7 questions before taking on a project


Did you ever turn down a commission?

There is more being said these days on social media about architectural professional practice. I like it. To be honest, apart from Mark and Enoch there’s little being written (that I’ve found) for small or solo practitioner firms, so I love any dialog that helps. Most of the time the discussion focuses on how to get more work or get THAT project. When we don’t have enough work, it seems every project must be taken so we can continue to eat. I used to believe that. I suppose at times that is still a valid reason. It is not that simple.

As a means to strengthen our place in this industry and reach out to our profession, my friend Greg addressed the subject almost a year ago by writing 7 Reasons Why Architects Should NOT Abandon Small Projects as a response that some architects might be choosing not to take on small projects. It was featured on another friend, Mark R. LePage’s blog. It brings up very good points. I told Mark and Greg back then I’d respond with the other side of the coin. This topic is long overdue and I respect Greg’s article and I hope that discussion continues. My questions, however don’t limit the exchange to the size of the project.

To widen the conversation I believe we need to consider when an architect should turn down a commission. I don’t think my questions are in opposition to Greg’s arguments or Mark’s ongoing quest to make us better business people. I think it all works together in Enoch’s pursuit for us to conquer the world.

This is not an attempt to be negative, but to give balance to an important discussion.

I don’t judge anyone or any firm for their decisions when it comes to marketing and selection of commissions. My method of exploring this isn’t to state reasons or even give advice, but to ask questions in my typical Socratic method. I invite you to join this conversation after thinking about your own reasons. That helps others to think.

We don’t need consensus here, so there’s no need to persuade. We need to think about our own businesses as well as our profession at large. Perhaps if you’re not an architect, your insights are equally valuable. Why should an architect take your commission? This is far more than a simple service industry or looking purely a more “sales” argument.

I believe each project, each client, each opportunity has to be weighed in its context and particular point in time. These are my questions.

  1. Is there good chemistry with the client (contract negotiation, initial meetings, and early relationship building) based on meetings and discussions thus far?
  2. Is the project interesting? (challenging, exciting, engaging, fits personal goals, can focus on it)
  3. Will this project type-cast you into doing more of this type when you might not wish to do more? (style, building type, project size)
  4. Do you have the time to do it well? (schedule, office load)
  5. Is it a high risk? (budget, building type, schedule, fee, changes, liability)
  6. Do you have the experience? (building type, project size, technical concerns, current knowledge base, ability to learn)
  7. Is it good business (profitable, lead to additional work, extend reputation, name, etc. into wider market)

If you answer no to any of these, let alone to many of these, you might consider not taking on the project. Don’t say no right away, but don’t say yes simply because you need the work.


I suppose each of these is a post in itself – have at it. I told a colleague last week I turned down a big residential project – more specifically I said “not now” to this person for reason #4 above. This week I said “how about in six months” to another inquiry this week because of reason #1 and #2. We will see if either comes back like the old quote (or song). Each of us needs liberty to choose – to take on work or to not take on work.

This business is strange and hard to explain. So I won’t try. Let’s talk about it though.

By the way, small projects can be great.

photo 1 credit: emanningbx1 via photopin cc
photo 2 credit: conbon33 via photopin cc

7 questions before taking on a project

10 thoughts on “7 questions before taking on a project

  1. Yes, and by yes I mean YES! I used to feel bad about turning down work, I’ve come to realize its good business. The primary reason I don’t take on work is chemistry. As a sole practioner, I’m the person dealing with the vlient, we HAVE to get along, R…E…S…P…E…C….T and most importantly, trust each other.

    Great post!

  2. Charlotte Smith says:

    Yes, agree with you Lee, and Cogitatedesign the client is everything as a small practice. Thankfully even through we are only 3 years into trading we have just reached the point (and maturity) when we know when to say no. My colleague is about to let go one of our largest ever prospects ($60K fee) rural residential demolition and new build project, it is a great project! The issue is the client. Not only will they not buy into our “process” expecting to get to final design within 1 month of appointment, and builders on site within 4 months of appointment. They also refuse to accept the local county planning requirements. So it is highly likely they will be refused permission. Their key phrase being “but my mate says….” It is a great shame as it hits several criteria for saying yes- but the client is just too high risk.

  3. These are excellent questions to ask of every project. For me, just starting out, it is very difficult to say no to any project. This is mostly from a position of fear of an uncertain future and not enough confidence yet in my professional ability as a solo architect. But that will come quickly (we all know I have very little humility).
    In looking over these questions, however, I don’t see where I would have answered no on a single one of my projects. Even the ones that were difficult or maybe even not the best client fit. Maybe I’m still naive enough to really love what I do and find the challenges of budget, client, contractor, design and construction to be exciting and rewarding enough not to turn down projects that many others would run from. Time will tell.
    At the very least you’ve given us all some great food for thought, Lee. Keep it up!

    1. Hopefully you’ll never need to say no – by keeping up with work and finding good clients. After 12 years, I have a mix. I will say that I had one project that I was going to say no to, but I didn’t. It turned out to be one of the best experiences ever. I have good friends as a result with that client and contractor. We just need a crystal ball or vicarious wisdom of others.

  4. Really excellent post, Lee. Your list is pretty much the exact process I go through in my head, now that I’ve been solo six years. I’ve become increasingly selective each year of practice and adept at seeing signals early that tell me how a project may unfold. My goal for 2015 is to be even more selective and start to take only projects I think will both hit all your seven points above, and, (perhaps redundant), projects I’ll want to have in my portfolio. After staying busy during the recession, I’ve come to realize the slow times are temporary and more work always comes along. Yes, it’s nervewracking at times. I’m better now at quickly discerning what’s worth pursuing, though I’m not perfect at it yet. I also have some projects that I resisted and thought would go badly, but took anyway and they turned into some of the best experiences and clients I’ve had. I’ve also had a couple that I thought would be just amazing and they turned more sour as the client showed their true colors.

    As for size of projects, 80% of my work is smaller projects; they’ve been my bread and butter. However, big projects are overall more profitable and preferred because each small project requires the time consuming project start-up that varies little from a big to small job. Once that’s out of the way on a big project I get more time to design and produce once the tedious front end work is done. I’m assuming this is the same for most of you as well?

    Excellent post as usual, and great advice and food for thought, thanks.

  5. I answer just one question: Is this a “good” client? (A slight twist on #1 above.)

    For some background, you HAVE to watch Michael Bierut’s entertaining discussion on Clients [http://vimeo.com/9084072]. He offers great insight on approaching projects, winning work, and being happy in design–all through good clients. That one thing resolves everything else:

    #2 A good client will respect an interesting design solution for a seemingly mundane project.

    #3 Good clients enable good design, always welcome in the portfolio as a lead for more work.

    #4 A good client will be understanding of workload and offer schedule flexibility, additional fee to grow capacity, or maintain respect even if someone else gets selected to do are particular project.

    #5 A good client will recognize and fairly balance risks with understanding, fees, schedule, and flexible design possibilities.

    #6 A good client will appreciate the true nature of experience related to a particular project’s needs. (It’s not usually about how many previous.)

    #7 Good clients are always good business because they properly appreciate the efforts involved and they usually link to other similar opportunities and clients.

    Clients are the best part of the process even they aren’t all the same. He defines good clients by their brains, passion, trust, and courage. In return, the designer, or architect in our case, returns loyalty, honesty, dedication, and tenacity. At the heart is this quality exchange in human relationships that leads to ever expanding possibilities, both for the client and the architect.

    In the five years since seeing Bierut’s talk, I’ve been fortunate to start “collecting” clients as he discusses. Architects have a much longer sales cycle than graphic designers so it takes more than his five or ten. But in the end, architects need good clients as much as clients need good architects.

    Isn’t it that easy?

    1. Steve, it’s easy, but in the case of a small practitioner, oversimplifies other steps along the way. It also requires the psychic ability to vet out bad clients. Great thoughts to direct it to the client.

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