Skills Needed To Start An Architecture Firm
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Architecture school focuses on design, design thinking, research, and presenting our ideas through design critiques. This education creates graduates that are good at solving problems, talking about design ideas, developing schematic design, and helps students develop the graphic tools to express their architectural visions. However, this is just a sliver of the skills needed for you to successfully run a design business.
The education you receive in architecture school prepares people to join the workforce as interns in established offices. And once working for a firm, you gain a new education on the work needed to turn design ideas into the drawings necessary to obtain permits and get a building built. Yet too often employees aren’t given exposure to the breadth of knowledge needed to actually run an architecture firm if they go off on their own, or take over the firm they are at. It is important for individuals to seek out opportunities to expand their knowledge base in the following categories.
List of Skills
Most architects and designers who are looking to start their own firm have this one covered. This is what we learned in architecture school and the skills we develop working for other architecture firms after graduation. This is probably what most people are comfortable with when starting out on their own and maybe why they want to run their own firm in the first place - so they can express their own design ideas. All it takes is some confidence and a portfolio of work to attract prospective clients. Of course your design sensibilities will adjust over time and I firmly believe you will become a better designer as you balance this with the other aspects of running a firm, but for the most part you probably have the necessary design skills to start a firm already.
Once you get the projects it is important to meet the expectations of your clients, the commitments you made in the contract, maintain your firm’s profitability, and mitigate risk. This is what Project Management is all about. You need to understand how to develop and stick to a schedule, have a clear and consistent process for communication within the design team, consultants, the clients and outside stakeholders. You have to track project expenses, time spent, and progress of the deliverables. And of course you need to have a QA/QC process to make sure your work meets the standard of care expected to reduce your risk and liability. Project Management is a skill that you should work on developing. If you aren’t comfortable with it based on prior work experience, I highly recommend you take some courses, watch some online lectures, or read books or other resources that can help you develop this vital skill set. Once you develop the base knowledge, there are many software tools available to help firms manage this aspect of project delivery.
When I first started a firm with a colleague we were flying by the seat of our pants. We didn’t really know what was needed to run an office, and we learned what we needed as we went. At the beginning we neglected a lot of things because we were primarily focused on finding projects to pay the bills, and then executing that work. In hindsight, I wish we were much more intentional about designing how we wanted to run our office. This may be one of the most important design challenges your firm will face and something that is vital to get right early on in your business. There are many important questions to answer that can influence how you will manage your office: How large of a firm do you want to be? What sort of office culture do you want to establish? What tools do you want to use to manage finances, payroll, and other record keeping? Have you created an Employee Handbook? What management work do you want to manage in-house vs. relying on outside consultants? What sort of overhead can you afford based on your revenue? How will you hire and onboard new employees? How will you mentor employees and help them with professional development? How do you want to communicate with your team? What technology and software do you need to run your firm? What sort of furniture and equipment do you need to be productive? Where should you locate your office and how much space do you need? All of these questions and many more should be answered very early on in your firm’s creation. As you are planning to start your own business, make a list of these questions - and any other office related topics you can think of - and strategically think through the answers. By planning ahead, I promise it will save time, expenses and headaches down the road.
This encompasses all of the ways you directly go about finding new clients and projects. Business Development for architecture involves specific actions you are taking to identify your target market, the people you need to build relationships with that can lead to new work, and the activities around closing those deals. This is different than marketing in that these are active undertakings where you are taking the initiative. You aren’t waiting for people to find you and your company, but rather you are identifying possible leads and pursuing them. Activities that I recommend include: public speaking engagements, weekly coffee meetings with potential clients, researching who the key people are in your target markets are and setting up in-person meetings, identifying future RFP/Q opportunities and building relationships with the right people (it is important to lay the groundwork well before the RFP/Q is announced to the public), following up with past clients and asking for referrals, following up on previous leads to build better relationships. Most of these are about directly getting in front of people to build relationships and personal connections that can lead to work.
It is important for all of the partners of a firm to participate in these activities and I would recommend you also empower your employees to feel comfortable with this as well. The more people who are out there building relationships and representing your company the better it will be for your project pipeline.
Marketing + PR
I have this separated from Business Development because in my opinion they have two different approaches and end goals. Although both are trying to lead you to finding new clients, I think of marketing as being a more passive pursuit where Business Development is more active. Marketing is building up your firm’s brand, your reputation, with the goal of having people know who you are and reach out to you. This encompases things like social media campaigns, your company’s website, printed marketing materials, any advertising you pay for, Public Relations, and other activities that help get your name out there. Some marketing tasks would include: social media posts, writing articles for your website’s blog, updating your website with new projects, writing an op-ed in your local newspaper, getting a recently completed project published in a magazine, being interviewed for a podcast, advertising online, creating/updating profiles on places like Houzz the AIA website or other listings and websites. The idea is that people will find this material and get to know something about your company, your values, the types of projects you work on, your design style, etc. You want to establish yourself as a thought-leader, and a trusted expert in your community related to the project types you work on. The end result is that people will know you and your firm, the services you provide, and when they are ready for a project hopefully they reach out to you.
This might be the most overlooked skill needed to run a business, especially a service business like architecture and design. Everything we do comes down to communication, whether that is through drawings, posting on social media, composing emails, writing articles, or giving presentations to clients or the public. This is the skill that we all should be working on constantly to improve as part of our continued professional development. No matter how great your ideas are, if you can’t communicate them to other people they won’t be implemented. This is also the skill that can most help a firm grow, gain new clients, have successful projects, and build your reputation.
Whether you love their work or hate it, what Bjarke Ingles and his firm BIG are absolutely great at is communicating their ideas. Through short videos, animations, their comic-book style monograph, models and renderings, they have mastered how to present their ideas in ways that captivate audiences, make the outcomes seem like the most logical solution, and convince clients, investors, and the public to accept their ideas and designs. They are a firm that we can all learn from by looking at how they communicate. Particularly when it comes to discussing architecture with the general public and engaging them in the process.
Communicating with clients is obviously important. Communicating with the public about your firm, to build your brand and recognition to lead to new clients, is also obviously important. I would argue that it may even be more important to be good at communicating within your office, to your team of employees. Building a culture that allows people to feel engaged in the work, giving everyone a voice in the design process, and communicating the firm’s values and goals to the whole team is vital in a contemporary office. We are not a profession of individuals, but rather each project is only successful with a team of contributors collaborating towards a specific goal. Whether it is weekly team meetings, digital tools like slack or Monograph, building a clear communication process within the office is vital to the success of a contemporary practice.
We also can’t move beyond this skill set without briefly mentioning public speaking. Most of us aren’t comfortable with it, including myself. It is nerve racking to stand up in front of a group and share your ideas. The good news is that almost everyone finds this difficult and are mostly forgiving if you slip up. The other good news is that, just like learning how to draw or learning how to use a new software program, public speaking can be learned and you can get better with practice. I highly recommend all architects find ways to practice and improve on this skill. Join a local Toastmasters group or Pecha Kucha events. Give presentations to your local AIA chapter to gain practice in a room of your peers. Take public speaking classes at the local university or community college. See what online learning resources there are to gain tips. It is important to keep up with this so try to get out and speak in public at least once every month or two. It will be good for yourself, good for your firm, and a great way to engage more people with your profession.
This is all about fostering an environment that allows your team to do their best work and love working for your firm. It also encompasses the legal requirements of being an employer. Most importantly, this is the skill needed to recruit, screen, interview, and hire the best talent for your company’s needs. And once you have a great team, it covers how you will train and develop that talent to continually grow and develop their individual skills and value. Your employees are your biggest investment and asset so it is important to manage and train them to be as effective as possible.
If you are planning on staying relatively small, say under 5 people, you can probably handle this on your own. However, as your firm grows and the time needed for this increases proportionally, it may be a place you look for outside consultants to help take some work off your plate. There are a bunch of tech startups focused on helping small businesses with HR tasks. There are also a lot of resources created by the AIA and other organizations to help understand compensation levels, standard benefit offerings, and other financial and legal decisions related to Human Resources for Architecture Firms. As you set up your company, consider how large you want to be and as you start hiring employees plan in advance for how you will handle the Human Resources work, whether in-house or using an outside consultant.
Beyond sole practitioners, leadership is a vital aspect of every business. You need your team to be inspired and dedicated to doing their best work. Everyone needs to be on the same page, buy-in to the company’s goals and values, and work together to serve your clients and help the firm grow. Someone needs to step up and lead the business forward.
This leader needs to guide their employees, give directions, and manage the group in a way that you are all working towards the same goals and achieve the expected results. If you have partners, discuss who is best positioned to be the team leader of the firm - often it is best to have dedicated roles and responsibilities within the partnership so you are aligned with who is responsible for what, and so your employees know who to go to with certain questions or issues.
If you are the sole owner, find ways that you can be a strong leader that fosters the success of your team, even if it isn’t something you are naturally comfortable with. Go out and find the resources you need to become a better leader.
This is another vital skill that architecture school doesn’t cover. I urge you to take a business financing class or read books on how to understand, implement, and track your business’s financial performance. It was only after a couple of years of being in business and working with a consultant team that we get a handle of our finances.
Once you understand the finances of the business and have the tools set up to analyze your past data and track your current performance, it is important to start financially planning for the future. Rather than make decisions based on gut instinct or your personal opinions or feel, start making decisions on how to run your firm based on financial analytics and projections. Financial projects can tell you when it is the best time to hire, what level of experience you need in that candidate, when you may need to downsize your team, what investments can you make in your office equipment or upgrading software. You should have a grasp of your profitability for each project and for the firm as a whole, you should be able to predict future revenue and set up systems to help you achieve those.
While running my previous firm, we would have bi-weekly financial check-ins with our consultant to go over past performance and consider future financial needs and decisions. We would do monthly finances (bookkeeping, invoicing, etc.) and quarterly reviews of past performance. In the last quarter of each year we would also create an annual budget and financial projections for the coming year. We would also track the finances of individual projects and employees in order to understand profitability, performance, revenue, cash-flow, and make staffing decisions.
This is not the fun part of practicing architecture, but important none-the-less. Luckily it is also something that you typically address using consultants like insurance brokers and lawyers. However it is important to learn about what risks you are taking (and every business must take on some risk), how you can mitigate them, and what the benefits and costs are so you can make good decisions.
At the very least you need to talk with an insurance broker to set up a good professional liability/errors and omissions policy to cover your work, and have a Lawyer look over your contracts and agreements (although you can use pre-vetted contracts like the AIA Contract Documents or sometimes insurance companies will look over these for you).
You also have to research the local rules and regulations in your jurisdiction regarding operating a business and also running an architecture firm. Each city and state have slightly different rules and it is important to be compliant with the local laws to mitigate the risk to your business. It is worth spending some time reading articles and the Architect's Handbook of Professional Practice to get a firm understanding of this topic.
Many entrepreneurs are driven to start companies for a variety of reasons and rise to the challenge with varying skill sets in tow. What I recommend is to do a self analysis when you decide to start your architecture firm to understand which of these necessary skills you are comfortable with and where you have some holes that need to be filled. Once you identify these strengths and weaknesses, strategize on how you will fill in the gaps.
Take classes at your local community college or online or even watch lectures or podcasts about these topics. Search out articles and books that cover these topics and continually look to grow your knowledge and stay up to date on the latest trends and innovations in these fields.
Importantly, it isn’t absolutely necessary that you as an individual becomes an expert and has a full handle on all of these skills. Rather, it is vital that the leadership of a firm as a whole encompasses them all.
This means that you can fill in the gaps by partnering with people that bring complimentary skills to the firm. You can also hire consultants or take advantage of technology and software to help cover some of the areas you aren’t as competent in.
However, it is important that you at least understand the basics of each area so you can understand what is needed, and who or what can compliment your skillset and make the company adequately prepared for all of the various needs and challenges it will face over time.