Architectural Startup: Gregg Pasquarelli | James Petty | pettydesign

In the Fall of 2013, I sat down with Gregg Pasquarelli (SHoP), Brad Cloepfil (Allied Works), Paul Lewis (Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis Architects), Dan Wood (Work.AC), and Stephen Cassell (Architecture Research Office). I wanted to understand and document how each of them formed their respective offices. I was after the nitty gritty details not typically published in the glossy magazines. I was looking for the hard times, the struggle, and the projects that were never published, but paid the bills. This interview is part of a series of 5 posts that will go through each of these architects and discuss the these topics.

Gregg Pasquarelli is a founding partner of SHoP architects. What initially began as a side project between Gregg and his now partners (including his wife) has turned into one of the most successful and now larger design studios in New York. More information on SHoP can be found on their site.

Architectural Startup: Gregg Pasquarelli | James Petty | pettydesign

Gregg Pasquarelli: When we graduated, it was basically a recession. We decided that there was some jobs you could take at offices, but none of them were ones we were interested in working at. So we did whatever we could. We had a large communal space, two of them actually. Ed Keller and Jack Phillips and I had a loft downtown. Bill and Chris and Corey Sharples had a loft in Midtown.

James Petty: Did the Sharples have their own office at that time?

GP: We basically had places that we lived that we slept in. They were open giant spaces that we had desks in. Those were the offices. We basically did whatever we could. We would do things like measuring as-built drawings for our professors or other architects to even building models for them. We even ghost wrote chapters in books and put together RFPs, even kitchen renovations for friends of friend’s mothers in apartments in the West side. Whatever we could do to do these little jobs and keep the rent going. It was never under the auspices of an office. But what we had was an office that we did competitions for. So we would do all of these pick-up jobs for cash flow and then together in different configurations between all of the graduates. One competition might be the eight of us. You would be doing your job to pay shit, but then at night, you would work on the competition. Each time it just reconfigured into a different group of people.

JP: Doing this all simultaneously must have taken up your entire life.

GP: Yeah. That was great. We did that, and we rendered for people. We did whatever we could, some crazy projects. Kim and I built a scaled model of the tenement building that the Grand Rebbe of the Lebonature of the Jewish sect was born and would be put into a temple in Australia. You know, bazaar stuff. Where we got paid $3,000 and could live for four months on that. So that was all we did. All of those jobs were the kinds of ones where people would say, “well, I’m not doing a suburban bath or kitchen.” But we learned how to win a project. We learned how to sign a contract. Put a proposal together. How to build. How to collect. How to deal with the contractors. We were doing all of these little projects, but none of which we felt were part of our “offices.” But they funded thinking. They taught us how to actually practice. Then we would do competitions and we started placing in them. We started doing well.

JP: The Mitchell Park was the first one that you got. Did that help fund an actual establishment?

GP: Absolutely. Then Gregg [Lynn] got the Korean Presbyterian Church project and asked me to be a project manager. So then we had a real full-time job. But we were doing competitions with Gregg; we were doing competitions of our own.

JP: That was at the same time as Mitchell Park?

GP: No, this was before Mitchell Park. I had a full-time job then, and then Bernard [Tsumi] asked me to start teaching. I was building Gregg’s church, teaching three days a week and then at night doing competitions with the Sharples. It kept going like that for years, probably five-years. Then the Sharples got Greenport. Kim and I worked for Gregg. When we finished the CDs and the building went on construction, I went on site as the full-time manager, and Kim took a job doing SCA school projects. Then once the Sharples got Greenport, Kim quit that job since she didn’t know how to put CDs together. So we started that and I would come in and help at night. Eventually that was enough of a project. Then I brought in a few things such as Casa National and a couple of little stores. We had enough that we didn’t have to work for anyone else. But it was about a five-year period of a sort of dove-tale. We were never funded. We started the firm with zero capitalization. If we wanted a computer, we had to buy it with a personal credit card. If you needed a chair, you had to save up for three months to get a chair. We used a zip-disk instead of a network. We just figured it out. Over the next few years, literally every cent we made went into building the infrastructure of the office.

JP: When do you feel like that infrastructure was really into place?

GP: Well it was still pretty small when we were on 32nd street in a 2,000 sq. ft. loft. We were about 15 people and that was all that could fit there. We seemed to be getting a lot more jobs. Things were starting to come together. So we signed the lease here. We moved into this place with 16 people. It was where is now the entry of our current office. We had 24 desks. This was exactly nine and a half years ago since our ten-year lease ends in February. I remember saying to Cory, “Wow, we’re 16 and there are 24 desks. Do you think we will ever fill up the 24 desks before the lease is over?” Now we’re over 150. Literally as every space on this floor became vacant, we took it. Which is why this place is now a labyrinth. Now we are building out a new space across the street and we have taken like 34,000 feet and building out a mega-office. It is really coming together. I think the big jump was from that loft where everything was off of our credit cards and where we were just trying to make it happen to coming here where we went to a bank and got a loan. By then we had contracts and we had a proven track record and we could borrow half a million dollars. Which seemed like an immense amount of money. Now we are talking about borrowing $10,000,000 to build out the new office. That was when it really started changing. That’s when we began to build a really great network and servers. We were able to buy the real Mies chairs. We just continued to build things. But I don’t think we took a distribution, a profit, for a long time. Every cent that the office made just went back into the office. We continued to build it. It’s a huge expense to do all of this stuff. Architecture is a pretty low-margin business. It can be tough. You want to build out half a million worth of office, that means you would have had to have billed five million dollars in fees. So it’s hard. Think about going out as a young guy and getting five million dollars in contracts. That’s what it takes. And doing it right and collecting all the money. Just to invest half-a-mill in an office, which doesn’t go very far. It is a real struggle up the food chain.

JP: Were you guys still teaching at the time? Did you use that to help fund some of it?

GP: Yup. The teaching took care of our home and personal stuff. The office paid everyone and the partners always got paid last, if we ever got paid. Usually there was something left and we would say, “we could each take $5k or we could buy a 3D printer.” We would always go with the 3D Printer. You have to remember. In 2001, SOM didn’t have a 3D printer, but SHoP did. We were only twelve people.

JP: Do you feel like your time with Gregg Lynn helped you push technology as an important factor in staying new and fresh?

GP: Absolutely. I did a summer internship at Frank Gehry’s office. Watching him work on Disney Hall and Bilbao was very informative for me. Working with Gregg while he was learning software and writing Blob essays. I think the thing that differentiated us was when I went out and had to build the Korean Presbyterian Church with a fairly unskilled labor force trying to build a very complicated building on a very tight budget, I had to really think about how one draws buildings that were to be made. I think that’s why we always had a very strong sense of making. If we were just going to make beautiful objects and hand it off, they would be value engineered or the projects would die. If we went in with highly explicit instructions sets on how to make it, we could convince the contractors that it wasn’t that complicated. Then we could get it built. There is literally a direct trajectory with that and the risk taking that we did with the development stuff, which gave us the freedom to test things on a bigger scale like the Porter House.

JP: You mentioned last year in an impromptu talk at the Yale School of Architecture that risk was something you have to take on as a firm to go from a little office to go after the work that the bigger offices were working on. You used the risk taken with the Porter House to help you guys make that jump. Could you talk about that?

GP: We kept realizing that we were being really smart about how we were both designing and making things that were affordable while at the same time making our clients a lot of money. So why shouldn’t we partake in the upside if we were really smart. The only way to do that is to take a risk. We risked everything we had as a firm and put it into the deal. That generated enough revenue to help fund the next level of growth.

JP: Were you putting in actual equity along with sweet equity?

GP: Yes, both.

JP: Are you guys continuing to do that?

GP: We haven’t in the last few years because we haven’t found the right opportunity. But we would absolutely do that if the right opportunity came along.

JP: You have really documented well how that is a very viable source of finance for architects at the moment which ten years ago was not a thing. Outside of developing, you guys have a few more ventures going on as well. We all know SHoP construction, but are you guys writing software now as well?

GP: We have a product called Envelope, which is a zoning mapping and analysis tool. You can enter in an address and it analyzes what available air rights exist and what can be built.

JP: Were these set up as separate businesses, which run, profit and take responsibility in terms of risk for themselves?

GP: Yes.

JP: What about your life balance? When you started out, everything was a twenty-four hour job, between the teaching, working for Gregg Lynn and getting SHoP off the ground. How is it now that you have an established firm? Has the workload eased up?

GP: It has not let up at all. I think I have worked harder in the last six months than I ever had in my career. It is intense. If you ever let down the partnership, the quality really starts to go. You have to be fully on. It’s full on forever. But it is fun. This I what I had dreamt of and what we all had hoped could happen. We never knew if it would. We’re pulling off serious architecture in what not be the traditional realms, government, institutional and even developer type stuff.

JP: Does SHoP try to keep the work diversified to avoid being too much into one particular field?

GP: Absolutely. We try very hard to curate along with the diversity of the office. The office culture is a project of itself. And you have to attend to it just as if you are attending to a multi-million dollar project. We don’t run like a corporate office and it doesn’t run like a boutique studio either. It’s just fun. It’s the place I want to be.

JP: It seems like a lot of young architects get stuck in the rhetoric of doing small renovations or small kitchens in New York. How did SHoP stay out?

GP: You have to go after both. You don’t want to be an expert in anything. You have to continue to challenge yourself. To this day, I still have people tell me, “well you haven’t done so and so.” My response is always the same. “Every project we just showed you, we were totally unqualified to do. Get over it.” We had never done a sports arena before, and what would be really easy for us right now is to do four more sports arenas. They have been offered, and we’re not taking them. But what is more challenging is to go after different realms. We have to go after as many different things as possible no matter what we do, and it is hard.

If you enjoyed this interview, take a look at some of the other interviews in this series:
Brad Cloepfil (Allied Works)
Paul Lewis (Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis Architects)
Dan Wood (Work.AC)
Stephen Cassell (Architecture Research Office)

About pettydesign

James Petty is an American architect experiencing and contributing to the Yale School of Architecture.