Compact Bigness: how Safdie Architects does mega projects without a mega office

Compact Bigness: how Safdie Architects does mega projects without a mega office

Safdie Architects is a research-driven architecture and urban design studio active in a wide variety of project types, scales and sectors. Safdie Architects’ global practice is led from its headquarters in Boston, Massachusetts, with satellite offices in Jerusalem, Shanghai and Singapore. Projects are designed, managed and executed by a global team of approximately 65 people! The practice is organized in partnership and operates in the model of an intimate design studio environment. The firm’s associates — many of whom joined Safdie soon after graduation — have worked together for decades.

I interviewed Chris Mulvey and Sean Scensor, both partners at Safdie Architects, about the success of their business and their interesting perspective on delivering projects. Read on to learn more about Safdie Architects’ approach to business and project implementation.

When it comes to how Safdie Architects runs its operations, the company is something of a unicorn.

What makes it truly special is how – from an ivy-covered brick studio in Boston, with a handful of partners and a team that consistently stays around 50 architects – the firm designed and built over $15 billion in construction in the past 10 years, including some of the world’s most complex and acclaimed projects, and looks set to surpass that mark with work currently on the boards.

Raffles City Chongqing by Safdie Architects.  Image © E. Jay Photography
Raffles City Chongqing by Safdie Architects. Image © E. Jay Photography

Ever since Moshe Safdie’s first Habitat 67, ambition and innovation have been hallmarks of Safdie Architects. Today, the company’s approach to design is a response to the recognition of an “urgent need for architects to design the increasingly dense urban environments of our world so that they become more human and livable”.

Like David and Goliath, the firm regularly competes for such work against corporate giants or design offices with dozens of regional offices and hundreds of architects. Designing 10 or 20 million square foot projects is one thing; maintaining quality control of design and construction across 12 time zones is a far greater feat.

Sky Habitat Singapore by Safdie Architects.  Image © Edward Hendricks
Sky Habitat Singapore by Safdie Architects. Image © Edward Hendricks

Sara: How did Safdie Architects manage to realize these megaprojects?

Chris: We have developed a “Compact Bigness” approach, which combines the attention of a small design studio with the capacity and reach of a global mega-practice. Compactness is both a method and a state of mind. It means operating with the passion and energy of a Michelin-starred restaurant, with a concern for quality and excellence.

Sean: Our incredibly talented team works in sync with Moshe, who remains active on all of our projects and continues to be intimately involved in the design process. Our core of partners, most of whom have worked together for over 20 years, are bound by common values, friendship and a distinct method of practice.

Sara: With projects all over the world, how do you ensure “quality control” of the design process?

Cris: All design occurs from our main office in Boston; but we travel frequently, co-locate and relocate for extended periods of time to regional site offices, deploying our resources strategically to remain both nimble and practical.

Sean: We expand our reach and leverage our strength through a trusted global network of extraordinary people, engineers and specialists. We also choose our projects and clients carefully, based on quality rather than typology, sector or region. We only take on projects when we can ultimately achieve quality in both design and construction, which means we are heavily involved on site during construction. Even when working on a large scale, we remain exceptionally attentive to detail and craftsmanship.

Artscience Museum and Marina Bay Sands by Safdie Architects.  Image © Safdie Architects
Artscience Museum and Marina Bay Sands by Safdie Architects. Image © Safdie Architects

Sara: How does your collaboration history and studio business model reinforce the Compact Bigness approach?

Cris: As partners, we share ownership and remuneration of the business equally. This encourages us to work in a collegial way, to share criticism and advice, and to equip the projects in an optimal way, with the right partners in tandem, by playing on the strengths of each one. Profits are heavily reinvested in the business, giving us the resources to undertake research, exhibitions, publications, maintain archives and invest strategically in our team members.

Sean: This in turn attracts new talent and builds retention. Design is not a cheap commodity. We believe in the integrity of our profession and will not trivialize it by driving out irresponsible and capricious fashions. We design with the intent to build and have a lasting impact – at scale.

Qinghuangdao Habitat by Safdie Architects. Image courtesy of Kerry Properties and Safdie Architects
Qinghuangdao Habitat by Safdie Architects. Image courtesy of Kerry Properties and Safdie Architects

Chris and Sean are the keynote speakers at Disrupt Symposium, the first of its kind architectural business conference scheduled for May 1-5, 2022. They will speak together, unpacking their unique approach and the logistics behind their practice operations.

Disrupt is an event designed to bring together decision makers and senior executives of architectural best practices under one roof specifically to bust the myths about what it means to be successful in the architecture, engineering and construction industry. construction. The event is billed under the slogan “Success Leaves Clues” and will feature top executives from Safdie Architects, UnStudio, SOM, OMA-AMO, Snohetta, Zaha Hadid Architects, ARUP, Perkins & Will, BIG, Gensler and more .

The event is supported by Graphisoft, Z by HP, Teradici, Chaos, Tunarch and IE School of Architecture and Design.

Visit the official symposium website to reserve your place now. 50% Early Bird tickets are available until April 1: https://www.disruptsymposium.com/

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