WHY LEADERSHIP: JOEL ZENO, DESIGN DIRECTOR OF WHY LA
What are the ingredients of great company culture? How do you create a unified practice across a diverse team working in multiple locations? And why are passion projects so valuable for developing a multi-dimensional design vision?
These are some of the ideas we’re discussing with Joel Zeno, the new Design Director of the WHY LA Office. Before joining WHY, Joel held leadership roles at Mithun and Frederick Fisher and Partners; he’s a strong advocate of adaptive reuse, with a primary focus on mixed-use development and large-scale institutional projects. His past projects have included an 18,000 SF renovation of the Google offices in San Francisco; the renovation of Princeton’s historic Firestone Library; Bergamot Station and Galleries, an adaptive reuse cultural hub in Santa Monica; and multiple phases of development for the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum.
Joel is a leader and a mentor, and he brings a wave of new energy to the office. In the words of WHY’s Creative Director, Kulapat Yantrasast, “Joel Zeno is the real JZ. We’re neighbors in Venice and I appreciate his professional caliber as well as his warm, deeply human approach to architecture.”
We caught up with Joel at his home in Venice, fresh from a morning surfing on Sunset Beach.
Why WHY? What inspired you to join the team?
JZ: There was instant chemistry – when the position opened up, I saw a great opportunity. It’s the ideas, the design quality, and the openness of the practice that really caught my attention. Plus, the emphasis on arts and culture fits perfectly with the way I see a firm running. The arts are central to community and they’re integral to any project, whether that’s a single-family residence or a major mixed-use development.
Who will you be working with most closely in the LA office?
In LA, our core leadership includes Kulapat Yantrasast as Creative Director and Misa Lund as COO – and I also work closely with Senior Associates Simone Lapenta and Chung Kim. But ultimately, I’ll be working with everyone as well as connecting regularly with Andrija Stojic’s team in the New York office. This is a high-touch position, and it’s my role to help each team member develop their strengths and realize their creative potential. In a firm with an abundance of ideas, I see myself as the steward for turning those ideas into realities – for me, that has a lot to do with mentorship, leadership, and outreach to our clients and to the community at large.
What types of projects do you find most energizing?
I’m passionate about adaptive reuse projects — when you’re carving something new out of an existing structure. There’s this great quote: “Starting with a blank piece of paper is fine, assuming you’ve got nothing else better to work with.” To me, that speaks direct to adaptive reuse – you’ve got a great structure, great bones, you’re infusing new energy into a place where it might have been lacking, and ultimately it’s better for the planet.
Plus, those projects are a ton of fun – because you’re not working with a blank piece of paper, you’re constantly discovering new things along the way, problem-solving and negotiating competing requirements. And you need to be curious, you need to get a sense of what you’re working with – the history and the stories of the place. Once you’ve got the building’s DNA, you start gathering all these different groups of expertise to form one unified team; you’re managing multiple moving parts – the design process, a multi-disciplinary team, code requirements, how the project’s going to get built, how it’s going to serve the community. You’re preparing this amazing meal – and then, one day, you turn it all into a building.
How do you punctuate your work on those multi-phase, large-scale projects?
I really enjoy the intimacy of designing single-family residences. When you jump into designing a home for someone, there’s such a personal level of engagement – not only in terms of client relationships, but also the way you’re engaging with the materiality of the building. Given the client’s personal involvement in the project, there’s a celebration of detail and an opportunity for subtlety – and as an architect you become part of the family. It’s definitely an emotional rollercoaster.
Workplace projects are another opportunity to be really hands-on; you have to immerse yourself in the culture and mission of an organization and translate that into architecture. A mixed-use development project might extend over several years with multiple phases, but a workplace renovation could take between six and nine months. The speed of these projects, and gaining that deep understanding of the client’s business vision – it’s a great way for your staff to learn and grow. Within a relatively short timeframe, younger designers become fluent the different processes and they get to quickly reapply their skills on new projects. So you’re learning, you’re having fun at the same time, and building up the toolkit to work on those larger scale developments.
How has that immersion into company culture shaped your own approach to leadership?
That’s one of the reasons I love workplace projects – they tie into my wider interest in leadership and what makes a successful firm. As I see it, there are a few crucial factors. You’ve got to have great projects, keeping the quality of the design work high. You’ve got to make money, run a successful business. And is you’ve got to have great culture. If you have those three critical things you can solve any equation. And ultimately, company culture is the connector – that’s what keeps your team motivated, curious, and ready to take on challenges together.
It comes down to camaraderie. When I was at Frederick Fisher and Partners I started the surf team – half the time we’d be out there surfing, the other half we’d be casually sharing information and swapping ideas about projects – it was a great way to grow. The other important thing is to have an absolute open door to mentorship, securing the time to have meaningful conversations about the profession and creating an atmosphere of trust where there’s no such thing as a bad idea. And that means mentoring up as well as down. Some of my most successful experiences on a project have been sparked by dialogue with younger team members. It’s that atmosphere of trust that will allow us to take risks and learn from mistakes, that’s how we’ll innovate as a team.
What experiences have influenced your approach to design and leadership?
I’ve always been a maker. If you can’t build it, if you can’t craft it, if you can’t wrench it and take it apart. I’m not interested. I grew up in the beach town of Encinitas, and my family is all about making, teaching, and the arts. So if I was bored one day – hey, let’s build a canoe. On vacations we’d always be out on the water, and we had three boats so I learned how to finish teak and mahogany – turned out to be a useful skill when doing the cabinetry in my house. And throughout my life, I’ve had so many old cars that I’ve restored. It all started when I was helping out at a friend’s auto-body shop, learning from the guys there about mechanics, paintwork, metalwork. It was this amazing experience of mentorship – they used to call me “the doctor” because for whatever reason I’d always have a painters lab coat on and I could tell you every nut and bolt on a car.
For me, working in architecture is all about expanding and developing that practice of making. I’m a designer through and through, but as Design Director I’m so much more excited to nurture people in the process of making their designs, allowing them to feel personally invested, to feel that they own their projects. I’ve found that taking a people-first approach is crucial to securing the quality of project delivery – ensuring that a project streamlined and thoughtfully executed, delivered on time and on budget. So we’ll get to the finish line, deliver the best possible results, and have fun doing it. I guess I’ve always had that attitude, influenced by those early experiences working with other craftspeople. And, hey, it’s been a fun life.
We’re excited to have Joel leading the WHY LA design team. He’s high energy, highly effective, and a great conversationalist. And as for how his skills as a surfer match up to his skills as Design Director… We’ll have to find out.