KITE Architects is located in Providence, Rhode Island (and opening a Los Angeles studio in Fall 2019).
Principals Christine West and Albert Garcia assumed full ownership of KITE Architects in 2013, after a decade working alongside the firm founders, Bill and Linna Kite. They had big shoes to fill…
Bill and Linna started KITE Architects in 1974 and designed many of Rhode Island’s most high-profile projects. Over 80 designers had been employed by Bill and Linna throughout the years, many of whom eventually left Bill’s mentorship at KITE to start their own local architecture firms. Bill and Linna’s retirement marked the end of an era. It also put Christine and Albert at an interesting career juncture: How would two young principals go about effectively assuming this mantle? How would they craft their vision for the future of KITE while respecting its past?
The evolution of Christine and Albert’s business partnership is a case study in thoughtful, strategic leadership. Working with a team of committed emerging leaders, they’ve grown KITE Architects “2.0” into a robust bi-coastal practice. They’ve diversified the firm’s portfolio to include boutique hotels, electric substations, and commercial offices while maintaining KITE’s foothold in institutional, adaptive reuse, and modern residential projects throughout New England and, as of Fall 2019, Los Angeles.
CVG’s Emily Hall (EH) and Erin Poppe (EP) “virtually” sat down with principals Christine West (CW) and Albert Garcia (AG) to discuss KITE’s unique history, what makes their partnership successful, and their working relationship with CVG.
EH: What was the transition like when Bill and Linna Kite retired from the firm in 2013? And what opportunities emerged with that change?
CW: There was a very carefully orchestrated handoff. Albert and I were each offered ownership positions in 2008, so we became Bill’s partners right before the recession started. Over the next five years, we operated as a trio. The slower handoff allowed Albert and me to continue leading projects that really established ourselves as leaders. We were very fortunate to have a number of very large institutional projects in place while the recession was blindsiding a lot of other Rhode Island firms. In 2013, when we were starting to see traces of economic improvement, Bill and Linna decided that was a good moment to retire.
We took their retirement as an opportunity to hit the reset button and create “KITE 2.0.” We moved our office and re-examined all of our professional-consultant relationships. Because we were starting to grow again, we took on a different path with hiring staff and built the senior levels right out of the gate. We became more careful about our firm operation in terms of looking at numbers and metrics and our finances to be more intentional about how we grew. We looked at all the different project types that we were doing to figure out what Albert and I were both interested in, and how we could fit it into our business plan.
AG: During that transition time, while the staffing levels fluctuated, we refined our tools and processes for working with key staff. The design work during that period continued to be very strong, and I am very proud of that transition in terms of the quality and the care that went into it.
EH: What were the challenges during that time?
CW: Bill had established such a legacy in Rhode Island that one of the things we were wary of was not making it appear like the firm was gone because its founder had retired. Albert and I had, by that point in 2014, been responsible for the majority of institutional work and some residential work; we each had a very strong hand in the firm’s portfolio for over a decade.
We were fighting the perception that Bill was responsible for everything and now we were starting from scratch. That was a big worry. So we embedded ourselves in the community; I was already volunteering on a number of boards, and already knew a lot of the people that Bill knew in the local community. That really helped make a more seamless leadership transition… but that was just one part of the strategy. We also had great clients. There was a period where we were designing the Dean Hotel — our associate Phil Derby was with us through that — and it was critical to have a signature, high-design project like that out there, keeping us at the forefront of people’s minds.
EH: What were the biggest learning moments from that transition process for each of you?
CW: The first would be the need to be intentional. Intentional about our clients; intentional about how we set up the work; intentional about how we represent ourselves to the community. The recession taught every architect the perils of economic instability, and what we could do to survive the next one. Being intentional on every level required doing a lot of homework; it meant digging into records of past projects, and figuring out if residential design was the right fit for us. Was it something on which we could sustain our business? Could we do it well? Was it something we were interested in?
We came out of that exercise saying, “Yes, but if we do residential, we’re going to focus on contemporary houses, new construction, and mid-century modern” — the things that we really find exciting.
The second overall lesson was that it really put a focus on Albert’s and my business partnership, and the need to understand and respect each other. We are very different personalities, and at the end of the day, that’s what the firm is built on. I really appreciate how thoughtful and patient Albert is in comparison to my more impulsive energy (CW laughs ).
AG: One of the biggest challenges was the transition from a sole-practitioner to the next generation of collaborators. While for the first 30 years of the firm’s history Bill largely executed the work with various partners and an amazing design team, the firm was represented as that of a sole practitioner. At the end of the day, some of the most successful projects and periods for the firm were from partnerships and the effective teams we had in place.
EH: What do you value most about each other as business partners?
CW: We share the impulse to do whatever is necessary to not only keep the firm running, but keep it running well. We work at building an environment where people enjoy coming to work every day. We have an eye for quality, but it’s not at the expense of a fun culture. I think that Albert’s more emotionally intelligent side helps balance the more methodical, organizational things that I like to plan.
AG: Christine has the superpower of being able to x-ray through the process, be it design or management; to see everything in real time, as well as how it will move forward and what it was like in the past. Seeing those different realities is mind-boggling to me. I don’t know how she does it.
CW: I really admire how Albert is focused on craft and technical excellence when it comes to design. I think a lot of people with that approach might lose sight of the “human factor” and the values it represents. It’s not just about architecture as a beautiful object; it’s about the family that lives in that home. It’s about creating community and an order for a higher purpose.
Albert also has a great way of working with clients that is very attentive and personable. He’s not the loudest voice in the room, but the relationships he develops with clients are based on earned trust that comes from integrity.
EH: Do you have any advice to other emerging firm leaders approaching partnership status?
CW: As far as advice, it’s like any long-term relationship. You have to understand where your own desires, interests, and talents start and stop – as well as where you can make room for that other person, and where that accommodation will start to eat into what you need. That’s where you need clear communication about boundaries.
As our firm evolves and changes, we’re always talking about roles and responsibilities and our position relative to staff and clients. An active dialogue with each other, as well as the outside world, is necessary. And if it’s not something you can work through or reconcile, then maybe that firm structure isn’t for you. In our case, it worked out great.
AG: I think it’s important to listen when something doesn’t feel right, or when it creates conflict internally or externally. Resist the urge to bury things and not deal with them. When you suppress your natural tendencies to call issues out, things can blow up. So have the conversation about the problem, then have another one about it after that. You might not find the solution in one sit-down, but at least you’re keeping the communication channels open. The dynamics and the process do evolve and change, as they have for us since 16 years ago. One size doesn’t fit all.
CW: Very early on in our working relationship, I remember when the School of Architecture building was full-throttle with an aggressive schedule, and a design decision needed to be made. I was talking on more of a project manager role, and Albert was taking on more a technical role. There was a meeting where I was very impatient (“We’ve got to decide and move on, we don’t have time to weigh other options”).
After the meeting, Albert took me aside and said that was not going to cut it. We had to talk things through if we were going to work together. It was a real wake-up call for me, and I really appreciate how respectful, firm, and clear Albert was in how we were going to work together. That really set us off in a good direction.
AG: Also, learn how to manage suffering. Sometimes you’ll get stuck trying to create or solve something, and you really need to listen to your teammate when they tell you it’s not working. It might be hard to hear in that moment, but you need to hear it. That quality in a partnership is invaluable, and led us to developing a strong friendship in addition to our firm dynamic.
EH: What led you to consider working with CVG? How has it influenced how you run your firm?
CW: Well for me (because I was the one who suggested it) having come out of that transition period, we had grown the firm quite significantly in a period of about four years — to about six or seven people in 2016. Two things became clear to me: one, we needed to grow to become profitable and therefore more financially stable; and two, that Albert and I didn’t have the resources between us to figure that out.
We needed resources: organization, structure, and the kind of mentoring in marketing and financial management and HR and all the things that CVG provides. We needed to make the firm about developing the institutional processes that would make the business a long-term success, instead of building a person-dependent design firm.
I can sit here all day and figure out how to develop billing strategies, but if that’s not understood, accepted, and able to be done by multiple people, then what happens if I leave? The firm needs to operate sustainably without us having a hand on the wheel at every moment. I think that’s a big lesson that we learned from the transition: that a firm can survive its founder, and it can survive in the hands of different people if we are very intentional about how we operate.
AG: In a way, CVG provided a structure to place and organize a lot of things that we had been nurturing and shaping, but there wasn’t complete clarity. But now we can take a more holistic look at where we are and how we can hone the things that keep us successful.
EH: What do you hope a client thinks when they walk through KITE’s door for the first time?
CW: They usually think, “Wow!” because we have a really nice office. But I hope they understand that this office we created is a symbol. It reflects not only the design feeling that we want people to have when they’re in the space, but also how it really feels to be in a space that was carefully orchestrated. I hope they see our staff as the very talented and dedicated people that they are, with a wide variety of interests. I hope they feel that we are invested in that client’s success and goals, and that we’re deeply sympathetic to them. I think we’ve created a nice atmosphere and cultivated that approach, so that their trust is well founded.
AG: I think when you first walk into our office, you see the space and how a lot of different design elements we layered into it. I think it’s important that when someone comes into our space for the first time, it helps them anticipate what’s to come in their design process and collaboration.
EH: If you weren’t architects, what would you be?
CW: An electrician or materials scientist.
AG: Probably a swim coach; there are a lot of parallels.
CW: I can see you being a swim coach. I don’t think I’d be a good electrician. Practically speaking, I’d probably be in real estate finance in a different universe.
EP: What’s the next chapter for KITE?
CW: We have a lot of new leaders emerging. Phil Derby, who has been with us for pretty much forever; and then Kyle Bamrick, who is leading our Los Angeles presence and is a strong collaborator to our leadership team. The LA location offers a lot of opportunities that we hope to be pursuing. The partnership with CVG has given us the courage as well as the practical advice to explore that opportunity. I don’t think we’d be where we are with that location if it wasn’t for CVG, and I think we owe you all a lot for that. It’s exciting to get away from the habits that we formed as a 45 year-old firm!
Visit KITE Architects’ new website, designed by CVG in collaboration with web consultant John West.