As professionals, architects understand the importance of working as part of a collaborative team. Starting with the design studio model in architecture school to working at a firm on a project with engineers and contractors, collaboration is the backdrop of architectural practice. However, when it comes to your own business model—how you run your business, and to what end—do you also think in terms of your team? Who do you surround yourself with? Which advisers and experts are on your side? How do you design your own collaborative enterprise? If you are thinking about starting out, or have just opened shop, it’s never too early to put together your team—and even if you have been in business for a while, it’s never too late.

Before addressing how you might form a team of advisers, a word on the reason for the team’s existence is in order. The problems we encounter in our day-to-day practice cut across areas like project delivery, sustainability, material performance, land-use planning, scheduling, cost estimating, construction claims, financial analysis, workplace strategies, and research. But in school, these areas exist largely outside of our architectural training, and we encounter them only as interns or young architects. Those of us who have worked at larger firms have been able to swivel our chairs around and ask an experienced colleague how they’ve handled certain challenges in the past. That option is no longer available to the architects who lost their jobs during the recession or are working on their own.

There are a few things that sole practitioners can do to create the kind of collaborative network that exists in larger firms. Here are some things to keep in mind or to try out:

  • Keep a little black book of treasured contacts. When you work with someone who’s good, add his or her name.
  • In the same book, keep track of people whose approach is wildly different than yours. You may find that yin to your yang useful later.
  • Join a service organization. In volunteering for a good cause, you will meet other like-minded professionals.
  • Organize monthly coffee times or informal charrettes with other architects to critique your work—and don’t be afraid to invite others, such as land-use attorneys or contractors, into the fold.
  • Build a virtual network of advisers on email by creating a group list. If you have a pressing business or development question, one email to the group is a quick way to get a response.
  • Enroll in an executive education program in law, business, or construction management through a local university or community college. Also, many AIA components and chapters organize leadership development academies, where you and a dozen people from different backgrounds can get together for a common purpose.
  • Have you read a good book lately? Crossed an amazing plaza? Attended a memorable gallery opening? Reach out to those authors, landscape architects, and artists and engage them about their work. It may lead to a collaborative project.

The days of one person having the potential to know it all are gone, and solving a complicated problem for a client (or for yourself) is directly related to the strength of your network of trusted advisers. Creating that network is a design problem in and of itself, though. Tending to that network today, no matter where you are in your career, represents billable hours that will pay you handsomely tomorrow. —William J. Nichols, Assoc. AIA

Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice. Consult your own advisers based upon your specific circumstances. | Read the first two articles, Rules of Engagement

and Playing Defense.