ArchHive recently spoke with Jeff Day, partner of Min Day and professor at UNL. In the first part of the interview we discuss balancing roles in teaching and practice, opinions on firm structure, and a brief background of Min Day. To learn more about Jeff Day, partner E.B. Min, and their practice, visit minday.com.
ARC: I'd like to open up the discussion by addressing your involvement in both academia and practice. Could you give a brief overview of your roles at both UNL and Min Day?
JD: Sure, I've been teaching at UNL since 2000 in different capacities. I started as an adjunct faculty member and then I had the Hyde Chair of Excellence visiting professorship for a year. During that time a tenure-track position became available. I applied and was accepted into that, so I've been teaching here ever since. I came to teaching after working in practice for several years- working for an office in Northern California. Really, my interest is in merging teaching and practice; from the very beginning I was interested in continuing a practice. I started teaching here at Nebraska and at the same time started collaborating with my business partner who is in San Francisco. Then, in 2003 we formally started Min Day as a business, although some of our projects predate that since we were working on them before we started the business. And so the balance, I think, is partly just my personality- I like to have different things going on as opposed to one thing everyday, so I'm not interested in routine. The idea of having a practice where I engage with, for the most part, built projects, commissions, or competitions and teaching which is more of an intellectual engagement working with students and speculating on things- I see the two as very beneficial to each other. There are a lot of academics who practice and practitioners who teach; the balance varies depending on who you talk to. The one common idea that motivates both practice and teaching is the interest in how architectural ideas confront the reality of making architecture in the physical world. I'm very interested in projects that do become built or somehow manifest in the physical world because I'm very interested in how the pragmatics of making things confronts the ideal side of architectural ideas and theory. I teach a course called "...details" where I try to disabuse students of the idea that they're going to learn how to detail. The course concerns thinking about the architectural detail. It's a course where I start by arguing that the architectural detail is the moment where ideas about architecture confront the reality about making things. You have to deal with both issues at the same time when talking about details, whereas you can design a project with diagrams and have conceptual ideas that don't necessarily deal with the physicality of building. If you want to manifest those ideas in built form, the detail is where you confront the reality of how you join two things together that works both from a pragmatic and structural standpoint but also from a conceptual standpoint. So I'm interested in that merger, which is why I like to keep my foot in the practice world. Then in practice my partner and I are motivated by working on projects that become built, while there are some practices that, although they have some built work, are motivated by ideas about architecture so they often work in exhibitions and publications and speculative design. Occasionally we do enter competitions- we know we probably won't win- to generate ideas but we don't want to be working exclusively in that world of 'virtual' but instead to engage in the 'actual.' And that's also why at the university I'm also interested in design-build studios and courses. I've been teaching design-build courses through FACT (Fabrication And Construction Team) since 2001. When I got the tenure-track position that was one of the first courses I developed. The idea behind FACT is to engage students in exploration of the creative possibilities embedded in the realization of projects. Often when I teach design-build courses I hand students a schematic design and say, “this course is not about conceiving the ideas, it's about taking conceptual ideas and taking them from design development through production.” So it's sort of jumping ahead of where architectural education typically ends, at schematic design- I want to go beyond that.
My most recent role with the university has been as Director of the Architecture Program for the last five years. I'm stepping down from that position in the summer of 2017 in order to engage the practice and teaching without the administrative component.
ARC: What brought about the decision to shift roles at UNL?
JD: I've really enjoyed being the Director of the Architecture Program, but after five years I think the sacrifice of time away from practice is too much- I'm still involved but not as involved as I was before- I think it's time to go back and focus more on making architecture. The school is in good position for transition, in terms of accreditation, enrollment, and administrative stability. It seemed like a good time to move back into the practice and a regular teaching schedule.
ARC: So what made you decide to be involved in education in the first place?
JD: I think I had always imagined I might get involved in education but I wanted to practice first. I really wanted to understand how to put a building together, how to go through the process multiple times, and address the full-time world of practice. Then, I moved to Nebraska and ended up teaching earlier in my career than I thought. I imagined I would practice for fifteen or twenty years and then consider teaching but I ended up practicing for maybe five years, and then started to teach. But really, the interest in teaching is to be engaged more intellectually than you would be in straightforward practice.
ARC: What were some of your career experiences prior to starting Min Day and how have they impacted your current practice?
JD: Good question. I started working with architects when I was in high school. I had an internship of sorts in an architecture firm and was just getting an idea of what was like to be in an office. After high school I worked for another office as full-time staff member and a designer for the summer. Then I went to college where I actually pursued an art and design major, not an architecture major, although I did take a number of architecture courses. I worked most of those summers with different architectural practices and one summer with a large firm. I realized, although in a large firm you generally get to work on larger projects, it wasn't the environment I really enjoyed. I like the nimbleness of a smaller practice, where as a younger staff architect one gets to be involved in the entire range of the practice. In large firms, one tends to be in big teams, but working on smaller components of projects. You may never touch business management or marketing because that's done in the other office and you're over here working on CD's or something. So after that one summer working for a large firm I decided I was interested in smaller sized firms. Since that time I've always worked for small practices. Before grad school I took two years off and I worked part time for an architect and part time for an artists as a studio assistant. I did that for almost two years and then went to graduate school for an M.Arch. After grad school I worked for two different firms. One was a startup firm by a professor who had just gotten tenured and decided to start practicing after focusing her time on scholarship. Then, I moved to another firm, also run by a professor at Berkeley, called Fernau & Hartman and I worked there for four years during which time I had a moonlighting project of my own. It was a house I designed and something I was up front about, in fact during my interview I said I had this project and wanted to keep working on it. I had another firm serve as architect of record, just to keep liability issues clean, while I actually worked on the design of the project in my off hours. and worked at Fernau & Hartman. My role at Fernau & Harman was at first to oversee all of their residential projects so I ran a couple of house projects of my own and then I oversaw the staff who were working on other projects and I would review progress and drawings. Then, I started working on a few other things- retail projects, corporate interiors, and stuff like that. That was a firm that never grew over twenty people when I was there and for the most part was around fourteen or fifteen. It was a reasonably small firm but big enough to actually take on a wide range of work. That was a great experience- it is a detail-oriented firm, very interested in how things are made and questioning every decision about making. I think the aesthetic of Min Day's work is very different but the attention to detail and thinking about construction and manifesting that in certain ways is important. I left that firm when I moved to Nebraska to start teaching and at that point, as I said, I gradually started a new practice.
ARC: Regarding firm size, do you have any opinions on firm structure or how it could potentially change?
JD: Not every big firm operates the same way. Some of them have a studio model where a team will follow a project all the way through. Some firms operate differently where maybe winning the project, pre-schematic design, and schematic design is done by one group and then handed off to a more technically savvy group to handle CD's and construction administration. I really don't think the latter is a good model for producing good buildings because of the disconnection between the intention and actualization- again my interest in how ideas are manifested in built form. Another model I think is problematic is the design architect/executive architect partnership where one firm does schematic design and possibly design development and then hands it off to another firm to do the CD's and CA. I think that hand-off can be a problem. There are ways of doing that where it can be a fade out so that at the beginning the design architect is doing one hundred percent of the work then they gradually fade to doing a very minor part of the CA, whereas the executive architect will be aware of what is going on at the design phase then gradually takes on more and more responsibility and both firms are always partly involved in both phases. My experience in big firms is fairly limited, but I know there is always an issue of continuity of the design team. So I think from the junior architect standpoint sometimes it's possible to be pigeonholed in a certain type of work in a big firm if that firm operates with a healthcare studio, science and tech studio, institutional studio- whatever it is, you're working on a certain category of project type, and that is problematic.
ARC: Min Day seems to be well established with a solid foundation, especially considering the time and effort you have put into your role at UNL. What is your approach to balancing both worlds consistently and successfully?
JD: It definitely can be challenging but my business partner is full time in practice. She occasionally teaches, but she hasn't actually taught in two or three years now because we've been fairly busy. She’s permanently in practice so that when I go in and out there's continuity. I think it's about being able to interact in a quick way, efficiently, with staff and then not going away for too long that things get out of hand. But none of this would be possible without digital technologies. All of our files are on Dropbox- that’s our sever- which you can access anywhere. So if I'm here at the College my laptop is syncing to the projects I'm working on. We use Slack as communicating tool, which is a way to organize conversations about projects or set up channels around specific parts of projects or agendas. That's been very useful. And we use some other online tools for management. So I think those digital tools allow us to be much more flexible about how we engage everybody in the office, not just partners- but how we engage with projects and with each other so we can have teams in different places. Right now I'm Lincoln, we have a staff person in Omaha, we've got an office full of people in San Francisco but we have projects that are being operated on by all of us at the same time.
ARC: So the primary office location is San Francisco?
JD: Yes, the bigger office is there. We don't talk about it as being main office and satellite office but the reality is that is the bigger office. The Omaha office is relatively small, but the Omaha office is primarily working on a project in Canada and a project in Los Angeles and a staff person in Omaha is also working on a project with the San Francisco office. So we don't really split the work up in a regional way necessarily, it just has to do with who is the best for the team.
ARC: Could you give a little bit of background to how Min Day came about?
JD: Well my business partner, E.B. Min, is a classmate from Berkeley; we were in the same three year Master's program. After graduating we worked for different people but we occasionally did competitions together. She was working for a landscape architecture firm that did a lot of design-build work. They occasionally were getting projects where there was a landscape but there would be a small building on it and she started designing those on her own and basically left that firm to start her own. Then, when I moved to Nebraska I was really interested in continuing that collaboration and getting involved more in practice with her. I was working on those projects with her and we started to get more work and then we made the decision to form a business. At first it was more like two independent people collaborating and then it became a legitimate business and we started hiring people soon afterwards. That is a big decision for people who are just collaborating and then you’re responsible for somebody's salary and their livelihood. [Laughs] So that's a big decision for any small firm when you stop being tentative and become a real office.