The Value of a House Doctor

having a go-to architect doesn’t just save time and headaches, it makes better places

“He is the best physician who is the most ingenious inspirer of hope.”
— Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Other than geography, it’s hard to see what TD Garden, MIT, Salem Five Bank and the Massachusetts Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance have in common. Yet each engaged Jones Architecture in an on-call capacity, along with more than a dozen other institutions in our region. Why? What are the advantages? Is there a downside to hiring a “house doc?”

“House doctor” is common parlance in our industry, referring to a consultant who is on-call to assist an organization, often under a master or term contract agreement. Projects may be planning or design and construction. They are generally smaller, but not exclusively so. They may be simple or complex.

When we take on a new project as a house doc, we’re bringing with us the experience of every project that has come before it with that organization, and often with forethought about those ahead. This context includes an understanding of organizational identity, standards, preferences, goals and ways of working — an accumulation of institutional knowledge that pays multiple dividends, from increased efficiency to better design.

This is true whether you have 70,000 square feet of real estate or 700,000 – or more. While project volume plays into whether your organization will benefit from a house architect, so does your team capacity. In the last year at Jones, projects completed under term agreements have ranged from preliminary planning assessments for Northeastern University, to a new hockey locker room for the UMass Minutemen and a major renovation to lab spaces at MIT.

The Value in Long Term Relationships
The point is not the size or the complexity of a project, but the thinking behind it — which is one of the key reasons for engaging in a long-term relationship with an architect. Below are seven more to consider:

1 – Increase bandwidth

Make a small facilities team bigger, make a big facilities team more productive. New England College of Optometry’s campus comprises five brownstones in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood; a single person runs everything for facilities — from ordering hand sanitizer to overseeing capital project improvements. She needs a designer on call for all kinds of things, from classroom studies and renovations to a five-year window and door replacement project.

Institutions like MIT are another story – they have a large team tackling myriad substantial projects. Before the on-call contract, they would need to go to multiple consultants — involving walk-throughs, RFPs and interviews in a process that is easily eight weeks. With a term contract, they can go to directly to their house doctor partner and distribute the work, saving time and costs on procurement.


2 – Efficiency and simplicity

Save the time and resources inherent in going to market for every project. Simplify procurement and contracts. Ease communication and reduce “up to speed” time.


3 – Design always matters (not just for the signature building)

Even the smallest projects make a difference in the daily lives of the people who use it. House doctors bring the knowledge of the larger system to design in every corner. We design as much as possible for each project, knowing that funding is unpredictable. Design resources can go a long way with your term team. Take Cape Cod Community College. The mid-century campus, nestled into the native landscape of the Cape, was rife with accessibility challenges. By bringing in a civil engineer and landscape architect, we developed comprehensive solutions that not only solve for site and building access, but address aesthetics, native plantings, and stormwater management. The improvements enhanced the college’s identity and make it more attractive to potential students — and earned a design award from the Boston Society of Architects.


4 – Sticky stakeholders

Sometimes you cannot afford to spend the time required to handle the demanding stakeholders and/or small jobs — the “move two walls, repaint and choose new carpet” projects. Your house doc can get it done and you can focus your energy elsewhere.


5 – Outside perspective

Every team benefits from fresh eyes. We work with MIT on a variety of classroom projects that come with a robust set of standards. Still, we are asking questions, challenging assumptions and often piloting ideas along the way based on what we are seeing in other campus learning spaces. We recap and discuss lessons learned at the end of each project and, when appropriate, roll learnings into the standards.


6 – Responsiveness

On-call means ready and waiting to mobilize. It also means trust, born of relationships that build over time as teams work together project after project. Productivity improves along with quality. As part of our work with Northeastern on their Innovation campus — a partnership with industry to incubate and launch new ideas in advanced technology — we had weekly meetings to go over a handful of projects in different stages. Frequently we’d get “breaking news” during the meeting regarding the latest venture to commit to the space. Because they always had limited time and funding to prove viability, the spaces that support these enterprises had to be up and running at record speed. Success hinged as much on creative delivery as it did creative design.


7 – Continuity

There’s no substitute for institutional knowledge. When you know how an organization works, you know how to solve its problems — and how not to. We often pilot new ideas or advance organizational goals with small projects that build cohesive benefits over time.

At University of Massachusetts-Amherst, we evaluated Whitmore Hall, a cast-in-place concrete “brutalist” building that serves as the main administration and student service building. Our study looked comprehensively at the program offerings in the building, and how better to arrange these to improve workflow and student engagement. The undercurrent of the study was a focus on the image of the building as a concrete behemoth, plagued by the environmental challenges of buildings of this era. Studies focused on daylighting strategies, covered courtyards, removal of berms to open up walls, improvements to envelope and dated building systems all pointed to a more sustainable model for Whitmore’s next 50 years of life, and by extension, the lives of other brutalist buildings on the campus.


Is there a downside to hiring a house doc?
Some would argue they inherently lack “fresh eyes” — that, as an extension of your team they won’t see the forest for the trees. We would remind them that architects undertake a range of projects of various types, sizes and degrees of complexity with a variety of clients across all sectors in many locations. This exposure keeps us fresh and in tune with trends across the competitive landscape. Indeed, with multiple house-doctor engagements comes deep insight of how other organizations — those like yours, and those completely different — are leveraging their real estate. 

Others might say the house doc is fine for the low-profile projects, but for signature engagements it’s important to look elsewhere. Maybe. And maybe not. Think twice before dismissing a house doc for big, bold architectural projects. Are you making assumptions based on the role you have used them for in the past, rather than their talent and capacity?

Many architectural firms eschew the role of a house doctor. They assume the projects are small, or mundane; they fear being pigeon-holed, or missing out on the chance to make their mark. We see it differently — we think they’re the ones missing out.

The work of a house doctor can vary wildly — both in scope and the user group served. It encompasses planning, design and construction, and can be a focused area of a building, whole buildings, or precincts of campuses. The latter is typically focused on a department, floor plate, or area of a building. It may also take the form of addressing deferred maintenance challenges. Regardless of the scope or scale, these projects are all important, often represent an opportunity for transformation, and can fundamentally change the day-to-day life of users. Small projects can lead to big solutions that shape the evolution of your organization. We’d never want to miss out on that, and neither should you.

Quote:
“Thank you for pulling this off under such a tight timeline. Jones Architecture is raising the bar for our other house docs —we wish all firms were as good as you folks are!”
—Joe MacKinnon, Director of Facilities, Cape Cod Community College

Jones Contracts for Ongoing Work
Boston University
Brandeis University
Cape Cod Community College
City of Boston Public Facilities Department
Division of Capital Asset Management & Maintenance
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Massachusetts State College Building Authority
Massasoit Community College
North Shore Community College
Northeastern University
Northern Essex Community College
Roxbury Community College
Salem Five Bank
Salem State University
TD Garden
Tufts University
University of Massachusetts – Amherst
University of Massachusetts – Boston
University of Massachusetts – Lowell

MORE RESOURCES:

“Brutal Honesty about Student Services at UMass-Amherst,” Rick Jones with Jeff Dalzell (Project Planner and Manager in Campus Planning, UMass-Amherst) and Naomi Cottrell (Principal, Crowley Cottrell) presented in March 2022 at SCUP North Atlantic Regional Conference.

“The Innovation Campus at Northeastern University: Bridging the Gap to Industry,” Dan Ollila with Jim Brand (Director of Space and Capital Planning, Northeastern University) and Peter Boynton (CEO, Kostas Research Institute at Northeastern University, LLC) presented in March 2020 at SCUP North Atlantic Regional Conference.

“Overcoming Accessibility Challenges with Inclusive Landscapes,” Sarah Tarbet with Christopher Becker (Statewide Accessibility Initiative, DCAMM), Carlo Urmy (Designer, Crowley Cottrell), and Jennifer Brooke (Principal, Lemon Brooke, LLC) presented in December 2020 at the ArchitectureBoston Expo (ABX) Virtual Tradeshow.