Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture designs buildings in places that bring people together. As award-winning architects, their projects are sharply differentiated from competitors, but often the final selection still won to price. Wanting to control their future, CEO Craig Bouck pursued an education in the Elements of Value.
The firm had mastered practical utility, but they haven’t yet positioned themselves as a scarce resource. They then did the hard work to deeply understand their clients’ breakdowns, which go well beyond the design of a building. And, developed specialized tools and processes that help communities overcome the complex hurdles that threaten the success of building and operating a community recreation center.
In doing so, they change the perception from an expensive community accessory used by a few to a vital, sustainable community asset that raises the quality of life and acts as an economic driver. Here’s the interview.
“Many people don’t go to work on value. They go to work on other things.”
John Patterson: If you would introduce yourself tell us who you are.
Craig Bouck: Well, I’m Craig Bouck. I’m an architect in Denver, Colorado and I’m with a firm called Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture. This firm has been around since 1975, and we’ve done many things throughout the life of the firm. Over the last 15 or 20 years maybe even 30 now, we’ve focused in on what we can do for communities. We’ve got some skills as designers, and we had to decide how we want to apply those skills.
Over the years we tried many different project types working with many different kinds of clients, and there’s just something that resonated about working with communities and trying to figure out what their needs were, how we could help them define those needs. Come up with a practical approach to solving some of their problems and providing facilities that brought people together and help them create community.
What that evolved to, we did lots of different kinds of things like, city halls, and libraries, and performing arts centers which have that quality to them. There’s a certain type of building that spoke to us as something that met all of our needs as architects, and what we defined as what we wanted to do and that was developing community recreation centers. What we discovered pretty early on was that this building type was very, very popular especially in growth cities.
Places that lots of suburbs were sprouting up and a lot of these suburbs didn’t have a home. They didn’t have a heart. They weren’t like the old cities of old that had that place that everybody knew was the center of town and you would go there for events and things. They didn’t have that. These buildings that we were envisioning for people, or helping them envision were becoming the place that people wanted to call, “the center of their community.” As such, they became very technically challenging and very complex buildings. They had to have recreation needs, play needs, they had to have competitive needs, they had a community needs, and education needs as well.
From a technical point of view, it was very challenging, from an engagement point of view we got to talk to everybody in the community. From a strategy point of view, we had to find something that everyone could get behind and support because these are all funded with public dollars. Then, from a design point of view as a challenge for us putting that all together we had to come up with an image and a place and a thing that people could occupy that they felt represented the image of where they’ve been, and where they wanted to go. Which is a really fun thing to imagine as a designer.
John: That’s a massive endeavor. I just attended something local, where there was a project at hand. I just stood there sinking in my shoes imagining trying to coordinate all of the interests and aims of different parties, but you just described a pretty massive undertaking. I understand you’ve been doing this now for a bit and are seeing some success in this as well. My hat’s off to you for having the courage, or the insanity to take on something like that.
Craig: Well if it were easy a lot of people would do it and that’s one of the differentiators, we’re hopeful of that because it isn’t easy that there’s a narrower marketplace for those of us who are willing to swim in that swim lane.
John: Yes. Absolutely. I’m interested because I don’t know if you and I have had this conversation; I have a degree in Environmental Design. Went to Texas A&M, and was going to go into architecture, and was very interested in the impact that environment has on it and studied at the University of Florence and came back from my trip abroad and thought, “My gosh, how amazing it is that these cities of old have these town centers, these communities they’re walking cities there’s a such a sense of place in all of that”.
When I read your notes for today’s podcast, I was very curious about your interest in helping communities. Because it certainly was clear that you have that commitment to help communities come together to thrive to connect, what’s all that about?
Craig: Well, as a point of interest, I started out studying Urban Design. Like you I was very interested in how humans interact with the environment in their surroundings. While I enjoyed that work very much — Actually, I started out as a product designer, so I started out in trying to blend Mechanical Engineering and Art and try to figure that out. What I discovered pretty quickly was that it was very, very small. At least in my mind, it was very, very small.
The impact that I could have with that designing a piece of something else wasn’t as satisfying as I thought it could be. I went to the other end of the spectrum, and I said, “Well, let’s design cities.” I went back in and looked at something else and found that just as engaging, and just as insightful and just as fun and got very involved in that. Like Goldilocks, I came to the conclusion pretty quickly after that study that, one was too small, one was way too big and took way too long to implement.
I didn’t have the patience for that, and I discovered architecture as that comfortable stool in between, where I could still engage with the community, still think about the environment. There’s plenty of detail for that part of me that wanted to get into the weeds, but there’s vision, and that can it be accomplished in two, three, five years of time. That’s what got me hooked, and I went off and studied architecture. Really we had no idea when we were studying architecture on any particular type; it’s very broad.
In the design education, they try to keep you as open as possible until you hit the profession, which is the right thing to do. When I got out, I had to choose, and I said very much the same thing. I could go into a residential design which is very personal. I could go into a very corporate design which is maybe less personal. In that pursuit of trying to find that connectivity of time and people and place I discovered this work with community centers and I found this company.
Over the last 20 years, we’ve really taken that and work on trying to define what we want to do within that realm. One of the things that Influence Ecology has helped me do over the last couple of months is to really think about that even more specifically. The focus is tough for someone like me because I love so many things. I love to solve problems; I love to learn. For me to settle on one thing is sometimes a very difficult thing to accomplish.
We really had to think about what it was that was becoming satisfying to us, and the fact that our work could have the most impact on the most number of people was a high criteria. This particular work with communities and building centers that not only will they use but they pay for and they have accountability for in terms of the upkeep, and the continual engagement with it seemed to be the answer for us. Now there are lots of different kinds of recreation type work that lots of architects do, but we found this one, in particular, is the most satisfying because it works with the very youngest in the community and the very oldest. It crosses generations. That part of it was poetic for us and very exciting to us. We’ve proven it over the years that we have had the opportunity to have that impact. We wanted to get better at it. It’s one of the reasons why I found you guys. It was a very roundabout way, just like the way I found architecture. I feel very lucky that our paths did cross.
John: Let’s talk a little bit about your journey. Everyone who studies here comes to us for a reason. Your journey has a beginning, a middle, and an end. I want to start with the end for just a moment. Let’s just say real briefly, what’s your big takeaway from having studied with Influence Ecology? What’s the big lesson you think?
Craig: The big takeaway if I had to pick one is that I’m getting very much closer to answering this question, which was, going back to the beginning, “What is value?” When I think of scarcity, I think of utility, and I think of that combination in terms of value, for me, that epitomizes one of the biggest challenges that I’ve been trying to work on over the last 15 years.
My takeaway from that is, I am the kind of person, and I believe that architects, in general, if I could classify them so boldly as I say is, we believe that we are great problem-solvers. The arrogance that we have is that we believe that we can solve any problem. One of the giant takeaways when trying to solve these different things that Influence Ecology has presented to us is that we cannot do it alone. We believe that we can. It’s taken a long time for me to ask for help and to actually recognize that you’re not going to get there without asking for help.
My thread of thought is going to be that sense of value and how do you personally define it. It’s this idea that whatever we do, we have to look at the utility we’re providing. Who is it for? Then, in terms of that idea of scarcity, how are you doing it in such a way that’s going to be very specific to your clientele, very specific to your own personal needs? And, how will that combine to be a message of value, both for you and for who you’re working with?
John: Many people don’t go to work on value. They go to work on other things. They don’t go to work on increasing their utility for the user. They don’t go to work on the interpretations of value that they have in the mind of their customer. I would imagine that, in your journey, you’ve had to look at value, both parts of it, utility and scarcity, but just value, generally speaking. How did that first point out to you where you might be naive, or where something may be missing, or weak, or flawed? How did that start to reshape what you guys do?
Craig: The naivety, I guess, that you’re getting at and what I’m willing to admit here is that, in the beginning, we define value for our customers based on what we thought they cared about. It was so much through the lens of what an architecture firm might do. We concentrated on those things that we all talk about as architects and that you may be familiar with, even if you’re not in the business of developing properties, or projects, or doing design.
That value tends to be things like, “How long have you been doing this? What experience do you have doing this? Can you reliably get things done on time, do you reliably get things done within budget? Do you practice business in a fair way?” With that as a framework, we would go into a conversation with a new client, and we would basically present all of those things. We’d say, “You should trust us, because we’ve done this a long time. We’ve got great experience. We’re good people. That’s value.”
What we discovered through this work and that is where I mean by the naivety, there was an “aha” moment where we really starting diving into: “Wait a minute. Sure, those are interesting things, but the truth is that’s just general knowledge to even play in the world that you’re playing in. To play on the field, you’ve got to have that stuff.” That’s not going to help you really because it’s not going to provide the differentiation that you need for them to really understand what it is you do that’s different from everybody else.
What really brought it is home was when we would go and compete for work, because we have to compete for every job, it’s public work so it goes through a process. We would get feedback after those ones, whether we were successful or not. Oftentimes, the feedback was very unsatisfying. The value that we thought we were providing was nowhere near what the were giving back to us as feedback.
In fact, unfortunately, many times, they would say, “Well, it seemed like you all could do the job. You all seem like nice people. We all like the ties you are wearing. The truth is, is that you are a little cheaper.” Or, “You had a little bit different approach,” or, “You finished on time” the presentation, or whatever it was.” So unsatisfying because all the things that we thought mattered, and all the little things that were behind the ideas of getting things done on time and everything weren’t connecting.
Here’s the thing about value that we discovered: value is in the eyes of the beholder. Until we take the lenses that we were wearing, until we started throwing those away, and looking at the project, looking at the problem. Through the eyes of the variety of people that are going to make the decisions for us, all of a sudden, we’re never going to connect. That’s where, some of the study, In the very beginnings, when we studied fundamentals of transactions, FOT program, introduced us to really spend a lot of time being a little bit more empathetic, trying to figure out how people do that in different ways.
“Why did it take us so long to get there? It’s because we’re so caught up in the way that we do things, the way the industry does things, the way that everybody else does things.“
What are their personality types? What are the things that threaten their status? What are the things that bring them happiness? What are the things that are the breakdowns for them, in their role, in their world? How can you focus your solution on that? Now, it’s an interesting challenge because, when we go after a project, we never have one person that we work with. It’s not designing a home for a couple. No. We’ve got a whole community that we have to work with.
We’ve got every personality type represented there. We have to play actors in a way. We have to say, “What would keep these people up at night, individually? What threatens their status? How might our solution be reinterpreted, represented, reinvented, so that it actually helps them specifically?” Then, the value definition not only becomes broader and more multifaceted, but it becomes laser-focused, potentially, if you do it well, on everybody who is going to be our primary contacts in the thing.
It’s a completely different way of thinking about what we do. It’s way more fun, way more specific, and requires lots and lots of specialized knowledge, not just the general knowledge. Now, we have to dive deep into how these buildings operate, how they’re maintained, how they’re funded, how votes are gathered, the political processes. What do the council people care about? What are the different organizations? What do they need out of this process?
While that might seem very obvious, I guess, when you look at it in retrospect and to me, it does seem very obvious, Why did it take us so long to get there? It’s because we’re so caught up in the way that we do things, the way the industry does things, the way that everybody else does things. We follow our competition. We just try to do a little bit better than them. This is really a significant change to how you approach things. I got so excited about that because it was the first crack in the armor of what this idea of what scarcity could be. Back to our question, what is value?
We thought we had the utility thing figured out. I thought we had that figured out because that seemed super-practical and objective. I had no clue how to get to this scarcity thing. Now, it’s like, “Wait a minute.” If we had the opportunity to provide some status protection, maybe a little bit of help for these people so that the breakdowns that they’re suffering can be whittled down, that is something no one else is doing. That could provide that scarcity opportunity for us.
John: Quite rare. Is there a way that people now respond to your pitch?
Craig: Sometimes they say, “Are you guys architects?” [laughing]
John: Yes. It sounds a bit like a diplomat. I kept thinking of some diplomat who enters the city to provide some solution for all. It really does have that thing. Certainly, in every case, for every person that I’ve ever interviewed, and for many of the customers of Influence Ecology, when they do come to offer something of great value. You said it very, very well, “It is a value in the eye of the beholder.” To shift that view, to shift that lens, says a lot about you and what you guys have accomplished. Anything else we should know about how they’re responding?
Craig: Now, I hate to admit this. I was introduced to this concept when my kids were small. They’re in college now and high school now. When they were small, I would take them to the openings of these recreation centers that we would design. We spent years doing these things. I was so excited for them to experience these buildings. I expected that they would talk about “Hey, dad, this is cool. I love the design of this thing. It looks so great.”
Well, my kids talked about the shuffleboard game, or the air hockey game, or the waterslide. That’s all they talked about. My wife, she talked about how great the restrooms worked. My point is that the design, the final product that we do, obviously is super important, but it is just the endpoint. It’s the entire process now that is designed. What we’re trying to do is we’re trying to educate our clients and educate everybody that you can’t focus just on the end product.
We are called architects. Most people assume they know what that means and they say, “Okay. Great. You’re going to draw some drawings that are going to be something built.” The truth is that what we really do, and this is the challenge for us, is to explain we design an entire process from figuring out what it is we’re going to do, to the very end when we assess the success of what we did when it’s a built form, and it’s having impact on communities in two or three years time.
John: That’s fantastic.
Craig: It is absolutely. We had a significant change in terms of our identity. For my identity, our firm’s identity, who we are and what we do. I tell you, when we get new people out of school, when they come and they’re beginning their careers in this, it is a wake-up call. It’s like, “Whoa.”
John: I would imagine.
Craig: We laugh. We used to draw everything on these big sheets of paper, 30 by 42 pieces of paper. We used to say, “Oh, gosh. I never want to be the kind of people that have to move to 8½ by 11.” Because that means I’m not drawing anymore. That means I’m shuffling papers. The truth is to get to the point where we’re able to do those designs and help and actually execute things. There is 80% of the work is before that. It’s helping people get there.
That’s what’s so intriguing about Influence Ecology for us, is it’s giving us an introduction to a whole set of tools that we can use when we’re not at our drawing tables, doing the thing that we thought we did. Now, we’ve got all these tools which we can use, which are so helpful in terms of working with other people, transacting. When I’m in front of my piece of paper and I’m drawing, I’m not transacting with anybody. I’m just doing my thing. I love it. To get there, I’ve got to get good at this transaction stuff.
John: Very good. You use this term, I loved it. You called it, “Personality Empathy.” In terms of personality empathy, how has that impacted your own value and your firm, or perhaps in relationships?
Craig: Our firm is run by a group. We have several of us that run the firm. There’s no autocracy. Fortunately and maybe unfortunately, but fortunately I believe, we have all of the personality types that are represented in Influence Ecology. In my opinion, one of the great interesting things that I’ve done with this program is I’ve had the good fortune to be able to do this program side by side with my business partner. She is at the opposite spectrum of where I am.
I identify as an inventor, she identifies as a producer. We have judges and we have some performers too that are at our table. One of the things that we have always done is we run by consensus and we keep working on things until we all agree, have confidence that we can move forward. It’s super-inefficient. Not that we’re getting into an argument, but because we weren’t acknowledging who we were and how we work together. It was a very inefficient and slow process.
One of the things we learned in the transaction cycle is that certain personalities can be more powerful and effective during certain aspects of the transaction, or the transaction cycle. The way we were doing it was we were all hands on deck for every issue, which is incredibly inefficient. It was fun. We all felt like we had something to offer. We all wanted to be there. We all felt like it was our job and our obligations and be there in the commitment.
Once we started studying and understanding these personality types and having empathy for where those strengths were. Then trying to negotiate and arrange and give more autonomy to those people for certain aspects of our business that made sense for that aspect in the transaction cycle, but also whatever was the particular focus, oh, my goodness, is it better. Part of that was just defining roles.
We were able to use our titles and our roles and then assign that with a little bit more specificity based on personality types. It fit very very well. For example, our CFO identifies with a judge personality. I love that. That’s perfect. Folks that help with our marketing are more of the inventor type of things. Then all of our production and all of our human resources folks, they identify as producers. They do a beautiful job with that.
By letting them lead where their strengths are and having empathy for that and trusting that that’s there and just becoming more educated about how that can be more powerful and effective, it has made us a better organization, and it’s made it more fluid. Now, I will say, and this is maybe a personal thing about the way we work. We wouldn’t have come to that conclusion unless I was working on this course and this study without somebody who was at the other end of the spectrum from me.
It was great to have that steady partner to be able to temper, challenge, question, work through and really try to ask questions but understanding it. Because I tell you, some of the terminology that we use in Influence Ecology is not intuitive initially. It takes a while to get your head around. I’m still working on some of that. Having two perspectives from two different viewpoints who have the same background, and are trying to solve the exact same problem, very, very, very, very cool. Very very fun.
I know that there are other organizations within the IE community that have reached out and have tried to expand, and have more people from their organization take this on. It will be appropriate for some and maybe not others and that’s totally fine. I will say that those who have had that opportunity to at least do the Fundamentals of Transaction have seen phenomenal benefits in terms of how they work as an organization, even on day-to-day work.
From that point of view, I think that whole idea of personality empathy is worth its weight in gold. I tell you, we are the kind of firm that does lots of personality assessments. We’ve been doing this for 20 years. We believe in this. I have to say from my own personal experience, while I appreciate and acknowledge that those other ones are quite good and can do lots of good things. I have not found one that is as accessible and has a structure of study around it, so that you spend enough time with it to be able to internalize it.
From that point of view, I find it to be incredibly effective. While those other ones are interesting as a fundamental understanding and a way to build things around. We have found that the way that we talk about personalities at Influence Ecology, and the way they interact has been extremely beneficial to us, and one of the big takeaways from the work that we’ve been doing over the last several months.
John: Would you say it has great utility?
Craig: Well, I would say that one has value. Because, yes, it has utility and I don’t know anywhere else where you can get it. It has scarcity as well. That for me is the perfect answer to that equation.
John: I accept. All right. Well, is there anything else that you would like to say about your journey here? Any other nuggets to walk away with?
Craig: I have a confession to make.
John: Of course
Craig: When I first started this, I was incredibly skeptical.
Craig: I don’t mean this in a derogatory way, but I thought of this as a self-help thing. I was really focused on our enterprise. I didn’t think I needed any personal self-help kind of work. I thought I had that taken care of. I came to the initial meeting because my sister-in-law who I trust had said, “You need to come and check this out.” I did. Immediately after, I was spending an hour with Kirkland, and meeting some of the people who had been through a year or so of study, I was beginning to think, “This might be a little bit different.”
It took me months and months before I followed up and followed through with you and Kirkland and Liz to sign-up. I have to say that I still was skeptical. Going through the FOT Program, it’s not as much enterprise base because you’re trying to learn fundamentals. There’s a lot of personal focus in there. At the same time, impatiently, I was like, “Okay. Let’s get to the enterprise, let’s get to my businesses. Let’s get to this. How can I apply this?”
Of course, it’s one of those things that it takes time to absorb this stuff. You can’t just leap ahead. I didn’t go to the first conference, because I finished my FOT program, like, “I’m not sure. I just don’t know. This is good stuff, but boy, I haven’t really seen the application of it yet.” I didn’t do that. I thought maybe that would be too much. Then I said, “Okay, I’m going to have another conversation with the group.” My study group and with Kirkland and with yourself and we signed up for the next program. We felt very fortunate to be able to do that. Then I went to the conference.
My confession is this: If I had had a little less skepticism and if I had jumped in a little sooner, I think I would have been even further along in my awareness, my competency, my ability to recognize how this can connect to everything that I’m doing. It wasn’t until I went to that mid-year conference where I was blown away. I really and truly was. I did it, and it would fundamentally change my attitude towards how this all works.
Meeting people who have practical applications to share, who can give another interpretation of this and expand my understanding in a very meaningful way is fun. It’s challenging. To me and both Katie, the business partner who went with me as well had felt the same way, it was what we needed. If you’re going to do this study, treat it like you would your business. Don’t do it unless you’re really going to do it.
Go in all the way from the beginning. Give yourself over to the study. Give yourself over to all it has to offer. Don’t be skeptical. Do that prior to signing up. Once you sign up, put that skepticism aside. Jump in because you’re just wasting your time otherwise, and you’re going to miss out on really expanding this as much as you possibly can. I hope that people can learn from that if nothing else.
John: Very, very good. All right. Well, it’s just been a pleasure to get to know you, Katie as well, been a pleasure. I didn’t have much of a relationship with you prior to your attending the conference. I’m so glad you were blown away at the conference, because I have frankly blown away the other way. I was blown away by you guys. It’s a pleasure to know you. I look forward to seeing you at a conference really soon. Until then.
Craig: We’ll see you in Cabo. Thank you.
John: Craig, thank you so much for being with us today on the Influence Ecology podcast.
Craig: Thank you, John. It’s been a pleasure.
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