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I don’t get to draw all day. I’m not a cartoon maker. Honestly, I’m getting tired of hearing clients and architects say “Isn’t that great, you/ I get to draw all day and get paid!” I know it’s typically stated flippantly, but we, or at least myself, need to really think about that. That’s not what we do and it’s part of the perception problem that the public has with what we architects do. “Don’t you architects just do some drawings?” No, no we don’t. Now before you get up on your soap box and start calling me out, I admit… I’ve been guilty of stating the same thing. However, I’m making a conscious effort to not say that anymore, it marginalizes what we do. Part of our role as architects is educating the public what it is we really do… we fall short on doing so, I know I do.

We architects get excited about meeting new clients and voicing our thoughts on the design problem and the solutions we have. We prepare awesome drawings that represent the vision for the project, with any luck the client loves them… and… pause…that right there is part of the problem. The problem is quite simple; it’s the ‘awesome drawings’ the client sees. Even worse, if we’ve been good at the design solution, the resultant drawings look effortless and as if that was the only solution. While awesome drawings are… well, awesome, they can also be a detriment. We need to do a better job at explaining the architect’s value to our clients lies well beyond the drawings created… and that we don’t just draw all day.

 

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An architect’s value is lost on the client if they only see the drawings and aren’t fully vetted as to the process/experience that ‘created’ the drawings. It’s the drawings backed by such that instills value. Yes architects draw. However, drawing is part of a larger process of architecture. A process backed with experience and expertise. The process involves problem solving, addressing your needs/wishes/budget/schedule, and complying with local building and zoning codes- all while designing an aesthetically pleasing efficient structure. Architects help you design/discover a structure that works for you and fits your individuality and preferences. The value of an architect’s services is occasionally related directly to cost savings. However, typically our value is in questioning, planning, clarification, detailing, and ‘solidifying’ numerous moving ‘parts’ into a cohesive design- which ultimately results in cost savings to you. This in turn enhances the value we bring to a project. Drawings play a supporting role in the overall process.

Drawings themselves do not bring value to architecture. It’s the due diligence, experience, role of the architect in the design/construction process, and the thought(s) that created the drawings that bring value. Many people seem to be under the impression that drawings are cheap, and they’re right. Drawings themselves are cheap. However, it’s the thought and expertise that ‘back’ drawings created by an architect that’s going to cost. You can have cheap drawings; you’re just not going to get them from me or any other architect who has your best interests in mind. As a client, you need to look past the architect’s drawings and be cognizant of the process that created the drawings. The drawings themselves are cheap, heck I’ll even pay* for the paper myself. What you’re paying for is the architect’s expertise that created those drawings.

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No, I don’t get to draw all day everyday, my typical day looks more like this- Drawing Baths and Architecture. Yes I do get to draw, but my drawings are more than graphic representations. They are a wealth of knowledge and are backed by a solid thought process. Architects offer a service in which drawings are a tool to reach a conclusion… a conclusion that ultimately brings value to your project. Drawings are a product; architects provide a service, a valuable service!

 

Design On,

* Offer only applies when my services are rendered for the project, cannot be combined with any other offers unless Neutra comes back to life and wants to collaborate.

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Lee Calisti had a great post on his blog think | architect about the negatives of being a sole practitioner. You can read his post here- 10 challenges to working solo. He asked for others thoughts on the matter and I needed a post topic accepted. If you read my post the other day I also listed my +10 for being a sole practitioner- Solo Architecture Practice +10

With all the positives, much like everything in life, there are also negatives to being a sole practitioner- not the least of which is having someone else write my blog! However, the majority of negatives can be resolved relatively easily. For example, you need to become well versed in delivering bad news to a client, you can read PMt No. 2- Who’s Bad! for some tips. Another must is to align yourself with good GC’s, you can read my thoughts about that- GOODgc BADgc. Well before I link to every post I’ve ever written **spoiler alert, numerous links below** here are my  -10 for being a sole practitioner:

1. When I have a lunch and learn I have to buy lunch and be the teacher.

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2. No big firm resources- books, software, supplies, etc.

3. No one to bounce ideas off of or offer constructive criticism (Facebook and Instagram comments don’t count).

4. I’m the architect, receptionist,  business development guy, PR department, admin department, good cop, contract writer, AR/P department, educator, bad cop, night cleaning crew, IT guy, intern, model maker, lackey, CAD/BIM manager, CA guy, marketing department, general whipping boy, spec writer, etc.

5. I have to buy trace, scales, and sharpies.

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6. No intern to pass grunt work off to mentor.

7. No Friday morning **insert favorite breakfast here** paid for by others.

8. Nobody to foot the bill for the annual holiday party.

9. Firm retreats are extremely lonely.

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And the final, and reason I don’t like being a sole practitioner…

10. No room for advancement within the firm unless I take a pay cut and demote myself first.

There are solutions to each of these… well maybe not #5 or #8 unless you’re open to committing petty crimes. Like anything, as long as the +/- tend to weigh slightly more to the +, it’s most likely worth doing. I’ll admit, it’s tough working on your own and its not for everyone. There are days I question it. However, if you do go this route it will be extremely rewarding!

Are you a sole practitioner, if so, what do you miss out on from being such?

 

Design On,

** One other negative is that I always know what my end of year bonus is… it’s another year of doing this, wait… that’s a positive!

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Lee Calisti had a great post on his blog think | architect about the positives of being a sole practitioner. You can read his post here- 10 good things about working solo. He asked for others thoughts on the matter and I needed a post topic accepted. There’ll also be a follow up to the ‘negatives’- come on, you saw that coming.

Like Lee, I’m a sole practitioner. It wasn’t by any great desire I had, it came out of survival instincts. The economy was bad and my daughter likes to eat and have clothes. So a few fees here and a couple of forms there and BOOM! Legal entity to practice architecture. I was off and running to secure my own work. ** cue wavy dreamy sequence*** Ah, that was 2009… seems like yesterday… but I digest. I know, I know sounds awesome… well for the most part, it is! So what are my top +10 for being a sole practitioner, here you go:

+1. I get to resolve all the ‘bad’ issues that arise- it’s the best learning experience.

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+2. No random principal comes to me at the 11th hour saying “I’m not sure I agree; let’s give this scheme a try.”

+3. I can refuse projects that aren’t a good fit.

+4. I rise and fall… I get credit for both!

+5. I get full authority on creativity… as well as veto power!

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+6. I can sleep go for a run or mow the lawn whenever I have to clear my head.

+7. When I take pens and trace from the office, no one knows but me… shh.

+8. All my days-off for vacation requests are approved.

+9. I’m in control (however loosely) of where my practice goes… such as my design value menu concept.

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And the final, and best reason I enjoy being ‘da man’…

+10. It allows me to be more actively present in my daughter’s life, attend her swim meets, dance recitals, volunteer at school, etc.

 

Are you a sole practitioner, if so, what are your reasons?

 

Design On,

** One thing I didn’t mention is that my boss is sometimes a bit over demanding about ‘billable time,’ he just doesn’t get this whole blog thing. And remember kids, much like a battery, in order for things to run well you need both a positive and a negative.

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It’s always exciting meeting a potential client for the first time. Excitement. Nerves. Possibilities. That’s how I feel as the architect. Once I’m in their house I don’t get on the sales pitch soap box. The great thing about the modern ‘online world’ is that clients can do vast amounts of research before calling an architect. They’ve seen my work and know what I can do. I don’t need to sell myself at this point… well, I’m always selling the virtues of an architect, it’s just covert at this point.

 

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We start walking through the house. The clients go on and on- in a good way- talking about their project. I spend most of the time listening shaking the dog off my leg, checking out their medicine cabinets and nodding my head… after all it’s their project that they wish to share with me. I see the glitter in their eye as they discuss wishes and goals for the project. Really good clients have binders full of images they like. The best clients can describe why they like them. Finally they’ve exhausted themselves. Then it happens. They turn to me and ask, “So what’s the answer? What will it look like when it’s done?” They seem to be waiting for me to snap my fingers, toss my cape back over my shoulder (I should start wearing a cape) and exclaim “A-ha, I’ve got it!” However, my typical response is “Yes. No. Something. I don’t know.” To which I’m greeted with a blank stare for two minutes… than a nervous laugh… then the client says “ No, really, what’s it going to look like?”

 

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Sometimes it’s a bit of a let down to the client that I don’t have an initial grand vision for their project. If I did, it would be my vision and not theirs. I don’t work that way. The bad thing about the modern ‘online world’ is that clients want answers instantly. I explain how I approach each project by striving to define the inherent design issue(s) at hand. I need to figure out how they ‘live’ life on a daily basis and what is or isn’t currently working for them in their house. I don’t approach a project with a preconceived notion of an aesthetic- style if you wish. I strive to absorb a client’s beliefs and wishes and respond with an appropriate design. This doesn’t happen at the first meeting. I may even have them fill out a questionnaire in an attempt to further solidify their goals and wishes for the project. Then it happens. They look at me and exclaim “A-ha, so we’re going to be involved more than we thought. We have a say in what this will look like, nice. This sounds like a lot of fun!” Trust me, its barrel of monkey’s kind of fun.

 

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My initial meeting with a client involves a vast amount of listening, looking, and investigating the root of the design issue(s) at hand. Good design is listening and investigating, only after doing such can an architect respond appropriately. I suspect a majority of architects would agree.

A client’s project starts as theirs, but if it’s successful it doesn’t end that way. I like the give and take between architect and client, it makes for a rewarding experience and project for both of us. The most successful projects start as a client’s project and end as our project. It never becomes my project. So take on me (see what I did there) as your architect and we’ll come up with a project that’s not yours or mine, but ours

 

Design On,

** Come on A-ha and a barrel of monkey’s… in one post… never done before, couldn’t have been.

Thinking about starting your own firm or going out on your own as a sole practioner? If so, there are some basics you should be reminded of when starting your firm. Keep in mind, this is not an all-encompassing post and you should consult legal advice as you feel necessary. I’ve worked in the architecture profession for over 20 years, the past 14 years as a licensed architect and the past 5 years as running my own architecture firm.  I’d like to think I’ve learned a few things over the years that are worth sharing. Below is a business outline that I feel is crucial to starting your own firm. I’ll be honest, I haven’t followed it to the letter. I won’t say which I haven’t, but I can say I regret not having done some…vague enough… don’t you do the same.

Strategic Planning

Establish your Vision, Mission, and Values. Going through a strategic planning process will help you in defining your goals, as well as provide the framework to create a specific business plan to achieve them. It will also help you establish and build your unique ‘Brand’ and guide your day-to-day decision making. A situations arise, or goals change, refer to your strategic plan for guidance and/or to revise as needed. Your strategic plan is fluid and it should be revised as needed, at least once a year minimum. The basics your plan should contain are the following:

    1. Vision: How do you see your firm in 2, 3, or 5 years?
      1. How much revenue and profit would you like or need to be successful?
      2. Do you plan on having employees, if so how many?
      3. What project types will you serve? Geographic location(s) you will serve?
      4. What services will you offer? Will they be direct or subcontracted? (architecture, landscape architecture, interior design, graphic design, civil, MEP, or structural engineering…)
    2. Mission: What is your key purpose?
      1. Why do you want to do this work?
      2. What do you want to be known for? (unique design solutions, traditional architecture, contemporary architecture, great service, technical abilities, LEED solutions…)
      3. What makes you and your firm unique?
      4. Try and develop a benefit statement or slogan for your Key Purpose.
    3. Values: What are your core principles regarding design and business?

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I don’t think your strategic plan should be shared with your clients or posted on your web site. The purpose of the plan is to guide you, not as ‘fluff’ to market or a sales attempt.  That doesn’t mean write it and just forget about it. To be purposeful your plan needs to be simple and employed as framework for you to reference and guide you as to why you’re doing what you’re doing. Bob Borson has some great advice in his Mission Statements post. We all want to be the best and offer the best services, we don’t need to tell clients that… but we do need a plan as to how we’re going to achieve.

Legal Entity

Most business entities can be set up rather easily and with little to no assistance. However, it’s best to consult with an attorney to discuss what type of business structure will fit your needs the best. If you’re not comfortable doing so, a business attorney can also assist you in setting up the legal entity. There are several legal corporation structures, for example:

    1. Sole Proprietorship- personal exposure for all liabilities
    2. Partnership- personal exposure and possible control issues
    3. S Corporation- insulation from many liabilities, tax burden passes through to individual owners
    4. C Corporation- insulation from many liabilities, subject to corporate taxes, flexible
    5. Limited Liability Corporation or Professional Limited Liability Corporation- simple but has limitations

It’s best to consult an attorney and review these, as well as other, options available to you. Meeting with an attorney for an hour is worth the cost and can save you a lot of hassle in the future.

Licensure

Make sure you are licensed in every state (or jurisdiction) that you are providing services. Many states require local licensure just to offer to provide architectural services. Be sure to review the specific requirements for each state prior to offering or providing services for clients or projects. Some states will also require your corporation be registered with the local Architecture Board and have a separate corporate seal and number than your personal architecture seal. Create a method for Continuing Education requirements and tracking for yourself and any other professional architects in your firm.

Insurance

There is a lot to cover when it comes to insurance… there’s Professional Liability Insurance, Errors and Omissions, General Liability Insurance, Property/Casualty, Workers Compensation, etc. Certain clients and projects will mandate what type and amounts of insurance you should carry. It’s best to find a reputable insurance broker and discuss your options with them.

Professional Relationships

Make sure to develop and maintain key relationships to assist you and your firm, i.e. banker, lawyer, finance and tax accountants, insurance brokers, vendors, engineering consultants, code officials, architects…

Startup Capital

Many firms start out as Sole Proprietors working out of their home and ‘bootstrapping’ it with little to no startup capital. Modative’s post, How to Start an Architecture Firm – Introduction, is a good read for how to start a firm via bootstrapping. However, if your goal is to start out a little ‘bigger,’ there’s more to consider. New firms rarely begin collecting revenue on day one, you should secure a source of funds required to cover your operating expenses in the time period between opening and receiving regular revenue to cover operating costs. Collection periods can vary significantly be sure your contract states your collection period. If you plan on starting ‘bigger,’ typically three to six months of operating expenses are needed prior to starting. Operating capital can come from many sources; personal funds, outside investors, personal credit, bank loan, SBA loan, etc.

    1. Establish your operating budget to determine your cash need
      1. Rent
      2. Space/building improvements
      3. Furniture
      4. Computer hardware
      5. Computer software
      6. Utilities, phone, internet, insurance, salaries, travel, etc.
      7. Marketing
      8. etc., etc., etc…..

Developing your Business

How are you going to market your services? How are you going to sell your services? How will you follow up with potential clients? Where will you ‘find’ clients? These all need to be answered if you want a chance at succeeding. Most architects starting out need to use work done while employed at a prior firm to market themselves. When doing so, be sure you have the firms consent, credit them as appropriate, and be honest with your particular responsibilities on that particular project. You’ll also need to continually develop your business and maintain the following:

    1. Marketing materials
    2. Identify potential clients and projects
    3. Website creation and maintenance
    4. Social media strategies (blog, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIN, etc.)

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Production Management

How are you going to execute your work? Numerous means/methods are required to complete a project, typically one individual does not possess all these skills. This is a positive to a partnership- one partner has a particular skill set that the other does not, together they complement each other’s skills. You’ll ned to develop a method for:

    1. Design
    2. Construction documenting
    3. Project management
    4. Construction administration
    5. Computer systems maintenance
    6. Printing
    7. Contract Management
    8. Fee proposals

Business Management

How are you going to deal with financial and accounting matters? Unless you’re on your own, its best to engage the services of a bookkeeper/tax accountant. They can provide you valuable advice on the financials of your firm as well as strategies to grow.

    1. Invoicing
    2. Financial statements
    3. Taxes
    4. Payroll and withholding

Fees and Services

How are you going to determine fees for your services? You should not be competing on the basis of price alone. However, one advantage of start-up/sole proprietor is that you will typically have a low overhead compared to larger established firms. However, position your firm relative to the competition such that you have a unique characteristic or advantage to sway clients to engage your services, it should not be because your fees are the lowest. If you compete on the basis of fees you’ll end up in bidding wars which will result in lower profit margins, which will ruin your firm quickly as you’ll always be trying to ‘make it up’ on the next project. When establishing your fees you need to know your actual Costs for delivering the services (salaries, overhead, etc.), your Selling point, or Price that will allow you to make a profit without compromising your services… read that last part again… “profit without compromising your services.” You should always strive for that.

Ready?

Based on the above information you should feel a bit more confident starting a firm with a plan in place. Keep in mind, it’s a loose plan that will evolve and change as the firm does, but it’s a plan none the less. Further great advice can be found on the Entrepreneur Architect web site by Mark LePage. site Above all it should be fun running/ owning your own firm. It’s hard work, sometimes frustrating work. You’ll rise and fall but you get credit for both, which is exciting! If you’re not having fun you should re-consider if running/owning your own firm is really what you wish to do.

I’ll close with one last key piece of advice, learn to know when you don’t know and ask for advice. So what tips/ advice do you have for starting and running your own firm, post them up in the comments below!

 

Design Business On,

** I’ll say it again, learn to know when you don’t know and ask for advice.

The New Year always brings with it resolutions, goals, renewed passions, reflections, and resumes… lots of resumes inquiring about employment. I try to respond to every inquiry I can- sorry to those I haven’t. This year has been no different. However, lately the resumes I’ve been receiving have a reoccurring ‘theme,’ one which is quite disturbing. Inquiries such as this:

“I’ve been out of work for a while and I’m just looking to gain experience, I’m willing to work for no compensation”

Or

 “My employment proposal would consist of me actually working in your office without being paid. I know that sounds crazy, but I think your firm and I could benefit greatly.”

 
Yes, it is crazy. No, neither I nor you will benefit. Unless you’re independently wealthy or all your bills are allowed to be paid via Monopoly money… wait… no. Under no circumstances should you work for no payment (pro bono work is a different post). The message you’re sending is that you don’t value your skills/experience and that they’re of no value to someone else. If you have no value, you’re of no benefit to me. If you’re just looking to gain experience by not being paid, you’re on the path to a bad experience. You may as well state “I want you to teach me for free so some other firm can benefit.” You’ll leave as soon as a firm offers to pay you. Benefit to me, I don’t think so.

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There is no benefit to me. If I’m not paying you what obligations do you have to me for valuing your work? What incentive do I have to teach you anything, I’m not investing in you or your skill set. You have no obligations to me. If you’re not compensated for work you do, what does that say about how you value yourself? Why would you ever work for free? What’s in it for you? An employer who allows you to work for no compensation is not invested in you, they’re using you. I don’t see any benefit for you. I don’t care how much experience you think you’ll gain, don’t do it. Do you really want experience from an employer who doesn’t value you? The answer is no. You want a firm that is willing to invest in you. When you invest a return is expected, a return with interest- interest in you.

It’s still a tough economy for the AEC profession, however, if you can’t find employment use your time to enhance your marketability. Learn new software, brush up on current building codes, enhance your knowledge of software you already know, etc. Follow firms you like via social media- join in the conversations, express interest in their work, and ask questions. If you’ve been out of work, what have you been doing and figure out how to take those experiences and market them as a valuable asset. Have you started a blog, learned a new skill, have a new hobby, etc. Market your skills and experiences as valuable, and to their fullest extent. Because honestly, the inquiry’s I receive about working for free don’t get considered by me. You don’t value yourself so what value should I have for you, harsh, but it’s true. Get out there and sell yourself, and by sell I mean you expect to be paid to play.

 

Design On,

** No, I’m not hiring… but hope to soon.

A few weeks ago I dropped blinds off for repair. The ‘ladders’- strings that operate the blinds- had broken on one side and needed to be re-strung. It would have been cheaper to buy new blinds than repair. However, the blinds have a bit of age, are for a French door (odd size), and needed to match adjacent blinds. I thought about repairing them myself, but I didn’t want to deal with the aggravation. So I fired up the old interweb machine and searched for a blind repair company- not as easy to find as one would think, there aren’t many.

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*Note to self, apply to be on Shark Tank with a blind repair company… I’m seeking $327.00 for 21% equity- “Yes, that’s correct I value the company at $1,557.14” Mark Cuban would be all up in that biz!

I found a window treatment shop within a few miles of my house. I removed the blinds and went to the shop. I spoke with the owner/salesperson/repair person, after she inspected the blinds she told me they’d be repaired and ready tomorrow- it was Monday. “I’ll call tomorrow morning to inform you when
they’re done and what time to pick them up.” I thought great, that was easy.

Tuesday came and went and I had forgotten about the blinds. Wednesday came. Wednesday afternoon came. Late Wednesday afternoon came. Nothing, no phone call. I called early evening and I’m informed that she was extremely busy and didn’t get to them. “I’ll do it first thing Thursday morning.” I thought, no big deal, things happen.

Thursday afternoon I call, nope didn’t get to it. First thing Friday morning, for sure they’ll be done. Friday afternoon I call, goes straight to voicemail, I leave a message. Late Friday afternoon I get a call, I’m told the blinds are done; I can pick them up anytime… really any time, how about this past Tuesday.

The blinds weren’t as important as it sounds. In fact, I could’ve done without the blinds for a few weeks- although my neighbors may disagree. However, I was given a commitment that wasn’t followed through with.

It’s a simple trait, and one to strive for in both your personal and professional life- do what you say you will do when you say you will do it. It conveys commitment and trust- traits I want to be known for, both personally and professionally. In addition, I want to interact with people who feel and do the same, you should as well.

 

Design On,

** The initial title of this post was The Blind Side, but Sandra wasn’t having that… So then I changed it to Blind Melon, however, that seemed a disservice to Mr. Hoon.