Design Déjà vu


David Shove-Brown, co-founder of //3877, a D.C.-based architecture and design firm specializing in hospitality shares the story of one of their most challenging projects—a historic building turned restaurant that they redesigned not once, but twice! Learn how //3877 balanced the unique challenges of working within a historic structure while creating a vibrant dining experience, and how unexpected events like an earthquake can impact a project. This season of Once Upon A Project is presented by Shaw Contract. 

aj: [00:00:00] Welcome to Once Upon a Project. I’m your host, AJ Perrone, Design Futurist for Sandow Design Group,

bringing you all your favorite design brands you know and love, like Metropolis Magazine, Interior Design Magazine, Design Milk, and ThinkLab. I can’t believe it, but this is our final episode for season two.

And today on the podcast, we’re joined by one of the funniest, most entertaining designers I know. We’ll hear about a once in a lifetime opportunity, designing a unique restaurant in the same space. Not once, but twice. Thanks Let me introduce you to David, and I’ll let him explain more.

david: My name is David show brown. I am one of the two founding partners of 38 77. We are an architecture and design firm in D. C. We’ve got a small office up in New York as well. , we are now three partners on a team of 40. To [00:01:00] mostly hotel, hospitality and restaurant work, some retail, residential, single family and multifamily, some other things throughout.

But, really focused , on hospitality work.

I am technically an architect. I have a degree in architecture and a license to practice architecture.

 Given my background in architecture, there’s, , the line between architecture and interior design , Quite frankly, in our philosophy is almost non existent. Prior to starting the practice, I had worked with smaller to mid size firms that did a little bit of everything. And so there was always this time crossing over what was traditional architecture roles into design roles and vice versa.

And , the rationale when Dave and I, sorry, my business partner’s also named Dave. I’m not speaking in the third person. So I just want to clarify. So when Dave and I started the firm, we really wanted to break down that barrier even more. By focusing on projects completely interiors exterior, ground up, all of those [00:02:00] things, it was just a sort of a natural progression that we were doing a little bit of everything.

, , in the restaurant world, especially in D. C. Certainly there are some ground up buildings, but a lot of it looking at existing restaurant spaces and re imagining for a new client or looking at new tenant space or whatever it may be. But for us, it really helped tell the design story.

aj: But, before we get too far into the project, let’s learn a little bit more about David.

david: So there’s a couple of components to how I got to become an architect. So yes, I had the Legos, , as a kid enjoyed that , I don’t think it is appropriate for this podcast to do any background research into these charges. I may have locked a babysitter in the basement.

Because she kicked over a Lego fire station because she got mad at me. A legend. I don’t, again, you can call my parents. , so I I had the Legos and I enjoyed that. Nobody in my family was in architecture and interior design. So I didn’t really know what it was. Quite honestly, I went to [00:03:00] high school and I was in the concert.

I was in the band. , and not surprisingly, I play drums because it’s really frigging loud. And that’s just me. And, I really disliked that experience. I did not have a great experience with the conductor. One of the other drummers was a complete troublemaker, which is ironic because that’s who I am now.

, it was not a great experience for me. And I got into art classes and somebody suggested taking a drafting class. And then I saw that connection between art and documentation. And I was like, this is really fascinating. There was a small summer program that for three weeks , you could pick a profession and they would set you up and you could shadow an architect.

And so I shadowed, , this design firm in, in Connecticut and just was like, holy hell, this is amazing. That connection between art design mathematics and science, all that stuff I thought was really great. I survived somehow survived high school, , being weird, wasn’t quite the artsy person and I definitely wasn’t the jock.

So in [00:04:00] between, started applying to architecture school, went to architecture school and found a whole bunch of weirdos just like me and loved every minute of it.

aj: Wait, can we go back and talk about the legendary story of the babysitter fiasco? What actually happened there?

david: So the best part, not the best part, locking a babysitter in the basement allegedly was not a great decision on my part. ? This was in the eighties. And so there was a time way back when kids that we did not have the cell phones.

And , to stop the babysitter from calling my parents and letting them know that I was making bad choices, I took the phone off the hook too. I remember, I so vividly remember my parents walking in the, , the side door from where our driveway was at this house and me sitting at the top of the stairs by the closed door thinking like, yes I yeah.

 And at no point did I think this is really dumb. This seems a bad time after that. Make good [00:05:00] choices, kids make good choices.

aj: So David went on to be a semi good kid. At least he made it through architecture school. was employable to firms, and was a successful working young man. I hope that made up for all the trouble his parents endured. But how did he and the other David end up starting their own firm?


david: My business partner david trotz and I started the practice 13 years ago 13 in may We actually went to college together. So we met I think second day of college. In 1991 And yeah, i’m a thousand years old. Give it a rest. You know, we’re best friends very quickly.

 , we went to work for a couple of different firms, , after college, ended up at the same one, we were roommates. It was really gross. It was a love story. A lot of designers and architects. A lot of people in general constantly have that.

When I run the show, it’s going to be this way and we’re going to do this differently. And my career was a little bit more circuitous. I actually got [00:06:00] into, academia for a while and , was teaching, but Dave and I talking about. Starting a practice and doing things sort of our way and focusing on the work that we wanted to do.

I think one of the challenges, , we had was, working for a little bit larger firm, sometimes you get put in these sort of paired, relationships with clients that, , maybe there wasn’t a design ethos that was in common. And so for us, it having that.

strong relationship with clients, but really following through with customer service. , we spend a lot of time looking at where we’re getting our clients from and then how we retain our clients. And so we end up over 75 percent of our clients are either return client or direct client referral.

So because we spend a lot of time in customer service and working with our clients through The best of times and the worst of times, , every project’s got its, it’s time when it goes sideways and for us, it’s really important to be there for that and celebrate the wins again, learn from some of the things that don’t go as well.

aj: Okay, so Dave and [00:07:00] Dave started this new firm with fresh ideas on how to work with clients. So I really wanted to know the backstory on the project that they had to do twice.

david: My thought in. Chatting with you today I was actually just looking at our archive. It was technically our third project ever, when we did it the first time. So it’s a, restaurant project that we had done initially back in 2011, , but then last year it actually came back around with a different client.

, and we redid the space. , for a second time. Not only do we get to design it again, but you also had to write notes of demolishing some of the stuff you designed the first time. So I’m going to talk about that project.

So the project is at the corner of 14th and T Streets, Northwest, which is Northwest. Just south of the historic U street corridor. , the building is a historic building. With the district’s, , office of historic preservation, it was [00:08:00] built in 1907 as a pool hall and bowling alley.

, somewhere in the 1920s, it converted to a car dealership, which was interesting, , just looking at some of the photos, the historic photos. , and then it became a. Jazz club. , it was called Club Bali and , Etta James performed there. And there’s just, , all these really interesting, backstories to Club Bali.

 unfortunately during the race riots, , and along U street, it was, , really badly damaged. Ultimately it was haphazardly put back together. And then it became a rehearsal space for a local theater. developer bought the building, reached out to our client who was a very well respected restaurateur in the area.

And said, Hey you like this property for a restaurant? And Dave and I we had been talking about doing a practice. We had known these guys for a long period of time and always had talked about all of us coming together to do a project and it all worked out.

Perfectly just in terms of timing. And so they reached [00:09:00] out and said, Hey, could you come by and take a look at this building? And yeah, it was fascinating. to the point that during construction I don’t know, gosh, I don’t remember 2011 or 2012, but There was actually an earthquake in DC and the building was damaged during the earthquake, which is one of those things that in the district, you never think is going to be an issue.

Yeah we had a lot of interesting challenges working on this project.

aj: I’ve never even heard of an earthquake in D. C. So, yes. There are some unusual attributes to this project, but I asked Dave to walk us through working on the building the first time around.

david: When Dave and I were approached, it was a group of four guys that had Several restaurants in town and they had approached us and said if we’d like to look at this space and we went over and toward the building. And at that point, like I said, it had been a rehearsal space for a local theater.

And so it was uninspiring. They had just put up some walls and they had just adopted the space as was. And it was it was fine. There wasn’t a whole lot there to [00:10:00] it. And at the time 14th Street hadn’t really started up in that area hadn’t really started. It’s real renaissance.

There were some developments going on, and there were some buildings that were in planning, but nothing had really started to happen. So there was this interesting connection of all these challenges happening at once. So you have a historic building that’s questionably structured at the time.

There is a neighborhood that wasn’t quite sure What it was going to be. There were a lot of neighbors in the area that had been there for a very long time, and they weren’t necessarily sure they wanted a bunch of new development to come in and dictate what their neighborhood was.

You have a restaurant. Client that this would have been their third or fourth restaurants. So they were at that cusp of transitioning from we have a brand into how can we push our brand a little bit further and what are some of the things that we can do. And then you have us two idiots that are starting an architectural and design firm together.

 You’re out there and you’re trying [00:11:00] to get more work. You’re trying to do the work that you get. You’re trying to get paid for the work that you’re doing. And I’ll maintain some sense of sanity. So all of those things coming together on this project was really fascinating. The client.

Was a bistro they had a really strong pizza program, but they had a a great bistro menu and great bar menu. And this was going to be one of the larger spaces they had done. This was again, a very unique building. And so one of the first things we actually did was basically demolished the entire building inside to see what we were dealing with.

And when we had done the demolition. We had found that it was a two story building and supporting the second floor where these three foot deep built in place steel girders similar to railroad bridges and things of that sorts of these massive structural pieces carrying the load of the second floor [00:12:00] and so immediately we were like, Oh my God, this is, these are just so cool.

We’ve got to find a way to expose these and work with these. But then we also realized that we wanted to have part of the second floor to be open so you could see down below and you could have these vertical openings. Which is great, except for you then need to make up for those lost seats somewhere else.

And so what we ended up finding was the only way to truly do that, get the kitchen that we needed, the bar we needed, the pizza ovens that we needed, was to basically take out one of these steel girders. And make three stories out of two. So at the back of the building, we ended up removing the last one of the girders and then sandwiched in an intermediate level that became some of the food storage and dishwashing and things like that.

And then above that became a private event mezzanine space. There was no elevator in the building, so we had to get an elevator in the building. We had to get emergency egress in the stairs. We then found out that. The first [00:13:00] floor wasn’t accessible on either side. So it wasn’t accessible from 14th street or from T street.

And so then became the discussion of, okay, are we going to do a bunch of ramps? Or do we need to, because if we do ramps, we can’t do it on 14th street because we’re against the property line. If we do it on T street, then we’re going to take away from our potential outdoor seating.

 Ultimately working with the contractor, we realized the best thing to do is actually take the entire floor out and lower it about seven inches to get it flush on the T street side so that somebody. In a wheelchair could go right in and then the way the grade work that was just one step then from 14th Street. All these little challenges that you find throughout. But certainly as we took apart what was there and looked at the existing structure the steel girders were in great shape, but The masonry of the exterior was not great. The roof was not great. They were doing a new building to the north which was going to be a multi story residential building, which meant there was going to [00:14:00] be a possibility for snow load sitting up against that building, then sitting on our roof where we had to put a whole bunch of new mechanical units.

So it was just all the challenges, potential challenges thrown in one project all at once.

aj: The project definitely wasn’t for the faint of heart, and it wasn’t just a design project. It was also an architectural mess.

So how did Dave and his team overcome all these challenges and hopefully make it a success.

david: Our client for this project was a group called the matchbox food group. As we were really planning this one of the major premises before starting this project was that Ourselves, the client, the contractor, we all agreed that it was going to be an open dialogue, no matter how difficult sometimes it would be, it was going to be very open communication, especially in a scenario where you’re working in a historic building that God knows what we’re going to find.

So as we. Started the project. We knew we [00:15:00] were just going to have to work together and figure out ways to make it happen. Matchbox had, like I said, they had a couple of other restaurants they had a brand that was in place was doing well. But this was our opportunity to take the brand and.

Ask some of those questions of why are you, why do it this way or why do it that way? And it was really great because the clients were very much of the There was no answer that was because we’ve always been, we’ve always done it this way. It was more of we did it this way because there was this sort of space available in that restaurant or that space.

And and so we were able to say, okay well, how can we maybe push the brand and have a little more fun with it? So one of the restaurants that they had. was in Capitol Hill where I was living at the time with my wife and our infant daughter. apparently when you have a newborn, there are a lot of work.

Holy geez. And there was a lot of takeout food that was ordered in the first, 12 years of her life. [00:16:00] And one of our go tos was Matchbox. And so I’d go down to the Capitol Hill location and because of its size and limitations this was a design flaw was just what they had.

 When you picked up a pizza to go, you had to go back a little ways. So coming back through was a bit of a challenge. And so we talked about that as an opportunity. Could we have a special to go entrance? This was pre COVID, pre Uber eats, pre DoorDash and all of those things. Thinking of people just coming by after work or on a weekend, picking up a pizza to go. So could we handle that? One of the owners had seen a painting of some folks eating, And it was a profile of the couple sitting at the table and this big chunky frame that went around and he’s in, he thought wouldn’t this be awesome if we built basically a big box and you sat in the box and you were the framed like seating area, which was this sort of feature place where everybody wanted to go.

[00:17:00] So we were like, okay, we can work that in. And we then came back and said, does it have to be on the first floor? And they were like, no, there’s nothing. So we’re like what if. We built it and hung it on some of the steel girders. And then to get to the boxes, you had to walk across little bridges and they were like, hell yeah, how do we do that?

And we went through this design process where we created these two boxes and they became tables, 300 and three 33 that everybody wanted to just sit at. My favorite, I think still to this day are one of my favorite reviews of the restaurant Washington Post said that the two box tables were baller.

So I, I didn’t know that our design would ever be considered baller, but they currently were a baller or the seats were baller, not us. taking their brand and having some fun with it. But the Matchbox team was also really cognizant of the spaces they went into, they had done so much of the work on their initial [00:18:00] restaurants by themselves, like actually You know, building some of the things, building the tables, building.

And so they were very cognizant of bringing in some of the history. So when we had done demolition, The contractor actually found parts of the original bowling alleys in the floor. Not enough that we could do anything. So they ended up taking it and hanging in their office, but we built the bar top so that all the wood pieces were running vertically.

So it looked like a bowling lane the whole way down. the owners brought in some great touches to where they put in brass panels in the back bar bringing back some of The memories of the historic jazz club and paying tribute to some of those moments. Taking their brand and then pushing it a little bit further was incredibly fun but at the same time, you’re working in a historic building where you’re trying to bring it up to code. So now you’re trying to [00:19:00] incorporate the right number of restrooms. You’re trying to.

 Put in egress stairs. You’re trying to put in an elevator. And this was this was just Dave and I doing the drawings and we had somebody ultimately who we hired full time, who was helping us with renderings and some other things, but trying to just figure out how the emergency stairs would work because it works great on two levels.

But then when you add this sort of third level that we sandwiched in between, I must’ve drawn that stair section. Two dozen times just trying to get it right so that it was code compliant and somebody could get out in case of a fire. I think if I looked at that stair section one more time, I was going to get sick.

aj: But he didn’t get sick. In fact, the project ended up being more than just finished.

david: The project was very successful. It did well while it was there I think some of the challenges were Dave and I figuring out how to work. together, just the two of us working with the client, working with [00:20:00] contractor dealing with issues of engineering and with this historic building. you know, I think some of the things that were the biggest challenges were really based in communication, making sure that we’re all in the same, place as Dave and I were just starting to starting the business off, Davis still working at another job. And I was trying to be a new dad and all of these things. So, Certainly learned some hard lessons in communication and making sure that we got everything to contractor and client when they needed it, as we were working through this. And we also had to go through a whole series of different approvals Within DC, not just for the building permit, because it was historic because there was outdoor seating, because the building is interesting that it takes up a hundred percent of its lot.

So there was no parking. So we had to work through some of those challenges with the neighborhood. For us, it was really groundbreaking in trying to work through some of those challenges. And then you throw in [00:21:00] a, an earthquake and you’re going, okay what else could there be? It was an amazing experience. Just really across the board. It was fantastic. And then as I guess they had been there about 10 years and the building got sold and the new landlord didn’t renew the lease and so they. Look to do something different with the space.

But for us learning so much about not just architecture and design, but historic preservation and the DC processes and all of those things we went from zero to a hundred very quickly.

aj: In my lifetime, I’ve done a lot of design, but restaurant design is not one of them. Let’s I know there’s a science to it, unique aspects that you don’t have to think about in other projects.

But I do know the design of the space has a direct impact on how successful the restaurant is in so many ways. So I asked Dave to walk us through the [00:22:00] tenets of restaurant design.

david: So restaurant design is always an an interesting challenge because it starts with who is the client? We can walk into restaurants that have not. Um, And you can very quickly tell if it’s a a chef driven restaurant versus a investor driven restaurant, chef driven restaurant is like 95 percent kitchen and then two seats.

 And then the opposite happens when you have a, an investor driven restaurant. Based restaurant where it’s 95 percent seats and there’s a guy with a hot plate and back and so there’s a very, there’s a very delicate balance of how many you have to understand the business of each restaurant how many covers are they trying to do in a given night?

What’s the what’s the average length of stay? Someone’s going to be at a table. Bar seating versus high top seating versus booth and all that how flexible does the space want to be? Is it a scenario where people want to move tables or are they going to be very specific to that location?

Obviously, you’re not going to move a booth. You can move some seats at a banquette and then free seating [00:23:00] is very flexible. We spend a lot of time with clients talking about flow. And getting into understanding how the customer experience from when they walk in the front door, how are they being greeted?

And by whom, and then is it a seat yourself? Are you being seated? Is there a server that’s taking your order? Is that server also running the food? Are they also busing the table or are there other folks? Are there other food runners? Are there other people that are just busers?

And then you throw in COVID and now you throw in, okay, is it a QR code scenario? Is it a scenario where. Maybe there are less employees because now it’s just food runners that are also bussers. Understanding that, understanding how a customer gets through the space, is there a waiting area up front, if all the tables are full, , or are people encouraged to go sit by the bar?

Then how do they get to the restroom? How do they get to the emergency exit? How do they get to the elevator? [00:24:00] And then thinking of how’s food being run we see this all the time Where restaurants will think, okay we’re going to have one hallway in the back on the right.

You’re going to have bathrooms and on the left, you’re going to have the kitchen, which is just an absolute frigging disaster. Just thinking about that person coming out of the bathroom and that person coming out with a tray full of food, and they’re both trying to occupy the same space. As you’re trying to avoid Newton’s laws of physics, you think, okay now how can we separate those circulation patterns?

So we spend a lot of time looking at flow. We had and still work with an amazing kitchen designer Scott Levine over the design difference. Scott was, is an amazing. He’s a former chef, which is also really helpful because you can basically for him, it’s okay, here’s the space that we’re trying to go into.

Here’s the equipment and here’s the food that they’re going to be cooking so that he can then say, here’s the equipment you’re going to need to do that. And he can then say, okay, based on my experience, this is how I would start to [00:25:00] orient some of the food circulation and expo and pick up and cook.

Yeah. And then be able to say, okay, I need two more feet or I need one more foot over there and I can give you two feet back over here. So having that dialogue back and forth is crazy important. And then in this case we had the We had to put in an elevator, but oftentimes food runners you’re hustling with food.

That’s hot and then it’s ready to be served. So rarely are food runners waiting for the elevator. So then you’re looking at how can the stairs and those circulation patterns work? We ended up putting a small service bar upstairs because, You know, that way you’re not taxing just the bar downstairs.

So I was thinking about some of the business aspects of those things and understanding how it can work for different groups, but then really getting into the design of it was looking at how do you create unique? Experiences for customers so that it’s not a one and [00:26:00] done. Like we went there once and it was great thanks.

We wanted it to be where somebody came in and sat at the bar and thought, Oh, I could bring my family and I’d love to sit over there. Or I could come here with a date or how do I get to one of the baller tables up there? And then being able to sit upstairs and look down or sitting downstairs and look up.

So trying to give people those different experiences. Not only are you trying different items on the menu, but then you have different atmospheric events so that you’re in a place where every experience is not the same. It’s unique. It’s different. And it drives you to come back more and more

aj: I think that’s the best explanation of what goes into designing a restaurant I have ever heard. So Dave has done a great job of creating this space, but restaurants tend to come and go. They ride the wave of popularity and then something changes. Economic downturn, new ownership, neighborhood fluctuations.

[00:27:00] So many things can happen. So what happened here? Did the restaurant just want a new look? Or was it something completely different?

david: The space was matchbox for plus or minus 10 years. Anything having to do with COVID ads, like a hundred years. And a lot of gray hair. we knew the building had been sold. We knew that there had been changes in leasing and things like that. There’d also been changes in our firm.

So we had gone from two knuckleheads at a kitchen table to 30 people, 32, somewhere in there. So at that point it was Dave and I rarely work on The same project together anymore. it’s generally one of us and a team and things like that. we have an amazing restaurant client called need hospitality design. And they’ve got a whole series of different types of restaurant. I mean, it’s It’s so good, the greatest mole sauce ever. And we’ve done a lot of work with need, continue to do a lot of work with need. And [00:28:00] Their owners reached out to Dave and said, Hey we’re looking at this building in 1901, 14th street, and I imagine I was not there for this, but I imagine Dave’s gear sort of kicking in and was like, wait a minute.

I know that address. And so Dave came back and he’s like, you’ll never believe this. They’re looking at this, the space. I was like, Oh my God, this is incredible. It’s really nice when you get to work with the same client. Again, it’s really nice when you get to work in the same. Space again.

But what’s a little weird is taking your design and then putting in drawings to say, demolish this old design. You become this sort of critic of yourself. So, Part of you is saying we want to keep as much as humanly possible. And the restaurant, rightly so, is saying no, we’re a different brand.

We’re a different design intent. yes, you want to keep some infrastructure, but you want to make it a different experience. You want to make it a different restaurant. we obviously kept the sort of mezzanine third floor and back and kept a lot of the infrastructure in place, the last thing you want to do in a [00:29:00] space is change.

The ownership or change the design intent and have customers come in and go. Oh, so they just painted it it looks exactly like it did but it’s just a different color And so if you’re gonna go in and you’re gonna do it You want someone to not think that they walked into a repainted whatever the restaurant was before you want them to walk in and go, okay, this is a new restaurant.

This is a new experience. Everything changed. The entry sequence certainly the bar stayed where it was. Restrooms got moved around in the sense that we did some reorienting to them from the way that they were enlarge the bar upstairs a little bit and kept the general seating areas, but then redefined the seating areas, redefined finishes, redefined Some of the of seeding zones and how those worked were able to improve upon some of the things that we had learned before, improve upon some of the mechanical design, improve upon some of the other flow [00:30:00] issues that we had found.

aj: More about the project right after this short message.

david: it’s a little strange, especially when you walk into the completed project and you feel like, okay my first one was good and this one’s better. You know, It’s just, it’s a little strange to tear apart your own project.

 You know, across 10 years, we have. Grown as a firm in our abilities, but also the people that we have here. And I think to the benefit of the second design project, which is called Mi Vida. We had a lead designer who wasn’t Dave or I, and so Megan was she’s just so super talented.

david: It’s really unbelievable, but Megan was really able to look at it. And look at the existing space with a clean set of eyes and you know knowing our relationship with her There’s really [00:31:00] nothing off limits. So for her to come in and say we need to change this. We need to change that You know, she has the design and the client, their best interest in mind.

So she’s not coming in it’s not something where it’s a personal thing. It’s something going, okay, how can we make this better? How can we improve upon this? But also work with the new brand and the new restaurant ideals. We actually managed to avoid being you know, in that place where we were so attached to certain things that we didn’t want to let go.

 The nice thing of knowing what all the work that had gone into it was being able to say, okay, let’s keep some of this structural. So let’s keep this new decorative stair we put up front because we know that it’s well designed and well thought out and well constructed. So how can we take the money saved there and spend it somewhere else?

We know that the roof had been repaired, the structure had been repaired and the roofing had been repaired. So how can we use that to our advantage? So it was a great design. Exercise [00:32:00] in using some of those pieces and using some of the sort of background knowledge to the project. And I think made the project more successful the second time around.

aj: Okay, so this is take two. But, the first restaurant had some key features that made it really popular. So I asked Dave, while designing the second restaurant, was there a design element that will live up to the hype of the baller status of the first project?

david: So once the second project was complete, it was not called baller. I don’t think that’s actually still a term, is anything baller anywhere? I don’t know. Somebody get on TikTok and tell me if it’s baller. We kept the boxes, the framework of the boxes, but redesigned those. So instead of having the frame basically we just imagined cutting the whole, the top of it off so that you’re not in this whole box, but you can now see everywhere, which was really cool. so we did that to the two boxes and then the [00:33:00] private dining area upstairs was based on something that, that we had done. At the wharf location called the hacienda room. And so it became this sort of private garden dining area up top, which was, which is really fun.

So it’s great to have a private function up there it feels like a different environment, although it’s part of the same. We picked up on some of the cues that we had done at their previous location. At that point, we’d only done one other Mi Vida location which was the wharf and part of it is this beautiful sculptural tree.

So we were able to bring this tree and make that a focal point of the restaurant. And what’s great about it is inherently as you’re looking up and watching the tree go skyward that brings your eye up into the double height space and it brings your eye up to these floating seats and then up to the Ascender room. We brought in these amazing light fixtures that we, we use in a couple of seats big tables over at the wharf, and we were able to bring those in. Bringing in some of these cues, but also. Not trying to make it an [00:34:00] exact copy. We wanted somebody to go to the wharf and have an experience similar to what we were thinking in the restaurant, we wanted to carry that across the brand.

And somebody sitting in the restaurant here had a different experience than going to the wharf. And so now you’re, increasing the types of atmospheres and the types of experiences within the restaurant, but also within the brand itself.

aj: That’s lovely. I can’t wait to go next time I’m in D. C. In one small decade, there are design fads and trends that come and go, and not to mention the advances in the profession with technology. So I wanted Dave to look at this snapshot of 10 years in his career and reflect on his journey.

Did he look back on his work and think, wow? We know so much more now.

david: So these two projects are an amazing sort of indicative microcosm of our firm. We went from two people working on the first project in AutoCAD [00:35:00] in 2d just give the two old guys like some chisels and stone and we could just like, Etch it to the second project now we’ve got a team of people.

We’re doing everything in 3d. We’re doing these beautiful 3d models. And we could do renderings. We do all these things that are just part of the evolution of our profession and the way that we’re seeing space and expressing space. you know, I think if I look back to us working on the first project again newborn I don’t, who starts a firm when they have a newborn and in a recession?

Jackass I am. So we go from the two of us working on it to trying to, we have all these grand visions, right? You’re like, Oh, we’re going to start a firm. It’s going to be amazing. And We, we did not earn a lot of money that year. Yeah, I was like, sorry, child, can you get a job? It was a matter of we had visions of working with great people as a firm. We didn’t really [00:36:00] have any true knowledge of running a firm or running people or working with people as a team within our own space, we had done it at other firms. Then you jump ahead to the next project.

 It starts, I don’t even know what the. Technical COVID era is for us, it starts in the middle of COVID as we’re starting to plan and starting to look at the space which if I didn’t have all gray hair before COVID, COVID sure as hell finished the job. At that point you’re really just fighting for survival. We have a really close knit group. So I know our team well, I know their kids, I know their pets, I know their spouse. So, COVID for us was very personal because we had to let people go. We had to cut salaries But we have super talented, exciting people. And so getting through that and then picking up this project and doing a new design to it [00:37:00] was really exciting. one of those moments as you’re seeing things starting to grow again and turn around. I’ve certainly have learned a lot about. Managing the firm and managing our team. Dave and I, apparently we’re interesting because we don’t really argue. I think we’ve had a couple of arguments maybe, or a couple of disagreements we’re always focused on the end goal.

 And so we can work through, differing opinions with that. we speak very freely of the fact that we survived COVID together hell at this point we could drop us on Mars with Matt Damon and we’ll cook the cook the potatoes too. But but being able to work through those things and then get A group of really talented kick ass people to work on the next project and us go run with it we’re here to help and we’re here to help guide But you guys you’re go take your creative genius and run that for us was really [00:38:00] little bit of a career defining moment as you get to hiring some awesome people hire great people and get out of the way. That’s it.

 We spent a lot of time during COVID and after COVID looking at every available resource for people to tell us that this sector was back or that sector was back and not back or ever coming back and whatnot. for us it comes down to the numbers what are the numbers of projects?

What are the numbers of square feet? And what, quite frankly, what are we billing? Are we, and are we getting paid? That’s another challenge. Again, that’s podcast number three. So for us in looking at the numbers, 2020 was not great.

2021 was awful because you’re some of 2020 numbers are skewed because you’re finishing up projects, you’re getting paid from 2019, early 2020, 2021 was. Terrible. But based on what we’ve seen from 2022 to 2023 and moving on. [00:39:00] Yeah. Hospitality is doing well. Restaurants are doing well. We’re seeing The use of more second gen space for restaurants because of the cost of infrastructure So we see a lot of restaurants that are looking at previous restaurant space to go into versus cold dark shell or changing the use of a space so I think that comes down to the experience of the restaurateur and of the ownership group being able to say Okay, this doesn’t make any sense and quite frankly I’ve gotten to the point in my career where I’ve seen I don’t, I’m not going to make money telling you what you want to hear. We’ve had clients that have come to us and we’ve said, do not go into this space. It wasn’t a restaurant. You’re going to spend your entire budget just putting in the infrastructure. And that’s it. Yes, there have been construction costs and we can talk all about that stuff. Supply chain and all that other stuff.

 for us looking at [00:40:00] the numbers, yeah, it’s back. Hotels we’re not seeing necessarily as many ground up hotels, but certainly rebrands of hotels and new flags and renovations and all of those things based on the numbers, hospitality is doing well.

aj: I think by now you can tell Dave uses humor to deflect hard questions. But I kept pushing him

david: and think about these two projects one after the other it’s an interesting, it’s an interesting, emotional. if you will. I think the whole owning your own practice is a very interesting emotional journey. it’s really exciting. for me, what’s really exciting about it is one, that we’re getting, Brought back to projects and to, with, by clients that we’ve worked with time and time again. It’s exciting that we’ve become, I would argue successful and well known in the restaurant space and expanding beyond just that first [00:41:00] project in DC, but now doing things across the country.

. And then having a team of really frigging talented people that can take space that’s been imagined once and reimagine it and whether we designed it the first time or somebody else, but being able to to work within the rules that are given and then push it and push the, push every dollar of the budget to make design go further.

david: Make experiences that are unique is really exciting playing a part of, the culinary journey understanding our role in the culinary experience that, of support of the food and being a part of it, but not being the star to the show. And I think there’s a maturity that comes with that, of.

 When you look at the first project, yeah we loved matchbox food and love [00:42:00] matchbox food and but we want to do a really cool design so that it gets our name on the map. But now it’s I just want to do really amazing design with just people that I like and , yes, things can go sideways and things can go a little bit wrong, but you still can be friends with those people.

You can have hard conversations. But also want to have a beer and so I think that’s the maturity. Nobody has ever claimed that I’m mature. Let’s just call a spade. But I think the maturity of my career is being able to see a longer term effect of good work and good relationships.

And it’s it’s great to be a part of this with some really exciting people in the office and outside the office. And I have lots of gray hair.

aj: there we go! That was the story I was looking for. But my next question for Dave was a bit off topic.

I wanted to know if he still [00:43:00] played the drums. Number one, because he totally looks like a guy that would play the drums But number two I was curious to know if music still influenced his work.

david: So there is always, it seems like there’s always music playing at my house. There’s definitely always music playing at the office. I love music, different types of music. Every once in a while, Dave and I share an office every once in a while, Dave, I’ll look over and he’s are you listening to blank?

And I’m like, yeah, man, 80s called. They wanted to be back. Something unique. So there’s always. Music going on. I do still have a drum kit. I haven’t played in a little while. I’ve played, I had a band all through college, which was super fun. It was three architects and a political science major.

 And we actually played around a bunch and played some fun clubs and did some, we played on the steps of the Capitol [00:44:00] one time, which was Fun when you could do these things. But yeah I haven’t played a little while. I was, I keep hoping that one day my, my teenager is going to be like, I want to learn how to play the drums and be loud as hell which I think is really awesome for the first three minutes.

And then I’d be like, ah I don’t know how my parents made it through quite honestly, because like maybe you. A squeaking clarinet or an oboe could be worse than a 12 year old learning how to play the drums, but I don’t know how, like it just so loud. I love listening to music, love I don’t go to as many concerts as I used to I enjoy, definitely enjoy music.

aj: Two projects, same space, one career. What did Dave learn from this experience that he can share with us?


david: Think what’s interesting about working on The same space one when you go to a project after it’s [00:45:00] been built, you can every designer walks around and you look at those couple of things I say a couple of things, but sometimes it’s more than that those things that didn’t exactly get out of your brain onto the page and to built form the way that you had imagined it and you go, Oh man. Not only. Does that happen on a regular basis? Now when you redo the project, you have to relive them. but then you also we spend a lot of time talking about mentorship and coaching and growth and things like that. So not only do you know that they’re there, but then you have to tell someone be like, Oh, whoever did this before really screwed it up.

And that’s where Dave and I blame each other. there’s a humility that’s needed in life in general okay, podcast number four, we’re going to talk about humanity and humility. there’s humility that goes along with having a firm and doing design and working great people.

You have to understand that no one is perfect. You have to understand that things are going to go. off the rails. Sometimes you have to [00:46:00] understand that sometimes there are, instances that it’s just it’s not going to be a good day. And so working through that is really important and teaching people, but also being able to say, if I did it again, I would do it this way, or I would consider this or that or whatever it may be.

And so. working on the same project twice sometimes can be a little bit yes, about humility, but also humiliating. As long as you’re having those open conversations with people and you’re going, okay how do we do better? How do we do it better? The next time the design industry and the way that we approach design, because every project is different and unique.

 Sometimes you fix the mistakes on one project. Then you create a whole new set of mistakes on the next project. But those are all learning opportunities and using the resources of really great clients and kitchen designers and contractors and consultants. I came out of college at a time when all of those people were inherently taught to be against [00:47:00] each other.

 That like the engineer is not on your side and the contractor definitely isn’t on your side. We approached the other. Other way to that challenge of saying, okay, how do we all help each other? Cause I sure as hell don’t know how to remove a three foot deep steel girder and what that’s going to be like.

So talk to me, structural engineer, talk to me contractor and how that’s going to happen and what the end result is going to be so that we can all get to a better place. For us using this as a great opportunity as well as other projects for teaching and coaching and growth, and that comes from Sometimes looking at yourself in the mirror and going, Okay, there’s some there’s some growth available here.

aj: Definitely words to live by. Design problems and projects can push us to new horizons in our personal growth. And when we think we have seen them all, we find out we haven’t. [00:48:00] I like Dave’s outlook. That there’s always some growth available within each of us. I’m looking forward to seeing what restaurant comes into that space in the next 10 years.

And if Dave and his firm get another chance to design for a new decade.

 As I said in the beginning of the show, this is our final episode this season. And boy, was it a good one. We took you to unique places to learn about some really cool projects. From hip hop architecture to To thinking about space for work, to designing for icons Serena Williams, designing for the sport of sex.

We covered the largest design project I ever heard of, 6 million square feet, to cutting a large portion of square feet out of a big, huge building. And and designing a more empathetic space [00:49:00] for family, court and justice. Wow. Wow. That was a lot. I hope we brought you some fun and inspiration along the way. Special thank you to Shaw Contract for being a wonderful sponsor of our season, and looking forward to seeing the new collections they will be launching soon.

Once Upon a Project was produced by Surround, a podcast network by Sandow. Special thanks to our producer, Hannah Vitti.

Although season two is over, be sure to keep an eye on the feed for new releases and special episodes dropping soon. And remember, you can find us on social media. Thank you for your support and we can’t wait for you to hear our next story.

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AJ Paron

AJ Paron is EVP and Design Futurist at SANDOW Design Group and host of the podcast Once Upon a Project

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