An Interview With: Bob Fox
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Bob Fox grew up in the Chestnut Hill area of Philadelphia, in the thick of architecture. His father, C. William Fox, taught the subject at Temple University and worked for renowned architects Louis Kahn and Mitchell Giurgola. The younger Fox “hung out in those offices,” he says, then majored in architecture at Temple, and after graduation in 1982 took a one-year stint as the student representative for the American Institute of Architects (AIA) at headquarters in Washington, DC. “It really gave me tremendous insight into the profession,” Fox said of his role that year as president of the AIA Students. “It opened my eyes to the influence the profession has in society. Architects hold a high set of ideals. They look for ways to better the quality of life. It also gave me access to the upper echelon of architects.” After finishing his AIA Students job, Fox was hired by colleague Ted Mariani as an architectural intern. After that, he went to the DC office of ADD Inc., a Boston-based firm, where he met architects Mallory Warner and Mike Hickok, with whom he subsequently partnered to create Warner Hickok Fox in 1995. In May 2003, Fox and colleagues Sabret Flocos and Jim Allegro ventured out on their own to establish FOX Architects LLC. Today the McLean-based firm has grown to more than 65 employees and has opened a second office in downtown DC.
Bisnow on Business: What’s the most exciting project you’ve done lately?
The new Mills Corporation headquarters at Chevy Chase Center, next to Clyde’s in Bethesda. We started working on it five years ago with a 70,000 square foot requirement. Over time the project expanded greatly because of Mills’ rapid growth and became 200,000 square feet. The building was meant to be an embodiment of their transition from the original Potomac Mills concept to higher-end regional malls, which took on higher end finishes. The headquarters was supposed to reflect that. So we designed with materials that would evoke higher end, such as a two-story high space with stone walls, skylight, and monumental stair. We designed walls specifically to depict the impressive history of Mills, and created wonderful executive space from conference rooms to a rooftop patio. Unfortunately, because of Mills’ financial troubles, much of this is not actually being built, and Mills will occupy three floors instead of eight, and the remaining floors will be subleased.
And what’s a more ordinary example?
Well, right now we’re working on three buildings downtown near K and 20th Streets, where we’re adding additional floors to the top of the building, taking transfer development rights from other sections of the city that have been purchased by the owners, so they’re allowed to add floors. What’s interesting and challenging for us is that since these buildings are occupied by tenants, we have to do our construction while they are working there: extending mechanical shafts, electrical rooms, and elevators, re-skinning the building, and so forth.
What prompted you to split off from Hickok Warner Fox Architects?
Mike Hickok and I were heading in different directions. But it was a very positive, amicable separation. Our new firm, FOX Architects, is not a traditional firm. I feel like we are doing almost as much business consulting for our clients as we’re doing architecture. In an industry as competitive as this one, we have to go beyond the traditional design practice. It is about what adds value for our clients.
Why is that?
The profession today is really changing just because there is so much information that we have to maintain and stay on top of for our clients – everything from organizational development to sustainable design. We do a lot of work with government contractors and the federal government, so security has been a big factor as well.
What have been the challenges of going out on your own?
The biggest challenge is to stay on top of all the various aspects of running a business, from trying to be as responsive as possible to our clients to internally maintaining a work environment where our most valuable resource, our staff, can thrive. I’ve found that things have really changed professionally when it comes to architecture. We were still using drafting boards when I first started out. Today, we don’t have a single drafting board in the office; everything we do is on a computer. Technology is one of our top three items of expense – people being first, and then there’s office space.
What about getting your name out there as a new company?
One of the big things was just making sure that we had visibility in the marketplace. My name and recognition was one thing, which was why we decided to go with the name FOX Architects. I felt it was important to let everyone know who we were, where we were, what we did, and our philosophy. We pride ourselves on our mission: Enhancing Business Through Design, and it is important to be sure that is communicated. We have also put a lot of effort into the branding of the company to be sure the identity is consistent right down to the way we use our corporate colors and logo.
What prompted you to create a second office in DC?
My career really started in Washington after AIA. So when we launched the office in Tysons Corner, I still felt it was important to get back into the District to be more accessible since most of my experience and contacts were D.C.-based. Andy Yeh has been working with us for nine years and is currently running our DC office. I think there’s a lot in the real estate and architectural market that happens in the city. It also opens up the door to a new pool of talent because there are a number of folks in D.C. who don’t want to go out to Virginia and vice versa.
Do you have any regrets about going out on your own?
No regrets – just wish I did it sooner.
Who are your main clients?
We do predominantly commercial work and, more specifically, specialize in corporate headquarters facilities. We also do a lot of work with developers. Our client base is predominantly located in the D.C. metropolitan area. But we’re doing a great deal of repeat work for our existing clients, which has taken us outside the region to service these clients nationally. J.P. Spickler was brought on board back in September from a national competitor and has done a fantastic job. He’s a base building architect, whereas much of my work has been interiors and building renovation. Our firm is vertically integrated into the office market, so we do everything related to offices. We have a Landlord Services Studio which is designed to respond to the specific needs of landlords and serve as an integral part of the buildings marketing team which ultimately helps better position buildings for potential tenants. We also service the institutional sector through educational clients, such as renovating buildings for George Washington University at their Loudoun campus and working with Strayer University to develop design standards which are implemented on all of their campuses on the east coast. We also currently have a very large project for the U.S. government, but unfortunately, it’s classified so I can’t elaborate on it.
How do you go about getting a job like that?
It’s really through the time and effort we’ve put forth to develop relationships over time and by working with key individuals on certain projects. We’re in a very relationship-driven business. I think any professional service comes down to the relationships, how you work with and treat people. There is a certain expectation people are going to have in terms of the level and quality of work, and a firm’s responsiveness – all of which I think are very good. We’ve tried to build a reputation based on that kind of service.
And how did you get the job to build the Mills headquarters in Chevy Chase?
We actually met the people at Mills a while ago. They had asked us to take a look at a building we had done some work in, and we helped them with that. Then they called us to look at another building and do some development on that. We did a very comprehensive presentation to them, which I think they really appreciated. Then, it was like all of sudden we were doing all this work for them. So there were little projects that led up to the big project.