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October 30, 2017

I Challenged Traditional Architecture Cultures and Helped Ours Succeed

Saam President and CEO Diana Nicklaus knew she wanted to break the architecture industry’s cultural status quo when she started her own firm

 Photo: Jennifer MacNeil Photography

When my partner Koos Louw and I decided to start our own architecture firm in 2014, we knew we wanted to create a different kind of design practice. The architectural industry has historically been a male-dominated field, with an old-fashioned approach to workplace culture. Large, traditional architecture firms tend to be intense, high-pressure shops where only those who sacrifice their social lives to the job tend to advance. Smaller shops tend to have a less pressurized environment and focus on clients in a single industry segment.

We wanted to start a firm that could attract a variety of “big firm” clients, while still fostering a more progressive, equitable atmosphere. I’m proud to say that in just three short years, we’ve established the firm we had hoped to create.  In addition to the 50 years of combined professional experience that we brought to the venture, our staff features 26 talented individuals of diverse backgrounds, portfolios and expertise. This brilliant, agile team has drawn high profile clients like Wynn, Charter, Massachusetts Port Authority and Toshiba; and our company has doubled its revenue every year since its founding.

All architecture firms need gifted, creative staff to succeed, and Koos and I knew we would need to bring in the best people to make our vision a reality. We attracted talent with the promise of modern collaboration practices that enable the staff to work together both in and out of office, utilizing a range of technologies. By providing our entire team with tools of remote work, flexible schedules, and unlimited vacation, we have sought to create an equitable environment where all can succeed, regardless of experience level or personal commitments.

By redefining the meaning of “flexible schedules” and offering unlimited vacation, we provide some of the most generous benefits and leave policies in the industry without sacrificing client focus. This provides our staff an equitable work environment while leveling the field for professional growth opportunities. In a profession that is traditionally dominated by white males, we have a staff that is over 80 percent women and includes people from a variety of different ethnic backgrounds. Our progressive policies have helped us draw experienced collaborators to our team and create an environment in which they can thrive. This strategy has been a key component to our growth and retention.

We have decades of professional experience, covering almost every industry sector imaginable. Because of the strength of our team, we’ve also drawn high-profile clients from sectors including higher education, cultural arts and K-12 education. With each new project, we’ve demonstrated the breadth of our knowledge and talent; and that continues to help us attract new and exciting clients.

Our clients can reach all of us any time of the day, as our personal cell phone numbers are available to them. Our team provides a high level of responsiveness, as we are all equipped with the tools to work remotely, whether we are designing or responding to emails.

The architecture industry is slowing evolving into a more modern industry with equitable practices and a more diverse workforce. Retention of women and minorities continues to be a challenge. But change happens slowly, especially for the large, long-established firms that can’t let go of the old school way of working.

Saam Architecture is leading the way for a new generation of architecture firms by challenging the status quo and creating a work environment that provides both excellent service to the client and a nurturing work environment for our associates.

About the author: With over 20 years’ experience, Diana has practiced architecture in both the United States and Italy, with projects throughout the continental U.S. and Europe. Diana co-founded Saam Architecture in June 2014.