A history of VOA DC

Founded in 1994 to be “the best design firm in town”

I joined the firm in 1992 in Chicago. Two years later, I planned to resign in order to relocate to the Washington, D.C. area. I didn’t want to leave the firm but I needed to move. To my surprise, Mike Toolis asked me ‘What do you think if we extend your salary two months and you try to drum up some business in D.C.?’ The prospect of trying to win work and start an office was daunting but exciting. I came back the next week and said ‘I’m flattered Mike, let’s do it, but I need six months.’

I was a 29-year-old kid. I put a business plan together focused on doing great design work and did some market research. If we couldn’t secure work in six months, it was over. In 1994, I rented an executive office at 13th and Eye Streets; one room with no windows. Ironically, it’s not far from where we are today.

In Chicago, we had a recently designed the American Hospital Association in D.C., a project which we could tout to prospective clients. That was important. Architect Tom Truax, who had done the CA for us on the AHA, was hired full-time. He could draw, was an expert in construction CA and could speak the contractor’s language. He was a nice counterpart to what I was doing with business development, design and client relations. We could work as a two-man team until we won enough work to hire another person.

I hit the pavement and started calling on brokers, leveraging national clients such as Oracle so that we could get meetings. VOA wasn’t as well known outside of the Midwest and Florida at that time. We learned quickly that we had to refocus our marketing material to position ourselves as a national firm.

We started with small interiors to build a portfolio. Interior projects happen more quickly. You can win one tomorrow and start the next day and get revenue on the books.

At the six-month mark, I returned to Chicago for an annual meeting to announce we’d won a project in D.C., a 10K SF workplace project for the accounting firm BDO Seidman. We had brought in Nick Luzietti from Chicago and Kimberly Rodale from Orlando and nailed the interview.

We connected with two D.C. real estate brokers, Trip Howell and Steve Collins, who wanted to help us. They knew if they hired us, they were going to get our full attention, and they did. Each opportunity was so important to us in getting the next one.

We set out to do bang-up work. We didn’t care how small or insignificant the project, we needed to produce great work so that we could get a great referral and build a reputation for quality design. We won that first project and had AHA finishing up. Brokers were bringing us in for smaller opportunities. All of this helped us generate new opportunities.

Developing an architecture practice takes years. The interiors practice, on the other hand, just took off after only two or three. We quickly became recognized as the new kids in town. We were hungry, we were aggressive about finding work and attending as many events in the community as possible. We were focused on producing great design.

We built our practice around people.  John O’Dowd was our first significant strategic hire in 1996. He came with a network in the real estate community and was well-regarded in the city in general. We built a design group around John. In five years, we had ramped up to a 30-person staff working primarily on workplace interiors. We’ve continued to bring in the best people and build around them— Pablo Quintana, Liz Peterson, Paula Williams, Franck LeBousse, Michele Vernon, John Varholak, Allen Whitaker are all examples of this.

Key accounts
In the late ‘90s we won our first major account. Sprint hired us on a national account basis to design data centers with sales and marketing suites in Boston, New York, Pittsburgh, Philly, DC, Chicago and elsewhere. All the effort we put into positioning ourselves as a design firm paid off in that account. It was a real ego boost for us. We were very busy and getting great project interviews.

After the 9/11 tragedy, Sprint put all of its work on hold, except for a few projects nearing completion. For the first (and last) time we had significant layoffs. But we learned a lot from that experience. We learned that we had too many eggs in one basket. We were too reliant on interiors and a single client.

Building strategically
Our Sprint experience was a real awakening.  We needed to be broader, more diverse like the rest of the firm. We vowed to build up our practice in a variety of market sectors.

We needed to hire more strategically to build an architecture practice. We had been so focused on interiors that it became what we were known for in D.C., and that made it more difficult for us to get into base building architecture.

In 2002, we won CareFirst, the regional banner for Blue Cross/Blue Shield. It led to a fifteen-year relationship and many millions of square feet of work on interiors as well as on new buildings.

As we grew, we began to acquire more talent with more diverse skillsets. We brought in those that could help us in doing better drawings, executing better project management, raising technical standards and implementing QA/QC more rigorously.

Opening an office from scratch in D.C. was not exactly a strategic move. It was opportunistic and risky. But the approach allowed us to design our practice the way we wanted to work and we’ve done just that. Yes we have lots of senior, highly talented leaders and the highest average salary across the firm, but we also have a decent financial track record and a great reputation in town.

Market diversity
Today, we’re focused on particle therapy and healthcare (40%), workplace interiors (40%), office buildings (15%), and multi-family housing (5%). Our strong local practice is augmented by a significant amount of international work. Our market presence is diverse which gives us stability. When one market or geography slows, the other picks up.

Recruiting top talent is our highest priority. To do this we must bring in great projects – the type of work that the best designers want to work on. We take advantage of recruiting interviews to share the vision of our firm and leave candidates excited about what we do and our vision to be the best design firm in town. They take the message with them and that’s caused a groundswell of interest in us and our vision.

We moved to our 12th Street NW location eight years ago. Here, we’re visible from the street. We have the opportunity to show people who we are. Passersby can see the depth of the space and the stairs up to our second floor. I was trying to shake up early perceptions of VOA DC. I wanted them to see our name on a building and see multiple floors and see our best work: models of Volkswagen’s North American headquarters and House of Sweden through the windows on the street.

Office culture and vision
We emphasize our vision. Simply put, we want to be the best design firm in town. We repeat that every day. This mantra is part of our whole mentality, so that when we’re working at our desks, we always have it in mind. Everything that we do keys into that. It gives us direction. We sought meaningful contributions to making VOA a leading global design firm. Now with Stantec, we have a great opportunity to do just that.

In D.C. we’ve emerged as one of the top architecture and interior design firms in the region. In particle therapy, we’re number one in the world.

Our D.C. office is a true design studio. All the business decisions we make are completely tied into the work we’re doing and our clients. I think we make good business decisions because they’re guided by our practice, not the “business of architecture.”

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