Steven E.F. Brown
May 7, 2014
San Francisco Business Times

Architect Kava Massih repaints the front door of his firm’s office at 8th and Grayson streets in West Berkeley every few months, a whimsical meditation on change for himself and his neighbors.

His most recent choice — shocking pink— irritated one of those neighbors and gave Massih a chance to practice the diplomacy he’s learned as his 26-employee business has taken on bigger projects that call for negotiations with the community.

Massih told his neighbor, “You get to pick the next color.”

His biggest project to date just broke ground in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood — a 410 apartment complex at 350 8th Street on the former site of a Golden Gate Transit bus garage.

Another big apartment complex Massih designed is rising now at the corner of Hollis and Powell streets in Emeryville, not far from his office — Archstone’s 175 apartment Parkside project.

To land such colossal jobs, Massih had to learn an important lesson — how to let go.

Though he has control over the color of his door, albeit with consideration of his neighbors, Massih must watch buildings he’s designed being built, and sometimes changed, by others.

Learning to let go

Designing the enormous West Berkeley Bowl grocery store, completed in 2009, was one of the biggest changes in Massih’s life, pulling him out of his small-firm comfort zone. He went to countless community meetings, soothing neighbors worried about traffic, parking and noise, throughout the seven years it took to complete the project.

“I was the face of the project,” he said. That role, unusual for an architect, helped Massih learn to let go of his work.

“Seven years is a lifetime,” Massih said. Another project in nearby Emeryville took 12 years.

Though exhausting, Berkeley Bowl’s success was a turning point for Massih’s firm, and helped it get through the drastic downturn during the Great Recession.

When he started his firm in 1996, “it was as if we’d just sat on a rocket,” Massih said. “The phone kept ringing and ringing.”

But if the business had stuck to just the little projects it had so many of back then, it likely would not have survived the 2008 crash.

“The whole world stopped in 2008,” he said.

Experience and stimulus dollars

Moving to his current office, in a former pump manufacturing and service plant building that Massih owns, helped because the firm didn’t have to pay rent. A few projects paid for by stimulus dollars also helped. But so did the firm’s experience.

“Berkeley Bowl might have been the one that put us over the edge,” said Massih, who now works on projects that range as high as $130 million in total cost.

One of those big new projects was a pediatric clinic in Emeryville for Stanford’s Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, part of the Palo Alto system’s move to secure a beachhead in the East Bay, and part of a larger movement into the East Bay by the University of California, San Francisco and Stanford.

‘Oozing out’

Though the firm has a small office in San Francisco with a couple of people in it, Massih’s also doing work now in Los Angeles and Portland. “We’re starting to ooze out of the Bay Area,” he said, noting that he himself travels frequently to Southern California to keep an eye on the 470-unit market rate housing project his firm is working on.

Taking on bigger and more complex projects, however, has meant changing the way employees are trained.

“Now it’s thousands of dollars — we used to hand them a No. 2 pencil,” he said.

Even seven years ago, Massih’s firm still used fairly straightforward CAD software for their projects, although he and his employees knew of Building Information Modeling, or BIM software, a sophisticated 3-D design system used on complex, costly projects like hospitals. Massih knew in 2007 that BIM would someday trickle down to the smaller projects his firm does.

That trickle has become a flood, and his 26 employee business is changing over from CAD to BIM, which involves lots of time and training, not to mention money. No. 2 pencils were much cheaper, though the firm still buys those, too.

“It’s hard to learn, expensive to implement,” said Massih of the new software systems, which architects buy via a subscription.

Mark Hogan, another architect who knows the software, comes in weekly to train Massih’s people.

“One can learn the basics in a couple of weeks, but you need a couple of years to get proficient,” said Massih.

Moving away from the medieval

Building a building is still a “medieval” process in many ways, he said — “You dig a hole in the dirt, there’s mud, water and gravity to deal with.” Though his projects are designed via computer, Massih is still required to keep paper copies of all the plans, all with the stamp of the fire marshal on them.

Shelves in the office hold a variety of models — still made the medieval way, with “wood, glue and whatever else would work” — of the firm’s projects.

That, too, may ultimately be something Massih lets go of — “We don’t have a 3-D printer yet, but are investigating what’s out there,” he said.

Still a simple start

Though he’s let go of many things, Massih still holds on to his No. 2 pencil.

“You don’t want to feel like a victim of technology,” said Massih, explaining that he still does early sketches of every one of his firm’s projects.

“I do the conceiving of every project. It has to have my DNA in it to be my baby.”

Indeed, Massih, who’s typically in his office from 7:30 a.m. until 6:30 p.m., spends most of his day designing and sketching.

Though he’s hired a marketing person, Massih hasn’t added many layers of administration to his firm, since the bureaucracy at some big firms where he worked early in his career stifled him. He can still stroll a few yards across his open offices and speak to any of his employees.

But though many of his signature projects are within walking distance of his office, he doesn’t stroll over to see them much, thanks in part to the years it has taken to complete some of them as they’ve gotten larger.

Massih said it’s important to let go of a design, “an idea in the architect’s head,” so the client can take ownership of it. He compares it to actors who don’t return to see films they’ve made. Often on big projects, the length of construction and its necessary changes and compromises make it end up quite different from that original idea in his head.

“The beauty of small projects we used to get a lot of — they get designed and built quickly. You get something out there that people notice.”

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