not a freelancer

21 January 2014

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I am not a freelancer or a person that does freelance work. I am a sole-practitioner architect.

By no means do I feel any sense of superiority over those that provide services in that manner, but I won’t feel inferior to architectural firms that have multiple employees, multiple principals and a copy machine. I am here to set the record straight for me and the community of my fellow sole-practitioner architect friends. Yes, this is a response to a brief interaction I had last week when being introduced. When I politely corrected the person, I apologized for sounding snobby (as I handed out a business card that is pretty slick I might add). However, I stated clearly that I own a firm and am not a freelancer.

I know…it’s no wonder nobody ever wants to sit next to me.

According to Wikipedia (the source of all absolute truth and knowledge) “a freelancerfreelance worker, or freelance is a person who is self-employed and is not committed to a particular employer long-term. These workers are sometimes represented by a company or an agency that resells their labor and that of others to its clients with or without project management and labor contributed by its regular employees. Others are completely independent. “Independent contractor” would be the term used in a higher register of English.

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According to the 2012 AIA Firm Survey, there were over 17,500 firms owned by AIA members (that doesn’t capture the firms in the country owned by non-AIA members). With just that figure alone, there are over 4,500 sole-practitioner firms; that is an average of 91 firms per state. To add more perspective to this discussion, the AIA reports that over 80% of the firms have nine or less members.

aia firm survey figure

I can see where some might confuse this. Yet, I am not the person to let things go, because without open dialogue none of us ever learn anything or try to correct others’ skewed ways of thinking. If it makes you feel any better, I also correct those who call me an engineer. There is no time for that one in this post and I mean no offense to engineers (read Matt’s post here).

To me this concept of freelance (in the world of architecture) implies that the person, albeit independent, is providing their services to supplement the direction and focus of another company, person or entity. They’re not self-sufficient in the sense of autonomy or identity. Perhaps this is semantics and people say things socially that they don’t really mean or understand. Perhaps I’m too sensitive. If you consider yourself a freelancer or do moonlighting work, I mean no offense.

From my point of view, I perform all of the basic services, design, consulting, design tasks, goals, planning, thought and other activities found at most other firms. I just perform them mostly myself at a smaller scale than other firms but I do them to support my company. My colleagues around the country that are sole-practitioners do the same. We may be limited by project size and schedule and in some cases expertise, but we are not limited in terms of quality of work or comprehensiveness of service. We are architects and we do work directly for our clients or the end users or occupants.

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Am I being defensive or borderline whiny in this discussion? You decide; I can accept that. Yet, out of respect for one another, why do people in their innocent naivety believe that if you are the only employee of a company, you are a freelance worker (with inferiority implied)?

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Today, many architects find themselves alone in their firms. They may choose to be that way like me or they may have ended up that way after the recession. Some may desire to add staff or partners and some may wish to return to another firm. Some may provide services to other architects (or contractors) for many reasons. Some may enjoy the freedom, autonomy and flexibility of being alone. I am not criticizing anyone for their choices. This is where I choose to be right now.

Have you had a similar experience?

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18 Responses to “not a freelancer”

  1. Jeremiah Says:

    Lee, this is an excellent post, as always. I think I can offer an opinion and a perspective for both sides in this discussion as I have worked for a number of years as a freelancer as well as an employee of a firm. I am the often lamented “moonlighter”. And I think you draw a firm distinction here between a sole practitioner and a freelancer. I would say that the majority of freelance designers are unlicensed professionals offering design services only. There is no liability insurance carried because they take no responsibility for the drawings once they leave their email server. Sole practitioners are simply architectural firms with only one employee and offer services commensurate with any other architectural firm including accepting liability for the work product and assisting in overseeing construction to ensure the work is carried out properly.
    Again, excellent post. As someone who is incredibly close to being licensed, I can not wait to put on the hat of “architect” and “sole practitioner”. :-)

    • leecalisti Says:

      Your summary is spot on. I mean no offense to those who moonlight or freelance (like some of those strange website things going on now). But I believe the largest desire for an architect is respect. I don’t feel that when I am thought of as just a freelancer.

      • Jeremiah Says:

        I agree completely. I’m listed on those sites. And there is no value placed on trained professionals. There’s no consideration given to level of quality. It’s price only. Mostly because the homeowners that solicit these sites have no idea what is involved in or required to build, renovate or add on to a building. It’s sad. But there needs to be a much larger effort by the profession as a whole to educate potential clients. Especially residential ones.

  2. Heather Says:

    If my friend opens a clothing store, she is not called a freelance fashion designer, she is an entrepreneur, a business owner, a fashion designer who provides small scale services of the larger companies. As a writer, I could write freelance for architectural journals, but as an Intern Architect, I don’t think anyone should be called a freelance. I agree with Jeremiah. If we carry insurance required to practice, we are not freelance. If we have registered our firm with the governing body and received a certificate of practice (I’m Canadian so the terms might be a little different) and we have a business number, we are business owners, not freelance.

    • leecalisti Says:

      What a great analogy. Thanks for sharing. Freelancing is big in journalism but do journalists want that or do they accept that as part of the system? I agree with you we are entrepreneurs, business owners and most of all architects who own firms.

  3. matthew Says:

    Lee, i really enjoyed this post. It is interesting to me, because i have never had the experience of being considered a freelancer in relationship to my firm. That being said, i find myself wearing what i would consider both hats. That of being a sole-practioner. And that of being a freelancer. Do to the economic climate, a not insignificant portion of my income comes through work for other Architects where i provide what amounts to drafting services for them. This is not where i would prefer to be, but it is where i find my self right now. In those relationships, i consider myself a freelancer or ‘Independent Contractor’. However, i certainly do not consider myself as such when i have a direct relationship with the end user and am providing full Architectural services.

    (If you do not mind a little self-promotion, i wrote a similar post about the whole ‘engineer’ confusion some time ago: http://field9architecture.com/2013/05/so-i-hear-youre-an-engineer/)

    • leecalisti Says:

      I mean no offense to those who sub-contract to other architects – I did that once in my early years. I’ve also done design-build work which is a great way to be involved. I don’t mind the term freelance as much as I object to the thought behind it. Words get more difficult as time goes on. PS. I linked your engineering post to this post. Thx.

      • matthew Says:

        No offense was taken. And i am starting to move away from calling myself a freelancer in those situations where i am working for another Architect. After several discussions with other Architects who provide similar services, i am moving towards using the term “Consulting Architect” to describe those services.

        Thank you for the link. I really appreciate it.

      • leecalisti Says:

        I look forward to opportunities to collaborate with other architects. However, I don’t find that freelancing. Maybe it’s a word game, but if you use the journalist analogy, then it makes it clear when you are or are not freelancing.

  4. jane Says:

    Yes. I am a sole practitioner.
    And yes, I have been told I am free lancing or even that this is my hobby – one of the glorious advantages of being a woman.

    You didn’t mention one of the main reasons I work alone.
    I saw when I was a draftsman how when architectural firms.broke up the partners could no longer speak with each other. It felt like a divorce. Similar hard feelings when people were let go. I didn’t want to be part of that. I still don’t.

    • leecalisti Says:

      Yes, the connotations to women can be even more insulting. We need that think-meter before we say things. I went through two partners splitting a year before I started my own firm. Your description is accurate but in my case we all stayed friends. However, it’s never the same.


  5. Lee, another great read! My mind was stimulated pondering the meanings behind the words “freelancer” and “sole-practitioner”. You bring up another interesting subject at the end of the article: why you choose to own your own practice instead of working for another firm. What would you say your top reason is? (and thanks for the link to my interview with our mutual friend and powerhouse @wjmarchitect)!

    • leecalisti Says:

      My top reason? I guess it boils down to control. I started to say family, schedule and other things like that, but they all boil down to the aspect of control. I don’t want to answer to anyone about what I do and when I do it (except to my clients). Of course, for every privilege or good aspect, there is a cost or perhaps a trade off. It’s not a one size fits all. Ten years from now I might change my mind!

  6. jane Says:

    Yes, control. I wanted to run my firm the way I thought it should/coud be done. I wanted to control my time, the kind of the work, the solutions, the research, the way I work with clients and contractors …

  7. Doug Says:

    Like Jane above, I have my own reasons for being a sole practitioner. Went out on my own in 1980. By 1999 we had grown to 16 people including 6 architects. As the head guy, all of the big problems wound up on my desk and also being a creative guy, even though we had very talented designers, I wasn’t doing that anymore. The “fun quotient” just wasn’t there.

    So I left (good breakup and still talk to the guys in my old firm). Since then I’ve been a firm of one working out of my house and like you, do everything. And also like you, am not a freelancer.

  8. Scott Says:

    Lee…

    Would someone who owns a business that provides architectural design without being a licensed architect be considered “freelance”? As someone who has an mArch, did the whole internship thing, but for various reasons never took the license plunge while starting a design company, what am I? Besides being one of those guys that the architecture profession loves to hate?


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