Scott Simons Architects
Building communityBy Samantha DePoy-Warren
PORTLAND- Scott Simons can walk through a building before the foundation has even been poured.
As the founder of the Portland-based Scott Simons Architects, the critical challenge of his work is not sketching a structure, but getting his clients to invest their dream -and their dollars- in his vision. And so though his business card asserts he’s an architect, Simons becomes a librarian -for a renovation of the Portland Public Library, a prep school student and a professor -for the design of the Tilton School Academic Building, and a judge and a juror -for the creation of an addition to the Knox County Courthouse.
Nine years ago, he also became an ICL Leadership Intensive Eta Class graduate, and it’s that in conjunction with his commitment to not just educating himself about a project but embodying it, that has guaranteed that his firm will achieve something unheard of in the architecture industry: the goal of having every structure that they design get built.
“The transformation of our firm after the Intensive was incredible. To actually be given tools to help me organize the process; now we have a way to almost guarantee a predictable outcome. It’s not ‘maybe we will get there,’ it’s ‘we will’ and that’s ICL’s teaching,” Simons says. “What we learned at ICL taught us a way to build trust in a big way with our clients.”
A widening of focus from the result to the process and relationships required to achieve that result is what Simons attributes the firm’s success rate to. In particular, the newfound ability to work with a stakeholder group that is as diverse as it is deep, and yes, sometimes even difficult.
“Sometimes we’re the second or even third architect that’s been hired for a project and we come in and we’re able to design something that finally gets built,” he explains. “We don’t get easy projects and I like that. I like the ones that are hard to solve.”
In those cases, ICL’s approach of slowing down to go fast is fundamental. For a renovation and new construction of the 15,200 square-foot Freeport Community Center, the firm needed to find a way to unite seven civic organizations with greatly differently stakeholder groups together under one roof, and through one shared entryway. But the teens and elders visiting the center were admittedly skeptical about sharing space. Through patience, active listening to find commonalities and collaboration around an idea bigger than any one person or group, Simons’ team found a solution- a communal cafe where visitors of all ages found coffee and common ground.
Simons says a similar strategy was also part of the process of designing the Portland Public Library, which is currently undergoing a massive renovation. From the start, the firm had to overcome the obstacle of an eight-year gap since the design by the architect originally hired for the project’s design floundered from funding challenges.
Simons started by looking at what worked with that original drawing, and then -because everyone is a stakeholder of a city library- talking and more importantly listening to the hundreds who shared their The result was transformational. While the color scheme of the library is more natural, youth patrons suggested a need for brighter colors and so the teen section will have walls of bold greens and reds. With the rise of the immigrant population in Portland, signage throughout the library will now be in nearly a dozen languages. And because, as Simons explains “people aren’t coming here for books but are coming here to interact with information and each other,” the front of the building will be transparent glass that allows the building to be a part of the vibrant city square at its door.
“This library won’t just look good, but it’s organized to foster the interactions the city needs at this time,” he says. “And because of that, it’s going to be a huge success. This is going to be a really great public space and because of that, when people walk in there, they are going to think ‘wow, this must be a great city.’”
Simons is quick to stress that he and his team don’t take ownership for the ideas that get their designs built, rather responsibility for bringing the ideas together. “Our job is to build beautiful buildings of substance If everyone isn’t at the table, we’ll have to backtrack. If you don’t listen, not everyone is happy. The reason our buildings get built is not because we’re good architects, but because we’re good collaborators,” he says. “We imagine it built. We imagine it as a real living thing. It has an intended purpose.”
Collaboration isn’t just with clients and communities, but with the 12-person team that Scott Simons Architects is comprised of. Knowing how transformational his own ICL experience was, Simons has since sent two other staffers -Chris Berry (Omicron Class) and Austin Smith (Rho Class) – to the Intensive and practices the program’s principles in not just the marketplace, but the workplace.
The firm’s open office at 75 York Street is organized horizontally rather than vertically so that everyone has an equal voice no matter the titles on their diploma or their door. The firm is also currently transitioning to a partnership structure, to encourage leadership. “The best idea comes from wherever it comes from,” says Simons.
Simons says he’s never felt more confident in the firm’s future. With each project, their passion for process and the relationships and results that brings becomes more and more practiced and known. Over time, this has led to a steady growth of their business, and an increase in the number of clients who come through the door that are a true fit for their working style.
“I attribute so much of that to what I learned at ICL,” he says. “It was like a little light goes on and you realize there is a better way to do this.”
For more information about Scott Simons Architects, visit www.simonsarchitects.com.