Origins of an architecture firm: Part 1

By Douglas Tom / January 27, 2017

(This story is the first in a series to celebrate the 20-year anniversary of TEF Design. Check our blog for newly published, bi-monthly stories about our firm’s people, our community, and what drives us to design.  Sign up in the right corner above — to receive those updates in your inbox.)

The seeds of TEF were planted in the 1990s, when I was at SMWM in San Francisco. By 1997, I’d been there for 14 years, and it felt like time to make a new start. All the public projects we’d been pursuing in the city of San Francisco recently, like the new San Francisco Public Library and the Moscone Center, started me thinking. The city required large architecture firms to team up with small, minority- and women-owned businesses in order to qualify for these kinds of projects. The big three at the time: Gordon H Chong & Partners, Michael Willis Architects, and Kwan Henmi. I did some research and found out that these firms had all grown to the point where they would soon pass the threshold for eligibility for small business certification. I was keenly interested in focusing more on public projects, and I thought there would be a void to fill.

I talked to a couple of my buddies at the firm, Ron Aguila and Bobbie Fisch, and said, “Hey, wouldn’t it be great to start a firm?” We had had some serious conversations about how the three of us might run a business. Bobbie decided the time wasn’t right. She took a leave from SMWM to raise her daughter, but she said she might still be interested in a few years.

In the meantime, I had met Chuck Bloszies, who was on the board of the AIA San Francisco chapter with me at the time. A structural engineer, he was looking to expand his practice and take on more public work, which dovetailed with our interests.

So Ron, Chuck, and I created Tom Bloszies Aguila Architects. There was a lot we had to learn. When we talked to our attorney about establishing a corporation, he said, “You’re going to hire one of the architectural firm advisors in town, right?” I said, “What do you mean? What’s that?” And he said, “Well, there are about three.” So I called one of them, Patrick Bell. Patrick was essential to in helping get us up to speed with the nuts and bolts of running a business.

Rather than simply announcing my departure to the other principals at SMWM, I took several of them to lunch. I talked about the benefits to SMWM of Ron and me leaving to start a small minority-owned firm. Since then, they’ve all confirmed it made them feel like they were part of the process.

Ron and I left the firm on a Friday—I think it was November 7, 1997. On Monday, we showed up at Chuck’s office at 461 Bush. And we just started dialing for dollars—calling our old clients, letting them know we had started a new firm.

Fortunately Chuck had some work to keep us going. We got drafting work from Ron’s old firm, RMW. Then little by little, things started happening. SMWM called us to be their small business partner on several projects. We never went a month without having some sort of paycheck.

But we were so naive. Patrick would talk to us about guerilla marketing. Cast the net wide, contact everyone. But he also taught us about profit and loss statements, expenses and revenue—the real basics of business. Very slowly we built the practice. We were hired to do as-builts for the Ferry Building that SMWM was renovating. SMWM also gave us a third of the interiors for the renovation of Pier 1 into the offices of the Port of San Francisco.

Our biggest breakthrough was when Cathy Simon, a principal at SMWM, called me about a project to renovate a historic building on the Presidio into the Crissy Field Environmental Education Center for the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, where she was a board member. I remember she said, “I’m going to put you on the list. Don’t screw it up.”

We submitted our qualifications. We were short-listed: it came down to us or Gordon Chong. A case of David and Goliath.

As we were preparing for our interview, Patrick told us the story of the time I.M. Pei was on the short list to design the Kennedy Library.  Pei’s firm found out everything they could about Jackie Kennedy’s likes and dislikes—her favorite flowers, food—they even painted their office her favorite color.

So we took a page from Pei and researched the key decision-makers for the Crissy Field project, When there was a second interview in our office, we had the right cookies and the right flowers.

I’ll never forget the call that came a few days later: “Congratulations, you’ve got the job.” It was lunchtime, and I was the only one in the office. There was no one to share the moment with.

In a way, the Crissy Field project was the birth of the firm. It was our first big project as the lead architect.  More importantly, the aspirations that connected us to that assignment – education, environmental stewardship, public-serving and mission-driven work – are the same values that drive our work today.

After a year or two, Chuck decided he wanted to go back to being on his own. At that point, we’d already been talking to Amy Eliot and Bobbie Fisch about hiring them. So Chuck left, Amy and Bobbie came on board, and Chapter Two of the firm began.

To Be Continued…