Future Firm

Ana Miljački speaks with Ann Lui and Craig Reschke of Chicago-based studio Future Firm about expanding the role of the architect, absorbing risk, and how to respond when asked to do magic.

Recorded August 28, 2023.

Future Firm

Ann Lui and Craig Reschke founded their Chicago-based architecture and design research office Future Firm in 2015. The practice has designed exhibition spaces and exhibitions, speculative urban and territorial work, and have made cultivating the vibrancy of their city their priority. Reschke is also the cofounder of Hem House, a company dedicated to creating contemporary residential architecture for a broad market. Lui is an assistant professor of practice at the University of Michigan and was a co-curator of the US pavilion, Dimensions of Citizenship, at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale. She co-edited the book Public Space: Lost and Found, and collaborated with Ana Miljacki on log 54: Coauthoring. Future Firm’s work has been shown at Exhibit Columbus, Storefront for Art and Architecture, and the Shenzen Hong Kong Bi-city Biennial of Architecture and Urbanism, among others.

About I Would Prefer Not To

Conceived and produced by MIT’s Critical Broadcasting Lab and presented with The Architectural League, I Would Prefer Not To1Herman Melville, “Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street,” The Piazza Tales (1856). tackles a usually unexamined subject: the refusal of an architectural commission. Why do architects make the decision to forfeit the possibility of work? At what point is a commission not worth it? When in one’s career is it necessary to make such a decision? Whether concealed out of politeness or deliberately shielded from public scrutiny, architects’ refusals usually go unrecorded by history, making them difficult to analyze or learn from. In this series of recorded interviews, I Would Prefer Not To aims to shed light on the complex matrix of agents, stakeholders, and circumstances implicated in every piece of architecture.


Transcript lightly edited and provided for reference only. May not accurately capture all aspects of the conversation.

Aug 28, 2023

Ana Miljački 00:21
Hello and thank you for tuning in. I’m Ana Miljacki, Professor of Architecture at MIT and director of the Critical Broadcasting Lab. And on behalf of the Architectural League of New York and the Critical Broadcasting Lab, I welcome you to our architecture podcast series titled, I Would Prefer Not To. This season of the podcast is supported in part by the Graham Foundation. I Would Prefer Not To is an oral history project conducted through audio interviews on the topic of perhaps the most important kind of refusal in architects’ toolboxes, refusal of the architectural commission. By definition, the topic of refusal stays hidden from public scrutiny, and thus also hidden from history. Withdrawals of this kind tend not to leave paper trails and are not easy to examine or learn from. And yet the lessons contained in architects’ deliberations about and decisions not to engage are politically relevant and urgent. Decisions To not engage a commission or types of commissions or commissions with certain characteristics inevitably forfeit potential profit, placing other values above it, at least momentarily. I’m talking to Ann Lui and Craig Reschke today. Thank you for joining me, Ann and Craig.

Ann Lui 01:33
Thank you for having us.

Ana 01:35
Ann Lui and Craig Reschke founded their Chicago-based architecture and design research office in 2015. They have both practiced in different firms, including SOM where they met before starting Future Firm. Future Firm has been engaged in design of exhibition spaces and exhibitions, residential and commercial buildings, in speculative urban and territorial work, transformation of local building code, and in general, they have made cultivating the vibrancy of their city their priority. The word is that they tend to seek out or to be found by Chicago’s changemakers. In addition to Future Firm, Craig co-founded Hem House to help intervene in the contemporary residential market with design-forward projects. They’re currently teaching together at IIT. Ann is an Assistant Professor of Practice at the University of Michigan. She was a co-curator of the US pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2018 with a project titled Dimensions of Citizenship. She co-edited Public Space: Lost and Found, and in 2020, she worked with me on log 54 co-authoring. Future Firm’s work has been exhibited at Exhibit Columbus, Storefront for Art and Architecture, Shenzen Hong Kong Bi-city Biennial of Architecture and Urbanism, New Museum’s Ideas City, and the Chicago Architecture Center. So, Future Firm, as always, I hope that we will be able to discuss some aspects of your body of work so far, by talking first about the work you have not done. We can start with your most memorable decision to not engage or to drop a commission, or if that has not yet happened, can you imagine it happening? And on what grounds?

Craig Reschke 01:53
Thanks for having us.

Ann 03:20
Okay, maybe I will start and then we can expand from there.

Craig 03:26
Yeah, you’re gonna start with the most recent one?

Ann 03:28
Yeah, I’m gonna start with the most recent one. We recently said no to an opportunity, and it is very fresh in my mind, so I will try to explain it in the most objective way possible. So that when we’re thinking about it, we can see if the decision was right. We were approached by a large architecture firm who, in their defense, we had previously reached out to to try to partner with them. And they said that they had a client, a university client, with whom they’ve been doing a lot of projects, and a university client with whom it is notably hard to get projects in Chicago. And a small window of opportunity had appeared because one of the previous firms that was doing a lot of work with this university, their principal had retired. And so they had an opportunity to look at a really large project. So I would say over 10 times the scale in feet and square footage than any of our other projects. And they had been asked by their client to build a more diverse team. And their client had wanted to pair them with a woman or minority-owned business. But they had come up with the idea that instead of partnering with the person that their client had suggested, they would bring a women and minority firm to the table—and Future Firm is a registered women and minority owned firm. And so, they reached out to us. The caveat of this invitation to prom was that they wanted to present two options for two different minority-owned firms for the client to select from, whether they wanted large firm plus minority Firm A or minority Firm B. I personally reacted really negatively to this to this proposal. And I brought it to Craig, Linda, Armel, and Donna, the folks at the firm with whom we make decisions about “go and no go.” Will you [Craig] summarize how the team responded? Because I think it is maybe insightful to our firm’s characters.

Craig 05:51
I think that everyone, we went around the table and everyone on the team said, “We should do it.” Because we are interested in working for universities, we’re interested in this kind of work. Let’s just go for it. And we can, we can get past this asking two people out on a date issue. And we had some discussion about it. So that was like, kind of the initial vote. And then, Ann said her side of the, her interpretation of it, that it was insulting that they approached it in this way. And the team all agreed. So, we basically came up with a plan that we were going to tell them sure we’ll do this. But in order to do it, we need X, Y, and Z. And we made a list of, frankly, unreasonable demands that we knew that they would say no to. But I think it was a way of kind of setting, it was a way of turning it down by setting a standard for ourselves, is maybe one way to put it. So it was interesting to see the group’s reaction. And then also to see how we strategize to say no to it in a way that wasn’t just saying no and walking away, but was setting the standard for ourselves.

Ann 06:55
I think our different personalities were revealed through the discussion of it. Linda, for example, I think she was, she kind of said, it doesn’t matter, the conditions under which these people asked us, if we can be part of it, do a good job, and potentially show this client that we are the firm that is doing interesting and meaningful work. That actually is, I think Linda’s point of view is “the best revenge is living well,” you know, if we’re thinking about a breakup. I think Armel and Donna were maybe, I think once we kind of framed it this way, it was something that we could all get on board with. But I think I still feel really on the fence about this project. I felt like my emotions, really, maybe shaped how we as a team thought about it, but maybe that’s also crediting too much to myself. But I just like, this “binders full of women” approach was just crushing. Because too many times we or I specifically and many people at that table have been approached as token participants. And it’s just like, it’s after so long working with other clients who respect us and come to us for our design expertise or point of view, like, man, it hurts for somebody to call and say like, “do you want to be one of two minority firms?” Who, let me say, the other firm was just like totally different from us, like had nothing in common with us other than that they were also woman led.

Ana 08:26
So what would you say is the generalizable kind of dimension of this No?

Ann 08:56
Actually, the first time we said a No of this kind…I don’t know. What do you think?

Craig 08:59
I think it was a bigger No, because it was a project that had potential for a much bigger impact. I also think it was kind of easier to say no because it was for a lab building and at a university that we just like didn’t… sure it would have been a big fee, and maybe it would have been an interesting design project, but it wouldn’t have been that interesting. It wasn’t a design project.

Ann 09:25
Yes, it wasn’t the like Asian American National History Museum or something. Yeah. I think the generalizable No is No to people who come to us under the wrong banner. Like No to people who fly the wrong flag when they pick up the phone.

Ana 09:42
But it also sounds like there are other Nos that maybe we want to hear about.

Craig 09:48
We started, when you invited us to be on the podcast, we started trying to make a list of them because some of them are further back. Though at the beginning there are probably many yeses we could talk about that were huge mistakes.

Ana 10:02
Oh, we will!

Craig 10:06
There was a nonprofit, kind of, educational academy…

Ann 10:13
workforce development

Craig 10:15
that we turned down.

Ann 10:16
I’m thinking about a project, a nonprofit came to us that was workforce development. It was like mission aligned with what we do, but they had an owner’s rep who had convinced them that they could do the project in six weeks for $5. I mean, the six weeks is true, the $5 is only slightly less than what they had. And not to say we are disparaging small budget projects, but their budget and ambitions were not aligned. And their owner’s rep had too much sway with them, so they had unreasonable expectations. So that was an example of a No that I think has to do with the feasibility of the project.

Craig 10:50
But there was another example of a No where we still we gave them a proposal and we said, “this doesn’t meet what you asked us [to do]”. But if you want to do this project and do it right, you need this much schedule, and you need this much budget. So if you are willing to work within those parameters, we’d be, we would work with you, and of course, they said no.

Ann 11:08
Yeah, what other Nos are you thinking about? We had a good list.

Craig 11:14
There was the dance studio. That was I think our first, I think that was our first big No, there was a kind of institutional client through an important owner’s rep that brought it to us.

Ann 11:28
Yeah, an owner’s rep brought a potential nonprofit, renovating a building on the south side for a dance academy, which is a project I think we would be great at. But their owner did not, the leader of the organization did not have the support of his own people, because of statements he had made that were racist, and that were not properly addressed. So, I would say in that case, it was not strictly about the comments, though, certainly, that was a big part of it. It was more that we felt that he didn’t have buy in from his own stakeholders in his own community, and therefore the project would be very challenging. Yeah, I think that makes it sound like I’m diminishing the comments, but it was, if he had made the comments, and then he had apologized, and he had a plan to pivot leadership, and there was a board that was clear about this plan, I think we could have done it. But in the context, I think it felt like too big of a challenge for us. That was I think the first big No.

Ana 12:29
Maybe some more will come up as we go, so maybe I move us a little bit in a different direction. I’m hoping that we can discuss the mechanics of your collaborations with clients. In an interview you told of a time when you were asked about community engagement. And your answer pointed to a kind of embeddedness in the context that seemed pretty special and worth discussing here, I think, in relation to commissions that you do take.

Ann 13:03
I think we say we don’t do community engagement, but I think out of context that actually is the wrong answer, which is that the majority of our clients are the community, meaning they are residents of neighborhoods, or small business owners or nonprofits that have been working in communities of color, often disinvested communities for their entire lives and careers. So we usually follow the leads of our clients and how they take on community engagement. Because, it’s like very different for every project, a nonprofit is going to reach out in a different way than a small business, who knows everybody who comes in their ice cream shop or their cafe. I think that when folks ask about community engagement its usually through the lens of a developer that is not embedded in a community who’s coming to do a project and they are an outsider to that neighborhood. So the architect participates in this project of, sometimes when they’re doing a great job going door to door, doing real kind of engagement. Sometimes, like the least version of that is like the proforma community meeting. Some of our clients do that kind of work anyway because they are publicly funded, or they want additional feedback, or they want to engage and get buy in at a different scale. But for the most part, we are not working with folks who are new to the communities that they are working in. So we have less often that hurdle to overcome.

Ana 14:28
And you have repeat clients, no?

Ann 14:31
Yes, yeah. Yeah.

Ana 14:34
How do you sort of see that in the context of this question? Does that make you part of the community?

Ann 14:40
I don’t know, community, such a word that means everything and nothing at the same time. I think, for what it’s worth, many of our projects are folks who are trying to make change and make change against the odds in Chicago. That is a very specific thing, meaning there are many barriers to the projects, including access to capital, including various bureaucratic and government obstacles, including just like, everything is harder in communities where there hasn’t been a lot of construction and development in the last 50, 100 years. But so, I think that in the course of overcoming these obstacles, which we have to do not like within architects’ traditional like, we do the drawings, and then we give those to you, then we run away and discard all responsibility that’s not identified in the AIA Contract. Instead, we are doing a lot of personal negotiations to get through the steps it takes to bring the project into the world. And that means, calling on everybody, everybody in the office, like your friends, the people you know, the people, you know, in the end, we end up as a kind of bigger community that is, we are tied to, but our clients are tied to, and our expanded networks are tied to. So, like, I don’t think it’s fair for Craig or me to say, because we’ve done work in Garfield Park, we are now, like, from the Garfield Park community. Certainly our lives have not faced some of the kind of obstacles of folks who are residents of that neighborhood. But we are part of the community now in the sense that like we are tied by blood, sweat and tears to the folks who are doing work there.

Craig 16:28
I think that’s right.

Ana 16:30
We might go there again through a slightly different venue, but let me ask you first: your firm is fairly young as these things go, but would you say that the criteria for the work that you take and pursue, and conversely, don’t take on, changed over the course of its lifespan already? And if so, how?

Craig 16:52
Yes, absolutely. I think when we hung the sign Future Firm on our live workspace in 2015, we had, we didn’t know what we were getting into. We were fresh out of graduate school, Ann was teaching, I was on a grant doing research. We thought, like, oh, yeah, we’ll start a firm. I had just recently gotten my license. And we thought, like, oh, we want to do some building projects. How do we, how do we go about getting those projects? And who should we work for? And I think at the time, we were maybe excited to do building work. And through that excitement, took on projects that walked through the door, many of which were residential, because that is the kind of scale at which I think people will trust young architects. And I think residential as a kind of category, like single family residential, working for an owner is something that we have phased out almost completely at this point…

Ann 17:54
Because we’re so bad at it in a way!

Craig 17:56
because, well, we’re bad at it it, like it doesn’t, it is very hard, I think for us to respond to one person’s needs in an interesting way. One of Ann’s mentors made a joke about like, oh, yeah, residential, at some point, you just are counting people’s socks to figure out how much closet space they need.

Ann 18:16
And you have to, I feel like if any of our residential clients, I don’t think we’re actually bad at it. And like, I don’t think their project is going to leak. But I don’t think, their project is not going to leak or fall down. But I sense there are people who have a real point of view about tile and finishes and fixtures and dwelling space in a way that Craig and I personally really struggle to muster excitement.

Craig 18:43
Yeah, there are also really good things that came out of that phase of the practice. Office of the Public Architect being one of them, because we opened an office on the south side where there are very few architecture firms and the people that called us had building violations, which was something we didn’t, I think at the time, you don’t really know existed, and kind of opened up an idea of kind of trying to address the bigger systemic problem that produce those violations in the first place.

Ann 19:16
Yes, we say No to residential now. I mean, we’ve done some, like, single family residential for owner occupied homes. That’s a very practical way to say it. Nobody really comes to us with high end residential. So we can’t really say we’re saying No to those, but there’s something about the Future Firm ethos that people do not think we are going to design their great 1,000 square foot home in Michigan or whatever.

Craig 19:41

Ann 19:42
Sadly, I mean, maybe we could!

Craig 19:44
But it’s more we have articulated the kind of work that we want to do out loud to others, the more that work has come to the firm. We now primarily work for you nonprofits, public sector clients, some developers doing multifamily or kind of larger scale projects. But those are the things that have an impact on the city at the scale at which I think we bring better work to the table.

Ana 20:18
Here’s another, sort of, maybe it’s another client relationship question, but I wanted to see it through the night gallery. And the way in which your research on the city might have impacted the kinds of clients or client relationships you want to foster, or how these kinds of activities might be part of that continuum, right, of thinking about what projects, how you intervene in the city, how you see the city understand the city.

Ann 20:48
Yeah, I think we did Night Gallery for five years, when we were in our Bridgeport location, which was a Storefront so it was very easy to do it into the window and throw a party on the street. And then we did one year where we were out in the city, so we partnered with other small businesses who also have event organizing interests. So a barber shop on the west side, Principal Barbers and then Silver Room, our client and friend, Eric Williams, on the south side. And then we did one year in Columbus, Indiana, specifically curating things around night shift workers as part of a project for Exhibit Columbus. We really need to figure out how to do it now that we’ve moved the office to the loop. And maybe it is like some kind of metaphor about the scale of the firm that now the firm is downtown. And we’re, like, up on the third floor. We haven’t yet figured out how to throw this low-key easy party where we just buy beer and get movie candy. We need to figure out how to do it. I think we’re trying to think about how to potentially activate vacant storefronts in the loop area, which is Chicago’s downtown. Because I think it has been important for us to cultivate, to be part of trying to make a city that is more awesome at night and in the day. Yeah. And I think our clients do it too, right? I don’t know, they are, we are fellow travelers of making the city more fun for everyone. Very cheesy.

Ana 22:19
You wrote scholarly articles on redlining and building violations, you’ve speculated on the role of the architect through that lens, and you’ve taken on the architectural work that addresses violations, legalization, as well as advocacy for code transformation. So I was hoping you could tell us more about all of this ,about this dimension of work and sort of place it somehow within the the diagram of the firm for us.

Ann 22:50
I think this is where you have to share your bumper sticker idea. Again, I feel like if we say the bumper sticker idea enough, somebody will make it.

Craig 22:57
I think one of the, because we work for clients that are often approaching projects with smaller budgets, big ambitions, we have to make sure that we have everything, kind of, that we we understand the code, we understand the approach they’re taking, and that we can defend them in the field when they are building something and a field building inspector says that they want to see something else. A specific example of this is something like a sprinkler system, which at many firms, if you’re kind of on the fence, the firm will just say, Okay, put in the sprinkler system. For us, we have to kind of craft an argument that, okay, we can’t do this, we have to save some money. We’re okay with the health, safety, welfare kind of implications. And that becomes a, I think, a skill that we bring to the table to advocate for our clients when they are going through permit review, which is something that is universally despised across all Chicagoans from like the person that wants to just renovate their kitchen to the mega developer. So our colleague Kiefer and I are always kind of talking about ways that the building department could do better. All of our clients are thinking about it and Kiefer came up with a slogan: “socialists and developers agree, reform the DOB,” which is a bumper sticker we want to make.

Ann 24:22
I think, I will frame this in like, I think that, and maybe, if you, this is how I explain it to students, like, if you graduate and you work for a larger or fancier boutique firm, you will never have to deal with the permitting process because your clients, let’s say you’re working in Chicago, like in the kind of very narrow picture of Chicago, your clients will be big enough that they will go through something called developer services, so they’re not reviewed by plan reviewers who are like the, I don’t know, DOB’s frontline workers. You will, your project will have an expediter, who will assure the project through that process, you will have a fancy zoning attorney that the client paid for, you will also have, the client will also have a variety of other fancy attorneys who will help get licensing and other permits that are required. You’ll have a fancy general contractor who will have themselves fancy attorneys and staff who have deep relationships at the DOB but who also can expedite their own permits for street closures for utility service connections, etc, etc. But if you are a small business owner, and you have a cafe or a taqueria, ice cream shop or a Boba shop, you don’t have any of that, and you just have the architect who over the course of this project has also, in the case Future Firm, have become emotionally involved and cares about your project as if it is their own. So we end up doing a lot of engagement with the city. And its various delegates, who, for a range of reasons, see the projects, small projects that we work on, as always, like, trying to do the minimum, right, when actually, our clients are trying to do the maximum. And that is something that is really challenging to try to get people to change their mindset about. There is, for, institutional racism, I think is like part of the bigger story that we all reckon with. But I think actually the day-to-day issue is like bureaucratic red tape, which just gets tangled up in the stupidest ways, and developers, of a larger scale, build it into their budgets untangle that red tape. Small developers, small business owners don’t, they save all their money, $500,000 for construction costs, and that’s all they got. So I think the advocacy work were doing is like, for me, an equity issue. Even though I’m sure developers also agree that we need to kind of make the process of doing construction and development better and easier in Chicago.

Craig 27:02
Because, for the most, at the smaller end of the scale, in Chicago, that’s everything from like six-unit apartments and smaller, including build outs. When because of those challenges, we end up with the lowest common denominator. So there is, if you are a developer and you want to build a six unit, there’s one architect in town, you go to that architect, you pay him 20,000 bucks, he gives you the plans. Everyone at city review has seen the plans 8000 times so they move them right along, you get your permit right away. This person is a terrible architect, he was recently sued, and they went all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court. And in the brief, he says, oh, yeah, I kind of wing it with my structural calculations. So it is like, the restrictions in place, the kind of clamp of the bureaucracy and the red tape, the reason this is something that I think Ann and I feel strongly about is because it results in bad architecture and an uninteresting city.

Ann 28:10
Also, I feel like we’ve been on podcasts lately, where it sounds like we’re burning the DOB and DPD. And actually, for me, it is the opposite. And I just want to say this into the public realm, which is that Kiefer also did this really amazing analysis of the number of city employees and DOB and DPD versus per capita in Chicago versus other major cities, New York, Miami, LA, and we’re like 1/10 of the number. So for the folks who are working these jobs, they also have 500 projects across their desk, right, they are spread super thin, and they are also trying to mitigate risk, and that they want to make sure that they’re enforcing a safe environment. So I can understand from their perspective, they don’t have the time to get into conversation with Ann and Craig about, like, the bigger design ambitions of a project. On the other hand, if we don’t make space for that, as a city, we will just have these tragic cookie cutter buildings, mile after mile till the end, which seems like also not a good outcome.

Ana 29:10
So far, I’ve heard you say and read you say that architecture, or kind of put forward a position about architecture as advice, as advocacy, as help, as maintenance, maybe also as public discourse. And given that—but also, because I enjoy checking out how my interlocutors tend to categorize their work—on your website, I read arts and cultural, residential, retail, exhibitions and community. But rather than questioning these categories exactly, I’m interested in how you divide your work in the office and how you would describe the feedback loops between these acts. They don’t include by the way advice and activism and maintenance which I, you know, I think I’m pretty convinced exist as part of the work.

Ann 30:03
Yes, we don’t have like a healthcare studio and hospitality studio…

Ana 30:07
But even just like your hours? Like, what is the kind of ratio in a way? Or how you make these works happen?

Ann 30:17
Ah, that’s a good question.

Craig 30:20
I think it is changing. Almost, it feels like in the past 12 months, the firm has grown a lot. And that those, the way we, the way we work, the way we divide work, what Ann and I are doing in the office, day to day has also changed drastically. So there was recently a list of all the active projects in the office pinned up by Ann’s desk, and there was I think, 26 on there. And these are projects that are just starting all the way to projects that are kind of wrapping up construction administration. And from just like a very literal approach, Ann and I go down the list, and we say you’re in charge of this one Craig, Ann you’re in charge of this one, and try to divide them up and keep them even. But as we have had hired more staff and taken on more projects, I find Ann and I are doing less and less work reviewing the construction set or thinking about, like, we don’t really open the drawings anymore, we mark up the drawings and give them to the team. And I think an immense amount of our hours are actually spent on business development, going after, yeah, deciding which projects to say yes to, and also designing the infrastructure of the firm, to make sure the now nine people that work for us have all of the tools that they need.

Ann 31:49
But if you, if you think about advocacy for projects, broadly writ, like every hour from us fighting for the plumbing ACAR, to building social and cultural capital to force, to help advance things. It’s probably 5050 versus capital A Architecture.

Ana 32:13
I will ask you now something about these typologies: Do you think of these typologies that you have currently developed, regardless of where they may be going next, as typologies of clients or typologies of architecture?

Ann 32:26
Oh, I also don’t know.

Craig 32:28
I think they are typologies of architecture. I think…

Ann 32:30
That are on the website.

Craig 32:32
that we’re looking at the project and then putting it into one of those.

Ann 32:34
But I think that’s bad. I don’t think we think about the work that way. I know, I know. Well, this is like part of the, Craig, we’ve been starting to talk about expanding the firm not to like, do more, but to describe what we are doing better. And one of, we have this idea, but the kind of boutique architecture firm that I think it currently seems like we’re running into the world, is really the tip of the iceberg. And certainly, I’m sure that is the case of many other architecture firms, like, we’ve heard Mass Design Group speak about this too, right? That actually a lot of the work we’re doing is helping to put together the capital, like, helping to write the grant, helping to, you know, amass the team, and some people would call that owners rep services like under Project Management, like, developer for hire. But then Craig also is doing general contracting work. And sometimes we end up doing like a little GC work here and there in order to fill a gap. We do cost estimating, we actually do this whole array of things around the thing that we do that is, in the business sense, billable hours that are currently not being billed, but also like important services that I think we provide that we don’t share with anyone right now. So that is something that I think is important for the future.

Ana 34:05
I’ve heard you define architecture as an unexpected alignment of dozens of people around the shared idea, or at least I read this definition that you know I would like very much. But you also said early in your career as Future Firm that you are, quote, the ones that start awkwardly dancing to jumpstart the bigger party. And these images are both lovely and seem related. And do they still ring true?

Craig 34:32
I think so. I think the metaphor of awkwardly dancing. I mean, one I think there is a literal occurrence of that.

Ann 34:40
Yes, we are both awkward dancers.

Craig 34:41
Yeah. But I think all of the things that Ann just described that Future Firm does that are kind of outside of the traditional role of the architect are things that our clients needed, and to move a project forward, like, we had to jump in and start doing those, those additional tasks in order to push the project forward.

Ann 35:04
But our clients are also the awkward dancers, like, all our clients are the person who are the first, not the first, let’s say…

Ana 35:12
Party Starters

Ann 35:13
Party starters, right, there, I mean, not to say, in all these committees that we’re working on, there are a million ideas ready to get going, but they are the person who is like, “I’ll be out here with my PowerPoint deck,” you know, calling the people saying, you should invest in this, you should support this, I’ll write the grant, I’ll throw the idea out, and Future Firm will make a rendering and like with that, we’re off to the races. It takes, I think, a really specific kind of confidence to be the first awkward dancer because you look like a crazy person until other people join you. And everyone is watching you. There’s like a pressure, right? Because if other people don’t join you, then you’re just the weirdo on the dance floor.

Ana 35:54

Ann 35:56
But it works, right?

Ana 35:57
Is it confidence, or is it the ability to absorb risk?

Ann 36:04
Yes, I think sometimes it is actually not confidence from us and the, our clients, it is about, in some cases, there’s a need, right? Like somebody has to, and then in some cases, it is, like you said, a certain ability to not, to close your eyes and your ears are just jump! Which I think is risk tolerance, is a form of risk tolerance. Yeah, yeah, we just have to find like the others. We have to find the bankers with that point of view!

Craig 36:33
The thing about the bankers is that most of our clients have very sound business and financial strategies for the architecture that they want to do. And it is the, it is systemic racism.

Ann 36:33

Craig 36:48
And disinvestment in certain areas of Chicago, that, there’s reasons they’re not getting capital…

Ann 36:51
That the money isn’t coming to

Craig 36:52
It’s, there are plenty of stupid people on the north side throwing money at really…

Ann 36:57
Truly terrible projects!

Craig 36:58
Terrible projects.

Ann 37:00
I know that’s true.

Ana 37:02
Speaking of the Chicago scene, you’ve done recently, you did a great presentation on the way that you think about it, a kind of a map, and so it has the boutique firm, the big firm…. and when you describe that to the public, you also were talking about wanting to expose the workings of the firm. And maybe in the spirit of that, let’s talk to or try to relate your values, which are also listed on the website, with the projects or types of projects you have done, or more generally, tell us about how you think about getting the work that you want, the fact that you’ve gotten some of the work that you want, or…

Ann 37:45
Good question.

Craig 37:46
I think part of it started by listing the values on the website, which immediately scares some people away, that we wouldn’t want to work with. So they’d never even call, which is good.

Ann 37:58
Yeah, haha, I don’t know. I think the values, they should be a living document, and that as we get new team members, and the firm evolves, we should revisit them. And I think we don’t really actually have a good way right now of workshopping the values. On the other hand, we feel strongly about them and think that they should, in some ways, be etched in stone, like, you shouldn’t be able to toss them out of the window, just because your firm has grown or changed.

Ana 38:31
Do you think of them as oriented towards your firm or towards your client clients?

Craig 38:38
Both? Both. And I think that that is one of the hard things, too. I think that that’s one of the things that we find hard to balance because, so like, challenge the status quo, I think that means, like, challenge the status quo, that we are challenging the status quo of architecture, but it also means challenge the status quo of how architects are employed, what their working conditions look like, etc. And in order to balance that there are some projects that we have taken on, that I would say, are developer driven projects that have interesting things that the team learns from and are, are not, I think, doing bad into the world, but maybe also aren’t doing good into the world. But by taking on those projects, we have built the financial capacity to make sure that everyone that works for us has insurance. Everyone that works for us works reasonable hours. They rarely if ever work on weekends, they have kind of flexibility in their schedule. So I think trying to build that kind of culture of the way we act internally towards our employees has some relationship with the projects that we ended up taking.

Ann 39:58
I think, yes, I think it is hard, but I think it’s the right way to do it. I mean, we once told the team this thing, Ana, that Gediminas told me when I started working for him, which is bite the hand that feeds. And so we told them that, and then like now we have a Zoom chat channel for like office standards. And the team like made the sub, like description of it bite the hand that feeds and I immediately had this reaction, I was like, what I said, I didn’t mean me! I didn’t mean like, critique, but like they do in a way that is challenging, but I think makes us all better. So that is like, I think the hard balance, which is like if we are going to act this way into the world, we also recognize that we have to act that way in the firm as well. And that means challenging our own process and what we do and the things we take on. But I think it makes us a better firm in the long run. I think that is challenging. But yes, when we mean bite the hand that feeds like, I mean, like with our clients, we will be biting the larger hand that feeds not we will be you know, holding our clients’ feet to the fire. But sometimes we do, I’d say for the most part, like, we feel very firmly that we are learning from our clients. So we rarely challenge them in quite the way that we would challenge the city or a funder or something like that.

Ana 41:18
I do want to keep probing a little bit the kind of procedures in the office, I saw the design manual that you also presented at the same event in which the architecture scene gets drawn, which seemed like a super important tool for thinking about values and design and how those intersect in the office. And that seemed very specifically oriented towards the office. So I’m assuming that you also have procedures in which your, or for events or ways by which you might be challenged by your office. But so the question is, do you have procedures in place by which you both expose the office to the realities of running the office? And also invite the team to think collectively about commissions that you will and will not take?

Ann 42:04
I think there’s many parts of that. I think yes, we have been trying to design the firm as itself a design project. And that means we are probably like really painfully slow on things, like it took us a very long time to reissue the handbook because first we had…

Craig 42:19
The employee handbook.

Ann 42:20
because at first we had just this handbook that we bought from like an HR lady in the suburbs (laughing) I’m sorry, that had all this like generic language in it and what we finally read it, I was like, this is bonkers. There was one bullet point that was like, endeavor not to commit crimes. And I was like, Okay, at the very least we can say like, do not commit crimes… anyway. We had to delete a lot of stuff because it just was totally unrelated to the culture. But then when we started rewriting it, and this is like the project of Office US, of course it became very complicated. It was like, Okay, we can’t write a dissertation around photocopying, which, like, yes, somebody did for Office US manual. On the other hand, we should think critically about all the pieces of this. So we’ve tried to, we call them the good books, but there are like a few different things that define the firm. And we’ve tried to like, interrogate each one of them in sequence. So the employee handbook, the design manual, which includes technical standards, but also like QuickBooks and T sheets, like how we do accounting of the firm’s time and our hours and things like that. We’ve tried to interrogate those critically and continue to. But for the go/no go, I mean, we have a matrix and I think partially inspired by this podcast, because we’re, we need to just like put down what we think are the things, so as a team in the old office, we did that. And it’s like a matrix of four… Yeah, I know, I’m also looking for it, four chunks, like one is does it align with Future Firm’s interests and vision? It has like a little lightning bolt emoji. There’s another one that is, do we have the expertise to do this? Or can we put together the team? And there’s another one that is like, do we have the capacity to do in terms of schedule and then there is another one is it profitable? And it has like the little money flying away emoji. And I think that we try to hit, if we do, if it hits three, we do it. If it hits four, we definitely do it. If it hits two, then we debate. And those are, that’s the kind of structure because if it’s like really profitable and we have the expertise, but it totally does not align with the mission… and we’re stretched on the capacity, that to me is a potential No go.

Craig 43:29
I think there are other small things too, like we have a go/ no go meeting with me and the folks that are like, kind of categorized as project architects, and we have a Monday meeting with the entire firm, that we always end by saying, what do you all need? Or like, what kind of things can we change? So it’s kind of an open conversation about who’s working on what and what supplies they need to get, get the job done. Usually, it’s a lot of reminding me to buy copy paper.

Ana 44:02
Is the matrix weighed? Some topics are prioritized in it?

Craig 44:16
No, they’re even.

Ana 44:20
So, you know, I thought when I sat down to talk to you, I thought you were still a firm of four to six. But now that I know you’re a form of nine…

Ann 44:48
I think we’re out of 10,

Craig 44:50
We’re a firm of 11.

Ann 45:04
Yeah, we are a firm of 11.

Craig 45:18
Counting Ann and me.

Ann 45:18
Philana started today, actually. Welcome, Philana!

Ana 45:21
So given that, I was going to ask you about the size of the firm and how you thought about the size being commensurate with types of commissions. But I’m interested both in that question now and also in the way in which it affects these decisions of go, no go.

Ann 45:40
The big goals are, the big goals are: everybody goes home on time, everyone makes good money, and we work on great projects. And often it feels like we have to choose two out of three, right? Like, I think that our hours are good, but they’re not great. When it comes to grant deadlines in the city, everyone is like pushing really hard. I think that because we err on the side of taking on more work than we have capacity for than less. We’ve never had to layoff, and I’m not saying it won’t happen in the future. But we are extremely proud that we’ve never had to layoff, but it means that sometimes there’s more heat on the team, because we have over-extended in terms of the work we take on. I want to bring up how much money everyone is making so that people don’t feel like they have to choose between going to a firm that does boring, stable projects and makes money and a firm that does interesting projects with change makers, and potentially makes less money, and we know this very realistically from when we try to bring good people from big firms, that they are very honest with us that they are taking pay cuts to come work with us. And yet, we cannot overburden the community driven projects that have very limited budgets, right, it’s one thing for a project with $50 million to have a 12% fee, if you have a $500,000 project and like that’s all the money you cannot over, you cannot, the fee cannot exceed what is left for construction. So we have to balance. And yet, I don’t want any of our clients that we take on to feel that like we are taking them on to subsidize other projects, as we don’t do that. Each project really has to find a way to work efficiently so that each project pays for itself, that we have the stability as a whole to advance our little ship without sinking. Yeah, I mean, to me, I’m also thinking as a young firm it also has to do with access to capital, right? Somebody asked me if you had 500k in the bank that was just there, no strings attached, what kind of new risks would you take? And that sung in in a way that was very real, which is, I do you think future firm is fairly risk tolerant, actually. But yeah, if I had, if we had a million dollars in the bank that we knew no matter what would be there, and that we could weather more downs and ups, not to say like we wouldn’t pay it back into the bank, right. But if we had that, yeah, like the world would be really different. Right now, we have to, I feel like we maintain this tenuous little balance so that we can all continue continuing.

Craig 47:35
And, I think for Ann and I, that is some of the things that the design manual and the design framework are trying to do, which is, give some parameters to what the team works on. So that hopefully we can execute things in a more efficient way. When Ann and I were working at SOM there were many times where someone was just like, come up with, you know, three tower schemes for the site. And it was like, “okay, what are the parameters?” and they’re like, I don’t know, like 30 with 9-meter column spacing. Like, that’s it. And so you had spent like hours going in circles trying to figure out what the ambition of this project was. Whereas now we kind of define for the team, like, here’s the things that Future Firm’s interested. And here’s the process that we think we can go through to do this efficiently. And here’s the things that the client is interested in. And I hope that that results in things moving a little faster and still producing really good design.

Ana 49:24
I have two small questions and the bigger one left. So let me just give them to you. So one is, did you have a chance to regret taking or not taking a commission?

Craig 49:41
I can think of two examples of early projects that I really regret taking. One was a residential client that we just did like hours and hours of work for ,and he was like perpetually disappointed with us. And it was so early in the firm that I kept being like, what are we like, I know that we’re not bad architects, I hope we’re not bad architects, so how are we screwing this up so bad? And in hindsight, it was that that person wanted to do this addition to their house for like $5. And that we could not…

Ann 50:14
We couldn’t do magic.

Craig 50:15
And we could not do magic to make this happen.

Ann 50:17
And they were disappointed. Now, we would just say so.

Craig 50:21
There was, and then there’s a proposal that I deeply regret putting together, that we didn’t actually get the project. But this doctor called us he wanted to do…

Ann 50:32
Its always residential!

Craig 50:32
… he wanted to do a renovation of a house in, in the Gold Coast, like, you know, very nice neighborhood in Chicago. And I was like, Okay, I’m gonna, I’ll come take a look at it. He gave me a tour of this busted gray stone that he wanted to renovate. And, on the way out the door, he looked at me, and he said, Now make sure that your fee is competitive. Because $10,000 I don’t spend on you is $10,000 I can put towards a really nice tub. I was like, that was rude! And then I still put together the proposal, which in hindsight was, it was a bad idea, and send it to him and it was for some ridiculously small amount of money. It was for like, I don’t know, I think $35,000, or something…

Ann 50:33
For like a, 10 million dollar space…

Craig 50:33
to renovate a three-story house, I don’t think $10 million, but it was small. And he wrote back and he was just like, This is outrageous, I would never pay an architect this much! I’m a doctor, I could have introduced you to all my other doctor friends, you made a big mistake, not giving me a better proposal. And it just like, I, I don’t know…

Ana 51:43
I get it.

Craig 51:44
At that moment. I was like, “Oh, my God, we have entered this profession that is totally a dead end, what are we going to do?!”

Ann 51:49
I think Craig felt very forlorn after this: the Future Firm is not gonna work! And I was like, you’re right, we’ll just focus on teaching! Have I, this maybe isn’t one that I regret, but we pursued a project that I actually think we would have done a great job at, which was also a partnership with a bigger firm that I think required a diverse component to their team. And the pursuit was good. I actually think the team was great. But then when we went to the interview, I had to meet with the CEO of this big firm company, because they were like, it’ll be weird if Ann and this guy have never met each other, they’re interviewing. So we have coffee, and I’m like, Oh, how you doing? He’s like, “oh, yeah, I’ve been traveling around, I’m so busy and exhausted. Because you know, I have to check on all the correctional projects.” I was like, what are you talking about? He’s like, you know, like our bread and butter. We don’t show it on the website, like our bread and butter is prisons. I was like, are you kidding me? We got like, we just wasted, for a small firm to pursue a project, that is investment of 1000s of dollars of our time. I was like, and you’re blindsiding me over coffee, five minutes before we go into this interview, that your bread and butter is prisons?! And I would have never, never said yes to that in the beginning. It just felt like, that it was like you’re going to prom in the interview with this person who like, in your heart, you’re just like, F it. I would say, that one, I don’t know, I still think we would have done a good job. But I felt the wool pulled over my eyes on that one. And I regretted it.

Ana 53:21
So I’ve been dwelling on an, on another definition of architecture that you’ve already shared with the public or maybe a definition of architecture’s agency as a discipline, or architects’ agency as individuals. And it may be worth quoting you in full. You said: we believe the agency of architecture as a discipline and as a practice emerges from first the ability of architects to visualize vibrant new futures, which responds to urgent ecological, political, and economic crisis. Second, from architects’ unique skill at manipulating the extremely complex technical, bureaucratic, and material conditions through which we can manifest those new futures. And then you say, as a discipline, we need to energetically take up this agency and not spend all our time insuring ourselves against it. And I thought you should comment on these points. And maybe, given them, tell us about the conditions in which you do your best work or would prefer to do your work. And by conditions, I mean, you know, circumstances of practice.

Ann 54:23
I think we feel different about insurance now, ha. I do feel like we have more insurance. Um, what do I think? Do you have a thought?

Craig 54:37
No, you go first.

Ann 54:40
I think that we feel and this maybe goes back to the question of like, how do we put a name to all the things we do, which is that if you look at the AIA contracts for the letter, they work very hard to circumscribe the extent of an architect’s agency. And I think we’ve seen in the projects that we’ve worked on that, if we were to hold to that limit, we would never get the projects done that really need to happen to make Chicago or any city facing inequality, which is anyone, better, right? And sometimes we are reminded of this when folks join the firm, and they come from larger firms. And they’re, they’ll say, like, should we be doing this? This isn’t in our scope, or like, hey, this takes on a lot of risk, or, you know, shouldn’t that be the owner who’s doing that, or whatever, or like, why… and Craig and I, I think, are self-conscious about it, because we’re wondering if some of it comes from us having been scrappy. On the other hand, if we project this at a bigger scale, not just our firm, if we as architects collectively decided that we could take on more risk, but on behalf of things that are going to make the city better, I think more change could happen faster, that that is important. The flip side of that is what we talked about before, which is risk. Now it’s not just us, it was very easy when it was just us two, to make, to take bigger risks. Now it is the bigger firm, and it is our kid. And suddenly we feel less, I feel, I can already feel that weighing on how I engage risky conditions that deviate from how other architects would describe the standard of care, broadly writ. And so I think that is the thing that is really tricky, how do we maintain our ability to fight in the way that we know needs to happen, but without putting the team and their families and our family at a risk of losing our jobs or our paychecks. And that is about insurance.

Craig 56:56
I think, we were once at an event with Stanley Tigerman where he was kind of emphatically talking about the discipline versus the profession. And, and I think that, within the, and he had this kind of narrow definition as the profession as people that were out making money off of architecture and the discipline as kind of architecture broadly writ. And for me, this was in the context of, within the discipline of architecture, we are often talking about how we can expand the definition of what architecture is and how architecture can address many other issues. Within the profession of architecture, we are constantly narrowing it, the architect is doing less and less. And I think specific examples of this are in, for instance, in affordable housing, we’re doing an affordable housing with Brian Lee, an affordable housing studio with Brian Lee from SOM at IIT right now. And one of the like, offhand comments Brian made is developers, they’ll tell you all the time that the corridor has to be five foot six, there’s no other dimension for a corridor and affordable housing. And there are these kinds of small things that the architect has basically become a stenographer for the developers pro forma. And they say we want it to be five over one, we want it to have this many bedrooms, and this many bathrooms and bedrooms have to be exactly the minimum square footage of the state requirements. And the hallway has to be five foot six. And you kind of get to this point where it’s like, what do you need the architect for? What are we even doing? What are we doing here? But I think that this is because architects have tried to eliminate and narrow their their risk, the kind of work that they are willing to do, that, items that they are willing to engage. And by doing that, by narrowing what the profession will do, we have narrowed the architect as a profession to something that feels sometimes like it almost doesn’t exist anymore. So I think part of the reason that Future Firm takes on this additional risk, engages with our clients in this more robust way is simply because Ann and I want to feel like architecture is doing something and we don’t want to be bored out of our mind at our jobs. And I hope that the profession of architecture can look at the discipline, broadening the definition and start to pull some things back in. Construction administration services would be like a good place to start.

Ana 59:29
Alright, is there anything else you would like to put on the record?

Ann 59:35
I don’t think so…

Ana 59:40
Now is the time!

Ann 59:42
I don’t think so. I think we are inspired by this podcast in that it has challenged us to articulate better the things we say No to, and, yeah, I sense it will do the same for other firms as well.

Ana 1:00:02
Well, that is great to hear. So, Ann and Craig, thank you very much for talking to me today. And listeners, thank you for listening to this episode of I Would Prefer Not To.