The scene opens on a typical Tuesday afternoon at //3877, a design and architecture firm in Washington, D.C.
Inside the office—a wide open space with large colorful graffiti murals painted on the high-ceilinged grey walls—a few employees from partners to intern architects are dressed in running shoes and shorts, ready for the weekly office run through the Georgetown neighborhood.
“What’s funny,” says David Shove-Brown, co-founder and partner of //3877, “is that we plan [these runs] as an opportunity for everyone to get out of the office. But once everyone is outside, you can’t help but start blabbing about what project is coming up or how we are handling a certain design.”
The runners return to the office, high on endorphins, excited to share their new ideas for a design, logo or building structure with the rest of their colleagues.
Shove-Brown says he and business partner, Dave Tracz, have worked very hard to cultivate this culture of communication at //3877, which besides architecture, also helps companies with rebranding and graphic design.
“We don’t want anybody to ever think that just because they’re the new guy, they can’t share ideas. We hired you for your voice, so if you have a solution that’s better than mine, great! A better solution means we’re all going to win,” Shove-Brown says.
Ownership meets architecture
This encouragement to participate extends to //3877’s clients, which include restaurant owners, high-end hotel chains, workout facilities and homeowners throughout the Washington, D.C. area.
“The first time we meet with a client I don’t want to know where you think your kitchen should go … Instead, tell me about your business, tell me about how you live your life and let me take a stab at laying things out just from my outside perspective,” says Shove-Brown.
If it’s a new restaurant, what’s the concept behind the restaurant? What kind of food is being served? How many meals are going to be served a night? “Let’s imagine all the different possible users that exist,” Shove-Brown says. “Let’s look at the family out to dinner, the couple on the date, the single business traveler. How are their experiences different and how are their needs different? Or, for a hotel, how is the path of a new guest different than someone who is attending a conference?”
To track these perspectives, Shove-Brown says his team spends a lot of time asking the right questions and even drawing diagrams to depict the ways end users interact in a particular space. Through this method, //3877 has even discovered patterns the clients didn’t know existed.
This same process is even used when designing a new home. When their clients come home where do they put their shoes and coat? Do they immediately start cooking dinner or do they sit down to watch television for an hour? “Take me along the journey to help me understand exactly what is in your mind so that we can partner to help create that,” says Shove-Brown.
After receiving the client’s input, //3877 goes into the community around the space they are designing. If it’s for a restaurant, hotel or gym, the firm sends representatives to neighborhood meetings to share what they are planning for the new restaurant or hotel, hoping to get feedback from their clients’ potential customers.
This is an important step, says Shove-Brown, because “if we can get those people to turn around and say, ‘yeah I love this, we would definitely bring my kids there’ or ‘I would definitely go there on a Friday night with friends,’ it makes people a part of [the process] and gives them ownership.”
‘Art with rules’
//3877’s process is the result of a partnership over 25 years in the making.
Shove-Brown and Tracz met each other while studying architecture at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
Their friendship continued after they graduated in the mid-1990s. They both stayed in the D.C. area, sometimes even working for the same architecture firm, before Shove-Brown decided to start working and teaching full time at his alma mater.
Ten years ago, the idea for starting a design and architecture firm began as a discussion about what was missing from the architecture industry. The two friends felt that while many architecture firms focused on their clients’ needs, there needed to be a stronger emphasis placed on providing customer service.
“It started off as just the two of us, sitting around a beer, talking about how we would like to do [in this industry] differently,” Shove-Brown says. “But then you stop yourself, and say, ‘wait a minute, I know there is a better way and maybe I have a more solid approach’ … and at some point you just have to jump and go for it.”
In May 2011, the friends did just that, forming //3877, a name inspired by combining the latitude and longitude of Washington, D.C.
Over six years, Shove-Brown and Tracz developed a process that involved the client at every step of the design, essentially creating their own rules for how an architecture firm is supposed to act.
“It’s what I’ve always loved about architecture,” Shove-Brown says. “You get to create all these amazing things, but you have rules to the game, you have an end user and a budget. … But once you know the rules, well, then you can bend and twist them to work for you.”
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