Technology has begun to radically transform operations in the AEC industries. For Robert Yuen, CEO and Co-Founder of Monograph, he's developed a cloud-based project management application that's tailored to address these changes. Trained as an architect and establishing himself as an entrepreneur, Robert utilizes his background to reimagine what the futures holds for managing design and construction.
Yuen discovered his passion for designing software solutions after more traditional experiences in architecture and design. His experience in working with firms like SOM, Holabird & Root, and BluHomes led him to recognize the need for a simple, cloud-based project management application. As a result, Monograph was founded in 2019 by Robert Yuen, Alex Dixon, and Moe Amaya, three architectural designers who took the leap and ventured into the digital realm. In the following interview with ArchDaily, Robert explores his early inspirations and what it means to practice and run a company today.
Why did you choose to study architecture?
Why would I not want to be an architect? It was an opportunity to immerse myself in a profession that’s responsible for building everything around us, from homes, schools, libraries, and offices. From an early age, I played with LEGO bricks and always knew I wanted to build things. I was fortunate enough to go to one of the few high schools in Chicago with an architecture program. I studied architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago and eventually earned a dual master’s degree in Architecture and Digital Technologies at the University of Michigan.
Can you tell us about Monograph and how it started?
While working as an architect in Chicago, I would meet with other friends in the architecture field during happy hour, and we talked about the same problems, especially the lack of tools for running an effective business. In 2019, after hearing people talking about the same issues myself, Alex Dixon, and Moe Amaya, all architects by trade but could build software, created Monograph. Our goal was to create a practice operations platform tailored to the architecture, design, engineering, and construction industries. The cloud-based system is intuitively designed for AEC professionals to oversee projects, timesheets, and forecasts in one simple and integrated interface to inform decisions about their business and projects in real-time.
For me, the biggest challenge was keeping up with the numerous deadlines that an architect has; and as a result, I worked extra hours to make up for lost time. At one point it dawned on me that working extra hours shouldn’t be normalized in our industry, and I was committed to finding an answer. With Monograph, professionals are empowered with a solution that syncs a firm’s time, project budgets, and schedules together in one cohesive workflow. Delivering expanded efficiencies has ultimately helped firms provide a better client experience, as well as design and operate a more collaborative, transparent, and profitable business.
Your background is defined by experiences spanning architecture, technology and entrepreneurship. Can you talk about how your work has evolved over time?
When Monograph first launched, I never had any experience managing a business. I was just an architect who was trying to solve some problems in the industry. I was designing tall sky rises in Chicago and moved to the Bay Area to design mostly high-end residential work. Now I’m running a startup, so personally it’s been a huge transformation.
I firmly believe that Monograph has evolved over time by listening to our customers, they are the industry and deal with the problems that occur on a daily basis. We are seeing firms reach out to us that are excited to change their practice operations. Our customers and the industry are really adopting practice operations as a new way of thinking, like what is essential and how to run a better business for all.
One of our customers, Rossmann Architecture Inc., is a perfect example of this. They have been growing significantly, and to streamline workflow, they restructured the company to ensure they could scale in an effective, efficient, and profitable manner. Before the pandemic, the team reinvented how they approached their business model and needed a project management tool that would support their current team growth at a rate of at least one new employee per month. Part of Rossmann's realignment was creating a Managing Director position whose sole job is to create a culture of operations, manage the office, and provide back-office support to project managers and architects. These efforts have allowed the firm to scale much faster than it could in the past. This is rare to see in the architecture industry, but we are seeing firms take practice operations seriously.
What are some recent projects you’ve been working on?
Monograph is preparing for Section Cut, a one-day event on Thursday, August 12, 2021 that will feature fast-paced workshops, insightful keynotes, success stories, and more—all with a focus on how architecture firms of all sizes can supercharge their growth with practice operations.
Section Cut will allow the architecture community to start new conversations about practice operations and provide industry professionals with connections and content that inspire them to innovate. The conference will provide an open forum to discuss what it’s like to work through successes, failures, and pivots across design professional firms. I think the conference is important because it is bringing people in the industry together to have a conversation about improving operation and flow. I hope it leads to deeper conversations.
With changes to climate, technology, and construction, how do you think architects and designers will adapt ways of practicing to change the profession?
The industry is better equipped today to handle these changes compared to the past. With the increased use of technology, I think architects are going to be more and more equipped to evolve and change faster over time. The pandemic demonstrated how fast change can occur and how it can have a lasting impact. Having the right tools to adapt fast is super important. As an industry, we were capable of operating remotely in a decent amount of time. With good practice operations in place, a firm will be able to handle the changes that come.
The focus of practice operations allows firms to become more agile. Our workforces shift to Zoom would have not happened without the pandemic. Monograph is fully remote with team members based across the U.S., Canada, and Europe. Current events expedited the rate in which the workforce needed to adopt technology and so we did. By using new tools and technologies, it also affects culture, which correlates to how a company operates.
What are some design firms that inspire you?
I have always been inspired by Mies van der Rohe; he has always had a place in my heart. I love the work of Louis Kahn and Frank Lloyd Wright. These are classical architects that I hold in high regard.
In terms of running a business, I am inspired by the work of Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), particularly on how they have been able to grow phenomenally fast and complete impressive projects at a high-level. They have a great understanding internally of what it takes to run a larger organization within architecture. A lot of the credit here goes to their CEO, Sheela Maini Søgaard.
The work of our customers continues to amaze me with how fast they are able to adapt into our workflow and understand the ethos of practice operations. The small to large firms are able to adjust on the fly at an incredible rate. On the project side, I would say Trahan Architects who’s design work is at a really high level, they were even ranked as the number one design firm in 2018 by Architect Magazine. Another one of our clients, Colloqate Design, they are working at the design intersection of design justice as a non-profit working to bridge the gap between design and design justice.
Monograph is already challenging the culture around work, and your team has been growing. Between the pandemic and changing views on remote work, what lessons would you like others to take away in architecture and design?
The one lesson that Monograph learned over the past year was that building a business is dependent on people and people build your business. As CEO, I focus on people and building a team, and our conversations are about building an amazing culture. The pandemic has shed a light on heath and wellness, and we shouldn’t forget that those two things are important. Prior to the pandemic, Monograph was operating on a four-day work week, and we are seeing other companies, both nationally and internationally, explore this idea. Giving my employees the option to take a “mid-weekend,” as we’ve come to call it, provides them with a much-needed day off in the middle of the week to rest and recuperate—not only to power through the rest of their tasks but also to keep their mental strength high when in deep-focus mode. Allotting employees an extra day a week to take care of themselves and their families can only help personally and professionally. It is important not to forget that the team is made up of real people living real lives. Employees should be encouraged to look out for each other and themselves, and employers should play an integral role in helping staff manage their stress levels.
As you look to the future, are there any ideas you think should be front and center in the minds of architects and designers?
I think it’s important to continue the conversation around being culture minded, as I’ve said in the past before it became a popular topic this year because of COVID-19. We can’t lose sight of it. Architects are incredible creatives and embody such an amazing power to think about how the world will look in the future. We lose the fact that this challenging work is done by people, and I would like to see us culturally change how we look at the team that facilitates the work.