After working in this industry for over 25 years, though I hate to admit, I often think about Simon Cowell on American Idol (fyi, he’s not my favorite celebrity) saying to contestants, “You must be relevant.” What does that mean for an architect? It could mean different things. It could mean to adjust one’s design aesthetic, depending on the project’s location or costs or trends in the industry. It could mean focusing on different types of projects, whether residential, commercial, cultural or tenant finish outs, depending on the market. It could mean changing your source of revenues from architectural design to interiors to furniture procurement or even product design. It could mean updating your social media presence through your website, SEO or PR. We’ve done all of these periodically and consistently throughout the years. Never get too comfortable.
Let me explain how a person becomes a licensed architect. We attend a university or college and receive a B Arch, (5 year program) or an M Arch (equal to 6 years of architectural education). After we graduate, we meet extensive requirements as an intern and ultimately take the exams. Exams require a tremendous amount of studying and commitment and equal approximately 2-3 days’ worth of time to pass. It is grueling and an impressive achievement. Once exams are passed, as “registered” architects, we must continue to uphold our license responsibilities by taking a minimum of 21 hours per year of continuing education. As licensed architects, we are also licensed interior designers, require expensive insurance and have earned the honor of calling ourselves architects, which only a licensed architect may use next to his or her name. Residential projects do not require licensed architects. All commercial architecture requires the design and associated work to be completed by a licensed architect. It is illegal for a non-licensed architect to practice commercial architecture. Don’t be fooled or convinced by low fees or other reasons to hire a non-licensed architect. Non-licensed architects sometimes hire licensed architects to stamp their drawings. This is unethical. Ask questions and make sure they have a license. It will only benefit the owner and other licensed architects in our industry.
We have always had the pleasure and opportunity to work with clients who make decisions based on a team approach. A team brings opinions. A team brings challenges. A team brings ideas.
It always amazes me how often I hear stories about projects where the client, the architect, the engineers and the contractors are all separate, not engaged, and literally hand off each phase of their responsibility to the next person in line. The client finds himself or herself isolated without consultants or supporters. The architect completes his/her work in a bubble. The engineers get no direction. And the contractor is on his own to price, coordinate and construct.
There is no better formula for success than creating a team. Communication between each member of that team ensures that the client understands and approves the design. It ensures that the architect listens and responds properly to the client. It ensures that the architect coordinates details and systems with the engineers. It ensures that the contractor is involved from the beginning so that he understands the design, the schedule and the budget. Ultimately, it ensures that every team member has played a part in the entire process and respectively influenced the final design and project completion. That is the definition of a successful development.
Our website has morphed multiple times over the years, but the main purpose of any designer’s website is to express the visual success and achievements of that designer. The photography gives us the channel to express our talent and specifically, what our buildings or spaces look and feel like. Though always subjective in nature, our aesthetic and built form is our life and these photographs represent our careers. They show the evolution of our designs and they can also tell the story of a project. If photography is used properly, the photographs taken should allow the viewer to take themselves on a journey through the relationship between space, proportion, materials, the furniture and its context. The images, organized properly, can explain the thought process of the architect or interior designer, expressing how they approached the project and ultimately, the project’s success.
They don’t teach you in school about running your own business. They may naively and ignorantly promote being on your own or starting your own firm, but they do not tell you how difficult it is to begin, and more importantly sustain, a company. Here are a few things to consider before jumping:
Employees – Hiring them, firing them, finding them, keeping them, befriending them, relating to them…
The Office – Should I lease, should I own, how much square footage, what location, what about signage, should I be downstairs or upstairs …
Technical Capabilities – How many and what kind of computers, how many and what kind of printers, how many and what kind of phone system, how many and what kind of cellular phones, how many and what kind of computer programs (there’s Autocad, Revit, Archicad, Sketch-up, Photoshop, InDesign, 3d Studio Max, Rhino …), should I video conference, should I back up on a server …
Insurance – Do I get general liability, professional liability, workman’s comp, auto, health, dental, eye, for my leased equipment, disability …
Projects – Should we focus on residential, commercial, renovations, new construction, locally, regionally, nationally, internationally, small ones, large ones, municipal ones, industrial ones …
Accounting – Am I a corporation, a partnership, should I use Quickbooks, what about a bank, payroll, sales tax, unemployment, 941s, W-9s, K-1s …
And this is just the tip of the iceberg …
For the last 10 years or so, the question of whether or not we as an architectural firm should move into Revit or a similar program has been a consistent topic of discussion. Is Autocad or Sketchup sufficient or should we make the jump to Revit? One issue has always been whether our engineers are using the program or not. Until recently, the answer has always been a resounding “no,” however, even today, it is still not a given. The BIM (Building Information Modeling) programs are clearly the direction we are heading, but for smaller firms, I find that it still is a struggle to make the leap. And now, there’s Archicad, which seems to be gaining momentum and giving Revit a run for its money. Just as in Hamlet, it is about questioning a decision and what to do. We must continue to ask ourselves regularly when it is time to Revit or not to Revit? (Or whatever BIM program you choose). That … is definitely the question.
As they say, if it was easy, everyone would do it. Our goal, as a firm, is to ultimately develop our own projects. There are many reasons for this decision, but recently, we bought a property and began the process of developing it. We created pro-formas, designed it, negotiated leases, worked with the city for permitting and the contractor on pricing. As the title describes, it is extremely difficult. Mentally, physically and financially. However, there is an inherent advantage for architects to evolve into developers. Our ability to constantly design during the entire process puts us ahead of other developers. It saves money and/or helps to resolve the financial pro-forma, in real time. There’s no need to call your architect and then wait for their response. We can do it on the fly which is invaluable. The only thing they don’t tell before you begin your venture is … developing is tough!
Maybe it’s age. Maybe it’s experience. Maybe it’s even personality. I take on projects:
- I like.
- With good clients.
- That pay well and on time.
- That make me smile when I’m working on them.
- That don’t keep me up at night miserable and stressed out over them.
Life is too short and growing your business with a clear focus and selectivity in your projects and clients keeps your mind creative and your business streamlined. It is sometimes hard to say no to a potential project, but when you find yourself saying yes to the right ones, it all falls into place. And most importantly, the quality of work increases which then increases the quantity of work. Be choosy … it works as a business model.
Counting hours is the worst. Architects do it. Attorneys do it. Accountants do it. It requires a tremendous amount of effort and places the client and consultant in a precarious position wondering about how many hours have been spent.
Fixed fees are better, but they are typically based on completion of work and billing is based on a percent of completion. Retainers are often given, but if the project is delayed or just doesn’t happen, the retainer doesn’t matter much. I’ve had to give back retainers because the project didn’t get off of the ground. That’s not fun.
Instead, we have created a new format. I call it the “concierge architect.” Based on a defined scope and understanding the value of a long term contract, we provide that scope and more, within reason, for a pre-determined monthly retainer and a minimum one year contract. This provides cash flow for both parties, ours in and theirs out, removes any question of hours spent and gives the client an opportunity to get more than just the projects discussed. We are available “on call” in a way and our clients love it.
I hear often, “You know, I was going to be an architect but I was terrible at math.” I typically chuckle and shake my head in an “I’ve heard that one before and I’m not quite sure what to say” way.
Here’s a secret: I’m an architect not because I’m good at math but because I absolutely love the essence of what architecture represents. I am one hundred percent passionate about this field – everything about it, even the bad. I love shapes and the spaces they create. I love watching people interact with each other while walking through a hallway, discussing their day. I love looking out of a plane and seeing the grid lines created by low tracts of land. I love how the ‘a’, the ‘r’, the ‘c’, the ‘h’, the ‘i’, the ‘t’, the ‘e’, the ‘c’, the ‘t’, the ‘u’, the ‘r’ and the ‘e’ create an inspiring and wonderful word and gets me just as excited today as when I graduated from college over 20 years ago.
If you love these things too, then go, be, learn, create and collaborate. Become an architect. It’s a wonderful career and an amazing foundation for other life choices. And it’s not a bad education either, though its code name is “archi-torture.”
~Barron Schimberg, AIA, LEED AP