Architecture Beyond Walls

One-on-One with Joe Fisher ’10 & M’11,

By Carla Beecher.

“Our goal is to fundamentally change the practice of architecture.”
– Joe Fisher, Founder of Studio 355 Architecture

A Disruptive Business Model

Joe Fisher

“It’s a new way of doing business,” says Joe Fisher ’10 & M’11. His cloud-based architecture firm, Studio 355, operates entirely in virtual space. He’s also keeping it in the family—Studio 355 is made up entirely of Norwich alumni, and the firm’s intern is a current Norwich architecture student.

Is his business model disruptive? He certainly hopes so. His concept of creating physical structures in virtual space is challenging the very idea of brick and mortar. For one, they make maximum use of their resources. Unlike other firms that must allocate a percentage of their design fees for rent and other trappings of a traditional office, Fisher’s operation has almost no overhead, which means client fees go almost entirely toward design services, giving them an edge over their competition. Without a central office, his team members live in different locations—one as far away as South Korea. They spend no time commuting to work and, because they work on their own schedules, are incredibly efficient.

Joe Fisher sat down for a chat with the Record, virtually of course, from his home in Austin, Texas, to discuss Norwich, the inner machinations of his business model, and what is lost and gained by working in cyberspace.

Record: Why Norwich?

Joe: At Norwich, even if you’re not in ROTC, leadership is all around you. By providing students with the groundwork to excel, Norwich University fosters innovation and is known for graduating self-starters. When it came time to expand Studio 355, I made a conscious effort to hire Norwich graduates because I know what they were taught and, more importantly, what they weren’t taught. The Norwich architecture program is anchored in “making” versus technology. I know my fellow alumni will have strong and consistent backgrounds in creating things and in thinking critically when applying their design skills.

R: What did you learn at Norwich that you didn’t expect?

Joe: Probably the most important idea I learned from my professors was to question everything: the design process, the best way to set up an office, the most effective way to communicate. That inquisitiveness played into how I set up my practice. The curriculum was robust in its emphasis on passive design and site-specific design, and we try to approach every project from that perspective. Before we start to design a building, we look at all the existing influences on the site. These range from concerns like ideal views and access to environmental factors like prevailing winds, to solar exposure and site topography. In a sense, these factors design the building for you by informing where to locate specific elements. As architects we ensure these factors integrate cohesively and that the building works well on its unique site.

R: Do you think it’s ironic that you’re an architect without an office?

Joe: Not at all. I think the firm’s lack of a specific physical location parallels our absence of a specific style. Our strength lies in our flexibility and the fact that we’re not married to a one-size-fits-all approach to design. I find this especially valuable in custom-residential architecture, where every project should be a reflection of the various parties that come together in its creation. Being attuned to these different personalities allows us to find the essence of what clients are looking for without forcing them into a particular style.

R: At Norwich, which professors and courses had the biggest influence on you?

Joe: By far, the most helpful class for me was Tom Leytham’s Sketching School, which he founded at Norwich. That class taught me how to work lightly. Architectural design is an iterative process, and in every meeting there is always something that needs to be reworked in one way or another. You may have the best computer renderings available, but at the end of the day, if you can’t sketch something in thirty seconds or less for the client across the table—upside down if need be—you’re going to lose to an architect who can.

I also learned a lot from Matt Lutz about emphasizing pragmatic design. He pushed us all to be honest in our work and believe in what we’re cable of doing. He also passed on his belief in the value of passive design concepts and the view that architects are tasked with being stewards of the Earth as well as crafting beautiful designs.

Art Schaller also had a big influence on me. I was intrigued by his asymmetrical approach to design. To this day, when I’ve reached a design impasse, one of the first things that comes to mind is Professor Schaller saying, “Have you tried turning it upside down?”

R: When did you start Studio 355?

Joe: When I moved to Austin in 2014. After working in a cramped artist’s studio behind my house for about a year, I decided to get rid of the desk and copier and all the rest: it was bogging me down. Since then I’ve worked from my iPhone, laptop, and sketchbook.

R: We’ve talked about the benefits of working in a virtual office. What is lost?

Joe: Inefficiency, overhead, and liability. I believe everyone has an optimal time or times of day when they do their best work. Remote work allows my team to tailor their schedules to when they are most efficient. We do make sure there is certain overlap in our schedules to allow for coordination with one another, especially now that we have team members in three different time zones. We’re certainly not the only firm taking advantage of advances in technology, but we’re one of the only ones I know exploring it to the degree we are with the decentralized practice model.

R: How do you communicate with clients and one another?

Joe: In a typical workday, we’ll use emails, phone calls, text messages, and GoToMeeting by Citrix for remote screen-sharing. Sometimes I’ll record videos and send them to team members if we need to screen-share but our schedules don’t line up. All our drawing and model coordination is done electronically through Dropbox. My employees will upload files electronically, I’ll mark them up electronically and instantly send them back.

R: Care to take us inside your process?

Joe: We always begin a project by meeting the clients in person to connect, exchange ideas, and visit the physical site. The complete process of design and construction-document preparation usually takes six to eight months. We continue to meet with our clients in person, online, or a combination of both, every week or two, to refine the design. We visit the site at major milestones during construction, such as prior to concrete being poured or Sheetrock being applied to the walls. We also make a point to reach out to and involve builders in the design process from early on to help us optimize the project for the client’s budget and also strengthen an essential relationship for the construction process.

R: What works about this business model?

Joe: The people. In January 2017, my workload was getting to be too much and I reached out to the Norwich architecture program to help put me in touch with alumni looking for work. I make a point of hiring people who are specialists and extremely good at the roles I need them to play. One team member will work on modeling and construction documentation and another will handle compiling presentations, allowing me to focus on procuring more work and coordinating our various projects. We are all cross-trained to a certain extent, but in following this model, we can all excel at what we do best.

R: Are your services affordable?

Joe: Studio 355’s philosophy is simple: good design doesn’t have to be a luxury. Whether a home is 1,000 square feet or 10,000 square feet, the design principles are the same. Our strength lies in the value we can bring to anyone’s design. Yes, an architect’s services cost money, but a good architect will be able to do more with less. We save clients money by eliminating needless square footage while focusing on the more valuable asset of a well-designed home that will appreciate more over time. Factor in money saved by energy-conscious design and potential future health expenses averted from avoiding toxic building materials, and the true value of an architect becomes apparent.

Our mission is to make this level of care and thoughtfulness in design accessible to, and affordable for, as many people as possible. With our unique business model lending itself to a naturally lean operation, I think we are closer than ever to achieving this goal.


The Studio 355 Working Spaces

“Working remotely lends its success to optimized workflow, superior communication, and aligned team vision; those are some of the factors that drew me to the arrangement we have at Studio 355. The ‘virtual office’ isn’t yet widely seen in our field, but the location independence allows me to work with several companies across the United States and explore a wide range of practice while diversifying my skill set.”
– Christina McMahon ’12 & M’13, Job Captain
Vermont

 

“Studio 355’s business model fosters a sustainable work-life balance. There is a starving-artist culture within the architectural community that we young architects and designers allow ourselves to fall victim to all too often. As a young father and head of household, I am especially mindful of my time and energy; and with today’s technology and the talent that educational institutions help produce, we can do better—we must do better. We, at 355, intend to.”
– Mike Lee ’12 & M’13, Designer
Massachusetts

 

“Because my husband is in the military, we move a lot. A virtual office allows me to work from anywhere I need to. The constant flow of communication makes any distance seem like nothing because we are always able to reach each other when we need to.”
– Sarah Weber ’14 & M’15, Designer
South Korea

 

 

“I’ve always been a ‘less, but better’ guy when it comes to design. Applying that principle to how I manage Studio 355 has enabled us to run a successful, competitive, and incredibly efficient operation. I would encourage anyone looking to step outside their comfort zone in the profession to explore what this style of practice can do for them.”
– Joe Fisher ’10 & M’11, Founder and Principal Architect
Texas

 


What’s in a Name?
The firm’s name, Studio 355, is a homage to Fisher’s love of old cars. “When I was a junior at Norwich, I bought a blue 1981 Chevy Camaro that taught me not only the value of purity of design and performance-maximization, but also gave me a creative outlet, allowing me to distance myself from getting too emotionally invested in my design assignments. The number 355 is a nod to the size of the engine I hand-built for the car.”

 


Studio 355 Designs

Townes Lane Contemporary lines and a rich palette of contrasting exterior finishes highlight this Tarrytown home. A long, narrow site led to a design focused on separating public and private spaces while maintaining an open feel to the interior. The resulting two-volume design frames views out the front and back of the residence, while maintaining privacy in the close proportions of the West Austin neighborhood.

West Austin A modern home in Austin’s Tarrytown neighborhood, this two-story structure blends contemporary lines with traditional central Texas archit-ectural motifs. This house is a green-certified project, earning a four-star rating from Austin Energy’s Green Building program.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Moonfire Lounge Modern chic blends with the existing historic elements of this cocktail bar in Austin’s warehouse district. This blending yields a space that retains the historic feel of the space while bringing in the best elements of Austin’s thriving nightlife scene.

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