Earles Architects and Associates, led by veteran Chicago architect Dan Earles, has more than 20 years of experience providing architectural design, tenant build-out and space planning services for the city’s leading names in corporate real estate ownership and management. Earles, principal of the firm, recently spoke to Illinois Real Estate Journal about his early days in architecture and what has led to the firm’s success over the years.
Illinois Real Estate Journal: How did you get your start in architecture?
Dan Earles: I’ve known since I was a little kid that I wanted to be an architect. It was something that I had a passion for as a little kid. I think I drew my first floor plan in the fifth grade and I still have it at home. It’s just this raggedly little piece of paper, but I got it framed because it’s the first house floor plan I ever drew. I used to sit for fun just drawing floor plans. Once I got through high school and took all of the architectural drafting courses, it just became a passion. Then I went to a small college in Michigan that specialized in architecture and engineering.
IREJ: How long have you worked in architecture?
Earles: I actually started in 1981. I moved to Chicago because I’m originally from Detroit and at that time, when I graduated school in 1979 in Detroit, there was nothing going on. I was working for a carpet company actually doing measurements, so I was sort of utilizing my skills. I then got an opportunity to move to Chicago and that was where I got my first job in 1981.
IREJ: What do you enjoy most about architecture?
Earles: One of the things that drew me to it was that I’ve always enjoyed interpreting people’s desires and wants, getting it out of them and then being able to put it on paper and creating it for them. So it’s kind of like interpreting people’s thoughts and making that a reality. I always look at it as a puzzle too. A lot of times there’s a challenge. Someone has a requirement and you have to figure out how the puzzle pieces fit together to come up with the best solution for the client. I’ve always enjoyed that aspect of it.
IREJ: Why do you think you’ve been so successful in your career?
Earles: I think a lot of it is listening to people. You listen to what their needs are. I’ve never pushed an agenda or design philosophy. I think it’s important to hear a client’s needs and desires and be able to respond to that to give them what they want. Clients need to be guided at times, but you don’t want to force your opinion on them. I think you want to interpret their opinion and give it back to them in a way that they understand it and in a way that satisfies their needs. Part of our business philosophy has been to be responsive to our clients’ needs. We hear what they want and need and we respond in a timely fashion. That’s kept us successful for the years we’ve been around.
IREJ: What are some of the more challenging parts of working in architecture?
Earles: It’s probably the ebb and flow of project work. Sometimes there’s a ton of stuff going on and then things will slow down. It’s trying to manage that effectively. You have to keep everything balanced. We work with a lot of real estate brokers and building owners and there will be a big influx of things and a lot of hurry, and then you’ll stop and wait. Managing that ebb and flow is probably one of the challenges of doing the work. Also, one of our strengths is that we keep our portfolio varied. We do commercial interiors and office spaces, but we also do retail, fitness centers, industrial properties, restaurants and we do a small amount of healthcare. Keeping that variation helps keep us interested. Having that knowledge from one type of project and bringing it to others helps us solve problems quickly and effectively.
IREJ: What advice would you have for people who are new to the business?
Earles: I think young students coming out of school think they’re going to design the next Sears Tower or something like that. It’s just having that grasp on reality that you’ve got to start at the bottom and work your way up. It’s not always glamorous. There’s the grunt work and everyone has to do that. We all do. You’ve got to be open to that and do your time. You’ve got to take your time to build yourself up. You’re not going to walk out of school and be a grand designer. You want students to have that passion, but they’ve got to temper that with the reality of the environment. It also really helps for younger students to have opportunities to do internships so they get a taste of reality and how an office really functions.
IREJ: How has the business changed over the years?
Earles: We had a big boom several years ago and then it kind of all went bust. But I think it’s definitely on the upswing. We used to do a ton of work in the suburbs and that kind of fizzled out, but I’m starting to see that come back a little bit. The central business district of Chicago has been on its way back up for a few years now. On the whole, things are definitely on the upswing. We rode through that time because of the variation of the types of work we do.
IREJ: What do you look forward to most about the future?
Earles: Money is starting to flow a little bit more. People are willing to lend so there is more opportunity for people to do things. You’re starting to see clients have a little more confidence. They’re feeling more comfortable about making capital improvements. I just feel that people are more comfortable to invest and spend money and maybe sign leases that have a low term on them so they can do a little more. I really feel that people are a little more comfortable than they have been in the last few years. You definitely feel more of a sense of optimism than there has been in the past.