Help me help other architects! This blog is an excerpt from the first draft of my book: Breaking the Box: Explode out of Architecture School to a Successful Career as an Architect. You can help me make it better by leaving a critique in the comment section below. Thx you rock! -Steve
In Part 1, I shared that I had only two goals when I graduated from architecture school: become a design architect and start my own firm. I talked about my first two jobs and the path towards becoming a design architect. In this blog, I will talk about Goal #2: Start my own architecture firm.
Goal #2 – Start my own architecture firm.
Starting my own architecture firm was a goal from the start. So what happened?
I am not sure when it happened, but at some point in my journey the desire to start my own architecture firm faded. As each year went by, I wanted it less and less and I am at the point now where it is not even on my radar.
Most architects have dreamt of starting their own architecture firm. It is in our blood.
Who would not want to be their own boss?
That dream started for me the day I collected my diploma from UMD. (Go Terps!) Start my own architecture firm. Pick my own clients. Use my own design preferences. Be my own boss. Me, me, me, me, me……………………….It would be glorious!
What happened to that dream?
Did I fail?
Did I give up?
Did I become complacent?
A lot happens in 11 years. When I graduated, I knew nothing about the professional practice of architecture and I realize now that my dream of starting an architecture firm was ill informed and juvenile.
There have been 3 key game changers that have affected my decision to not start my own architecture firm:
1. I experienced the benefits of working in a large firm.
2. I experienced the Great Recession and
3. I found my calling.
Game Changer #1 – I experienced the benefits of working in a large firm.
In my career I have worked at 3 architecture firms. The sizes ranged from 50 people to 300+. So to be fair, I have never technically worked at a small firm and thus I acknowledge my biased opinion.
I covered the small and large firm benefits in Chapter 3 so I will be brief. These large firm benefits are most important to me:
Large Firm Benefits over a Small Firm
- Variety: The ability to work on different types and scales of projects.
- Robust Resources: Working with experts and having access to great toys: computers, 3-D printers, Virtual Reality, etc.
- Financial Stability: A larger older firm will typically be more financially stable than a smaller younger one. For example, a larger firm is more likely to have dedicated accounting staff and more sophisticated financial systems in place.
- Strong Benefits: Better health insurance, 401K, profit-sharing, professional development allowance, etc..
- Developing an Expertise: I can focus on the aspects of the practice that I enjoy like the design side. That means very little time on accounting, marketing, staffing, construction administration, etc.
- People: This is the part I like the most. I enjoy working with people. Lots of them! I’d get lonely at a small firm or one man shop.
These are my preferences. There are many advantages to working in a small firm. Some of those include:
Benefits to working at a Small Firm over a Large Firm:
- More Autonomy: It's your ship dude! Go where you want.
- More Nimble: Easy to change the direction of the ship.
- People: Newsflash: Some people kinda suck. Maybe you don't want to work with a lot of people?
- Flexibility: The ability to be more casual and shape your schedule. Work from home and if you want, pajamas all day every day.
Game Changer #2 - I experienced The Great Recession.
I shared my recession story back in Chapter 7 so I will be brief here. The great recession changed everybody. The recession hit shortly after I arrived at LS3P in 2008 and it played a role in my shift in career goals. I made two key observations:
- The business side of architecture is no joke. About 1/3 of all architects lost their jobs during the recession. I was very fortunate to retain my job during the recession and I credit that to the fact that I worked for a mature and financially conservative firm. I take comfort in knowing that the financial side of our business is handled by experts.
- Many architects start architecture firms because they have no choice. They have been laid off, fired or just cannot find work. Many one-man shops popped during the recession. That observation was eye opening to me.
Also, the Great Recession scared the shit out of me. I asked myself, “Do I really want to start my own business? Would I want to try to grow a business, hire staff and put so much at risk. And one day have to lay people off?”
Game Changer #3 – I found my calling.
During my journey, I discovered the type of work that makes me most fulfilled and happy. The type of work I enjoy has evolved and was not what I had originally liked.
My Romantic House in the Woods
Some of my favorite architects are people like Glenn Murcutt, James Cutler, and Brian Mackay-Lyons. These guys all have one thing in common: they design kick-ass modern houses out in the boonies. Just flip open any of their monographs and you will see amazing houses that are completely isolated in rural areas.
I have always romanticized about designing little modern houses in the woods.
I continued to romanticize about designing little houses in the woods, while I gained experience designing the opposite: large commercial buildings in the city. A majority of my work has been in the City and during that time I have developed a strong connection to the city and a love for large urban projects.
Urban environments have the greatest potential to affect people’s lives. Not just the people that inhabit the buildings, but all of the people that will walk around and experience that building. Urban buildings are shapers of space.
I was trained at the University of Maryland about the architect’s obligation of place making and urban design. I have visited great cities of the world and I now know that it is my duty to contribute to the next great cities of the world.
I also take great joy in designing larger buildings. I love it. There is something very powerful about designing an entire city block, or seeing your creation sore high above your head and become a participant in a city's sky line.
It is powerful!
It is Hard to do Big Buildings at a Small Architecture Firm
It would be extremely unlikely that I would be doing this type of work if I started my own architecture firm. Although I have the capability to execute the work, finding enough clients to trust a small firm would be a challenge.
When you start an architecture firm, you will likely start off with small jobs: deck additions, kitchen renovations and if your lucky: your grandma’s sunroom! As you gain experience, the projects will improve and maybe one day, 20 years later, you will get around to designing large buildings in the city.
This is my personal preference. I like the big city buildings.
On the contrary, there are many architects that love the design potential offered by small projects. Many love the connection that is common with residential clients. Others will enjoy living and working in suburban and rural areas. It all comes down to personal preference.
This was my story. How about yours?
In Part 3, I share 4 important questions you should be asking and share a list of resources for architecture firm owners.