Nurturing a passion for healthcare

May 01, 2007 |

The description “large niche firm” may seem like an oxymoron, but 360-employee architecture firm Anshen+Allen certainly qualifies as such. Ninety percent of its work is in healthcare, the rest in higher education, including research facilities.

Listed as 16th among architecture “Giants” by Building Design+Constructionin 2006 (with $37.7 million in revenues for 2005), A+A now reports $50 million in fees for its U.S. operations and $26 million from international work out of its London office. Among its recent big wins: a multinational competition for the $1.3 billion hospital at Mission Bay for the University of California, San Francisco.

The firm was founded in 1940 by Modernists Robert Anshen and Steve Allen primarily to do residential work, but over the years it transformed itself into a world-class healthcare and academic design practice. Former CEO Derek Parker, FAIA, co-founded the Center for Health Design, known for its Pebble Projects, which laid the groundwork for “evidence-based design”—using design to create measurable improvements in patient outcomes.

For society's betterment

Anshen+Allen's stated mission is “to utilize our talent for the betterment of society—to contribute in positive and meaningful ways.” Its dedication to what it calls the “social impact” of its work in “healing, learning, and discovery” is a powerful magnet that draws socially aware professionals to the firm.

“Most people know about us when they come here,” says Roger Swanson, AIA, chairman and CEO. “Our experience says that, number one, they want to work on exciting problems. Our people are focused on raising the whole tide of healthcare design. It's important work that resonates with people.”

A 100-foot "design process wall" was part of an eight-hour workshop and charrette Anshen+Allen hosted (with associate firm WM+P) in an effort to win the $1.3 billion competition for a new hospital for the University of California, San Francisco.

The firm cultivates creativity in many ways. The Patterson Travel Study Fellowship, given annually in memory of a late colleague, John M. Patterson, AIA, enables an employee to take two weeks' paid leave (and up to $3,150 in expenses) to travel and pursue self-directed professional study. Winners are selected on the basis of the importance of their subject to the design community, its potential lasting benefit to others, its relevance to the firm's needs, and—most importantly—the applicant's passion for and commitment to the project.

“[The award] gave me the opportunity to follow a passion for healing gardens and alternative methods of healing based in nature, gardens, and horticulture,” says Ian Lawlor, a 2004 recipient, who studied healing gardens throughout England. “This forced me to learn more, see more, and then bring it back to the office in order to present what I had experienced and influence others.” Lawlor says his experience encouraged him to push for a healing garden for Alzheimer's/dementia patients in one of his health center projects.

The 2005 winner, Karsten Bastien, traveled to Bolivia to work on several building projects with the people of a mountain village. He donated some of his expense money to purchase active solar panels for some families to have electricity in their homes.

Seeking a balanced lifestyle

The firm helps employees strike a healthy work/life balance. Officially, the firm has nine-hour workdays, with every other Friday off. A+A allows flexible work schedules, reduced hours, and telecommuting options so that working parents or other caregivers can attend to family matters.

This sensitivity to work/life balance can be traced in part to the large percentage of women in the firm, Swanson says. Anshen+Allen is 44% women-owned; its total workforce is 34% female, with 25% of upper management represented by women.

The practice's diversity extends as well to minorities, who comprise one-third of the workforce. As a recruitment tool, A+A hosts design lectures (given by its employees) at several historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs): Hampton, Howard, Morgan State, and Southern. For the last few years, 70% of its interns have been from minority groups.

The firm actively supports the National Organization of Minority Architects. Last year, it sponsored NOMA's national conference, as well as a student competition for minority designers, in which Anshen+Allen volunteers made presentations and served on the judging panel.

“Being a minority myself, one of the reasons that I was attracted to the firm was that it seemed to have little or no barriers,” says George Powell, principal in charge of human resources and risk management. “It has also allowed me to be involved in diversity and inclusiveness in the practice and in the community.”

Extending its 'social impact'

The firm offers strong support to community outreach and charitable programs. Employees can receive paid time off for civic activities. “Our office is located in one of the most troubled areas of San Francisco,” says Powell, referring to the Tenderloin neighborhood surrounding its 901 Market Street location, which is known for its history of drug use and prostitution. He says many employees volunteer with neighborhood organizations that assist the homeless, and some are involved with local youth organizations.

This year, some of the designers are participating in Pets Are Wonderful Support, a program that provides animal companions for AIDS patients and the elderly. PAWS raises money by auctioning off pet habitats designed by local architects. Young Anshen+Allen designers are participating this year, giving them the opportunity to design and lead their own projects while helping to raise money for the charity.

Motivating the troops

“People work for money, but it's not the main motivator,” Swanson says. “It's usually the fourth or fifth thing you see in surveys. But we want to make sure compensation is never an issue.” The firm studies industry surveys to stay current and adjusts its pay scales accordingly.

The firm has a generous bonus plan, with quarterly payouts. Nine percent of each project's profit is set aside for bonuses to those who worked on the project, based on the number of hours worked on the project. The firm also awards twice-yearly discretionary bonuses to employees for exceptional performance outside project work. More than half of Anshen+Allen's annual profits go to employees other than principals.

Powell also points to the many “boomerangs”—employees who return to the firm after stints elsewhere—as evidence of the firm's welcoming atmosphere. Firm CEO Swanson is himself a “triple boomerang.”

The Anshen+Allen formula is working. Over the past decade, the firm has doubled in size, from $25 million to $50 million domestically and $76 million globally. Employees seem to be attracted to this success and the firm's strategic vision.

“Trust, opportunity, and passion for creativity are what I see at Anshen+Allen, and that keeps me here,” says designer Andrew Fisher. “It is a rare talent to see the future and adapt without difficulty. The few people that I have known who possess this insight all are affiliated with Anshen+Allen in some way.”

Overlay Init