In Part 1 of our interview with Jeff Day we discussed the relationship between teaching and practice, office structure, and the founding of Min Day. In Part 2, we discuss the background and history of Min Day in further detail including: challenges faced when starting the firm, learning how to manage a business, and project types. In addition, we cover FACT (Fabrication And Construction Team) and Min Day's furniture company: MOD.
ARC: What were some of the primary challenges you faced in getting Min Day off the ground?
JD: I think the uncertainty in knowing, are we going to keep getting work and have Income? And obviously maintaining staff and making sure people are employed. I think an ongoing challenge is always the fact that I'm not one hundred percent involved in the practice because I teach so working around that- we've got a pretty good system now- but that's always something to keep track of. The challenges we face are the same that a lot of firms have: Do you have big enough office? How many staff do you need? What's the right number of staff to manage the practice? How do you grow is a big question we're asking right now. We basically want to be a more grown-up office, not a startup anymore, so how do we do that? We're going through a conversation right now about the kind of work we want to do. We all agree we want to do larger, more public types of projects, not just more of what we've been doing now, but more substantial projects. Then, we're questioning how big of a firm do we need to be to do that? And how big do we want to get to be? So we're studying a range of different offices to understand their growth trajectory- offices we respect obviously, not just any office- but looking at firms where we really like the work and think there is a consistency in the work and then trying to understand how they got to be to where they are. I would say, based on our most recent conversation and just thinking about it, I think we're best suited to be an office that might have twenty to twenty-five people on staff at some point. I don't think we're going to be like Bjarke Ingels Group and have four hundred people. It's just not the kind of work that we do, I don't think we have the temperament of that kind of operation, so we don't look at firms like that. Part of that, just to sum up that issue, is that my perception of firm size and what an architect does on a day-to-day basis. When you're the manager of that firm your role becomes very different as the firm gets bigger. Someone told me once that once a firm gets to be above the low twenties the founding partner ends up being much more of a business manager and marketer than a design architect because you just don't have time and you have to keep getting work. So you become a broker of talent. You facilitate and make things happen, you're the figurehead, but you're not really the designer. There are certain firms that manage this differently- I think Bjarke Ingels Group, Bjarke actually does work on projects. He doesn't like sit down and work in CAD but he does get to be involved. It takes a lot of work to make that happen because he's drawn in all sorts of different directions. It's generally true that the bigger the firm gets, the more the principal gets involved in things that are not actual design. Basically, the career path is taking you away from the reason why you became involved in that career in the first place.
ARC: Speaking of that trajectory, when starting Min Day did you or your partner have a background in business?
JD: No, we didn't and that's another thing we're talking about. At some point we just don't have the ability to manage a business of a certain size- it's not that we can't learn the skills. Personally, one of my faults is I tend to focus on design and forget that we actually have to get the job done around a fee. At some point we end up paying for the job ourselves because we're spending too much time on it. [laughs] There is a business side to architecture, so one of the conversations concerns the question, do we bring on a third partner or third principle whose job is really to manage the practice and business side of things? That's another subject of our case studies of architects, we are looking at firms that have done made that transition.
ARC: With the size you're at now, and maybe this goes back a bit to the beginning of Min Day, how did you learn the ropes of managing a business without that formal training?
JD: I think our experience working in different types of small practices taught us a lot of lessons, both things that are good to do and things that are not good to do. My experience is generally very positive in the firms that I've worked with, seeing firsthand how they manage things. My role at Fernau & Harman grew beyond just being an architect to actually managing other people. Understanding how to handle staff and schedule their time, that is something you learn through managing a project. Financial management, that's a whole different thing. We just started learning by experience and eventually hired a bookkeeper who then educated us about how we should manage our books and handle invoicing and so on. Also talking to mentors- we have various people, both myself and E.B., who we talk to just to bounce ideas off of and seek advice. I think that's a really important thing for someone who is starting up a small practice, you don't want to it do entirely on your own. Due to the fact that we don't have business experience we have to learn on the go and by talking to people we know.
ARC: You talked a bit about this earlier, the firm being set up between San Francisco and Omaha, how do you decide to divide work and responsibility between the two offices?
JD: It's a good question, and we don't have a particular system- it's always just a conversation. We have an office meeting once a week by Google Hangout or Skype. Everyone gets on and we just talk about who's doing what this week, what deadlines are coming up, which projects need more staff help, which ones are wrapping up and maybe need less attention, and just trying to make sure people are engaged so we don't end up in a situation where there's multiple deadlines all in the same week and not enough people to spread it around because everyone is busy. That goes back to the earlier comment about how do you know when you have to hire the next person? Obviously if you intend to hire someone you have to be concerned about- can you keep them busy. We don't like laying people off. We've only really done it once and it was not something we tend to pursue. We try to make long term decisions when we hire people. I think the management between the offices is critical. I'm very interested, and think my partner agrees, we don't want to become totally separate offices that share the same name but work on totally separate things. Some firms operate this way when they have multiple offices. They may occasionally collaborate between them but they're really operating as separate businesses. I always think of ours as a single office that has two locations. Now that said, for practical reasons certain projects are based in one office and don't involve people in the other office. Often that has to do with the pace of the project or the localized meetings. If we're doing, say, a tenant improvement project for a startup office in San Francisco those tend to be very fast paced projects from design through construction and it doesn't make sense for someone in Omaha to be managing that project or be the primary designer on it because you can't go to the meetings and you're just not there. We might in that case have someone in Omaha working on a certain part, a piece of furniture or carpet pattern, or something like that and plug into the project- they're just working on a piece of it. So that's often how that ends up happening. It used to be when we were younger as a practice we'd have less work at any one time that we would almost all work on the same thing. Now with more work, it tends to segregate a little bit more.
ARC: That kind of leads into the idea of specialization, in your profile you mention that Min Day is resistant to specialization so how has this resistance impacted the way that Min Day operates?
JD: I think resistance is a negative term. I think it's more about wanting to be flexible and to be able to work on a variety of different project types. We tend to think more about process and the way engage the project's unique challenges. That's more interesting to us than being the best healthcare architect in town, or something like that. Now certain types of projects, healthcare is an example, are hard to do unless you do specialize because they are very technically demanding and hard to pursue without the experience of having done it before. So you become known as a firm that does this certain area of work, you just keep doing that. I find that ideas tend to stagnate when we're doing the same thing over and over again. We have certain types of work that we have done- we've done a lot of residential projects, we've done a lot of tenant improvement projects, we've done a lot of small cultural projects for nonprofit art centers and so on. Some of those areas we would want to push and grow in and others maybe not. But we don't want to be a firm that is focused on just a particular building type. We'd rather be known for an approach and quality of work that spans a lot of different types.
ARC: So in addition to the roles you already mentioned, you also run FACT (Fabrication And Construction Team) at UNL. FACT has been described as a collaborative design lab, could you talk a little bit about the work FACT is involved in and how that relates to Min Day?
JD: FACT is the design-build program. It's sort of the non-official “program” at the university- I call it that for lack of a better term- that I started here right at the begin. It was nominally a design-build class and studio focused around my interest in the creative possibilities of the realization of the construction of projects and engaging students in this area. My goal in the design-build studio is for students to not necessarily understand how pour concrete for a foundation, but know how to talk with the person who pours the concrete and get exactly what you want. It's really about getting students to understand how you make something that might not be conventional and you have to figure out- how do I get this thing upholstered? How do I get that piece of steel bent? Who do I have to go and talk to about doing that? It's not that they have to do all the work with their own hands. Some design-build programs are all about the students getting their hands dirty in every aspect. I'm not interested in that. There are reasons why some people do it and that's fine, I respect it, It's just not what I want to do. FACT is very much about getting students engaged and realizing projects. As I mentioned earlier, I don't feel that the student needs to necessarily be the conceptual author of the project to be involved in its creative potential. What often happens with FACT projects is that they begin as pro bono Min Day projects. We're not getting fees but doing a schematic design or conceptual design for a project, bringing that to the students who then have to develop the project, understand materials, prototype things, make mock-ups, find vendors and fabricators, and figure out how to get the project built and maybe build some of it themselves. Almost all FACT projects are also Min Day jobs so they sometimes appear on both websites, sometimes not. There are a couple FACT projects that are entirely FACT. The one we worked on in 2015-2016 that wasn't built, a house for Neighborworks Lincoln, we did all the construction documents and it was ready to be built but there were issues with the client’s bank and it didn't go forward. It's on hold, but Min Day would be the architect of record on that in terms of stamping drawings and having someone officially as the architect. Since I'm the one teaching the course, it's me doing that. In that case, that project was almost entirely developed with students. It started with student teams competing, essentially, with each other to develop project scenarios and then we gradually went from seven projects in the studio, designed by two people each, down to three and then down to two. Then the two were pursued to a pretty high level of detail because the thought was that we would build one now and the other would be built in the future. In spring semester, all the students shifted to the one that was intended to be built to finish the CD's. That's a slightly different model than explored in previous years. For Min Day, FACT is a way for the office to engage a type of project that would be hard to do in a purely commission and fee-generated way.
ARC: Regarding FACT, there's a lot of interest it seems in integrating design and project, so what do you think this means for architects and designers in general?
JD: I think for architects to be involved in production- usually these days that means involving sort of computational design techniques that are integrated into fabrication. Engaging various digital fabrication technologies in order to increase quality or complexity of a project while controlling cost is a big reason for engaging advanced techniques. It's becoming the standard to be engaged in digital fabrication at some point in a lot of different types of projects, and many schools teach these techniques. So we're not necessarily innovative in that way, but this is a way of working. I think again, this goes back to the idea of being involved in the creative potential of the fabrication and making of architecture. Not simply doing the drawing and handing-off the drawing, which is the typical or traditional way of architecture. Since Alberti, architects have always been the producers of drawings, of design intent, not producers of building. We're interested in getting a foot into the production of buildings as well, or at least a really close understanding of how they are going to be produced when we design them.
ARC: In addition to FACT, Min Day also is associated with furniture design in the company MOD. How did MOD evolve from a piece within a project into its own entity?
JD: MOD is a furniture design company that we recently started and we're developing a new line of furniture. It was actually my partner's idea, but we've always been designing furniture off and on for various clients. We would get a commission to design a custom home and then we do all of the interiors and specify furniture like an interior designer and then often that leads to designing a few customs pieces for the house like a table, chair, things like that. At one point we realized, and my partner was the one to say this, we spend a lot of our time developing a one-off dining table that's built once, why not pursue that as product? So we looked at the work we've done and initiated three pieces that all had been built before for a particular client or show or some situation and then explored how to convert those into products that get manufactured multiple times. It's different because you could work on a custom table and just work with a furniture maker and it's a sort of craft process, but if you turn it into a product you have to think about how to control the construction cost because you have to put it into a production line operation. Or when multiple vendors are working on a piece so how do you deal with inventory? The movement from first prototype, one-off, to product usually involves some design change in construction or materials. We now have three pieces that are ready for sale, a fourth that is still in prototype phase, and a fifth one that we would love to build but we are trying to figure out how to build it at a reasonable cost- we've built several of them but they were all one-offs and we're trying how to figure out how to get that to the point where it's affordable. There are some other pieces we have designed for clients that we probably won't pursue as products because of their unique characteristics or complexity.
ARC: We’ve discussed quite a bit of work you’re involved in, so to tie it all together what would you say is your mission in the design field?
JD: This is probably the hardest thing for Min Day. [laughs] We really want to work on high quality projects with unique challenges where the project is not compromised by predetermined ideas about the final result. I think that's not something we can write very easily, it gets complex when you try to describe it. We want to work on a variety of interesting work. I think, as I mentioned before, we're now looking at how to expand the practice so that we can actually work on larger scale, more publicly engaged projects, that have a greater presence.
ARC: What is the most important piece of advice you would offer to professionals regarding the entrepreneurial path of architecture?
JD: I think it's understanding what you want to do. Where do you see yourself as a professional in five or ten years? The kind of work you want to do? Trying to figure that out may take some time; it may not be obvious when someone gets out of school. They might need some more experience or they might know. I think understanding that and, if it is about starting one's own practice, making the right connections with the people who are going to help you pursue that. I think it's really a matter of knowing what you want to do and going for it. Taking the risk and jumping in and doing it is also important.