“I call it empathetic design. I think that is something truly unique to DBA. Though we have a consistent repertoire and consistent look, it’s usually the answer to a unique problem.”
Dan Brunn’s approach to design starts with the client, not the architect. To put this approach into practice, each new project starts with a unique discovery process. There is no single recipe to uncover a client’s problem.
“It’s different every time. If I had one question to ask, then it wouldn’t be empathetic, because I wouldn’t be listening to what somebody said. I’ll put it this way, if it’s a residential project, what I love doing is inviting myself over to the current living condition. And a lot of time, clients don’t want to do that because they’ll say, ‘Well, this is not what I want you to design.’ But the truth is, I think people are generally better equipped to say what they don’t like than what they do like. Especially if you want to design something for them.”
If Dan can get a client to tell his firm what doesn’t work today, Dan and his team gain critical information that allows them to design with the client’s needs front of mind.
“What do they want, and how do we best represent them? We answer back by layering the client’s necessities with our own brand identities. We never forget who we are building for.”
Dan means “we” literally. He has grown his firm to six architects. Not unlike his approach to design, his growth strategy is also unconventional.
“My ethos has always been to hire less and hire better. A lot of architects end up hiring a ton of interns. It’s the norm in our industry. How many people can we get on the ground? For me, it’s how few people, but how many talented people I can get.”
As an internationally acclaimed architect whose advice should be welcomed by any aspiring architect, Dan suggests architects follow his stay small philosophy.
“If you have an interest in starting your own firm, working at a smaller firm will get you more learning. If you are in a bigger corporate firm, they end up finding what your skill is. One. Singular. And, you continue to that repeated, repeated, repeated because you’re most efficient at that.”
Firm size helps experience, but Dan suggests that relationship building will be more important to the success of a firm.
“Even though our office is nationally and internationally recognized, most of the work comes through relationships.”
Dan’s breakthrough project came through befriending a product rep at Caesarstone, a quartz countertop manufacturer. When Caesarstone was ready to build a new showroom, Dan was recommended as the architect. His second big project came through a photography store clerk to which Dan shared pictures with. The clerk introduced Dan to the owner of the store, and DBA is now designing the owners second beach home.
“It’s always wanting to talk and connect to people.”
As important as relationships are to finding clients, they are even more important to maintaining healthy client relationships. Mistakes are inevitable, and successfully navigating through mistakes requires humility and ownership.
“Accepting responsibility. I had a client that just wanted to hear the words, ‘I’m sorry. My mistake. I’ll take care of it. We’ll fix it.’ That goes a really long way with your clients.”
Dan has always known that he would be an architect. From a seven-year-old building with legos, through a graduate degree at Harvard’s prestigious school of design, Dan’s focus has always been architecture. However, Dan doesn’t believe any level of talent or schooling leads to success in architecture.
“A lot of people think, ‘Oh, you are an architect. You must be good at math. You must be good at engineering, and you have some kind of creativity.’ But, I would argue that it’s more a talent of humanity, understanding people and being able to respond to that. If you can layer that on top of good, functional design, then you’re ahead of the game.”