A few weeks ago we received an email from a very talented young architect in training that we interviewed several months ago. It’s an important letter because it exemplifies many of the thoughts and concerns we’re hearing across the board amongst architects entering the profession. The letter (posted with permission) and our subsequent response should resonate with anyone who is starting their own business, contemplating it or already in an established business. In our humble opinion, these are the characteristics that make any small practice successful (key points in bold for those of you short on time):
I have been keeping my eye on your blog since we met months ago and today’s entry has finally inspired that I get back in touch with you to at least let you know how my architect career is so far as well as maybe pry a little knowledge out of you.
Not too sure if you remember everything from when I visited your office, but in addition to architecture I am intensely interested in incorporating furniture/woodworking into my future design path(s). I only had limited involvement with it in my graduate studies and became hopeful of finding a way to fulfill my desires on my own rather than through academia. Perhaps it is too soon to be discouraged but my current path is not taking me toward this goal, not even relatively near it actually. Unfortunately I made a poor choice for a first job after school – a choice that I am locked into so long as the market stays where it is. Turns out that the ratio of well crafted desert-modern buildings to el-cheapo housing and condos is not what I had imagined.
However, your entry on the Build blog, and the corresponding link to the newly revealed SPD division, has given me back some hope. A small studio producing excellent work in the range from cabinet to home is inspiring to me. My current status as over-educated drafter (driven by all but one project being put on hold in my office, which saturated said project with project managers) has recently left me quite the opposite – uninspired and wanting. I have gone so far as to hunt for cabinet-shop openings recently, only to find that they too are having trouble staying busy. The dream of going out on my own is something that keeps me at my desk accruing IDP hours, but I don’t want to wait until I am able to open my own studio/shop to start figuring out how to do it. Also, when I think of your previous advice about how getting a job at a fabricator is better than a job at a bad architecture office, I think of how much more I could be learning by assembling cabinetry than I would by filling in letters in a 400-line door schedule. (Please don’t write this off as a spoiled kid out of school wanting to design the whole building instead of earning my way to the up – I truly just want to maximize my learning in preparation for future work)
I wouldn’t expect you to give away all of your secrets to success, but considering the informative nature of your blog and your willingness to help me in my original job hunt have led me to write this email and ask simply – what makes it work? Did you have mentors to bounce ideas off of? Or did experience at other offices provide all the experience you needed to hit the ground running? Did you start with some good contacts/clients or did they come as time went on? Are there things I can/should be doing now that can help me for when I am on my own (or with a small group)?
I am sure that this isn’t a simple answer, assuming there is one at all (unless the SPD division is hiring lackeys). Any insight you have would be help to me. I imagine the state of the economy will give me some time before I really have to worry about making life changing decisions – I just want to start preparing sooner than later.
If you don’t have the time or don’t want to respond to such a long email, I really do understand. Either way I will continue to check your blog regularly, especially now with the addition of the SPD work and any new designs that come from it.
p.s. it was not my intention/expectation to leverage a job out of you, but I wouldn’t be offended if you kept me in mind if you ever heard of something coming available…
We’re honored to be on the receiving end of this letter, thank you for keeping a pulse on us and thank you for the accolades. We’re more than happy to lay out our “secrets of success” and the lessons we’ve learned so far:
We hope that BUILD LLC, SPD and the BUILDblog look clean, tight and professional out there in the world – we’ve put a tremendous amount of time and energy into the presentation of each over the years. The fact of the matter, though, is that we started out doing basement remodels, seismic retrofits, re-siding buildings, and whatever we could get our hands on as a couple of young architect/builders. As unglamorous as this work was, we were grateful for it. Our first jobs came from friends and the community around us. As the years went on (10 of them now) the jobs became larger, more architectural and more photogenic. Our point is this – all these slick architectural websites out there are a bit misleading. They don’t allow young architects to see the steps between starting out on their own and someday having admirable projects under their belt. Getting work that you can learn from, work that establishes a clientele and a track record is important – even if you don’t get beautiful photos out of it.
We too had our gigs with other firms –big firms, little firms, firms that you’ve most likely heard of, firms that you probably haven’t, architecture firms, engineering firms… Wherever we were, we were constantly doing architecture, design and building in our personal time. If the learning curve at the office bottomed out we could always route the momentum into our side projects and moonlighting. It’s not necessarily your employer’s responsibility to fulfill all of your professional ambitions. Moonlighting is great – it offers you the experience of running your own firm without having to be financially dependant on the profits (or lack thereof). Over the years we’ve noticed that architects either choose to live powerfully or, by default, lose their momentum and subsequently lose their passion for architecture and find themselves in a 9 to 5 “job”. Architecture is a lifestyle, not a job – keep designing and building whether or not you’re on somebody’s payroll.
There is no substitution for hard work. Most of that hard work will also not be doing architecture. We’ve become just as passionate about book-keeping, finances, organizing and data tracking as we are about design.
We had and still have our mentors and they are critical to our continuing development. They’re not the Rem Koolhaases and Neil Denaris that academia is always holding up like the Holy Grail though, those guys are too far from our reality. Our mentors are scrappy, they have both feet on the ground and they have gritty challenges just like we do – only they solve them with more skill and wit. Mentors are important; choose them wisely, rather than having them chosen for you.
We learn everyday. The experience we gained at other offices in town was invaluable but this is an infinitely confusing and complicated profession that requires a constant learning curve. We certainly did not hit the ground running with everything we needed to know 10 years ago. Our peers working as employees for other firms will still have to go through everything we went through when they go out on their own -there’s just no other way to learn it. If you want to be running your own firm, our advice is to get out on your own as soon as you can and tackle the first 5 years (they say the first 5 is the toughest and we agree). Doing small architecture projects does not require a license in most states either, don’t let the long process of licensure stop you from starting your business.
People skills are more important than architecture skills. We know plenty of skilled architects who will never be successful at their own practice because they don’t know how to communicate. By the time most architecture students shoot out of graduate school they know enough about design to get going. However, most recent architecture graduates don’t have training in communicating and being personable which is critical if you want to enroll a client in a design vision. If you’re in a big firm – push to get out in front of, near, or at least in the same room as the clients and consultants.
We go out for drinks as often as we can. Seriously. Architects have a tendency to become reticent and introverted over the years – losing that prevailing humor from the college architecture studio days. A martini or two helps us blow off steam, keeps us humorous, and keeps the lines of communication alive. Alcohol is good for architects.
A good business is every bit as complicated and intricate as a marriage. We (the business partners here at BUILD) have more contracts and agreements signed with each other than either of us do with our respective wives. Choosing the right business partner(s) is vital, it is more important than your education, more important than all the glossy photos in the magazines and more important than the names on your resume. It also helps if you can go out drinking with them (refer to above).
We once went to a lecture by Will Bruder and he said one of the more profound statements we’ve heard in our professional careers. He said that you should honor your clients – they could have gone out over the weekend and bought a house on their credit card. And while that may no longer be the case in our current credit crunch – I think you get the point. Your clients (or future clients) will trust you to lead them on the adventure of design and construction – what an honor to be at the helm of that journey.
Designing a house or an office should be fun. Clients don’t want to come to boring meetings. It’s definitely something that requires constant crafting, and I can’t say that we always succeed, but it’s part of the Architect’s job to make the process of design engaging, interesting, and well… fun.
Everything above is to be taken with a grain of salt. It’s not necessarily right or wrong, simply the lessons that keep emerging for us – and we continue to work on all of them day by day. We really enjoyed the letter which was sent because it got the juices flowing and because we like knowing that there are bright young architects out there asking the important questions at the right times in their careers. And while we don’t have positions open at the moment, asking the right questions definitely gets a resume bumped up in the queue.