Bachelor of Architecture, 2003
Current City: Pleasant Hill, California
Hometown: Los Gatos, California
Robert has been actively involved in the Daedalus Alumni Association, having served as President and currently completing his second year as Secretary. He has also received the Spirit of Brotherhood Award from the Daedalus Alumni Association as an Alumnus.
Wellbe Bartsma: What did you pursue after graduation? Where did your career take you?
Robert L. Cooley: After graduation, I was an intern at Field Paoli Architects (FPA) in San Francisco for two years. I have a passion for sustainability, so I left work to continue my studies at the University of Oregon where I earned a post-professional Master of Architecture degree. My graduate research helped demonstrate that it is not necessarily cheaper to tear down an old building and build new. The key to ‘adaptive reuse’ is to be able to design a program that fits within an existing structure. An added benefit of this is that the embodied energy of a structure can be maintained in place. I have enjoyed the challenge of renovating existing buildings and making them more sustainable in my academic and professional career. I worked for a few other architecture firms, but after graduation I returned to FPA for eight years. There I had the opportunity to work on the design teams of several LEED certified projects, as well as more recently becoming experienced in the American’s with Disabilities Act Standards for Accessible Design (ADA) by managing the design for the accessibility upgrades of several high-end grocery stores. I am now a Certified Access Specialist (CASp) in the State of California where the focus of my practice is to help businesses protect themselves from anti-discrimination disabled access lawsuits, which also provides a better experience for all of their customers. There are a few serial litigants who purposefully go into businesses, find a way in which that building does not meet the accessibility code, and then sue the company as a ‘victim of discrimination’ even though 90% of the time the plaintiff has never been in the business and will never enter the business again. It is my job to help businesses obtain access compliance and stay one step ahead of these lawsuits, which in some instances have forced them to close their establishments. Currently, there is a $4,000 penalty for each time a ‘victim’ experiences a barrier that made it so they were denied access to goods and services. One barrier could be submitted as a claim to have been experienced multiple times, so a $4,000 lawsuit becomes a $24,000 lawsuit and the defendant can also be held liable for the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees. Most businesses settle out of court for $30,000 to $50,000 because if they fight it and lose they stand to lose (2) to (3) times that amount. I am currently working with Senator Cathleen Galgiani of Modesto, California to try and amend some of the laws that place a heavy burden on business owners. It especially hurts the smaller ones who are responsible to know their rights, but may not be able to afford to hire someone with the necessary experience to provide them with a chance to make the proper adjustments. Accessibility is important to all of us, but it shouldn’t be a cash-cow for serial litigants. In 2014, there were 3,175 ADA accessibility violations cases and demand letters in California.
WB: What was the breaking point when starting a firm was the only answer?
RC: There were a sequence of events that led up to that. I felt that my role at FPA was limited because of the type of work they do which is big picture, ground up design for large retail and community environments that bring people together; versus the direction my career was going which was working on complex renovations of existing buildings, tenant improvements, and bringing value to small business owners with my knowledge of the accessibility provisions of the building code. Being a CASp also lends efficiency and productivity to small business owners by bringing a lot of value to the design and construction team, making the permitting process run smoother, and resulting in fewer changes in the field. I knew that if I ever left that some of the clients I forged relationships with would come to me for those services and that I could do it in a way that I would still be in the good graces of a firm that I spent over a decade starting my career with. In this profession it is important not to burn bridges because the industry is tight. Not only that, but I am also simply not the type of person to walk over other people because I believe honesty goes a lot further in creating a legacy which you can be proud to leave behind. When I got my CASp credential last December, my firm wasn’t in a position to allow me to use it to provide inspections because of the potential legal exposure it entails, and they were hesitant to allow me to do work for other architects as a consultant. This is a common situation for many CASp architects. I am also never one to settle with my current position and wanted professional growth, so while being an associate for a little over four years was nice, it wasn’t enough to make me feel like I was going places. Starting a new company isn’t easy, but I always dreamed of it. I also had enough of a network that I felt comfortable getting my own work, but the challenge was getting set up and having enough resources to live off of. That isn’t easy when you are living paycheck to paycheck and paying college loans. In March I was talking to a good friend of mine who offered me an office space that I could afford until I got off the ground. Then the stars started to align. By late April, we were moving our family, my fiancé relocated her job, I was discussing my move with one of the principals at FPA, and we began fitting out the space that is now my office. In May I landed a tenant improvement for a Rita’s Italian Ice, and that franchise rights owner is now looking for their next project to have me be their architect for. In June they gave me a referral for a barre3 fitness studio, which became my first project. That contract was signed on Tuesday, June 30th which is also the day I began working out of my space. I was able to wrap up most of my projects at FPA before then, but I am still an employee with part-time temporary status until a few teams achieve their project goals.
WB: What type of work and dedication did it take to start up your own firm, about how long was the process?
RC: Starting your own company is not easy, it takes a lot of work. First, you need ‘know-how’ experience and capital, I would say at least $50,000 in the bank just to get the company started. Luckily, in my situation, the start-up company had the financial advantage of affordable rent. Also, in order to be successful at starting your own company, you need to be creative and willing to work and think outside the box. It definitely takes time, but with hard work and dedication, things will start to happen, but probably not as soon as you might expect. Architecture is a very tough profession because it involves so many aspects. It took me 10 years of working in the profession to get to a point where I was honestly comfortable considering starting my own business. A lot of people asked me if I was scared, and I never was. There is a saying that if you operate out of fear, then you won’t get very far, and I think there is a lot of truth to that. In this venture I didn’t have time to be scared, but I also was confident in my abilities and trusted the support that was offered to me whenever it came. When you have experienced contractors telling you that the plans you gave them are the best they have ever worked with, then there isn’t a whole lot to be afraid of. Starting my own company was about filling a niche of something that’s important to me and my community, which ended up being accessibility because of the in-depth experience I gained in just the last few years. You have to do what your heart is telling you is right.
WB: Where do you see your company going in the future? What are your long term goals?
RC: Currently the firm consists of just me, but I hope to grow to 12 people within the next 5 years. My plan is to pay people decent salaries so that I create a culture where people want to come to work, even though it isn’t as glamorous as some of the high-end design work some architects perform. I will pass along my accessibility and construction detailing knowledge while focusing on retail and grocery tenant improvements. Schematic Design is a hard area to make money in, and getting away from it got me to where I am today. However, I hope to be able to bring design back into focus when the company is up and running. My long term goal is to semi-retire at 50, enter international design competitions that interest me, be a part-time college professor, and keep at it until I can no longer function.
WB: Any advice for any young professionals out there who dream of opening up their own firm in the future?
RC: First of all, stay involved in Alpha Rho Chi. Some of the most dedicated and talented people I’ve met were through the fraternity, and you can gain a lot of inspiration from them. You have to be a generalist enough to conquer the big picture and a specialist in order to get your foot in the door. You also need to meet the right people and make connections, which healthy living is a big part of that. Don’t ditch out on your workout schedule just because it is too hard after a long day of sitting in an office staring at a computer. I was able to gain clients quickly through referrals because my projects are well executed and people enjoy working with me. You need to put yourself out there because you never know where opportunities will come from and they will happen in ways that you least expect them to. Also, don’t get discouraged. As architects, many of us will blossom later in life than other careers, but when you do, you will do great things.