Learning for Life

Steve Jurveston, photographer.

By Nicholas Vlattas, AIA, and Deborah Marquardt

Earlier this summer, a young professor from Northeastern University challenged our thinking about buildings and how we work at Hanbury Evans. In a series of lectures and workshops, Kiel Moe, author of Integrated Design in Contemporary Architecture (2008) and Thermally Active Surfaces in Architecture (2010), and a Rome Prize Fellow suggested, “Our buildings are too complex, unnecessarily complex. Consequently, our practices are too complex, unnecessarily complex. These buildings and practices most often require such great resources and yet can achieve so little. This trajectory for our discipline is ecologically, economically, and professionally unsustainable.”

Gulp.

Curiosity is a firm core value at Hanbury Evans and our culture of inquiry can often be challenging. Moe was our 2010 Virginia Design Medalist, one of three “legacy” programs to stimulate learning as a unique association between our firm and academia. A selected faculty member joins us for two weeks of design and critique each year outside of our internal “academy,” which helps our staff keep current with CEUs through manufacturers’ lunches, Webinars, and online courses.

We are not alone, of course. According to a 2005 AIA firm survey, 50 percent of firms (nearly all of which had 100 or more employees) offer continuing education on site with an average of 33 hours per year.

“The best thing you can do is invest in your people,” says Rick Hampton, Senior Vice President and Director of Hixson University at Hixson Architecture Engineering Interiors in Cincinnati. The firm invests five percent of gross revenue in staff education. Hixson University, inaugurated in 2001, consists of five colleges, each headed by a “dean,” that cover professional areas like leadership and business skills. The program has been refined with six learning tracks that cut across all colleges and cover a range of professional roles. Hixson’s motives are staff development and retention.

As a firm of 115 people devoted to highly specialized manufacturing facilities, corporate R&D, offices, and fashion retail, Hixson’s management searched for a mechanism to impart knowledge from experienced staff to the less experienced. They also wanted to grow leadership to ensure the future of the firm, founded in 1948.

Return-On-Investment (ROI) is difficult to measure, but intuitively, Hampton knows it works. The Hixson University earned the Professional Services Management Association’s national 2003 Human Resources Management Award. Turnover is between two and three percent, and the university is well regarded on the annual associate survey.

The Lukmire Partnership, a 25-person firm with offices in Arlington and Annapolis, relied heavily on Jean Valence’s Architect’s Essentials of Professional Development to start its program, Lukmire University. The firm, which won the AIA CES Award for Excellence/Small Firm in 2000, began the program to offer employees ready access to CEU classes. Shaun Curran, AIA, who assumed control of the program after its founder Rick Pinskey, AIA, says he vets presentations to make sure colleagues take away “usable and applicable knowledge beyond a manufacturer’s product pitch. I ask a lot of questions to see if the programs are going to be of value for us,” he says. Jean Valence, Hon. AIA, seconds this notion by arguing that one of the most important things about implementing professional development programs is that they “focus on knowledge building, not just information accumulation.”

You can’t get more cutting edge than Perkins Eastman, whose program is described in the March 2009 issue of Design Intelligence as one that utilizes new technologies to accelerate learning and knowledge-sharing among geographically diverse and expanding practice areas. The firm hired a trained knowledge management professional and ultimately created an award-winning intranet site: On-line Resource for the Creative Harvest of Architecturally Relevant Discovery (ORCHARD). It became a structure to develop Practice Area Communities and a resource representing the collective wisdom of staff on projects. Other programs followed: Crosstalk, Design Resource Groups, and the Perkins Eastman Research Collaborative.

Just as in our schools, the “teacher/podium” is being replaced with highly collaborative learning models. A new generation of young professionals expects nothing less, demonstrated in our office this summer as young architects at Hanbury Evans collaborated with Kiel Moe to build a toolkit of case studies to support an increasingly integrated design process that will inform every project. It is encouraging to see so many firms making lifelong learning a centerpiece of daily work. Hopefully it makes us better architects and citizens.

As the noted American educator Frank Moore Colby once said, “Every man ought to be inquisitive through every hour of his great adventure down to the day when he shall no longer cast a shadow in the sun. For if he dies without a question in his heart, what excuse is there for his continuance?”

Nicholas E. Vlattas, AIA, is the Chief Operations Officer for Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas + Company.
Deborah Marquardt does public relations for Hanbury Evans. Her writing has appeared in national magazines.

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