The View from the Other Side
Michael White is an architect's developer
Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 5/1/2009 12:00:00 AM
It's better to be lucky than smart. Or so the saying goes. Michael White is both. A Columbia University—trained architect, he began his professional career at Robert A.M. Stern Architects in New York before heading to HLW International. During his 16-year tenure there, he established satellite offices in Los Angeles, where he moved in 1995, as well as San Francisco, Shanghai, and Seoul, South Korea. He also headed up edgy, photogenic projects for Fox Studios, HBO, Warner Bros., Electronic Arts, and Red Bull, upping the ante for commercial design.
Then, in 2006, he went over to the other side. Real-estate development, that is. He's now a managing partner at CresaPartners, a tenant-advisory concern with 4,000 global employees, 800 in the U.S. Our first question: Why? Money, for starters. White and his architect wife, Joanne, had a 9-month-old daughter at the time and, as every designer knows, the switch-over would bring a significantly higher salary. Given the present A&D doldrums, his move was exquisitely timed.
Essentially a project manager, White describes his job as "marrying a client with the right architect." For example, he introduced Interior Design Hall of Fame member Lauren Rottet, then of DMJM Rottet, and the law firm Kirkland & Ellis following three years of negotiation for a 100,000-square-foot L.A. space. He also matched up the firm Epstein with Blue Shield for offices throughout California and HLW with Intuit for an office in Woodland Hills. He even managed the deal between Philippe Starck and East West Studios in Hollywood.
He showed off his team-building skills at the Pointe, a spec office building in Burbank, California: Connecting HLW with the building developer, M. David Paul & Associates, he also collaborated on the construction process. Team-building and planning are both abilities that he honed at the consultancy HLW Strategies—where, coincidentally, he advised numerous Cresa clients. He might lack an MBA, but he comes with plenty of business cred.
Inspecting the Pointe; photo by Luke Wooden. A LEED Silver contender, the Minnesota headquarters of Lo-ram, a supplier of railroad machinery and services, by Pope Associates; photo by Phil Prowse.
"I didn't fully appreciate at first how deeply I'd be involved with clients, more deeply even than with architecture," White says. Among topics of daily conversation: structuring contracts, expansion versus retraction, how to energize spaces that are now underutilized due to telecommuting or layoffs. Medical clients face a particularly uncertain future, he notes: "What happens if President Obama nationalizes health care?"
Much of White's work hinges on knowing about design. "I can spot a bad RFP. If it has holes, everyone's unhappy. It's not just about who has the lowest fees," he explains. So what's his advice to architect peers during this down market? "Do what Cresa did. Get heavily involved in strategic planning. It's in demand. CAD drawing, IT work, simple space planning, move management." Glamorous, no. But it pays the bills.
Similarly, not all his real-estate work entails multimillion-dollar deals. It can be on a small scale, too. And sometimes clients opt for no change at all. But they come to that decision better informed after scenario-play sessions. Besides, he continues, "Leases are constantly coming due, guaranteeing regular client contact and cash flow."
A corner of the 14-story Pointe building; photo by Kevin Kilmer. Los Angeles's East West Studios, renovated by Philippe Starck; photo by David Matheson.
On the flip side, White beats the drum loudly for the value of what the A&D community does. "The fact that I'm an architect is a big selling point. I don't let the client dismiss design on front-end conversations," he notes. "Good design does not have to be expensive. Good design creates efficiency." Ultimately, most clients adopt his mantras.
Does White dare to say that this past year was a boom for him? Yes, to a certain extent, with more than 100 projects in the works. And he's guardedly optimistic that opportunities will soon increase for his designer cohorts, particularly in President Obama's target areas: ecological initiatives, hospitals, schools, research facilities.
His own career may eventually circle back to architecture, which is still a strong pull for him. "I miss the magic," he admits. Luckily, his contract with Cresa will allow him to design and build his own mixed-use development someday.
HLW's Intuit in Woodland Hills, California; photo by Michael Schmidt.
Layout photo by Luke Wooden.