Celebrating John Ruffo’s Transition to Partner Emeritus at WRNS Studio

Celebrating John Ruffo’s Transition to Partner Emeritus at WRNS Studio

As many of you know by now, after over 45 years of dreaming, playing, working, meeting, and cooking—18 of them at WRNS Studio—I am stepping into a new role. As a Founding Partner, I will always be connected to WRNS Studio. But now, I will transition to a consulting position, taking on select and focused assignments.

When I embarked on this long journey, I had many doubts and questions about the profession, and whether my talents could bring benefit to it. What I discovered was a thirst for architecture that contributed to quality of life, social good, and integrity.

When I first started practicing, I was green and hungry for experience. I lacked most basic architectural skills. However, I believed that I had a fine sense for quality design, a high aptitude for problem solving, and a deep knowledge of process. During my first job interview, I recall Senior Partner at Anshen + Allen, Derek Parker, looking down at my woeful portfolio. I knew that my portfolio would never land me a position. He later told me that the articulate person he was talking to could not be the same person that produced the portfolio. Fortunately, he concluded that my future was vested in the way I thought and spoke, not in my graphic skills.

Just six years later I became his partner, the youngest at Anshen + Allen. Those first six years of practice helped me develop the skills that I needed to become an architect. I focused largely on a single large healthcare project, taking it from Schematic Design through Construction. During that time I became licensed and got my Masters in Architecture at University of California, Berkeley while handling construction on my own.

During the next few years, I managed and ran several projects, expanding my experience base and learning how to manage people; going from a one-man show to managing a studio of 15-20 architects. I also became active in the AIA, where I had the opportunity to sit with leaders of other practices like Joe Esherik, Jim Diaz, Jim Follett, David Robinson, and others. They gave me a rare look at the way firms practiced, grew, recruited, maintained quality, and engaged. In a sense, I learned about best practices from those that surrounded me. That attitude about shared knowledge has stuck with me throughout my career.

During the next several years of practice at Anshen + Allen, I worked on many healthcare and higher education projects. I built studio teams and learned how to manage the firm, becoming its Managing Principal in 1984. In 1992, after nearly 16 years of practice, I decided to leave Anshen + Allen. I had helped it grow from a staff of 29 to a staff of 200 with four offices. The firm did suffer growing pains and I learned a lot about how to manage growth. Transition of ownership was an issue for me and other partners as control of the firm was vested in a single partner. So I left Anshen + Allen to join Gordon H Chong as his first partner.

Within a year, I took on the role of CFO and Managing Partner. Over the next ten years we saw the firm grow from a staff of 30 and one office, to 200 with four offices. I put many of the lessons learned at Anshen + Allen to good use. Many of my former staff joined me and we became Gordon Chong + Partners (Chong Partners). I also nurtured existing staff, including Sam Nunes, who would become a Chong Partner and WRNS Studio Founding Partner. I recruited Jeff Warner and Bryan Shiles, who also became Partners at Chong Partners and future WRNS Studio Founding Partners. During this time, I also launched Chong Partners London, and its UK partnership with an established firm from Newcastle. In many ways, these two ventures became the test cases on how best to launch a new firm.

I had the great opportunity to work on landmark projects at Chong Partners including the UCSF Mission Bay Campus Master Plan, which was the largest development in San Francisco since the planning of Golden Gate Park. I was also the project director for the rebuild of the California Academy of Sciences, working for five years with Renzo Piano Building Workshop and his office in Genova. Work in the UK included Private Public Partnerships (P3) which brought great future benefit to projects we later took on at WRNS Studio.

In 2005 it became evident that the four minority partners were handing the great majority of projects and revenue at Chong Partners while owning just 25% of the firm. All attempts to create a long-term equitable transition plan failed. So in 2005 the four minority partners collectively decided to launch our own practice. We have never looked back, growing, profiting, doing great work, and putting in place an ownership development plan that ensured we could sustain the firm long term. My exit, and my partner Jeff’s parallel exit, demonstrate that the planning is working.

Our project history and diversity speaks for itself. While only 18 years old, we have twice been named top firm in the U.S. by Architect magazine and we were recognized as a Fast Company 2020 Most Innovative design firm. In selecting WRNS Studio as the #1 firm in the U.S., ranked across business, sustainability, and design, Architect magazine pointed to our careful approach: “The disposition of each project, particularly through its materiality and form, captures and addresses the specific environment.” While we’re proud of the 60+ design awards and the three AIA COTE Award winning projects we’ve received since our founding in 2005, we’re most proud that our architecture reflects the missions of our clients and the places they call home.

I am proud of our work and my contributions to WRNS Studio. We have set new standards in university health and P3 development through projects at landmark campuses like UC Merced and we have provided master planning and design guidelines for several campuses and healthcare organizations. I have been a long time contributor of the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP), serving in many roles, including President. I am the only person in 50 years to serve as President who wasn’t employed directly by an institution. I also won SCUP’s Distinguished Service Award. In 1998 I received my Fellowship for contributing through my practice to the social advancement of society.

In my 45 plus years of practice, I have had the honor to work with some of the most talented people in our profession. And I am proud to call many of them my partners. When we launched WRNS Studio, we said it was about both the partners and the studio, the work and the people. Nothing could be closer to the heart of what we do. We are a big talented collaboration. My only regret is that we got too big for me to continue making all-staff lunches.


John A Ruffo, FAIA, RIBA

Founding Partner Emeritus