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Nuts + Bolts #14: Start Me Up: Taking Cultural Cues From Our Tech Sector Clients

Why can't the rules (or lack thereof) of start-up culture apply to an AEC firm?

By Christian D. Giordano
July 13, 2017

As architects, we are not typically known for being positive disruptors in the business world. Most architecture firms tend to follow the same formula when it comes to business operations and to HR practices: start at the bottom, pay your dues, and patiently await the promised corner office and principal title.


Early in my career, I began to challenge this model. Working with tech sector clients to design spaces to support their culture fueled my own natural tendency to question everything: why can't the rules (or lack thereof) of start-up culture apply to an AEC firm?


This year, when I stepped fully into my role as president and majority owner of Mancini Duffy, I had the chance to throw out the rule book and answer those questions first-hand.


As a firm, we have found that four cornerstones of our plan have proved key in setting our course:


Look outward. When formulating our plan, we were inspired by a spectrum of influential thinkers, from Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action and a TED Talk veteran, to entrepreneur Elon Musk, founder of PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX. We also consciously emulated the “no limits” philosophy that characterizes many of today’s successful start-up ventures: ideas can come from any person at the firm, with any title, and we’ll explore it.


Look inward. The entire Mancini Duffy team has been fully engaged in this process. Encouraged by an open door policy, both management and staff have made suggestions about what changes they would like to see enacted at the firm. In nurturing this transformation, I’ve learned it’s important that management set an active example in establishing the new practices. When team members see senior associates using the lounge area or working flex hours, it gives them “permission” to do the same.


Look ahead. As we put our people first, our people put our clients first. Encouraged and empowered to do their best work, Mancini Duffy’s designers are motivated to go beyond clients’ expectations. Clients change their mind, and we’ll go down that rabbit hole with them, exploring the idea.


Look farther ahead. To encourage creative problem-solving, we created the Mancini Duffy Design Lab. This in-house incubator of applied research is driven by state-of-the art technologies, and focuses on long-term investigations. One of its initial projects is “The Modern House,” a wide-ranging investigation into the potential of domestic design.


The goal we set for ourselves – to redefine the way architects and designers work, live, and create – is being realized from all perspectives. Internally, the results are galvanizing. In addition to flexible hours, we’ve instituted a fully employer-paid healthcare option, online performance reviews, vacation stipends, and a monthly office social event. We have seen a telling result: almost all of our new hires have been made through employee referrals, allowing us to grow our staff and reinforce our progressive spirit.


The new company culture has also elicited positive response from the client side. The overall happiness of our team elevates our work and, in turn, our service to clients and the community. The firm has attracted a more diversified portfolio of interiors work in the last few years, and the architecture practice is also growing exponentially.


Without question, change is difficult, demanding lots of energy and time – two critical resources in any busy workplace. But the payoffs we have seen make the effort worthwhile. As this evolution in our corporate culture takes root, I’m glad to see it affirms my original vision for merging great design and smart business practices. Our team is boldly pushing forward and, most importantly, we're all having fun doing it.



Christian Giordano is president of New York City-based Mancini Duffy, a full-service design firm specializing in architecture, planning, and interior design. The practice complements its century of expertise with contemporary entrepreneurial spirit and technological skill for clients in the commercial, education, financial and professional services, retail, sports, and tech and media sectors. A member of the Young Presidents’ Organization, Giordano was named by Building Design + Construction as one of its “40 Under 40” future stars in the architecture and interior design industry.


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(click on pictures to enlarge)

Johnathan Ward