how long can we sustain a practice?


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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

photo 1 By Biatch at en.wikipediaOwn workTransferred from en.wikipedia, Public Domain, Link

remaining photos by the author

how long can we sustain a practice?

7 thoughts on “how long can we sustain a practice?

  1. I struggling with much of this as I have ventured back out on my own this spring. Background: I had a small, one-person residential practice in the Chicago suburbs for 6 years. I also taught half-time at Judson University. I am now living in Des Moines, Iowa, a city with a metro of 600,000 that is undergoing dramatic downtown redevelopment. My practice in Chicago-land focused on residential renovation, so I have an impressive portfolio of those types of projects. Most of the Chicago suburbs mandate that these projects be sealed by a licensed architect. So, people know if they want to do this type of work, they need to hire an architect (first). I estimate there are 350 1 to 5 person firms doing this type of work in the Chicago metro. Single family (as well as certain commercial and multi family) is not regulated in Iowa or Des Moines. There are very few licensed architects doing this type of work in Des Moines. There are quite a few builders and lumber yards offering (free?) design services as well as a few unlicensed residential designers – who everyone refers to as “architects”. Many people feel hiring an architect is just too extravagant. Yet, they will hire a builder without getting competitive bids? (My fees can be paid for in the bid spread) Simply put, people see little value in hiring a licensed architect for their project! Even when I point out that the lumberyard drafter carries no liability, hence the home owner is liable for THEIR plans, it seems to fall on deaf ears. As I continue my journey, I see two paths. One is to try an step it up and do more commercial based work. The other is to partner with a builder and do design/build. Sadly, I am realizing this city likely cannot sustain the type of small residential (stand alone) architecture firms that are so prevalent in Chicago and other big cities. So, adapt, I shall!

    1. Can you not just do higher dollar work?

      Here in Hawaii the work is mostly residential. Drafters do residential design work but they need a stamp. So some work that architects take in includes reviewing and stamping that work. And when you see the architect-designed projects next to the drafter-designed projects, it’s clear that there is a difference. So, in order to compete, architects need to charge more and then justify it. Liability is one way, design skill is another.

      Maybe you will find the clients who value design if you raise your fees. Maybe have a minimum dollar amount. Or a minimum % of construction cost. Or mandatory CA fees. Whatever it takes to structure your fee in such a way that sets you apart from the drafters who do not provide the same value. And the may mean higher dollar/SF projects. And it may limit you to certain neighborhoods.

      Discerning clients can tell the difference. You get what you pay for

      1. This has generally been my approach to residential work in the past few years. I’ve had positive a switch to primarily commercial work, but people have seen my work from the start as well as how I conduct myself. It was clear I wasn’t going to be just another drafts-person. I wish it was that simple for many others who are weighing in on this conversation.

  2. The model for sustainable practice involves two key concepts: relationships and life-long relationships with buildings and places. As architecture continues to evolve, these two ideas will sustain any practice, large or small. “Design like you give a damn!” says the Architecture for Humanity founder, Cameron Sinclair. I have yet to find a more succinct purpose statement for the profession and practice of architecture. The words, design like you give a damn, act as a battle cry to anyone engaged in the profession. They speak to compassion, caring, and being responsible for the service of essential values and priorities, and they are the architect’s gateway to building close and lasting relationships with people, places, ecology, and technology. They separate the valiant from the weak, and they are the keys to achieving sustainable practices.

    Historically, rather than build close relationships with people, architects tended to detach and isolate themselves from most of humanity, at least in regards to those outside the profession, the public, and social institutions in general. When people think of a builder, the term “architect” frequently comes to mind, but when the phrase “relationship builder” is used people rarely even begin to think “architect.” Sure, most people would naturally think we design places, buildings, and cities, when what we really design are relationships, and these relationships which exist within our designs are all about people. We make architecture to bring people from all walks of life together for all kinds of reasons. Nothing is more important than bringing people together and caring about them.

    There is an abundance of information available on the subject of building and maintaining an architectural practice. From the fields of leadership, strategic thinking, and entrepreneurship, a multitude of tactics competes for our attention. However, nothing is more essential to the architect’s work and sustainable project delivery than the investment into relationships with people. The importance of human relationships in architecture is evident considering the abundant offering of game plans which are available for promoting the art of building relationships—not just in architecture, but for everything imaginable. Surprisingly, for every personal, family, social, cultural and professional situation, it seems much of the content offered is meant for personal improvement rather than the betterment of others. When put into practice, personal improvement strategies easily become self-centered schemes, if not conspiracies, which lead to self-promoting ways to establish relationships with people and organizations.

    From experience, small projects have all the essential elements to captivate our immediate attention, challenge our deepest thinking for prolonged periods of time, and ultimately when done well, they seem to always elevate our profession. For some uncanny reason, small projects also frequently end up being more socially dependent than others. As any sole practitioner will attest, small projects require extremely hard work. Perhaps it is because of the client’s urgency of need, the insane budgetary restrictions, or the limitations of schedule, site, existing conditions, or plain desperation, the challenge of a small project requires your utmost participation, expertise, and commitment. Perhaps more importantly, small projects remind us of what it means to have honest architecture without pretense. They remind us that we can be awed by the response to simple acts of service as much as the complex and grandiose if we pay attention to the details—the details of our actions and our work. Regarding the future of American communities, small projects offer a glimpse into the central importance of architectural practice: its honesty, practicality, simplicity, and empathy. Regarding the future of sustainable architectural practices,
    when architects realize the lifetime of a place or building and their relationship to community life is as important as their initial creation, they will thrive in a world of unlimited opportunity.

    It takes courage to get involved with difficult situations, and the most difficult of all involve relationships with other people. Courage is the winsome moment when the architect plugs into their imagination, and from chaos produces an idea, a sketch, a fruitful embryo and determines to work towards its realization. The sketch is the mark of the implantation of an idea. It suggests the possibility of deep exploration and beckons an intimate experience, wanting to be pursued intimately, not remotely, as in the beginnings of a close, personal relationship. Similarly, the client is the field who desires to harvest the idea, and like all patrons, they seek amity, loyalty, appreciation and extraordinary production and results. Architecture is about making some mark in one’s lifetime which deserves the name, “Architecture.” It is a mark which remains after the architect’s power has departed and goes on to live—sustained in the experiences and memory of those living afterward. Architecture is a gift to others, not to self.

    All architects expect and hope their work will act in some way to serve humanity—to make a better world. That is the search we always should be undertaking and there are no clear-cut procedures, schemes, checklists, or assumed pathways. Therefore, it is important to give critical attention to the basic issues that every architect, regardless of time and place, has to face. Issues Alberti called choosing between fortune and virtue. Issues not as questions of advancement, but questions of value and principle.

    1. Larry, wow that’s a lot to digest. I appreciate the passion and don’t necessarily disagree. However, in a rare pragmatic moment, I acknowledge we need enough people around to have good relationships (non-rural), we need a means to bridge the gap between having no work and enough work (alternative income) and some regions are more likely to have people that appreciate and pay for architects that design like they give a care (buildings vs. architecture vs. Architecture).

  3. I believe that the root of the problem is the business model. Our services are not profitable enough and there is a perception that they are not needed. Products and services only exist in a market to solve a problem. Architects have devalued our services by competitive devaluation for many economic cycles. Currently the market dis-incentivizes design, we need a business model that incentivizes it.

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