A buddy of ours recently asked for our advice on how to go out on your own as an architect. It’s an interesting question primarily because of the timing and the current economy (or lack thereof). But despite the slow industry, we think its the right time to establish your own firm. While the market will remain slow for a while (probably over another year), when it does pickup, the architects left standing will be flush with work. We see the economic recession as a good time for positioning. While there isn’t a lot of work out there right now, there is much to do to make sure you get work later.

Getting yourself established and attaining those first couple of jobs depends on some key ingredients. Today’s post dives into our recommendations for successfully setting up your own architecture practice – and some of them might surprise you. Take this with a huge grain of salt and a martini. This is just our take; it’s based on our experiences and observations. The profession of architecture is becoming more diverse by the day and our advice pertains to doing cost-effective, modern work with a minimum staff. If you’re interested in doing $800 per square foot residences, theoretical competitions, or overly complicated academic explorations, there may be better ways to go about it – we’re probably not your guys. With that said, here are our main ingredients to set up a small architectural practice:

1. The legal formalities
State (this link only pertains to Washington State, but each state should have a comparable site)
City (this link only pertains to the City of Seattle, but each city should have a comparable site)
Register with the I.R.S. for an Employer ID Number or Tax ID Number
Purchase the basic contracts through your local AIA chapter:
A201: General Conditions of the Contract for Construction
B143: Agreement between Design-Builder and Architect
B141: Agreement between Owner and Architect
A101: Agreement between Owner and Contractor
A114: Agreement between Owner and Contractor
These documents tend to cover the spectrum of architectural work and subsequently tend to be too long and complicated for most of the residential work we do.  You can always use these contracts as part of your reference materials and come up with your own version that doesn’t make your clients eyes glaze over.

2. Basic tools
The most important piece of equipment in our operation is the iPhone. While everyone’s got their favorite phone technology, the iPhone is indispensible around here. It provides driving directions to new projects, keeps us attentive to our schedules, helps us take site photos on the fly, allows us to update the blog, Facebook and Twitter on the go, and last but not least it allows us to communicate with each other through a variety of means. There is nothing more efficient than taking a photo on site of a complicated situation and emailing it directly to the cabinet shop for further coordination. We would gladly give up the copier, fax machine, skill-saw and probably even a laptop or two before we’d part with our iPhones.

We use the AutoCAD LT software and the light version has served us well for a decade. The LT version has all the tools we’ve ever needed to produce everything from schematics to construction documents and it’s much more cost effective than the full version of AutoCAD. You don’t need to buy the latest version of this software – get older versions (that will still do everything you need) on eBay.

The options for three-dimensional software are overwhelming; we use Rhino and Form-Z. From what we’ve seen, generating images that enroll clients in a design vision depends less on which programs you’re using and more on how you’re using them.

2. Align your hobbies with your business
Buy Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator and be your own graphic designer. These tools will pay for themselves very quickly. Again, you don’t need to buy the latest version of this software – get older versions (that will still do everything you need) on eBay.

Keep your own books, do your own accounting but hire an accountant for your annual taxes.

Buy a decent camera and start taking your own photos. A guide to the necessary basic equipment can be found here.

3. Don’ts
Don’t rent an office; work out of your house/basement/attic/car/extra desk space at some buddy’s place. Our first office was an 86 Volkswagen Synchro. It was like a shoe-box on four wheels and it got the job done.

Don’t join the AIA: we did the math for Washington State, and for a small architecture shop the numbers don’t pan out. You can always join later but $700 per year is a big expense for a little firm.

Don’t be shy with the tax write-offs. If you use it for work in some capacity, write it off. That includes all those sexy design books you buy. Write-offs will actually make you feel better (like you’re earning more) as you get started (and aren’t bringing in much income).

4. Initiate a digital presence
The value of a website goes without saying, if you don’t have a website, you don’t exist in today’s economy. Check out the liveBooks templates which are perfect for architects and very cost-effective.

Blogs are free. Start a WordPress blog here and start creating a name-brand for yourself. The content that you’ll be constantly updating to your blog will keep your name fresh and searchable on engines like Google.  A blog has the ability to catapult your firms name ahead of other websites very quickly.

Tools like Twitter and Facebook also keep your brand-name fresh and on the mind’s of people in your community. Our recommendation is to remain personable on these, not simply throw out soul-less advertisements (in our case, this immediately gets a firm “un-followed”).

5. Develop a marketing package and look official
With the software listed above in section #2 there’s no reason that you can’t look like a fortune 500 company with your stationary and business cards.

Design a logo and letter head and use them on everything that matters.

Get some business cards. We like Overnightprints because they’re quick and cost effective. Just upload some jpegs and in a few days you’ll have more cards than you know what to do with.

Generate a Manifesto and a set of Core Values, or whatever you wish to call it that will help you get out of bed and get busy- there will be many mornings you’ll need some motivation besides your inner voice telling you to hit the snooze button.  Get these documents up on your website and blog for people to associate with your brand name.

6. Burn the boats
Dedicate yourself to your business. If you’ve got a plan B to constantly go back to, it’s going to detract from plan A.

7. Use your resources
Your friends, family and community are your biggest asset. Identify your champions. Be straight about looking for projects to keep from muddling your relationships and becoming tacky. Have clear short conversations requesting assistance identifying, getting in front of, potential clients and then get the relationship right back on its friendship track.

8. Keep your feet on the ground.
Watch The Money Pit, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, and refresh yourself on Annie Choi’s essay Dear Architects, I Am Sick of Your Shit. The rest of the world does not see architects as we were trained to see ourselves and its important to be aware of this.  Most of your clients are not going to care who Steven Holl is or that Elizabeth Diller designed a cloud of fog.  They care about getting back into their dining room by Thanksgiving.

9. Get your head out of architecture
There are other texts you need to read out there besides glossy books on architecture. Here’s a quick list of books that have tremendously informed our business over the years:

Built to Last by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras
From Good to Great by Jim Collins
Tribes by Seth Godin
Massive Change by Bruce Mau

10. Be flexible and scrappy, diversify
You may have to take on a wider scope of work to lock down projects. Have someone you know and trust help you identify all of your capabilities (particularly if that someone has MBA or similar training). If you have secondary skills that are still in the realm of design and building, tout them and put them to use to generate cash flow.

11. Be conventional with your designs
In today’s economy, clients have a renewed sensitivity about budgets and timelines. Both are challenging and neither should be compromised in reaching too far with the design. You’ll have plenty of time later to fine-tune your architectural thesis – for now just do good, solid, dependable work that gets the job done. Think singles and an occasional double, take care reaching for the fences. Trying to hit that home-run each time can lead to a lot of strike-outs.

12. Failures can very easily become successes.
Some of the best champions we have are from jobs we lost.  We cannot emphasize enough how important people are in this industry.  Because someone doesn’t hire you doesn’t mean that they won’t refer you or remember you. Treat people well and give them your best – even if they don’t hire you. And keep these folks on your list to reach out to and provide something valuable to, just like your champions and close clients.

13. Develop your armor
Chances are good, if you’re doing innovative work that pushes design, that you’re going to be dodging a few tomatoes out there. Use this to your advantage. Let it toughen you up, allow it to craft your position and develop your arguments. Put your neck out there for the right causes and choose your battles intelligently.

14. Beverages
Install a mini-bar in the “office” (refer to #3) or just keep a bottle of good Scotch tucked away. Schedule in Friday afternoon drinks with friends and colleagues or blow off some steam when necessary (refer to #13).

15. Share
The age of exclusivity and secrecy in the design world is over. Don’t be fooled by those trying to still cloak their stuff in a shroud of secrecy- they are dinosaurs. Being a good architect is not about precious details locked up in your desk – it’s about being the type of professional who goes out and implements them. And remember, rising tides raise all boats.

Chances are, we’ve missed a few – so hit that comments button and get in the discussion.


your friends at BUILD