An intern who is halfway through the licensing exams, Dan Nicely, Fargo, N.D., is experienced in the dark side of architecture. He graduated in 1998 and soon found his way to an architecture firm that does primarily retail work. But with a family to support, it's almost impossible to get by on an intern's salary. Plus, he wants to get some residential experience onto his résumé. So he moonlights, designing houses evenings and weekends.

By working two jobs, Nicely joined a long tradition of ambitious young architects who have done design on the side as a launching pad to private practice, whether openly or under the boss's radar. It happens almost by default. There's the brother who wants a beach house, the neighbor looking for a discount on a two-story addition. Then too, with the average starting wage for interns at $34,600, who can blame them for grabbing work where they can?

  • Credit: Arthur Giron

Still, moonlighting has its perils. Nicely happens to have his employer's blessing, but what if you don't? Whose computer equipment will you use? And what are the risks of working without insurance—to yourself, to your employer, and to your client? “For some reason, the liability issue hasn't cropped up for me,” says Giocondo Susini, a Toronto intern who graduated in 2002 and completed a 3,700-square-foot house without his boss's knowledge. “It's always on your mind. But as long as you've got the engineering part of it and the code part of it set, it should be no problem.”

Those words would make architect Ralph Cunningham, AIA, wince. Cunningham is at the helm of the 13-year-old Cunningham + Quill Architects, Washington, D.C. Not surprisingly, side ventures look much different from the top. Although he admits to moonlighting once upon a time—in an era that was less litigious, and in an office without a policy on side work—he forbids the practice because of the risk it poses to his 23-member office. “If someone inadvertently uses our equipment, or a fax goes out with our name on it, we could get sucked in with our insurance,” Cunningham says. In hindsight, he says he had a very poor understanding of liability. The risks hit home during a project that didn't go so well. Although it worked out fine in the end, there were many sleepless nights. “It's easy to have a lot of hubris and confidence in your ability when you're under someone else's umbrella,” he says. “It's another thing to realize, ‘Hey, I've got to solve this problem by myself.' When you're in your 20s, it's hard to imagine the pitfalls of almost anything in life.”

Poll a dozen heads of architecture firms and you'll find they're all over the map on moonlighting. Many firms, especially large ones, make their prohibition crystal clear in the employee agreement, though they'll often grant waivers for family-related jobs. Andrea Cohen Gehring, AIA, partner and design principal, WWCOT, Santa Monica, Calif., and chair of the AIA's Practice Management Advisory Group, believes moonlighting is “a big, dangerous risk.” Says Gehring: “If a person wants to do their own work, they should start a firm and struggle and starve. If they use a title block or any kind of materials from the office, it poses a risk to the firm.” Seattle architect Eric Cobb, AIA, forbids side work for the same reason—and because he wants his employees' full attention. “I don't think you can sling two jobs at the same time and be effective at both,” he says.

Other architects, remembering their own youth, take a “don't ask, don't tell” approach. “It's hard to say, ‘Don't do it' when it's something I did myself,” says Kava Massih, AIA, Berkeley, Calif., who oversees 25 people. “But I wouldn't want to know they're doing it because it implies that they're putting their energies somewhere else.”

Secrecy is all but impossible in a small firm like Winchester, Va.-based Reader Swartz Architects. All seven associates sit in one room, so everyone knows what's going on, and Charles Swartz and Beth Reader have never created a written policy. Swartz, AIA, is happy to help employees who are entering a design competition or designing a house for themselves or their family, but he draws the line at someone trying to start his or her own office at night. “If they're doing it to make money on the side and it's a direct conflict with what we're doing here, that's a different thing.” Besides, he adds, with so much work at the office, people rarely have time to take on second jobs.

the modern moonlighter

Office politics aside, today's young architects are optimistic, well-educated, and achievement-minded. They're increasingly well-connected, computer-savvy, and proficient at multitasking. They often expect to advance by jumping from job to job. And, with the help of mentors, they're finding creative ways to get the experiences they want. Architectural work is space-intensive, but technology has made it easy to do at home. Most people have home computers that run CAD or 3-D programs, and if they don't, there's usually room on the credit card for a $2,500 investment in equipment. Plotting is no problem, either; files simply get e-mailed to the local graphics firm or sent to a friend with an established office.

Nicely, who works for the retail-oriented firm, got his first solo job, a castoff from an architect in another city, a year ago. The client wanted a basic package—design development for a 2,800-square-foot house he had sketched on a napkin. Working from home, Nicely drew up plans that the builder then developed into construction documents. He charged a fee that was 30 percent below market rate, with a written agreement that absolved him of liability. “I learned quite a bit doing it,” Nicely says. “Everyone thinks that because they're an architect they can do residential work. But after five years of dealing with metal studs and 5/8-inch gypsum, to all of a sudden shift to a residential palette of doors with different heights and widths was harder than I thought. I asked a lot of questions of my employer and other people.”

Indeed, some heads of firms—particularly those who teach—encourage staff to pick up outside jobs to broaden their experience. The idea is that the more they know, the more skills they bring to the office. “When I was an intern it was highly discouraged,” says Nicely's former boss, Phil Stahl, AIA, Stahl Architects, Fargo, N.D. “They said you should be bringing work into the office, and if it's not good enough for us, don't work on it.”

However, Stahl adds, “This is a new generation of interns. I think the architecture profession will be caught short if we're going to be managing them like previous generations. The Millennials won't even ask for permission to moonlight. They don't feel like they're being disrespectful, just [taking] charge of their own careers.” Even after his interns move on, he keeps in touch, passing on referrals for small jobs and offering corrective measures on designs and advice on fees.