Partner at //3877, a boutique design firm that’s committed to providing innovative and creative designs that enhance and enrich the lives of its clients, partners, and communities.
By Liisa Andreassen
As a partner at //3877 (Washington, D.C.), Shove-Brown has expertise in residential, restaurant, and healthcare design. His work has been featured in Details Magazine, The Washington Post, Boutique Design Magazine, and more. He’s also a guest faculty member at the Catholic University School of Architecture and Planning and has led classes at the Corcoran College of Art + Design and lectures for the National Building Museum, Washington Architectural Foundation, and the Washington, D.C. Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
“Great leadership is about humility,” Shove-Brown says. “No one is ever too important, we treat others as equals.”
A conversation with David Shove-Brown.
The Zweig Letter: What benefits does your firm offer that your people get most excited about?
David Shove-Brown: We’ve just made the decision to switch to unlimited paid time off. Post-2020, we’ve collectively moved into an age where flexibility is key to employee success and happiness. We need our staff to be motivated to work hard and get the job done, knowing that they are allowed time to recover and rest. We’re also starting to plan out how we’ll be incorporating a more hybrid model for work, allowing employees to balance work-from-home and work-from-office.
TZL: Have you had a particular mentor who has guided you – in school, in your career, or in general? Who were they and how did they help?
DSB: There are a few people who have greatly influenced who I am, and where I’m going.
- Stanley Hallet, the former dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at Catholic University of America, is one of those people who truly brings out the best in the people around him. He is a character among characters.
- George Dove, one of David Tracz’s first bosses, was a major influence on me. I taught with George for eight or so years, and using him as a sounding board was very important during the big moments of my architecture career.
- My parents. I will never forget the moment in high school, when I barely made it through biology when my mom and I were sitting with my guidance counselor. Unlike a lot of parents, she didn’t force me to fall into the “marching line” of doing things a certain way because they’d always been done that way. Instead of forcing me to do biology – a subject that I didn’t enjoy and wasn’t good at – she encouraged me to take up art. This type of guidance helped me on my path of becoming who I was meant to be. It’s important for parents to embrace the weirdness.
- My daughter. I’m going to leave this world a better place than when I came here because of her – she’s the driving force behind that.
TZL: You have a quote in your bio that reads, “Good architecture is landscape in drag.” Love it. Can you give me an example of how this translates into a past or current project?
DSB: For me, this quote has two meanings. As a part of my position at the Catholic University School of Architecture and Planning, I’ve traveled and held lectures in Italy, including at the magical Casa Malaparte in Capri. To celebrate the 70th anniversary of this piece of incredible architecture, I arranged a week-long workshop led by one of my heroes, Antoine Predock. Antoine gave numerous lectures, led design session and unique sketching exercises. He called me on his last day in Italy and said, “I’m calling you from my cell phone so that we can continue to stay in touch.” I couldn’t believe my hero was actually calling me. It was a realization that great leadership is about humility; no one is ever too important, we treat others as equals. To this day, Antoine is still a mentor, friend, and hero of mine – that connection is so important to me.
The combination of landscape and architecture is paramount. We want and need a connection to the outdoors, whether it comes from incorporating natural materials, or including a connection to outdoor areas within a design. One project example that comes to mind when speaking on this topic is an early //3877 project – MatchBox – where we incorporated many different, natural materials, but we didn’t hide that materiality; we let these materials and finishes shine within the space.
TZL: How do you anticipate COVID-19 permanently impacting your firm’s policy on telecommuting?
DSB: Just like the majority of business owners, we’re still mapping out the road ahead. It’ll likely be a hybrid approach – splitting employees’ time between remote work and in-office work. It’s undeniable that 2020 dramatically changed the way everyone works, on a global level. On both an individual level and a professional level, we’ve all experienced a massive learning curve, where our limits have been put to the test. We have to find a silver lining in this collective experience. If remote work is more productive, efficient, and beneficial for the office culture, why not continue some element of that in the workplace “norm” of the future?
TZL: Trust is essential. How do you earn the trust of your clients?
DSB: By being honest. We tell them from the moment we start the project process that we’re not superheroes. There will always be bumps in the road, but that we’ll solve them. It’s also important to talk about fees, cost, and money up front.
TZL: What skills are required to run a successful practice? What do you wish you knew starting out that you know now?
DSB: Looking back over the past 10 years, the first thing I wish we knew before starting //3877 is just how challenging it is to not only find the right employee, but also how to measure if they will integrate within our established company culture. We want everyone to fit into the overall picture of //3877. You may find the right person for the job on paper, but it’s difficult to know how they’ll acclimate. I also didn’t realize how much time was going to be spent working on interpersonal dynamics (and taking people for coffee breaks to work through these). There are always going to be stumbling blocks. You have to mediate, facilitate, and dictate.
Once you find the right people, which we have been blessed to do, my business partner and I have learned that maintaining the wellbeing of our team is paramount. Accomplishing this comes about in different ways – whether that be how you convey information, or how you give everyone a voice. For us, it’s been evolutionary – trying to understand how much information and what information to give, and being able to give our employees tasks that are challenging and that play to their strengths. Our job as co-founders and principals is to support our team and to provide all the tools and information needed for them to create great work.
TZL: What type of leader do you consider yourself to be?
DSB: For my business partner, David Tracz, and I, it’s always been a priority to be transparent. That old-school business mentality of the “big boss” who leads their team through an emotionally-disconnected management style is so outdated. Leadership is about creating and maintaining a two-way street of open communication. It’s about being truthful via vulnerability. I believe that compassionate communication is about transparency. That includes being accountable for answering questions about business strategy and survival.
Last year, being transparent included sharing the nitty gritty numbers such as earnings and losses with our staff. It was no surprise that our 2020 numbers saw a dip (like the majority of the industry). Even though it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, our staff was appreciative to have the insight, and to be trusted with the information. It’s fundamentally important that employees understand that their work has financial value, and that they each play a role in creating profit. In 2020, through all the adversity and struggle, it was important to share that their sacrifices – working unusual hours, struggling with a new work setup, or having to juggle parenting and working – meant that our business survived.
TZL: In the client testimonials on your website, clients repeatedly call out how much they enjoyed working with your team. The sense of community that your company offers shines through. How do you maintain that company culture that shows a unified front?
DSB: From team-building events to happy hours to visiting staff during the 2020 holidays (albeit via proper social distancing), we do so much to stay connected. The most important part of a company is its people, and a great company culture is the base of our operations. We preach our company values and culture ahead of the hiring process.
TZL: They say failure is a great teacher. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?
DSB: From the very beginning, Tracz and I realized that understanding each other’s strengths and weaknesses was paramount. We quickly realized what the other one was better at, and that playing to each other’s strengths was going to be key to our success. In the same vein, I learned that it’s important to be cognizant and open-minded to criticism, and being able to identify when you’re wrong. Similarly, surrounding yourself with people who don’t necessarily agree with you is important for remaining exposed to new perspectives and ideas. You can’t do it all, and you don’t have to do it all. Hire someone who is really good at those things that you’re not so good at, and focus on what you are good at.
TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility?
DSB: Supporting my team through obtaining work, completing work, teaching, and learning.