Let me pose a question to my architect friends who primarily work in small firms. Does there exist a sustainable practice model in architecture anymore?
I will limit my comments to the small firm, but the conversation is always open to all. Recently many of us have been having an ongoing discussion on the EntreArchitect Community Group Facebook page about such matters, beyond that I was reading about another up and coming firm profiled in one of the latest architectural journals who are doing interesting work, but who also teach. Lastly, I’m always evaluating my own office and how must I adapt or focus to stay afloat. Let’s explore these one at a time.
Architect – where do you live?
Obviously, there is a higher demand for architects where there are more buildings; it seems obvious. However, there are still many small firms, even solo-practitioners that have chosen to live in areas other than large metropolitan areas – I’m cheering for you. These areas might be small cities, it might be suburban areas which may or may not surround large metropolitan areas or it could be some form of rural environment. We know it is difficult to sustain a practice if one locates themselves where there are few buildings or few people. It seems self-evident that to sell a lot of something there needs to be a lot of people wanting that something. Also, in areas where a service has a low demand, people often are less familiar or interested in how to interact with that service. Did I say that nicely? The concept of scarcity of demand is a problem with all forms of business; therefore, the architect in that situation might (must) search for ways to expand their service area or offer something unique, special or some level of expertise that will allow them to expand their coverage area. What could be so unique or even somewhat unique that someone from the other side of the state or several states away would seek out that architect? There’s no easy answer, but it is much easier in this age of technology and social media than even two decades ago. If we are having problems sustaining ourselves, some variable of the situation must change for this to work.
Architect – what else do you do?
After being in the academic world for over a dozen years, I became quite aware of architects who do what (we) architects call Architecture (as opposed to architecture), but also continue to teach. As always, my perception may be skewed but as I see cool projects in the glossy mags or hip blog sites, and the author is from a small firm, invariably one or the partners is also a university professor teaching architecture. I can attest to a big connection between teaching and practice as work that is most notable or most publishable often comes from someone with their hand in academia, perhaps because it fosters a type of thinking necessary to birth that type of work. It also allows them the latitude since they have another income stream which may liberate them to pursue or dabble with work that one working solely in practice may not be able to follow. I say this with experience, but I’m not trying to over-generalize. Therefore, a question remains (in my over-simplified model), how does someone solely focused on their practice find equivalent signature work? Or better yet, how might they afford to work on competitions or invest the incomprehensible time required to produce the breath-taking drawings, renderings and models let alone have the mental clarity to conceive these audacious propositions? Where do we find these clients? Does the day-to-day demands of routine practice suck the very soul out of our architectural lives? Pardon the drama.
Architect – where are you going?
Self-inquiry or soul-searching is something we all need to continue to do. Do we evaluate ourselves or analyze our own practices much like we do our design projects? This is truly a weakness of mine as I’d rather do architecture than do business (sorry Mark). However, I’d like to do architecture for a very long time. It took me a few years on my own to replace the income that I had left at a former job. Teaching helped that happen to be honest. It took even longer to get to a point where I was too busy to teach. That pesky recession a few years back didn’t help – but those enemies will always be present to invade our economic models. I think we have many of the right answers – we often share them, clumsily at times, through our social media channels. We also have solid resources out there to teach us how to be better at operating our practices. Therefore, we are without excuse for having a lack of information. As for our clients – or potential clients, maybe, just maybe people don’t need more “education” about our value, they need someone with bravado to state, “I won’t work under those conditions or that fee” or “these are my terms, and I’m worth it.” Economics play out with or without us and is dispassionate in its response. I don’t have any magical answers or three-point sermons to get someone motivated (oh, wait, this has three points). I’ve worked towards goals and project types that I enjoy. I’ve made decisions to live where I want and blessings have filled in the gaps for which I take no credit. Nevertheless, I believe we can have sustainable practices as architects, however, we also must be willing to adapt, move, educate ourselves or augment our careers with other income if necessary.
How much do you want to be an architect?
remaining photos by the author