After cofounding a practice in 2003, Jeffrey L. Day breaks out on his own to start a new, Omaha-based Actual Architecture Co. | Properties
Omaha office. Photo courtesy Actual Architecture Co.
Jeffrey L. Day and EB Min founded the split-location company Min | back in 2003 Day. After a successful 15-year run that completed a number of vibrant, calculated, and flawless projects and received numerous awards – including the 2016 Architectural League of New York Emerging Voices – the team has split into two parts. Min remains in San Francisco to continue as Min Design while Jeffrey has restructured in Omaha under his new studio Actual Architecture Co. For this week’s Small Studio Snapshot, we spoke to Jeffrey about this new chapter in his architectural career.
How many people are in your practice?
4 at this point.
Artist Lofts on Lake Street, Omaha, Nebraska. In progress, photomontage. Cooperation between SO-IL + Actual Architecture Co.
Why were you originally motivated to start your own practice?
When I started high school, I spent most of my early career in small businesses enjoying the freedom architects had in these offices to develop their own vision of practice in terms of both work and office culture to develop. (A Maine office had a group coffee break in the morning and a two-hour lunch with a swim at a nearby lake for lunch after a round of site visits – every day!). It is hard to overestimate the freedom to define our own destiny, form a practice around our own values and aspirations, and constantly refine our agenda on our own terms.
It’s hard to overstate the freedom to define our own destiny
I also see great value in running a practice that is closely related to my other life as an academic. I am a professor at the University of Nebraska, where I ran the school from 2012 to 2017 as the director of the architecture program and where I run the long-standing research and construction studio FACT (Fabrication And Construction Team). Actual and FACT are related practices that work together when needed and operate independently when necessary. When I run my own practice, FACT can gain a foothold both outside and inside the university and that can be a very valuable resource.
BLUEBARN Theater & Boxcar 10, Omaha, Nebraska Project completed as Min | Day. Photo by Paul Crosby.
Previously, the practice was known as Min | Day, but you have since divided the practice into two parts. What made you make this decision?
We have min | started the day as a young, ambitious and slightly naive designer with one guiding principle, just say yes. Yes, to run a practice in two regions (San Francisco and Omaha), yes to combine teaching and practice, yes to engage pro bono projects and speculative design and commissions, but mostly just for the opportunity greet and approach architecture with an open mind and optimism. From the first days of designing to faxes and phone calls to living in the cloud, setting up a practice was an amazing experience. As the office grew, the challenges of a company with a shared location meant that we were restructured as separate companies based in our respective cities. Now, EB Min Min heads design in San Francisco and I run Actual Architectural Company based in Omaha but working in other regions and overseas.
We are very proud of the work and successes that we have achieved with our many talented partners, customers, employees and employees as Min | day, it was a wonderful trip.
Completed Bemis InfoShop, Omaha, Nebraska. Cooperation with FACT. Photo by Mike Sinclair.
What are you looking forward to in this next step?
I am interested in building a practice based on open collaboration and agility
Establishing a new office with the freedom to continue some things and change others, building on Min | ‘s legacy Day without being restricted by it. One major change is embedded in the name Actual Architecture Co. I’m interested in building a practice based on open collaboration and agility, and this requires the decentering of architectural genius. Therefore, the company name does not include my own name. The name Actual Architecture implies the desire to focus again on the possibilities of buildings as spatial and material structures that incorporate culture and society and contribute to the formation of communities. While many progressive companies are trying to push the boundaries of architecture by exploring the boundaries of the discipline (by introducing mapping, new techniques, landscape urbanism, etc.), we believe that the design of buildings and their interiors are still fertile soil for that is new ideas.
I am also excited about making more strategic connections between the professional bureau Actual and FACT, the non-profit academic studio. I can’t wait to get certain Actual FACTs projects out!
Now, a few months after this major business transition, it is time to focus on resetting the agenda. This is an exciting time!
The Grocery Store, Sandhills Institute, Rushville, Nebraska. In processing. Drawing by FACT.
What hurdles did you encounter?
The name recognition is great. After seeing the name and reputation of Min | Having built up day in and day out through releases and awards like Architectural Record’s Design Vanguard and Architectural League’s Emerging Voices, it’s daunting to put that name down. However, it is an interesting opportunity to (actually) inhabit a new practice, but also to carry a legacy (Min | Day). The min | The daily portfolio becomes part of Actual Architecture Co., so the new company is more of a rebranding than a new start-up. The usual cash flow, workflow, and customer acquisition challenges are compounded in this new situation, but that’s to be expected.
House on Okoboji Lake, Iowa. Project completed as min | Day. Photo by Paul Crosby.
What do you think are the benefits of practicing in places like Omaha, Nebraska? Would you recommend more architects moving away from the coast?
When we are outside of the cultural centers, we can operate without the burden of expectations, but that freedom also comes with a certain degree of isolation. I think this is a double-edged sword and one has to be smart about how to position a practice in that context. On the one hand, the magazines and sponsors of architecture are always looking for work that can be presented outside of places like New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and San Francisco. Just being in a place like Nebraska adds some novelty to a practice, but it takes more effort to be noticed. If these issues can be negotiated, there are plenty of opportunities in places like Omaha where the overhead is very low and there isn’t much competition for recognition.
There is a risk of being classified as a “regionalist” just because one is not close to the coastal centers
There is a risk of being classified as a “regionalist” simply because we are not close to the coastal centers. However, with active projects in Los Angeles, Canada, New Zealand and Omaha and in various locations in the Great Plains, we don’t feel like a regional company. I’m not very interested in curating the company – I’d rather focus on the work and let things go the way they want – but I think it’s important to position the company as operational despite our improbable base . This is why our company description begins: “Actual Architecture Company is an internationally recognized architecture and design office based in Omaha, Nebraska, but which operates worldwide with a far-reaching vision.”
Hexad, caretaker’s house for private sculpture garden. In processing. Assembly by Actual Architecture Co.
Is scaling a goal or do you want to keep the size of your practice?
We want to stay small so that we can be selective and focused, but still work on large projects. We can grow a little, but office size is not our goal. Instead, we are optimistic and open to strategic collaborations to build capacity without creating an animal that needs constant feeding. The downside is that certain customers are more comfortable with a larger company, even if the project doesn’t ask for one.
Many have said that the future of the practice favors the very big and the very small – we will never be bigger than BIG – so we choose to stay small and work with other firms or consultancies with specific skills if that is for particular Projects is required.
Dogpatch Mixed-Use, San Francisco, CA. Project completed as min | Day. In progress, continued under Min Design.
What are the advantages of having your own practice? And stay small?
The biggest benefit is the ability to set the agenda and guide the vision. If you stay small, you have the opportunity to adapt quickly to changing circumstances and to deal with the interests that brought you to architecture in the first place. Small practices enjoy the advantages of agility, agility, practical service and the ability to make selective decisions about the projects they take on. I have always shied away from developing a “bread and butter” project stream and instead tried to make the most of all possibilities. I find companies that rely on a nondescript but reliable workload to support the “special” projects they love. They end up spending most of their time doing jobs that they don’t like and that don’t help put them on the map.
Small offices tend to have flattened hierarchies (a way to maintain agility) and low overhead. In small businesses, clients can be closely involved in all aspects of the creative work that primarily draws us to the field. On a typical day, I could meet with a new client, design a contest entry with the office, and then work out a window detail for a project in design documents. I enjoy the fact that I can simultaneously consider important critical and theoretical issues related to a project while developing technical details that keep the water out. This is rare in large companies.
Smallness also helps us keep loose boundaries between academic and professional practices. I teach, I run an office and some of what I teach (via FACT) also connects to the office. This situation naturally benefits the office, but it also provides students with valuable experiences that they would not find in a typical academic studio setting. Small is good.