Insights

Introducing PE Strategies

Our Future Growth Goes Beyond Architecture

Patrick Davis started as a principal at Perkins Eastman in mid-September, but “architect” is nowhere on his resume. Instead, the geography major came from the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), where he spent more than seven years developing billion-dollar capital budgets, directing strategic planning for the district’s 117-school system, and implementing more than forty school modernization projects equitably across the District’s eight wards.

Davis is the new K-12 leader for PE Strategies, a service arm of Perkins Eastman that Co-Founder and Chairman Brad Perkins and other leaders see as an expanding presence that builds on the firm’s forty years of planning, designing, and implementing projects in a dozen different industries; it informs a future not wholly tied to architecture. Strategic planning and consulting have always been a part of the work, Perkins says, but as the firm heads into its fifth decade, PE Strategies is coming ever more into focus through recent hires such as Davis’ and acquisitions of consultancies such as Urbanomics, BFJ Planning, and other complementary firms. The unit also takes advantage of deep internal resources dedicated to advancing thought leadership and innovation via the firm’s Design Technology, Sustainability, and Design Research teams.

“More clients are demanding these services,” Perkins says. “It allows us to be more of an advisor, and to do it early before they’ve even thought about hiring an architect.” Davis, meanwhile, worked with K-12 Practice Area Leader Sean O’Donnell for several years as a representative of DCPS, Perkins Eastman’s longtime client, and frequently sought the firm’s strategic-planning advice long before a Request for Proposal (RFP) was issued for a facility’s design and construction. “There were a million things that happened before I’d call Sean with an RFP,” Davis says, praising the firm’s research into high-performance buildings before a project started and post-occupancy evaluations after it ended. Now that he’s O’Donnell’s colleague, Davis says, “I’m excited about using my experience at DCPS to help other clients and school systems. DCPS is recognized as the fastest improving urban school district in the country. The work we’ve done there has a huge impact.”

The Senior Living Example
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With strategic advice from Perkins Eastman, the Morse Geriatric Center in West Palm Beach has steadily expanded from a single 120-bed nursing home (the small white structure at the top center-right) to a full campus with multiple living arrangements, clinics, research and other services.

The conversation about formalizing PE Strategies as a service area began years ago, Perkins says, as the firm began realizing through its consulting work that client solutions weren’t always architectural. The Senior Living practice area, meanwhile, had already established a long track record in this area. “So many of our Senior Living assignments started with a strategic consulting role,” Perkins says. The MorseLife Geriatric Center in West Palm Beach, for example, started out as an architecture client in 1987, looking to expand its traditional, 120-bed nursing home, but following that work, the center’s CEO continued seeking advice about positioning the property for future growth. “We were guides and sounding boards,” Perkins says, and to date, the now-full-service campus includes everything from independent and assisted living to memory support, outpatient clinics, and a research training center.

The research and consulting arm of Senior Living expanded further when Principal Dan Cinelli arrived in 2001, having established a consulting division for another firm, OWP/P, before they decided to get out of the Senior Living arena. Cinelli opened Perkins Eastman’s Chicago studio with two of his former Senior Living OWP/P partners and started focusing on high-level strategic planning. “If we could do the upfront strategic planning, eight out of ten times, that would roll Perkins Eastman into the master planning and architecture services,” Cinelli recalls. Later, in 2005, he wrote a brochure called “IDEAS—Integrating Design, Economics and Assessment into Strategy,” as a roadmap for guiding Senior Living clients through workshops and planning discussions to hone in on their values and goals for the future. First used in a series of listening sessions for the residents and operators of Frasier Meadows near Boulder, CO, in 2008, its applications are still guiding projects today.

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The Perkins Eastman IDEAS process – Integrating Design, Economics and Assessment into Strategy – is a collaborative approach dedicated to strategies that create forward-looking programs.

Current clients include the Chicago-based developer Akara Partners, which is pivoting from building university housing around the country to a 55-plus community in Littleton, CO, where Perkins Eastman is taking them through the branding process. IDEAS “provided the kit of parts that allowed us to describe to the client exactly what we did,” Cinelli says. It asks the big-picture, value-proposition questions: “What type of business model will the consumer want from us? What partners do you need? Do you want to open your own healthcare clinic or will you talk to the local hospital about opening one at your property?” It’s the “Why?” rather than the “How?” Cinelli explains. The new PE Strategies page on the Perkins Eastman website now highlights five other practice areas that are also providing these services.

The Research Component

PE Strategies provides consulting that builds upon the firm’s design excellence and interdisciplinary research. All three elements catalyze, reinforce, and inform each other. Speaking for K-12 Education—and perhaps the rest of the firm—O’Donnell says, “these three areas—design, research, and strategies—are laying the foundation of our practice area for the next 10 years.” In 2019, Associate Principal Rebecca Milne was named the first director of Design Strategy, where she leads a team in myriad endeavors that include visioning, user analysis, change management, economic analysis, and market research. “It’s management consulting meets design thinking,” Milne says. The team works across practice areas to translate research-based strategies into user-driven design solutions. With both an architecture and neuropsychology degree, she adds, “I was really interested in how research affects design,” which in turn affects human behavior. “You can’t be the advisor if you don’t do the research and you’re not forward thinking.” She describes her team as a “hybrid think tank” with a diverse background in training and education that includes placemaking, urban planning, business administration, and graphic design.

Perkins Eastman Designs Innovative, Technology-Forward Headquarters in Norwalk, CT for Global Firm FactSet

The top-floor penthouse space at FactSet Research Systems in Norwalk, CT, is open to everyone, not just the company’s chief executives.
Photograph copyright Andrew Rugge/ Courtesy Perkins Eastman

In a recent project planning the new headquarters for FactSet Research Systems, Inc. in Norwalk, CT, Milne’s team took employees through several visioning workshops and individual interviews, and made onsite observational studies at their previous office to inform a new, free-address workplace composed of “neighborhoods” rather than traditional assigned seating. The new headquarters, which opened in the summer of 2020, boasts a communal amenity space in the penthouse area rather than restricted C-suite offices that might otherwise occupy the top floor. The scheme resulted from that preliminary research, and the unexpected approach has helped build PE Strategies’ thought leadership in the Workplace practice area, and will inform future projects.

Similarly, studies like “Investing in our Future,” which evaluated Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) metrics in nine DCPS schools in 2018 and measured differences between modernized and non-modernized facilities, have informed the K-12 team’s successful approaches in other projects.

Introducing PE Strategies 6The study highlighted the benefits of modernized buildings through the IEQ measurements and satisfaction rates from student and staff surveys, but concluded that more needs to be done to improve the acoustics. “During occupied conditions, classrooms across the evaluated schools have high noise levels, leading to high levels of dissatisfaction among both faculty and students,” according to the study. (This chart, left, and the ones below are contained in “Investing In Our Future: How School Modernization Impacts Indoor Environmental Quality and Occupants.”)

 

 

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That kind of data collection, in addition to software and technology that records everything from design details to building performance, all goes into a library, says Perkins Eastman Principal Eric Fang, who leads PE Strategies. The group’s resulting knowledge base and skill sets can serve a wide range of industries and practice areas in future work. “It’s really different and distinct from the architectural practice, but at the same time, it uses design thinking and takes advantage of our experience in actually getting things built,” Fang says.

Strategy vs. Politics

On the front end of a project like DC’s Banneker Academic High School, which Davis worked on as the chief operating officer at DCPS, guidance from Perkins Eastman helped prove the difference between building a new, cutting-edge school building with an expanded enrollment for the city’s brightest students, which just opened in DC’s Shaw neighborhood—or renovating its smaller 1930s-era structure a mile away. Neighbors in the gentrifying Shaw fought the move because they wanted the site for their own neighborhood middle school. After an initial City Council vote sided with the neighbors, however, Davis says two things happened: The students flocked to City Hall to push for the relocation, and O’Donnell and K-12 leaders Omar Calderon Santiago, Juan Gaurin, and Mary Rose Rankin stepped in to help advocate. “They used the enormous credibility Perkins Eastman had gained in the city with schools like Dunbar High School and got [Councilman] Vincent Gray on their side,” Davis says. Gray cast the deciding vote in favor of the move on a second-round vote.

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Banneker Academic High School opened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony with Mayor Muriel Bowser and top school officials on Aug. 28, 2021.
Photograph copyright Joseph Romeo/ Courtesy Perkins Eastman

Once the project was approved, Perkins Eastman conducted extensive interviews with Banneker students, who said they wanted it to look and feel like a building on a college campus. Using methods learned from previous school projects and studies, the team also performed meticulous site-analysis planning so the building would complement the surrounding neighborhood and also be Net-Zero ready. With Perkins Eastman as their “trusted advisors,” Davis says, “it helped the school district think differently about their portfolio to go through a process like this.” Now that Davis is leading the K-12 effort for PE Strategies, he can help more districts navigate a similar path. “If we can help our clients at the earlier, more formative stages, we can strategize the way Perkins Eastman did with DCPS,” he says.

New Face of Architecture

Perkins frequently laments that architects “with five to seven years of very expensive education” often start their careers doing repetitive, lower-value tasks. Refocusing our highly educated talent on higher-value services is where the industry needs to go. “The leading firms will have to look a lot more like consulting firms than a big drafting room,” he says. And because of Perkins Eastman’s size, strength and breadth of practice, the elements were already there to prime PE Strategies for success, O’Donnell adds. “We already have amazing and diverse talents. In many ways, we have all the parts and pieces,” he says. “With PE Strategies, we’re assembling the puzzle—and completing a picture of the future of our practice and how we can best serve our clients.”