The ANACAPA team. Image courtesy of ANACAPA.
Defining a sustainable and healthy firm culture is essential for any design practice. Besides creating a robust portfolio and showcasing design expertise to execute projects, fostering a collaborative workplace comes down to firm leadership, team expectations, and opportunities for transparent communication. For architect Dan Weber, an important factor when running a design practice is listening to the team and valuing quality over quantity.
Weber is the founder and principal architect of Santa Barbara-based practice ANACAPA. Nestled along the coast of Southern California, the firm’s robust portfolio of custom residential, creative offices, and urban infill projects has garnered them notoriety within the industry. So what helps this 19-person team flourish? As Weber explains: “The original and ongoing intention with ANACAPA is to create a lasting company that is firm in its roots and represents something more significant than just its founder.”
In this latest edition of Archinect’s Studio Snapshot series, Weber provides insight into how his firm hopes to grow as well as redefine office expectations and collaborations. We dive into the firm’s history, discuss how their office is structured, and how Weber and his team nourish a healthy office culture.
Can you tell us how ANACAPA was founded?
ANACAPA found its roots as Dan Weber Architecture in 2010. Back then, it was just me in a small warehouse space off Anacapa Street in Santa Barbara (in the heart of the Funk Zone for those familiar with the area). The company eventually reached a point where I felt the business was outgrowing just me. I decided to restructure and rebrand the firm as something new. In 2016, we launched as ANACAPA Architecture and haven’t looked back. The original and ongoing intention with ANACAPA is to create a lasting company that is firm in its roots and represents something more significant than just its founder.
How many people are currently employed at the firm? How is your office structured?
We currently have a team of 19 people. Which is crazy to think about considering at the start of the pandemic, we had a team of just 9. At that point, we had our worries about the implications of Covid and the impacts it was having on businesses everywhere. Through it all, we were extremely fortunate to have had steady growth in our team and business. Our team is now made up of 16 talented architects and designers along with a stellar team of 3 people that handle our day-to-day marketing, finances, and operations.
Our design team follows a relatively standard structure. I, along with Geoff April (Partner and Director of Design) provide design oversight to our team of project architects, interior designers, and support design staff. What is unique about our process is how we operate as a collaborative — everyone has a design voice worth hearing. This is exemplified through our weekly design critiques where projects are presented and receive input from an internal jury as well as our entire team. We pride ourselves on maintaining and nurturing this collaborative environment with team members supporting each other in a wide variety of projects and typologies.
You have offices in Santa Barbara, California, and Portland, Oregon. Can you talk about the biggest benefits and challenges for a small to medium-size firm maintaining operations in two states?
We absolutely love having offices in Portland and Santa Barbara — it gives us a wider diversity of team members, design styles, and projects. The opportunity to work on projects outside of our immediate vicinity challenges us to constantly think creatively and be active problem solvers. Because our team works on projects in both locations, we found that the unique perspectives and “out of the box” thinking are extremely valuable to us as a design firm. Every member of our team views and approaches problems differently, which we’ve found to be particularly effective in creating the most innovative design solutions.
Although our team is capable of traveling to necessary site visits, the accompanying logistics can be troublesome to manage. Scheduling, flights, hotels, car rentals, etc. are all added factors when planning a site visit across state lines. On top of that, spontaneous site visits can be very difficult because of the necessary travel and arrangements. Although we’ve managed to keep projects progressing and clients satisfied, this continues to be a small logistical challenge we face.
What is unique about our process is how we operate as a collaborative — everyone has a design voice worth hearing. — Dan Weber, Founder & Principal Architect
Something that has proven to be both a benefit and challenge is virtual meetings. Although our transition to work from home was uncomplicated because of our existing infrastructure for remote collaboration, we’ve found Zoom to be a bit of a double-edged sword. Being able to share ideas, documents, or plans with anyone regardless of location is a convenience as well as the lack of travel time associated with in-person meetings.
However, the constant scheduling of consecutive meetings can cause a bit of Zoom fatigue. Additionally, virtual meetings challenge our collaborative process, which is a pillar of the way we operate. Ease of accessibility to one another is extremely important to us and although tools like Zoom offer a great way of communicating virtually, it’s still unable to replicate the energy and excitement of gathering with our team.
Would you like to scale up and grow your team? What do you consider the ideal size for your practice?
I can’t say there is an ideal size for ANACAPA. I can say we plan to grow our team to 24 people this year, which is very exciting. The “ideal” size of our firm is an ongoing conversation — we take our hiring effort very seriously. Identifying potential team members that are both talented and a cultural fit for our office is our primary objective. Ideally, we would like to keep a tight-knit team of amazing talent, the challenge will be retaining our culture as project demands and staffing needs grow. In short, quality over quantity!
Describe your office culture. How do you nourish it?
Community and fun are at the forefront of ANACAPA. We highly value one another, trust one another, and welcome open discussion. We love to have fun and that stems from our team. We are full of energy, excitement, and passion for the work we do every day. Even after spending countless hours with one another, we still enjoy each other’s company outside of work. After hours, you might catch us at our local bar, the Pickle Room (probably still talking about design).
Our culture of fun and collaboration is cultivated in multiple ways. Beyond the obvious factor of our amazing team, our weekly design critiques are fundamental to our culture. We all gather with a few drinks, and a project manager presents one of their projects to a jury of their colleagues. We have a discussion on the project’s successes and shortcomings, no matter the scale or type of project. No hurt feelings, just our team pushing one another to higher standards of innovation, design communication, and creativity.
… our weekly design critiques are fundamental to our culture […] Our weekly crit instills trust, confidence, and open communication amongst our team, emphasizing the fact that all our designers have a voice that will be not only be heard but also appreciated.
We use this time to recognize the great work our team produces and where we can improve as designers, a company, and individuals. Our weekly crit instills trust, confidence, and open communication amongst our team, emphasizing the fact that all our designers have a voice that will be not only be heard but also appreciated.
Ultimately our office culture has been established and nourished by our team. We believe in transparency and including the whole team in crafting the future and vision of ANACAPA. We hold an annual team retreat that gives us the opportunity to come together to reflect on the past year and establish our collective goals for the future. We’re lucky to have assembled this fantastic team and can’t wait to see where we go from here!
Describe your work. How do you define your own unique style and approach?
On a very basic level, our ‘style’ is minimal and intentional. We do not over-design, rather we focus on our client’s desires and translate that into our own design language and aesthetic. We keep a strong emphasis on connection to the surrounding nature. Being based in Santa Barbara, we have one of the greatest opportunities for connecting the outdoors to the built environment. Minimal rain and wind, moderate temperatures, and a lack of bugs really make the idea of “indoor-outdoor living” a year-round reality here. Because of the amazing natural settings we have the privilege of working in, we strongly prioritize creating a solid connection to the surrounding context while minimizing the environmental impact. Our approach is ultimately driven by a holistic understanding of our clients, a deep appreciation for our natural surroundings, and constantly striving for design excellence.
What have been the biggest hurdles in starting and running your own practice?
Time. Creating time for projects, clients, our team, and my own personal life has been an ongoing challenge. To be involved in all our projects as well as the day-to-day operations of our team requires meticulous time management. As our company grows, it becomes difficult for me to be involved in everything to the degree I would like. This is an adjustment I have made and continue to be aware of as ANACAPA grows.
On a very basic level, our ‘style’ is minimal and intentional [..] We keep a strong emphasis on connection to the surrounding nature.
Luckily with the growth of our team, I have been able to trust and delegate to our talented staff. Although I would love to sit down and design every project from start to finish, there are just not enough hours in the day. However, the expansion of our team also presents its own challenge in preserving our culture and identity. Although I am still heavily involved in the designs ANACAPA produces, I have learned to trust my team and our collective vision.
What challenges have you faced during the past pandemic years? Are you sensing a return to ‘business as usual?’
We were lucky to be relatively established for remote work compared to other firms due to having two offices, so the transition to ‘work from home’ was reasonably smooth. However, we found that the sense of connection with the team and synergy that happens when gathering around a table with some markers and a roll of trace paper was severely impacted.
Additionally, we continue to deal with impacts on client schedules and expectations. We experienced extreme delays in permitting, material procurement, labor availability, and escalation in construction costs. I know this has been felt universally by the industry and getting ahead of it continues to be a challenge for our firm, as I’m sure it is for many others. Beyond all the struggles and difficulties that we as an industry have been going through, what brings me a sense of normalcy nowadays is coming into the office in the morning and seeing my amazing team!
Do you have a favorite project? Completed or in progress.
It would be tough to pick a favorite, so I’m going to say my favorite project is always the next one. The next one that challenges our team, pushes our boundaries, and makes us better designers. As ANACAPA grows and we continually refine our process, I like to think that project is always right around the corner.
If you could describe your work/practice in three words, what would they be?
Progressive. Adaptive. Disciplined.