architect as juggler

Your first thoughts might be directed towards the circus. You’re somewhat correct.

A juggling act may be a fitting metaphor at times for the life of an architect. Nevertheless as we peek into the life of an architect, more specifically a small practitioner or even a solo practitioner we see that we are often learning to master the art of juggling projects much like talented performing artists juggle pins and chainsaws.

In my world as a solo practitioner I will have between six and twelve projects at any given time all in different stages, however, I can only work on one at any point in time, but several in the course of a day or week. Therefore, it’s like juggling.

Projects do not develop in a simple linear time frame. In other words what does not happen is a commission starts, we immediately work on it nonstop, finish the project, hand it over to the client, get paid and then immediately turn around and start on the next one. There can be too many pauses in between project phases that must be filled with other projects if one wishes to make a living at this. In other words, when you’re waiting on client A to review the design documents you just sent over, what do you do? Hopefully, you jump onto another project.

It can take months from the initial client inquiry to meet, work through a proposal, negotiate a contract, start enough work to send a bill, and get paid. Therefore, figuring out how to juggle is obviously an essential skill.

Here is a cross section of the projects active in my office today and what transpired recently.

New restaurant addition, Greensburg, PA | Phase Concept Design – complete

See images here. Nothing happened on this project this week; we finished this design study months ago, but I did talk to the client about this project. In the meantime, he has asked me for a proposal for something personal for his home. This is where we learn to network, service clients and patiently wait for them to move forward on their projects.

Six unit apartment building, Uniontown, PA | Phase Contract Administration (under construction)

stone ridge

This is an affordable housing project for a nonprofit organizaton – important, but not glamorous. Now that it is well under construction, we meet to review the construction once every two weeks. The fee is limited, therefore I have to control time spent while doing a thorough job in monitoring the process. Most of the submittals are complete at this point. The project is about a 45 minute drive one way. Once we meet and I type up the meeting minutes, distribute them, answer any questions that may arise this takes about an entire day once every two weeks. Emails occur frequently throughout the week too.

Throw that ball up in the air…

New single-family residence, Penn Township, PA | Phase Schematic Design


This week I was able to jump back onto one of my current residential projects, a 2,000 square foot, single-family residence. This is a very enjoyable process but one with an extremely tight budget. Before my concepts are overly perfected, I review them with the client. This way we work together. This week I finally dove deep into 3D schematic modeling, developed plans and elevations from the model and generated many interior and exterior views for them to understand the project. I just emailed them last night – we’ll meet soon to discuss.

That ball is up in the air for today, so I move on…

Mixed use building renovation – three-story urban building, Greensburg, PA | Phase Construction Documents

1511 Concept Image

The overall plan layout is set, but before we “draw” we must get others involved. Two weeks ago I met with the client and my MEP engineering consultant to discuss this 7,500 square foot renovation project, I emailed him the floor plans this week. Aside from that, I am also working with curtainwall manufacturers and fabricators to discuss the new facade replacement concepts. This process is stalled as I await input from people outside of my office. It’s important to get those processes happening concurrently with my development of the design.

This ball is up in the air as I wait for engineers, vendors and fabricators…

New addition single-family house, Cranberry Township, PA | Phase Schematic Design complete


This 5,000 square foot addition (that’s right) is quite exciting. Months ago we completed the schematic design and forwarded the final package to the owner who in turn forwarded it to their banker. They are waiting on confirmation on the property appraisal for financing before they can move forward with subsequent phases. I mention it because late last week I spoke to one of their bankers.

That ball is up in the air for an unknown time period…

New master bedroom addition single family house, Pittsburgh | Phase Schematic Design Complete


I am collaborating with Jeremiah on this one. We worked together to finish the schematic design phase. Before we can move forward on this project, our design assumes permission from the City of Pittsburgh for a variance. The hearing is scheduled for next week. If it gets approval, the owner will certainly call and be ready to move forward. I’ve sent the schematics to three contractors. I spoke to one this week, so I put it on this list.

That ball can stay up in the air for now until I catch up…

Renovations to an urban building for small retail area, Greensburg PA | Phase Construction Documents Complete

2015-03-12 12.06.57

I just finished up a simple and quick set of permit level drawings for a small, basement retail renovation (vinyl records) for the new Rabbit Hole Records. I worked three days straight two weeks ago to quickly produce as much documentation as possible. I wrapped it up and sent it off for plan review. Today I should pick up the approved drawings and will deliver them to the owner. My involvement is essentially complete at this point, but my favorite coffee shop is directly above, so I’ll be by.

That ball can be set aside…

Three single-family “cottage type” houses, Uniontown, PA | Phase – Construction Documents

Screenshot 2015-03-31 19.11.06

This, the second project for a non-profit who provides services to homeless people, is in dire need of getting out to bid as soon as possible. With affordable housing projects like this, there’s no room for gratuitous items or even generous items at times. Everything must be the minimal size necessary while still working within a reasonable construction dimensions and proportions. I just received owner feedback, so this ball is now in my hands. I have a friend who will be helping on this next week.

That one is in my hands today…

Interior Renovations – Five Story urban building, Greensburg, PA | Phase – awaiting approval of proposal


After developing a basic schematic design, code review and feasibility report, we were asked to submit a proposal to develop the project through construction. I found time (somehow) to develop a fee proposal with my engineers, met this week with the client and am waiting for his board for approval. I hope they spend “adequate” time reviewing it so I keep this ball up in the air for a few weeks.

Up in the air…

Renovations – Four Story urban building, Greensburg, PA | Phase – Pre-Design / Code Review

2015-04-06 14.49.46

Yesterday I finally was able to get clarification on a few ambiguous but critical code issues for this client seeking to renovate the empty, first and fourth floors of this building downtown Greensburg. I need to edit my report, tighten things up and send it off. This would be all interior renovations

I will soon throw this ball in the air as they read the report and consider their next steps.


In a small firm, projects are relatively small as well as the fees. Therefore, it is imperative not to spend too much time on each project and work on completing tasks and moving on. This is a weakness.

We have to keep a steady flow of work ready for the future to reduce down time or gaps in the system. Ideally when a project is complete another one can move into its place. Fortunately, I have several potential projects and/or proposals I’m working on in the background to keep that flow. Some clients will wait, some will not.

Architects don’t get paid to do marketing and proposals so we often work on these during off-hours to keep from taking away the workday from billable time. As stated earlier, I have met with and/or had conversations with a half-dozen other the actual clients with whom I am working to politely delay. That doesn’t address if dormant projects awake either.

Lastly in the course of all of that juggling, during the course of the day are unpredictable e-mails or telephone calls. I’m working at getting better at avoiding these first thing in the morning or leaving my email open all day. It is important to note that when a client calls, we must stop and talk to them; they are very important people. When a contractor calls, especially one whom is building one of my projects, they are equally important because their questions likely require some type of feedback so that they can keep the construction process moving. Potential clients are important people because they will be the ones paying me in the future.

When you call your architect and wonder what he or she is doing, they’re probably wondering how to juggle all these balls.

Oh, and there’s my family that trumps all of this. I make time to spend with them. I’ve never missed a school or sports event for my son.

Is juggling crazy? Yes, my days are crazy at times but I do enjoy the variety. I have learned over the years there’s grass on the other side of the fence but it is never greener, it’s just different.

If you are an architect, what has been your experience? Feel free to join the conversation if you can find time while juggling.

photo 1 is from georgia reading’s photostream on Flickr (used under the Creative Common License)

all other photos courtesy of lee CALISTI architecture+design

architect as juggler

16 thoughts on “architect as juggler

  1. wmello1934 says:

    Your analogy of a an architect being a juggler is vastly underrating what you do. Jugglers usually use equal size shape and weight objects. How many projects do you have, or have you had that that are equal in size and shape etc…
    Remember jugglers select their objects for their skills.

  2. Hi Lee – I could not agree more with your insight. The ability to expertly juggle small and large projects, no matter what their stage, and to treat all of them with a sense of “greatness” and level of “importance” is a distinctive quality of being a good architect. Surprisingly (or not), six to twelve projects is about the same workload as a project architect in many offices. Either when I had my own sole-proprietor firm, or when I saw it grow to over a staff of 175, the importance of knowing how to successfully prioritize current projects along with new project acquisition, friendships, family and faith has no greater than this.

  3. You hit that spot on! I sometimes think we are mentally deranged in our profession for doing this…but the adrenaline that is sparked by this makes the challenge worth while. Besides, who likes doing the dame thing day after day…

  4. Vitas says:

    For a few months i am looking for some ideas and still did not progressed much. With tight construction budget, what new approach could be offered for the future single family homes? Any innovative designs using steel beams? Any ideas that could cut costs dramatically compared with current construction approach? 130$ /sq foot is simply not affordable for 80% of Americans, including me. I did not come across of anything completely new yet. But again i did not spend enough time on it yet? Any chance hanging a house on a single or dual steel beams and building around these would work?

    1. Most Americans will never build a new home. That’s just the plain truth. Finding a way to build a new house lower than $130/SF is extremely difficult with most current construction methods. Your suggestion sounds considerably costly unless you have an unusual connection with a steel fabricator. I don’t have any simpler ideas.

    2. wmello1934 says:

      In New England, since about 1948+/- the least expensive elements in a wood frame house were concrete foundations and roofs. The 4’x8′ plywood module with studs, floor ceiling and roof joists 16″ OC were the part of the cost control system with the least amount of material waist (sawdust was the waste that was expected). Spans beyond 12′ for floor joists were avoided. Basement/ Crawlspace column centers 8′ OC were combined with 3-2″x10″ Main Beams with staggered joints at the Column bearing What appeared to be waste was used at the foundation bearing ends. With solid bridging mid-span the joists became as a “quasi-lamella” platform with the least amount of “bounce” (deflection). This cost saving system developed the “Framing Hammer” is now improved by pneumatic hammer fasteners (nails) speed and adhesion strength. It is also easier to plan as it is possible to develop more space with the reduction of cutting providing space instead of waste. Stay with wood framing as long as you can. Exercise with sketches for a 24’x36′, 24’x 40′ etc… and combinations of anything that is a 4’x8′ module. Use modular window sizes. You will be able estimate the cost quite accurately and know where you will encounter additional costs and field problems at every corner you create.
      I had the opportunity to use this many times.
      I also had the opportunity to see a major addition that was all concrete foundation walls and a post and beam roof framing with a composite ridged insulation system of 4’x8′ module. The quickest documentation construction and below estimate house addition that I had ever had the pleasure as an architect. By the way the interior of the concrete walls were covered in a 4″ layer of Bloomington Indiana Limestone. The remaining interior walls were covered with rough sawn 6’w T&G spruce on the diagonal. The remainder of the exterior openings were glazed. The garage mechanic workshop was built the same way without the finishes.
      For the benefit of the truth I was asked by the father of the wife to incorporate as much limestone as I deemed appropriate. The limestone arrived in accordance with my documents along with shop drawings showing the numbered pieces in their places. As the finish I specified was shot sawn, all the pieces in place aligned the shot saw lines tending in a vertical direction.
      It was a array of continuous spaces from the street to the hearth slowly rising, turning moving on a level plane with a modulating 5’6″ wall open above to the sloping roof ceiling then turning again to the flowing stairs to the hearth and living space all this flowing below the roof ceiling above. This happens in about a 24’x24′ plan. I wish I could find the drawings an sketches. Sorry for the ramblings, But then again, I will be 81 soon.

  5. etroxel says:

    Don’t forget to add that you are also throwing this ball called a blog in there and you don’t get paid to write exhaustive posts like this to share with the world! Thanks Lee.

  6. Hi Lee – Some of the “non-conventional” construction alternatives such as the use of straw bale, cargo containers, prefabricated steel buildings, modular buildings, and prefabricated kitchen and bathroom pods could be rewarding. I have only one 2,700 straw bale building under my belt, but the experience was hugely rewarding and quite inexpensive. Recent residential breakthroughs with the use of cargo containers looks exciting, and the cost savings appears promising. Along with WMello1934’s “modular” comments (which I thought were great), using any form of modular or prefabricated structures and/or assemblies seems worthwhile. Another trend I have noticed is to build a basic “core” home that can be expanded in the future as the family grows and becomes more financially stable. In almost all of the “Make It Right” and “Habitat for Humanity” case studies, optimum cost efficiency seems to always rely upon small footprints with tight envelopes. Hope this helps.

  7. Just dropping a note to let you know how much I’m enjoying your blog! I’ve always loved architecture and can spend hours looking at houses and buildings. But I didn’t know anything about your profession before reading a little of your blog. I’m in a completely different profession (counseling) but as a small business owner, I understand what it’s like to juggle many different projects. I think blogging is a great marketing tool. I know if I ever need an architect, I’d hire you over someone I know nothing about. It’s the same in my field. People feel more comfortable with you if they know something about you before working with you. I’m working on a blog for a counseling business in Uniontown that I have with a partner called Momentum Couples and Family Therapy. I plan on linking to local businesses and would be happy to include a link to your blog. You’re not that far away in Greensburg and I saw you did a building out my way. Never know where networking will lead!

  8. I am ridiculously impressed at how many projects you are managing to juggle at once.

    Looking through your images I really like some of your designs, they’ve got a nice fresh feel to them without necessarily being “out there” so to speak.

    I work in the same field as you basically and I think 3d modelling is the best thing that’s ever happened to our profession. Being able to model buildings and truly visualise them in a 3d environment gives me the greatest sense of pride.

    Good job and good luck with the juggling!

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