Q&A with Arlan Collins of Collins Woerman-Doing the Right Thing

1. How did the recession effect your business and your thinking about business? How do you see yourself as having responded differently than most businesses have?

CollinsWoerman is a regional architectural firm employing approximately 100 people. The recession has hit our industry very hard with approximately 60% of the architects in the state of Washington unemployed. CollinsWoerman has routinely fostered a very diverse practice by being regionally competitive in five markets: healthcare, science and technology, interiors, planning, mixed use commercial. Because of our diversity, we have fared better than most in Seattle. It was clear to my partner and me that this recession would not be typical. Having managed our business through two prior recessions in the last 23 years, we believed this recession would have a significant impact on restructuring the economy especially commercial construction. We saw these circumstances creating a tremendous opportunity. After Lehman’s collapse in September 2008, we felt now was the time to rethink design and construction. Many of the business models inherent in our industry would need to change. We concluded that by making strategic investments in new ideas, we could reduce the time to construct a building by 50%, reduce costs by 30%, and build in sustainability that was previously unachievable.

2. How did you think differently about the project you undertook? What effect might it have on growth of local economies to take on such thinking and projects?

In the time between 2004-2008, our firm completed eight high-rise buildings containing approximately 2000 residential units, all constructed by different construction teams. In every case, these projects – while being successful by industry standards – (on time; on budget, etc.), had significant waste and little or no economies given the repetition inherent in a project of this type. Project value was determined primary by unit count. Given our goal of 50% less time, 30% less cost and being inherently more sustainable, we assembled a multi-disciplinary team and began to define what a building with these performance attributes would need to accomplish; i.e., offsite fabrication, the ability to customize each building given its unique site and program, using material and methods than could be assembled quickly – regardless of material cost – we intuitively knew the goal had to be reduce the amount of labor required to build the building by 50-70%. What we learned was counter intuitive. Many of the assumptions our industry holds as truisms gave way to fascinating discoveries. We believe local economies can achieve similar results in most projects by rethinking process and focusing on outcomes.

3. How does this change how we might define growth of a business?

One of our internal strategies given our limited capital was to partner with other firms who would have a vested interest in our success. We have garnered the support of over two dozen companies to participate in our processes and have contributed technical expertise and materials towards our project goals. It is almost like the old fashioned barn raising. It is taking a village to rethink the village. These ideas have significantly reduced our cost structure, improved the quality of our thinking and built community and fostered trust, respect and teamwork.

4. What business sense does it make?

One of CollinsWoerman’s major strengths has been the ability to build and maintain relationships. Both Mark and I had fathers who were raised in the Midwest and had value systems that included treating every human being with respect. You needed to earn your own way and help others along the way. As it turns out, we have been fortunate to be the recipients of great value from the community we have helped create. The ideas imbedded in our sustainable living environments project would not have been possible without the help, support and insight of others.

5. How did it effect employment for your company?

The jury is still out. We are hopeful that in late 2010/2011 our investments will come to fruition and we will have significant project opportunities across the US that create jobs for our team members and allow our innovative thinking to make a difference in the world we live in.

6. How do you define “responsibility” as a business in a slow growth economy?

We believe it is a business’s responsibility to always do the right thing. That is different than doing things right. We worked hard to do what we believe is the right thing regardless of the economic impact. In almost every case, these long-term thinking decisions have been the right ones for our company and our future.

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