Safdie Architects is a research-oriented architecture and urban design studio active in a wide variety of project types, scales, and sectors. Safdie Architects’ global practice is directed from its headquarters in Boston, Massachusetts, with satellite offices in Jerusalem, Shanghai, and Singapore. Projects are designed, managed, and executed by a global team that hovers around 65 people! The practice is organized as a partnership and operates in the model of an intimate design studio environment. The firm's partners – many of whom joined Safdie shortly after graduation – have been working together for decades.
I interviewed Chris Mulvey and Sean Scensor both of whom are partners at Safdie Architects, about their firm's success and their interesting take on project realization. Read on to discover more about Safdie Architects’ approach to business and project implementation.
When it comes to the way Safdie Architects runs its operations, the firm is somewhat of a unicorn.
What makes it really special is how – out of an ivy-covered brick studio located in Boston, with a handful of partners and a team that stays consistently around 50 architects – the firm has designed and realised over $15 billion worth of construction in the past 10 years, including some of the most complex and acclaimed projects in the world, and seem poised to surpass that mark with work currently on the boards.
Since Moshe Safdie’s seminal Habitat ’67, ambition and innovation has been the hallmark of Safdie Architects. Today, the firm’s approach to design is a response to seeing “an urgent need for architects to design our world’s increasingly dense urban environments to become more humane and liveable.”
In David and Goliath fashion, the firm routinely competes for such work against corporate behemoths, or design offices with scores of regional offices and hundreds of architects. Designing projects of 10 or 20 million square feet is one thing; maintaining quality control over design and construction across 12 time zones is a far greater feat.
Sara: How has Safdie Architects managed to deliver on these megaprojects?
Chris: We’ve evolved an approach of “Compact Bigness,” which combines the attentiveness of a small design studio with the capacity and reach of a global mega-practice. Compactness is both a method and a mindset. It’s operating with the passion and energy of a Michelin star restaurant, with an eye for quality and excellence.
Sean: Our insanely talented team works in sync with Moshe, who remains active on all our projects, and continues to be intimately involved in the design process. Our core group of partners, most of who have worked together for more than 20 years, are bound by common values, friendship, and a distinct method of practice.
Sara: With projects all around the world, how do you ensure “quality control” over the design process?
Chris: All design occurs from our main office in Boston; but we frequently travel, co-locate, and relocate for extended periods to regional site offices, deploying our resources strategically to remain both nimble and hands-on.
Sean: We expand our reach, and leverage our strength through a trusted global network of extraordinary collaborators, engineers, and specialists. We also choose our projects and clients carefully, based on quality, rather than typology, sector, or region. We accept projects only when we can ultimately achieve quality in both design and construction, which means we’re heavily involved on-site during construction. Even when working at the mega-scale, we remain unusually attentive to detail and craft.
Sara: How does your history of working together and your studio’s business model reinforce the Compact Bigness approach?
Chris: As partners, we share firm ownership and compensation equally. This incentivises us to work collegially, share criticism and advice, and staff projects optimally, with the right partners in tandem, playing to each other’s strengths. Profits are heavily reinvested back into the firm, affording us the resources to undertake research, exhibitions, publications, maintain an archive, and strategically invest in our team members.
Sean: This in turn attracts new talent and bolsters retention. Design is not a cheap commodity. We believe in the integrity of our profession and won’t trivialise it by chasing irresponsible and capricious fashions. We design with the intention to build and lasting impact – at scale.
Chris and Sean are keynote speakers at Disrupt Symposium, the first of its kind business of architecture conference planned for 1-5 May 2022. They will speak together, unpacking their unique approach and the logistics behind their practice operations.
Disrupt is an event designed to bring under one roof decision makers and C-level executives from top architecture practises specifically to bust myths about what success means in the architecture, engineering and construction industry. The event is presented under the tagline “Success leaves clues” and will host top-leaders coming 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.
Go to the symposium official website to reserve your seat now. 50% Early Bird tickets are available until 1st April: https://www.disruptsymposium.com/