1652359152742 Space

Big Thinkers

March 1, 2003
Penny Bonda, FASID

Debra Lehman-Smith and James McLeish may head a boutique-size firm, but the projects they work on, the awards they've won and their talented staff allows them to play in the major leagues.

The building where they've chosen to locate their offices suits them. Stylishly modern and crisply detailed, it's small, even by Washington, DC standards, yet designed with an importance that belies its size.The same can be said of Lehman-Smith+McLeish (LSM), a 40+ person firm whose design and business savvy has put it squarely at the top of the very competitive architectural and interiors heap. Founded just 12 years ago, LSM has become the design firm of choice for Washington, DC's heavy concentration of law firms, as well as winners of such high profile projects as the new Gannett/USA Today and General Dynamics headquarters.Their success, according to partners Debra Lehman-Smith and James McLeish, stems from large-firm thinking, a legacy from their backgrounds at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). They never hesitate taking on a challenge—hopping on an airplane and going off to London or Bangkok—too naïve at the beginning to know that as a small boutique firm they were playing out of their league. Today, they say, LSM is the anti-size firm, the last of the great independents, and laugh about those who want to know not what great projects they're working on, the design awards they've won or what talent they have on staff, but how big they are. "People seem to be fixated with our size, but size has nothing to do with it—not profitability, not great design, nothing," they insist.The duo also credit SOM for teaching them to be entrepreneurial. "We were in a very progressive office and we always had to do our best design. There wasn't an option to do 'A' work today and 'B' work tomorrow, depending on the fee or the size of the project. It always had to be your best," states Lehman-Smith.Neither partner can say enough good things about SOM and the leaders they worked for—Craig Hartman, Walter Netsch, Rick Keating and David Childs—or their experiences there, and think that the training they received is one of the core reasons why LSM is doing so well today. For example, they were taught to develop client and business relationships, even at an entry level, on the assumption that great design only happens with a trusting client. This belief has become a cornerstone of their practice. They include clients such as Howrey Simon Arnold & White and the U.S. Olympic Committee in their list of early mentors. "These are the people who had enough belief in us to give two young kids these huge jobs in a recession of 1991. The executive committee at Howrey and Harvey Schiller, the head of the Olympic Committee, helped my former partner Ken Wiseman and me start this firm," remembers Lehman-Smith. "And John Cutler, our financial advisor who, when we went to see him said, 'I'm going to take you guys on myself because it's such an amazing challenge to start an architectural firm during a recession in Washington, DC.' So, I think we were very, very lucky."Perhaps luck had something to do with it, but their specialty, if they have one, is Washington, DC's predominant business type—law firms—and LSM has had a hand in designing a significant number of these offices both in town and across the country. In addition to Howrey Simon, LSM has also done offices for Patten Boggs, KirkPatrick & Lockhart and Jones Day, and are currently designing the largest private lease in DC—over 525,000 square feet—for Wilmer Cutler & Pickering.At any given time, LSM may have seven or more law firms on its project list, most of them long-term clients building multiple offices. This no-brainer type of marketing is based on the relationships that Lehman-Smith and McLeish carefully cultivate. They focus on using their experience and their passion for what they do to translate into value. "Our clients believe that this firm is going to give them great value. Bigger is no better for us because we're not a commodity firm," they explain. "We are very selective in the kinds of clients that we go after because the fit has to be right."As partners, the fit is just right and they have a very fluid relationship. One focuses on management while the other drives design. McLeish, an architect, enjoys the financial side, rethinking the way LSM does things in order to provide more time for staff to work on the design and solve problems for its clients. Lehman-Smith, an interior designer, is the lead designer, pushing others to be the best they can at what they do, thereby assuring the very highest quality work.Three additional principals—Ron Fiegenschuh, Terese Wilson and Rick Bilski—plus the associates round out the larger-than-usual leadership team. Says Lehman-Smith, "We are very senior in terms of our population, and that allows us to work the way we do. It's a conscious effort and our greatest asset. The right kind of people and the right level of maturity add to the excitement and the intensity in the studio. I think one of the reasons we are effective is because our entire staff has a lot of interaction with the principals and associates as opposed to some paradigms where there's one person looking over 10 or 12 junior staff. Our model allows senior people to have a lot more confidence in what they're doing and junior people to mature." LSM also recently sent off a group of staff to Florence, Italy to an international study program to talk about how they can be better together.LSM has worked hard to define its design approach. The perfect job, the partners say, is one that's truly collaborative. They cite the Gannett/USA Today project as an example of the creativity that results when architecture, landscape and art come together. The Jacob Javitz Federal Building in New York City exemplifies another of the firm's philosophies: architecture should be driven from the inside out. At two and one-half million square feet, the building is recognized as a great piece of modern architecture in Manhattan, but one with major security issues. The project—adding a front door pavilion that is at once a great design, a great people place and adds a security upgrade—was driven by a business decision: What doesn't it have that it needs? Most of their work—95 percent—is built from a business objective, Lehman-Smith and McLeish explain. When they go into board rooms or the chairman's or managing partner's offices, it's not design speak that's discussed, it's more a conversation about goals: What do you hope to accomplish out of this? Do you need to change your business paradigms? This process is what the pair means when they describe LSM as a design strategy firm. They emphasize that there's not an LSM formula; rather, it's about what the client views as a successful project at the end."We're able to go very far with our clients because I think we inherently have their trust," states Lehman-Smith. "They know that we understand their business and the CEO's and managing partner's role from a fiscal responsibility perspective.""We try to find a creative solution that, quite frankly, somebody else wouldn't have come to," McLeish continues. "If we can come in, analyze their operation and work with them to come up with a totally different strategy that they wouldn't have thought of themselves, that brings a unique value. It's fun and exiting and the kind of thing that we're interested in doing." He describes the process as one of taking the blinders off, widening the field, thinking holistically and not becoming constrained by some of the initial issues that may drive one down more of a logical path. In designing a recent project for a law firm, for example, LSM came up with a solution that fundamentally shifts the way people enter and utilizes the space in a way that wasn't obvious in the beginning.A project for General Dynamics further demonstrates this strategy. The program called for a new conference facility in its existing headquarters, but when LSM started looking at it, the firm was able to identify for the client the hassles and expense of moving people around while living in the midst of construction for the next two and one-half years. Other designers might have been happy just to build the best little conference center they could, but LSM presented other options, including the move to a new building where General Dynamics could start from scratch and shape the facility into its business culture with no disruption and a better value in the end.Similarly, LSM has helped its law firm clients redefine their image as they positioned themselves all over Europe. "It's so much more than just adding technology to the conference rooms. It's thinking, 'Well, you have a much bigger message now. How can we capitalize on this?' " describes Lehman-Smith. "In this way we take the responsibility of a partner so we are not just implementers." McLeish adds, "In a lot of these organizations, we're part of their executive decision-making process to assist and provide the data and the advice to help them make the best choices."This sort of collaboration is also a benchmark for LSM when working with other members of the design team. LSM likes to think of itself as the integrator, bringing together groups of consultants that it uses over and over again, such as lighting designers Charles G. Stone II of Fischer Marantz Stone & Partners and Susan Brady of Susan Brady Lighting Design; landscape architects Thomas Balsley and Charles Trace; and audio-visual specialist Michael Schuch of CMS. McLeish insists that they have enough confidence to sometimes take a back seat to others in order to insure the very best result for the project. "We benefit," he says, "from the cross-fertilization of our consultants' work and their other pursuits. It's much more important that the project be successful than it is to stake out our piece of the puzzle."Lehman-Smith and McLeish love to talk about the diversity in their office, especially when it comes to nationality. They laugh about not being able to understand half of what's being said around them because of the many different languages spoken there. But other areas, such as gender, they find to be a non-issue. Lehman-Smith is especially outspoken about her success as a woman in a man's world."I think you have to give huge kudos to somebody like Margot Grant, who really was in a male-dominated world and didn't get promoted as quickly as her peers within Skidmore. The fact of the matter is I don't necessarily see any disadvantage being a woman in this field. My own personal view is that I don't ever want to get a job because I'm a woman. I want to get work because we're the best people for the job. I think we do need to help promote women in the field and give them advantages, but we don't pay attention to the male/female mix in our office. It's really the best people. The mix is what the mix is!"They are likewise dismissive of the architect/interior designer struggle. The traditional turf battles between the two disciplines simply don't exist at LSM, perhaps because they themselves are one of each, or because of the design strategy approach that guides the firm. Lehman-Smith and McLeish know that the president or board chairman of a corporation could care less about the appellation after a person's name."We'd like to think of ourselves as embracing the philosophy of the Bauhaus school with different disciplines working together," states McLeish. "We have a very fluid staff, and we can easily go from working on an architectural project to a large interiors project to product design. We consciously have those different scales of work paralleling each other, because there's a collateral benefit to all. When you have somebody designing a new furnishings line next to somebody working on a master plan, they force consideration of different scales simultaneously."LSM also started hiring industrial designers two or three years ago and find them to be some of the most creative people in the office. They're a breath of fresh air, Lehman-Smith and McLeish feel, because they're not part of the turf battle. Product design has, in fact, been an important part of the practice since the beginning—another off-shoot of their Skidmore days—"If you can't find it, you design it!" Lehman-Smith can't remember a project where there's not a custom design to it, either from the LSM collection for exclusive use on its own projects, or from lines it has developed for David Edwards, Steelcase, Schumacher and Martin Brattrud.Lehman-Smith and McLeish would like to continue doing what they do for many years to come, only more of it—international work, pushing the envelope and orchestrating great collaborations. They would also like to become more involved in their hometown because they believe that in order to be the best in the world you first have to be the best in your own backyard. They're both very appreciative of Washington's attributes—some of the best museums in the world, the grand expanse of Pennsylvania Ave. and wonderful monuments and buildings such as the masterful World Bank. They'd like to assist their city with its vision, including help with experimental art, a passion of the firm's. It won't take much, Lehman-Smith and McLeish insist, to change the perception of DC as a major architectural city. It has, they believe, a brilliant future—and they very much want to be a part of that.Lehman-Smith+McLeish
1150 18th St., N.W.; Ste. 350
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 263-7400

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