Husband-and-wife team Jeffrey McGrew and Jillian Northrup run the Swiss Army knife of architecture and interiors firms, Because We Can. With help from a “mash-up of architects, designers, artists, fabricators, and builders” in West Oakland, California, they conceive and carry out innovative ideas in a one-stop shop: Not only do they design projects—they build them, too.
An upgraded and modified ShopBot PRT96 4G CNC router with a 2.2 HSD spindle and vacuum hold-down affectionately named “Frank” creates most of the custom art and architecture that McGrew, an architect, and Northrup, a graphic artist, design in their 2,500-square-foot fabrication studio and office. Since founding their design-build studio in 2005, the duo has created everything from the giant puzzle piece globe in Wikipedia’s headquarters lobby to residential remodeling jobs with custom fixtures. They have also counted Hilton Hotels, YouTube, Pandora, Timbuk2, and Mint.com among their clients.
The firm’s three big ideas that go into every project are BIM and digital fabrication, lean and agile management, and art and architecture. “We use many different forms of digital fabrication in our projects,” Northrup explains. “Because we do such a high level of modeling for our projects, we are able to use machines in outsourced shops and know that everything will still work. In-house we started with a ShopBot. We still have that same machine today, though most of the components on it have been upgraded over the years. We have a small vinyl cutter and a small portable mill. But for most projects we still use the Shopbot.”
At Because We Can, every member of the team spends time on all aspects of a project, from concept to design to fabrication. The same designer is always involved with the project from beginning to end. McGrew and Northrup believe in broadly skilled people. They do not have a dedicated shop foreman, a single designer, or a lone CAD expert.
“Our clients tend to hire us because they love what we do and our ideas,” McGrew says, “not because we are cheaper or faster or bigger or smaller than another firm. We actually wish that more of the industry was caught up with how we’ve been working, for it’s a real drag—and harder to make money—when we have to go back to working in a more traditional way.”
Some of the software tools that Because We Can regularly relies upon include Autodesk Revit, with a little bit of Autodesk Inventor, Adobe Illustrator, Vectric CAM tools, and Blender, an open-source 3D modeler.
To manage their many projects, McGrew and Northrup created in-house systems for time management and efficiency, such as an internal Wiki and calendar that Northrup says “pretty much control our lives now.” They also maintain connections with a large number of local artisans, designers, and fabricators so they can call upon a diverse and talented temporary/subcontracted labor pool as their projects demand.
After eight years of running a small business, McGrew and Northrup have learned a thing or two about how to make it work. As it turns out, being your own boss is not always a party. “Our advice is always: Don’t think this is going to give you more life freedom or release you from having a boss,” Northrup says. “Now you eat and breathe your work, and everyone is your boss. You start your own business because you can’t imagine not doing it.”
But although they maintain a busy schedule, Northrup says they’ve discovered a few time savers: “Learn all the quick keys, and use a Wacom. You will be so much faster and it’s better for your wrists.”
Another strategy that has helped Northrup and McGrew streamline their daily operations is how they handle client collaboration. “There are always issues and problems on every project, but we don’t let them become real problems,” Northrup says. “Just as in life, if you deal with things head-on and find solutions that work for everyone and focus on good communication, then everyone is happy. That’s our goal with clients: to make everyone happy, and we are part of that everyone.”
Watch this video about Small Business Success Award winner Because We Can, and learn more about their philosophy and design process.
Thinking about starting your own small-business architecture firm? Check out Architizer’s 15 Tips From the Pros.