Trustworthy: David Schrader

Dec 04, 2022

Managing partner of SCHRADERGROUP (Philadelphia, PA), a full-service firm that creates enhanced environments for the people who use them.

By Liisa Andreassen

As managing partner, Schrader is responsible for SCHRADERGROUP’s leadership, including design, management, and business development. His ability to create a vision with his clients has fostered significant success for all involved.

“Over time, clients grow to trust us because we deliver what we say we can,” Schrader says. “And, when something doesn’t go as planned, we’re the first to step up to solve the problem. At the end of every project, I like to believe that our clients felt well guided to achieve their vision.”

A conversation with David Schrader.

The Zweig Letter: Your career has focused on designing facilities of public interest. Can you tell me about one that really stands out in the group and explain why?

DS: Our firm (and the work I did in my prior life) has focused on K-12, higher education, and public safety/mission critical facilities. Each one is important and each one builds on what we’ve learned from prior projects. As we continue to evolve, one that stands out right now is the Upper Merion Area High School in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. Like so many of our projects, one of the greatest highlights is working with the client. In this case, we toured a number of facilities with the client and took bits and pieces from what they saw to create a cohesive new facility for their students. It boasts a contemporary exterior and an interior that’s a combination of higher ed-type and industry spaces so when students move out of this environment, they’re comfortable with the spaces they may encounter after graduation.

TZL: How has COVID-19 permanently impacted your firm’s policy on telecommuting?

DS: We’ve landed permanently (for the meantime) on a hybrid work environment. People spend three days (of their choice) in the office to coordinate projects. The other two are work from home. We ask that people try to spend Mondays in the office and focus our Monday mornings on a variety of meetings coordinating everything from overall client management and sales and marketing to individual project oversight.

Telecommuting has created some interesting situations. We have several staff members who, due to family situations, or other opportunities have moved to remote locations – one to Australia. Because we value their contributions and because their roles were less directly client-based, technology has allowed them to continue to work with our team. So far they’ve been able to continue to contribute in a meaningful way without requiring face-to-face contact. This issue might have been a much greater challenge if it hadn’t been tested and perfected by the technology that we all became used to during COVID.

TZL: Over the years, you’ve undoubtedly faced some unusual architectural design challenges. Can you tell me about one that springs to mind and discuss the challenge/solution/outcome?

DS: Each project faces unusual challenges. A recent project – the Community College of Philadelphia’s new Career and Advanced Technology Center – was located on an urban site. Challenges included the quick change in grade along the city block where it was located; the elevated commuter rail that runs along the site at the second and third floor of the building height; and the multiple building functions that compete for access to the street level (part of the career technology program includes auto shop vehicle bays and heavy diesel bays).

The solution was to make use of the grade to create a vehicle entry door into the vehicle bays from the higher adjacent city street and the heavy diesel bay access off of street entry below the elevated commuter train. That access point allows for the city buses and heavy rigs to do a U-turn into the facility and into the heavy diesel bays so students can work there. The balance of the program is housed on three floors above those bays. The facility takes up the entire footprint of the city block, so stormwater is an issue. To counter the stormwater challenge, the facility incorporates a green roof obviating the need for further contribution of the building stormwater to the city stormwater system.

As far as outcomes, I think creative thinking and teamwork led us to the multiple solutions that created this amazing facility. We’re very proud of it!

TZL: Who are you admiring right now in the AEC industry? Where do you see thought leadership and excellence?

DS: I’ve focused my attention on a professional organization, Association for Learning Environments. That organization has provided me with an incredible exposure across the spectrum of K-12 that includes designers, planners, industry partners, and clients. Because of this diverse group of membership, we collaborate in ways that I don’t believe you see in single entity professional organizations. Because of that collaboration, trends are revealed, but more importantly, good industry practices are hatched that are tested from planner and designer – all the way to the end user.

TZL: Have you had a particular mentor who has guided you – in school, in your career, or in general? Who were they and how did they help?

DS: My greatest business mentors have been friends who run other types of businesses. I enjoy seeing the diverse business models and learning about their challenges and experiences. A mentor in the K-12 planning business, Ed Kirkbride, introduced me to the Association for Learning Environments and promoted me within that organization. I hope I left the organization just a little better off than when I joined it. Thank you Ed Kirkbride.

TZL: What’s your number one concern for the industry as a whole in say the next five years? What’s your firm doing to address it?

DS: Staffing. Fewer staff available and a changing workplace culture. As for staffing, it’s important that we continue to channel and grow enthusiastic and interested young people into the schools of architecture and engineering. Many of the people in our offices are involved in mentoring high school and college students. SCHRADERGROUP holds shadowing days in the office for high school students and also goes into schools to hold seminars on the profession so we can catch people early on. We also have a robust summer internship program.

When it comes to the workplace culture, COVID played a big role here. With hybrid work days and other new workplace standards, we feel like some of the teamwork that used to be encouraged by people being around each other (for at least 40 hours a week) has been reduced. We’re working hard to make sure all generations can communicate and collaborate around a table, but those connections have definitely been reduced. We worry about that.

TZL: Trust is essential. How do you earn the trust of your clients?

DS: We earn their trust by being transparent and trustworthy. It falls into our list of SCHRADERGROUP values required of our team members. Being humble and trustworthy means that we focus on delivering a good product and process. We build trust by demonstrating that we are true members of their team and that we can be leaned on to support the expertise that we sell them on. Over time, they grow to trust us because we deliver what we say we can. And, when something doesn’t go as planned, we’re the first to step up to solve the problem. At the end of every project, I like to believe that our clients felt well guided to achieve their vision.

TZL: What type of leader do you consider yourself to be?

DS: I try to lead by example and want people to see my efforts. I believe I’m fair (perhaps to a fault in some cases), so I hope that when it comes time to reciprocate, they’ll remember.

TZL: What do you most enjoy about your position – management, design, business development? Why?

DS: This might actually be part of my downfall. If I focused on one aspect of the items described, the firm might be positioned better for higher levels of growth. I tend to work across all of these spaces. I might not have as much direct input into detailed design as I used to, but I do initiate the high-level design concepts. I do my best to manage the office with the help of others and am heavily involved in client management. I’m also a primary “rainmaker.” I suspect my favorite of all of these is the clients; it used to be design. We have such an incredible group of clients who are all trying to do the best they can for their specific constituencies. It’s one of the benefits of doing public work.

TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility?

DS: The initiator, connector, and motivator.

TZL: SCHRADERGROUP’s careers page states you’re looking for people who are community-oriented and have a knack for detail, design, and collaboration. What are some tips for ensuring you’re hiring people who walk the talk?

DS: We look for many things in new hires, but two top the list: common sense and team players. We think it’s critically important to make good decisions based on ingrained intuition and experience (where possible). We want everyone we hire to fit into the culture we’ve established so we can work harmoniously as a team. We tend not to have people pigeon-holed into specific roles, rather we expect people to work across a broad variety of tasks. We try to move individuals toward their strengths. On a team, we ask that everyone try everything and we’ll see where they land.

TZL: A firm’s longevity is valuable. What are you doing to encourage your staff to stick around?

DS: We offer social opportunities for the staff to team-build. This is critical because a team that plays together can work together. It’s also important to offer growth paths – in individual careers as well as in potential management and company ownership. We want people to have a say in their day-to-day advancement. Staff turnover is the greatest challenge for a company and we’ve been blessed by people who stick around.  

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