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Marcel Wisznia, AIA: Think Like an Architect, Build Like a Developer
Since Hurricane Katrina, Wisznia has become his own client, focusing on developing mixed-use apartment projects out of existing historic New Orleans buildings
By Mike Singer
Marcel Wisznia, AIA, current president of AIA New Orleans, inherited his penchant for real estate development from his late father, the Corpus Christi architect and sometime-developer Walter Wisznia.
Since Hurricane Katrina, Wisznia | Architecture + Development has focused almost exclusively on designing and developing its own mixed-use apartment projects in historic New Orleans buildings, including The Garage, once a Buick dealership; Union Lofts, a former Western Union building; The Maritime, sculpted out of New Orleans’s first (1893) skyscraper; and The Saratoga, an office building built in 1953.
Adamant about preserving historic architecture while integrating new development, Wisznia’s dual role as architect and developer is creating new residential spaces out of New Orleans’ most historic structures. AIArchitect caught up with him in New Orleans to ask him about what it means to think like an architect, build like a developer, and make each diverse skill set complement the other.
AIArchitect: You started out as an architect, not a developer. What made you change?
Marcel Wisznia: Early in my father’s career, he was consistently asked by developers to provide schematic design services for a proposed project, but without compensation. The developer promised he would get the commission if and when the project moved forward.
My father quickly realized he was absorbing a good part of the developer’s risk, but without any upside. So, in the late 1950s, he began to develop medical office buildings, and in 1961 he designed and developed the first residential condominiums in Texas. My father and I merged our firms in the early 1980s, and continued to develop real estate together, primarily office buildings, until his death in 2004.
But in 2005, I changed our firm’s workload from 20 percent self-developed projects and 80 percent traditional third-party client commissions to the opposite. I had gotten tired of taking the time necessary to educate clients. I realized for a client to make good design decisions, an architect must spend a lot of time educating. In many cases, the enlightenment comes through an architect’s effort to show that a well-designed and cohesive solution will rent or sell for more than one that is solely bottom-line, numbers-driven.
Today, architects say I am lucky to “wear both hats”—that I can do whatever I want without having to sell our solution to the client. In fact, my firm faces the same difficult daily decisions required to turn any project from a dream to reality. The only difference is that we clearly see both the architect and the developer points of view, and blend the two in ways that add value to the solution.
Did your architect training at Tulane prepare you for your dual role as an architect and a developer?
There was nothing in my architectural training that gave me the tools to do what I do today. But on the other hand, it was my training that created our success.
I believe schools of architecture train us as problem solvers. They do not give us answers to questions, but rather show us the process to analyze and find solutions. We quickly outline the palettes of possibilities and prioritize them. We filter the successes and failures of each, and then take the best and combine them into one solution that is better than the sum of the parts. Many developers lack those skills because they have not gone through the unique educational training we have as design professionals.
I have always had an entrepreneurial spirit. This certainly comes from watching my father, as he had a unique ability to use both sides of his brain. Many architects refuse to acknowledge both sides, fearing that will make them look less creative. In reality, the right-brain skills required of development, such as market research, making deals to buy and finance properties, managing construction contracts, etc., make an architect much more creative. I have learned to speak the language of the lending community, but I couple that with a creative design side that sets our developments apart. I truly believe that my ability to passionately describe my dream, from an architectural point of view, helps sell our projects to lenders—and in fact to all stakeholders.
How do your current office operations and staff differ from when Wisznia was primarily an architectural firm working for other clients?
We have a completely different mix than even two years ago. Less than half our staff today are architects or interns. Most are real estate people—analysts, property managers, leasing agents, etc.
Our real estate staff and architects share the same studio space and communicate daily, if not hourly. This takes the mystique out of the relationships. Our design teams attend weekly property management and leasing meetings. [Having] architects [describe] their visions to leasing personnel means they have tools to articulate design solutions to potential tenants, and that accelerates renting our buildings. Having both development and architectural divisions under one roof speeds up the entire design process.
It still takes traditional methods to convince lenders and partners to move forward with a project, which means we utilize market studies, appraisals, net-operating income calculations, amortization schedules, etc. So our creativity goes well beyond the drawing board. As a relatively small firm, we used incentives and subsidies that redefine conventional financing. Specifically, our projects take advantage of tax-credit programs that provide significant equity, including historic and new market tax credits. Government-backed loans allow us to move forward with minimal outside cash and few partners.
Although we are now developing at a fairly large scale, we started small, and used The Maritime to test our tax-credit ideas. [The] Maritime has a lease-up at twice the pace underwriters anticipated, and at a rental rate 20 percent higher than the previous market high.
As your experience shows, it takes a certain breed of entrepreneurial designer to also become a developer. Can we expect more architects to hang shingles as developers?
Judging from the overwhelming interest in my presentation at the AIA Convention in New Orleans about developing real estate sustainably, I may be on the tip of a new movement in our field. Clearly, architects see real estate development as an opportunity to gain added value to their design work. In addition to receiving one’s normal fee, development lets architects profit from property and asset management fees, and surplus cash distributions from ownership [and] equity positions.
But it’s not for everyone. Each architect has to look inward and see if they have a risk-taking personality. The added stress is easily noticeable. But I start each day optimistic that I have the skills to take the required responsibility of a developer. And I know that my architectural credentials tremendously assist with this. I am more engaged and more focused than any time in my 38 years of continuous practice. I am excited to come to work every day. The passion is back.
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