Contemporary design can complicate authorship. Who owns ideas?

How does one design firm differ from all the others? We define ourselves by metrics like years of experience, size, geography, and focus. But we’re service providers; we attempt to do it all to make every client happy, to serve them and their community in every way we can. At the same time, there is strength in specialization. When specialists complement each other, they can provide the client with more than the sum of their parts.

This complicates authorship: Who designs what? How do we attribute credit? How do you scope such a thing as a work of architecture?

Signal Architecture + Research, the firm I founded in Seattle in 2014, is considered a small firm—we’re a team of less than ten designers and architects. Our focus, expressed in the firm name, is to be a beacon of messages received. We work with communities and local organizations that have a message, and a need to amplify their mission through the built environment. Our focus is on amplification—it makes sense that we venture to broaden the range of projects we’re able to work on through collaboration with powerful, complementary players in our environment.

Signal team in Seattle
The Signal team in Seattle. (Hillary Harris)

As a practice, we are rooted in the Georgetown neighborhood in Seattle at Equinox Studios, a collective of over 150 artists and artisans. Less than two blocks away, the local county planned a wet weather treatment station, which would purify dirty runoff and CSO (combined sewer overflow) normally flowing into the nearby Duwamish River during rain and storm events. I got involved with the project while I was employed with the Miller Hull Partnership, and when I founded Signal, my role in the project was kept intact, and we completed the Georgetown Wet Weather Treatment Station in 2023. Miller Hull is a larger firm, known for its exemplary environmental sensitivity and the technical and design capacity to work at scale. Meanwhile, Signal spoke the language of the place, finding ways to incorporate art, storytelling and meaning into a typology that is usually hidden from public view. This partnership allowed us to design a context-sensitive, responsive facility with a small footprint yet a strong connection to the neighborhood. When in use, passersby will see the facility glow as a 7-foot ring of light indicates that water is coming in, while a bright blue light traces the cleansing journey of the water through the facility. This is anything but a hidden, offensive neighbor—this is an ecological machine, legibly adding interest and art to the neighborhood while marking the entryway into Georgetown. Together, we were able to amplify our power as a placemaker while simultaneously amplifying Miller Hull’s power as a synthesizer with the context.

So how does it happen? Through a pragmatic division of labor, and through finding effective ways to be in the room together when it counts.

outside of facility
(Lara Swimmer)

Signal as the smaller, agile, and hyper-local firm set the groundwork for the mission through imagery and inquiry, and by solidifying relationships. At about a third of the way through the design phase, the work became highly technical: that’s where Miller Hull took the lead, helping vision become reality. Miller Hull had the horsepower to take on nine buildings, 600 sheets of drawings, and building and process engineering systems. During this time, Signal managed exterior character and detailing, material reuse, and maintaining neighborhood design communication. We couldn’t have achieved this award-winning project without one another.

interior of plant showing machinery
Inner workings of the plant blend the historic and the high-tech. (Anna Coumou)
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A cross-section of the space (Courtesy Signal Architecture + Research)

The Georgetown Steam Plant is a landmarked industrial giant from the turn of the 20th century. Any architect could understand that the adaptive reuse of such a space requires not only a patient timeline, but a vast budget, a lot of belief, and a team that can handle the unknown. The plant’s reinforced concrete walls hold many secrets from 1906, far removed from today’s code or safety compliance.

SHKS, a medium-sized firm with a focus on education and gathering spaces, joined our partnership at the feasibility stage and brought with them a deep knowledge of historic preservation; Signal has a deep knowledge of adaptive reuse and community space-making. Combined, these approaches can create a building that’s at once reflective of its era, but also curated to its future.

Both collaborations leveraged intangible and tangible tools. Soft skills like common language around guiding principles, communication, and mutual respect set the stage for expectations and outcomes, and cloud-based systems like BIM 360 and Microsoft Teams allowed separate offices to work together in common templates and models that reduced version conflicts and production challenges.

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(Anna Coumou)

The solution to collaboration is not watering a design down to what is agreeable, but to amplify the best ideas, to welcome grit, and to create something that is more layered, more interesting, and a more inventive interpretation of the place and people it serves.

The co-authorship of the firms in both projects is marked by shared ownership and fearless advocating for the best design solution. Questioning and improving design is the basis of shared development—having the trust and space to ask the tough questions is paramount in any successful collaboration.

Ultimately, the collaboration should be so mutual that it becomes invisible; you can’t see where one contribution starts and where the other ends, because the design teams have become enmeshed and complementary to one another like the new color of mixed paint. This simplifies crediting: We did this together, and couldn’t have done it any other way.

Mark Johnson is a principal and founder of Signal Architecture + Research, a practice focused on cultural, community, and retreat work based in Seattle, Washington.

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