Kristina Floor, FASLA and Chris Brown, FASLA, are two of the most prominent landscape architects working in Phoenix today. Their work on the Lost Dog Wash Trailhead and the “Desert Lives” exhibit at the Phoenix Zoo received national recognition from the ASLA. They are also a married couple. In 2008, their Phoenix-based firm, Floor Associates, merged with JJR, a subsidiary of the large multidisciplinary firm SmithGroup. But as of January 1, they are working on their own again. In a brief phone conversation, they explained why. The conversation below has been edited and condensed.
Floor Associates merged with JJR in 2008. What led you to join them?
Chris Brown: We really liked the work JJR had been doing in the Midwest, and we saw it as an opportunity to use JJR’s expertise to help expand our practice. We’d grown up to be about 18 people when we merged, and that was taking a lot of management. We were spending more and more time running the organization and less time creating cool places. If there was some way of lifting some of that administrative burden off our shoulders, that’s something we wanted to do.
Kristina Floor: Also, as Floor Associates, we found ourselves in the running with other firms like EDAW or Sasaki for projects in the Phoenix market, and the concern was maybe we didn’t have the manpower to accommodate certain projects. Part of the reason to merge with JJR was to have that manpower when we needed it.
When did you leave SmithGroupJJR and why?
Brown: We started talking with the guys at the local office around Thanksgiving about the idea of separating, and we decided to make it effective the first of the year. We felt the timing was right. It’s been a pretty successful collaboration. But at the same time, the work we had become known for as Floor Associates was becoming increasingly difficult to do under the structure of SmithGroupJJR.
Part of it is they are a very integrated design firm. Out here in Phoenix, the landscape architecture studio has operated separately for the last four years. But our lease was coming up in 2013 and we knew as a corporate strategy they wanted us to be more integrated with the architects and engineers at their office in the Arizona Center.
A year ago, JJR combined its name with SmithGroup as part of a restructuring. That worked OK for us but some of our longtime clients, especially architects, view SmithGroup as a major competitor. A lot of the architects were a little put off by the name change, and the idea of physically locating to Arizona Center was not something we were interested in. We don’t just want to be an in-house landscape architecture department. That said, our separation with SmithGroup has been very amicable.
Floor: We’re going to continue to team with them.
JJR had been a part of SmithGroup since 1970. But for years, it was a separate brand. Similarly, your office went by JJR | Floor for years after the merger. Then, about a year ago, all the offices were rebranded as SmithGroupJJR.
Brown: Over that four-year period, we actually had four different names—it was a really challenging thing. We started out as Floor Associates. Then we became JJR | Floor. In early 2011, we dropped the Floor and just became JJR. And then SmithGroupJJR.
How integrated was your Phoenix office with JJR’s other offices?
Brown: I think we were pretty well integrated within the first year. Back when we merged, JJR had a separate board of directors, which I served on for several years. Fred Klancnik served as president of JJR and he would bring us all together a few times a year. In terms of project focus, we did try to practice as much as we could cross-studio. JJR is well known for their campus planning practice. We were able to assist them to pursue some work at Arizona State University and Northern Arizona.
Will SmithGroupJJR still have a landscape architecture department in Phoenix?
Floor: The landscape architecture studio, the whole group, is going to be merging with SmithGroupJJR physically. They’re going to continue on with the projects that were on the books.
Brown: They totally intend to maintain a landscape architecture studio in the Phoenix market, and I think they’ll be successful doing that. It’s a great studio even without us.
Ten Eyck Landscape Architects recently closed its Phoenix office, citing the slow recovery there. How did the economic situation there play into your decision?
Floor: Phoenix has definitely been the poster child for the economic state we’ve been in. But I think that we’re starting to come out of that. If you look around Phoenix, you’ll see sites being cleared. You’ll see things being built. You didn’t see that in 2010
What happens to the projects you were working on for SmithGroupJJR?
Brown: We’re not trying to take any projects with us. There was a very small handful of projects in which we have a personal, long-term relationship with the clients, and the expertise they hired us for is expertise just Kris and I have. We’re going to finish out those contracts, perhaps as a subconsultant to SmithGroupJJR. There’s one project where I don’t think they would have gotten the job without Kristina, so it just makes sense to keep her involved with that. The rest of the projects, we’ve been working the last six weeks to transition those over. Though, Kris and I are making ourselves available if any questions come up.
Floor: We physically moved to our home studio, which is where Floor Associates began.
The two of you are equal partners in the firm. Both of you have won awards for your work. But Chris Brown’s name has never been a part of the firm’s branding. Why is that?
Brown: Here’s the challenge for you … combine our names into something you’d want to hire. Is it Brown Floor? Is it Floor Brown? It doesn’t work.
Floor: When I started Floor Associates, Chris was working on the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas. He came back to help me with the firm when we had our first child—to give me some maternity leave, and he’s been part of the firm ever since. Actually, he has won more awards than I have. Chris and I talked about the name. We did some soul-searching on this, but there’s a lot of equity in the Floor name. We tried to think of something else to call ourselves, but nothing felt right. And then we’d have to spend time explaining what that name is.
Brown: Having my own name in there is probably not that important to me.
Floor: If he wasn’t playing in the Bahamas for a while, we might have started with a different name back then.