retailers, with whom it has a relationship, have an industrial component or supply chain.
BRR is also designing fulfillment centers to support online retail. “There’s a lot of automation involved, tons of coordination and a lot of mechanical conveyance as they are really complex projects,” Majors says. “They’re giant buildings and on the employee side there are amenities for locker rooms, showers and break rooms where they can eat and feel comfortable. It’s not just about putting up a box; it’s about looking at the human factor. There are a lot of parts and pieces and automation but we need to design for human interaction too.”
Recruiting and developing professional employees is a crucial part of BRR’s planning. “Rich and I pride ourselves on having healthy relationships with the universities in the regions where our offices are located,” Hailey says. “We start identifying talented students in their third and fourth years and in most of our offices we hire at least one summer intern so we get to know students and we track them through their final years, so there are students graduating who already have eight or nine months of working with us and they understand our culture and can fit right in with us.”
Part of that culture involves teaching SMART goal-setting skills (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely goals). It’s something BRR leadership does and something employees are encouraged to do, both in their professional and personal lives.
Majors explains, “During the summer we have almost an in-house university, really teaching them how an architectural firm operates. Not a lot of firms do that, but we take the time to teach some of the skills and introduce parts of the business they wouldn’t get in university. It opens their eyes to what lies ahead, and it explains how we’re about building long-term relationships with our clients, our suppliers and our employees, because our goal is that when we bring someone in, they will be with us throughout their career.”
“And we’re also looking for professionals who are five to seven years down the road in terms of experience,” adds Hailey. “We’re looking for folks with a great attitude. They may not be well-rounded (in all skill sets) when they get here, but they need to have the enthusiasm and the spirit of continuous improvement that is the mindset of our company.”
When the company celebrated its 50th anniversary there was consideration of flying all employees back to the home office for big party. Instead, says Hailey, “we decided to do 50 philanthropic and charitable events and we’re doing it again for our 55th year in communities where our offices are located. Actually, we do a lot of these things every year, such as athletic events where we participate in a run to support a charity or a Habitat for Humanity project or a Can-struction Competition (which provides non-perishables for community food banks). It’s a way for us to spend time with our folks, not talking about work and a way to give back to our communities.”
“We’ve already challenged our future leaders that in 10 years they’ll have to come up with 65 events,” adds Majors “and then in 100 years…”
And there’s no doubt BRR will celebrate a centennial as the leadership continues to set goals, make five-year plans, and consider succession to ensure the company’s future.