Dear architect, how do you get projects? In some way, they all come from referrals.

Dear client, how do you find an architect? In some way, you get a referral.

This is a basic component of our civilized culture. We trust the advice of a friend or family member…simple.

Most of my work comes from one of three referral sources. At least two of them need constant attention. One is the most important because it’s the most personal.

1. Online database and networks – The most common one is the AIA’s “Find an Architect” database. If you’re not an AIA member, well, you’re not on this list. That doesn’t mean the only good architects are AIA members. It’s just fortunate that a way exists (at a price) for people to find member architects and member firms outside of the Yellow Pages. It’s rather impersonal, just a list, but at least someone out there can use this database to search for an architect in their locale. We could add in other social media sites like Houzz, Architizer or Zillow. At least these sites can be personalized, they’re open to anyone, and one can personalize their own profile. Over the past 11+ years, many leads have mentioned to me that they found me from the AIA’s resource or used it as one of their methods. Recently several leads have mentioned seeing my profile on Houzz and in turn called me.

social media sites

2. Office or Firm Website – This has been the number one component of an online presence for many years. There are varying opinions of what it should be and how it should operate. Either way, if you don’t have a website, you don’t exist. It is a referral source, but it too is somewhat impersonal. For architects, it provides the imagery necessary to get to the next level. We add elements to personalize it, but it’s really not.

Website Screenshot

3. Personal referrals – This is really what I wanted to talk about today for it’s the most important and certainly the most interesting. We all understand what this is and in some respects we all have referred someone to someone else or somewhere else. We’ve shared a favorite restaurant, the name of a good doctor or even a movie to go and see. The reverse is true as we share where not to go, who not to see and what not to eat. Why?

One person trusts another; we’re still human thank goodness. Some of you may belong to or have been part of a business referral organization in a formal or informal fashion. I’ve attended a few networking activities and found them…let’s say…not my cup of tea. I hope they work for you, but I’m one for a casual environment where two people are getting together over coffee just to say hello and not trying so hard to share business cards.


Several stories came to mind as I wrote this which made me aware of my local reputation, how it is paying off in referrals and how important it is to nurture and protect it.

The first one has reminded me that I’ve worked hard and consistently to have a good reputation in my local region. One of my current clients (who was referred to me by a great source of mine), was seeking sub-contractors for their project. In the course of this process, I referred people to them (see what happened there). My client, in an entertaining fashion, relayed to me the good things said about me by several others (I believe the phrase “gold crown” was used). This reinforced to them that they chose the right architect. It humbled me.

Another story is from a client (who found me from source #1) whose project is not going to go forward since they changed their mind (for reasons outside of my work). We had a delightful conversation this week to wrap up the closing of the project that barely got started. Despite the project ending, I’ve made new friends and these people have already shared my name with others in their community – and pledge to continue to do so.

Lastly, I got an email yesterday from a colleague (who is another continual source of referrals) introducing me through email to someone who is purchasing a building and is in need of an architect. We’ll see where that goes.

I spent some time thinking about developing a strong referral network. Why is this so important? Why is this a critical component to us as architects? Besides it being smart and good business, it feeds our souls as architects. That last component has nothing to do with business or marketing. I’ll leave the expert advice on that to a few of my other friends who write and speak about that often.


I am interested in sharing what architects think. I asked myself what I get out of a referral besides the business benefit. We like to feel trusted. We like to please others. In order to get to do the work we so love, we need another client and another project. Thus, the need for a good referral network. Here are five things (no reason for five so don’t ask) that I came up with that will help you develop a good referral network.

  1. Don’t be a jerk. This is axiomatic, but needs to be restated occasionally. We all know what this means. I’m disappointed that I still hear stories about someone’s bad past experience with an architect.
  2. Regularly refer others. In our world today, we no longer have the mentality of putting up walls or creating a fort to protect our business or contain our knowledge. We know that in order to benefit in our social media based culture, we must first give before we receive. That was written thousands of years ago and remains true today. Be sure to share with others those businesses and services that do a good job for you. Be sure to share your knowledge for in return you’ll ultimately benefit.
  3. Do good work. This is another axiom. This is a cyclical process. Good work breeds more good work. It speaks loudly about its creator. All the same, if others take the time to refer people to you, it demands you deliver good work in exchange. One mess up in this category could be professionally fatal or could take a long time to heal.
  4. Develop two to four really good referral sources – I’ve read this on Enoch Sears’ blog, but I learned this many years ago. Think about who could be a great source for this – who do you know that knows people? I am fortunate to have developed a strong relationship with a few professionals in my locale that are extremely generous in sharing my name with anyone and everyone whenever the remote hint or need of an architect arises in conversation. I hope I give back to them because they’ve referred me to so many.
  5. Ask for a referral – Again, refer to #1 with this. However, I don’t find it out of line to be straight with your clients (and contractors) at the end of a project (see #3) where you simply state “I would appreciate any opportunity you could take to share my name with others.” I often tell contractors that this industry thrives on us sharing each other’s names. I am happy to do so and quite generous in sharing names of good contractors and sub-contractors with others. I’ll even tell you my favorite restaurants and coffee shops in Greensburg and the Pittsburgh area.

So we must give before we get. Yet if we only give to get, we will lose. Don’t be a jerk.

However, if you’ve had someone do good work for you, please don’t keep it a secret.

photos are from stock photo galleries on – click on photo to see author (used under the Standard Restrictions). 

This method depicted might be a bit too personal for sharing an architect with someone else. But I wanted to see if you were paying attention. Are you still reading this?


8 thoughts on “referrals 

  1. Great thoughts, so very true.

    I think of each referral and comment about reputation as a drop in a bucket. It takes a little while just to cover the bottom. But eventually it gets covered. With enough, it will eventually overflow.

    A bad comment or reference is like a hole in the bucket. It doesn’t take a very big one to leak faster than all the drips. A nice, tight bucket will eventually gather plenty of water. But just a few pinholes will ruin business, not to mention reputation.

    It’s important to any business, including our architectural practices, to maintain reputations of integrity, hard work, fairness, honesty, and going the extra mile for clients, contractors, AHJs, and all the other parties in a design-construction project. Every person we contact is a chance for a referral eventually. Sometimes it takes a while, but eventually those drips all add up!

  2. tbofnc says:

    Most of my work comes from referrals. I believe relationships are the key to just about everything. When you need assistance it is people who will help you not money and it is not a one way street. Share your knowledge and be helpful to others and when they want someone to work with they will remember you. It’s just the way the world works. I would add that I think you should help two kinds of people, those who appreciate your help and kindness and those who need your help whether they appreciate or understand what you are doing for them. Man, what a wonderful profession we are in.

  3. A key part of maintaining a good local reputation is turning down projects. Over the years there have been a few projects that went very sour. I’d love to see a post with your thoughts about when to turn down a project.

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