community architect

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Community involvement has been good to me; it’s a big part of how I receive commissions as an architect. It fits. Aspiring architects working to start their own firm should not necessarily follow my history as a business plan or a formal marketing strategy. This is not a plan that I can teach or sell; it’s just my story. Yes, I’m the kind of person that will seek out advice from others and learn from vicarious wisdom, yet I prefer to find my own way while risking going against the norm out of spite at times. I’m the fish swimming against the current – perhaps it’s an illness or at best a personality flaw.

There must thousands of blogs, articles, videos, TED Talks, classes and opinions from your friends on Facebook on how to market oneself as an architect (or as a plumber or yoga instructor). If you want your money’s worth, go ahead and check out a few of those – with a bit of discernment of course. Yet as I take an evening off from working, I feel that healthy community involvement is one of the reasons I find myself in a place with many projects in my hometown. Many years into this process is paying a nice dividend, yet it was not something that was deliberate as much as an extension of our way of life. I am living and working in my hometown where I have lived essentially my entire life, now my wife and I are here raising our son.

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My reasons for returning home after six years of college can be told in a later post – after I can remember why. Nevertheless, I’ll share six things that I feel are necessary in establishing a good community presence which might eventually lead to a busy work load.

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get involved
The first step in my journey was finding ways to get involved. During my first year in business, I reached out to every community group, non-profit related to community development or any other group that sounded like it built neighborhoods. In time this led me to meeting many influential people who have been vital as my business referral network who in turn became friends. The best thing that happened to me, that I could have never predicted, was being invited to be part of a committee that would later develop into what is now our Historic and Architectural Review Board. There are so many stories to tell. Find a way to contribute – join a group, volunteer, coach, assist with after school programs, get appointed in a municipal or city position. Do something for someone else first.

talk about architecture
The HARB I mentioned above is a regular opportunity where I can comment about architecture and reflect my values towards it. One shouldn’t use an elected or appointed position for personal gain, yet how can someone sit on a board and not share the things that are important to them? Whether it’s a formal position, writing a letter to the editor, or simply having coffee with one other person, people should hear what we know and what we believe about what architecture can do. Social media? Try focusing it locally – comment on local business pages, highlight local businesses, market for them – maybe they’ll market for you. Talk about architecture somehow. Share what you know.

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give back
As mentioned in both points above, set out to give to others first – without expecting in return. If you’re in line at your favorite lunch spot (often enough), someone will eventually ask you a question. Answer it (succinctly) and show enthusiasm towards architecture. Beyond those ideas, try giving advice online (see Houzz discussions for starters even though that’s not to local people). People need to see that we are sincere people who are not trying to use them as stepping stones to personal gain. It will be evident, so be sincere, but show your worth. I’ve grown up in church and have found that all churches need architects as do any local non-profit groups, PTOs or even small local businesses. Don’t let them take advantage, but everyone can benefit from an architect’s counsel and everyone deserves good design.

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get out of the office
Having my office in my home leads me to hold meetings elsewhere, but I don’t automatically do that because my office isn’t conducive to meetings, it’s just that I find it beneficial beyond the purpose of the actual meeting to meet in a public place. For the past three or four years, I’ve intentionally met in my favorite coffee shop downtown Greensburg for meetings. It gets me in front of the public while I support another local business (see above). This many years later, it’s common to see a handful of people I know while meeting with another client or contractor. It’s a regular town square – my third place (look that up). Plus, architects drink coffee…we like good coffee.

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show expertise
At some point, it couldn’t hurt to share what we know. People are looking for real solutions – to their problems. Can you solve those? Do you know how to help them? Don’t just be that guy that “does drawings,” learn something about the issues in your community. I discovered existing buildings have challenges different to resolve than new construction on empty lots. Over the years, I’ve been thrust into learning the issues that renovation or adaptive reuse of structure contain. They can be tricky to unravel. Besides understanding the technical issues of structure and preservation, I’ve found that knowing the nuances of the existing building portions of the code have been priceless in helping people renovate older structures.  This goes far beyond knowing that each floor needs two exits; it’s knowing much more complicated layers of options, exceptions and methods of achieving compliance with buildings that cannot or will not ever reach the level of new construction. Fortunately, people talk and share my name. That opens other doors and opportunities for creative work.

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be brave
I said that other doors will eventually open. I believe first and foremost an architect should target the issues that their client is most concerned with – the ones that they are the most uneasy. Why do they need us the most? I doubt it’s to pick cool paint colors. However, within the context of resolving their programs and needs, find a way to elevate their designs. Don’t settle for easy, insipid responses. I can see many architects rolling their eyes – not all clients care about this stuff, understood. However, I challenge architects to be brave and share design ideas beyond what their client is expecting. Don’t be irresponsible, don’t be wasteful or foolish, but do show them something they would never expect. Find a way, within their limits to offer design concepts that are bigger and bolder than the easy solution. They may not get built, they may get rejected, but otherwise why hire an architect? I have heard too many stories about architects who produce prosaic designs coupled with mediocre service and a lack of knowledge of building codes. Be brave, but back it up with expertise. I never get tired of hearing “I would have never thought of that.” Before you know it, people will be talking.

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I suppose I should have offered a few disclaimers before I shared my story. First, it is important to be in a small enough community to be able to be known or recognized. If you live in NYC or LA, you will need to focus on a smaller neighborhood or something manageable instead of the entire city. Next, it’s important to be in a community large enough to have enough people and businesses to need architects. If your town only has one traffic light, this concept isn’t going to work – you might reconsider opening a business at all. Lastly, if you have no history in your current community, you might find it difficult to call on old friends, former classmates or those who may know your siblings, parents, or long lost uncles. It doesn’t hurt to have name recognition.

Even if doesn’t interest you, or you find it an unnecessary or miserable plan destined to fail in your opinion, I still recommend that we give back to our community and search for opportunities to volunteer. It’s just part of being a good person and part of being an architect.

Oh, and tip your waitress or waiter really well. That has nothing to do with being an architect; it’s just something I had to add.

All photos of Greensburg, PA are mine. [#collection273 @collection273]

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community architect

One thought on “community architect

  1. Edward Shannon says:

    Nice article Lee! I too really believe small firm practice is largely a referral based business. And I believe those referrals come (in the most part) through networking. I also feel that networking has to be authentic – meaning we attend events or serve in ways that genuinely interest us – without the ulterior motive of getting work, Glad to see this has worked for you!

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