For most architectural firms, it seems that 10-year anniversaries come and go without much ado. If the date's significance registers at all, it's treated as just another day in the routine. And yet, if you look back, there are plenty of reasons for self-congratulation. Ten years represents nearly a third of the life cycle of the average career, so you've come far from your humble roots. Likely, you've gone from working in a bare-bones office, possibly at home, to having a handful of employees. You're no longer getting most of your leads from the Yellow Pages, and you aren't grabbing just any job that comes along. You're more confident, you attract better clients, and you've built up a reliable orbit of consultants and craftspeople.
Even if architects don't think to celebrate this milestone, their firms do begin to undergo a transformation as they enter the double digits of their existence. This is the time when many architects sit back, look around, and ask themselves, “Is this something I want to keep doing, or is it time to shift gears? Am I accomplishing what I had hoped, and if not, what's missing?” As owner, the issues you face now are different than they were 10, or even five, years ago.
“Turning 10 professionally is like being in your 30s,” says Rena Klein, FAIA, a practicing architect and management consultant in Seattle. As with the struggles of youth, it takes a long time to get a fledgling firm on solid footing, but by age 10 architects are beginning to know who they are and where they can go. Klein says they should have a client base established, know what their core competency is, and have honed in on their purpose. They should also have one or two key staff members who are beginning to contribute in important ways. And with those first big steps out of the way, they're figuring out the next phase.
“As is true in our personal lives, when we feel we've arrived, we start looking around for the next challenge and what the future could hold for our newfound strengths and abilities,” Klein says, speaking from experience. It was when her firm turned 10, in the mid-1990s, that she began to get bored and look for the next step up. Although she felt successful as a designer, she was on shakier ground when it came to managing her employees and running the business. So she enrolled at Antioch University Seattle, earning a Master of Science degree in management. Once in school, though, her interests began to broaden. “I felt some sort of responsibility to the profession,” she recalls. “I saw this lack of access to certain kinds of education among my colleagues, and I wanted to share what I learned.” Thus, RM Klein Consulting was born alongside her private practice.sharing the load
As Klein had begun to realize, one of the first tough issues maturing architects encounter is how to manage that next layer of help. A major concern is that by adding more people, they risk losing control of design. And for many architectural free spirits, the idea of being a boss is as odious as wearing a suit and tie to work. Craig Steely, who opened his San Francisco studio in 1995, is resisting establishing a traditional office, despite the increasing demand for his services. “To me, it's exhausting having employees [and] having to spend the time to see that things are done right,” says Steely, who employs two people. They all divide their time between jobs in California and Hawaii, where Steely has hit his stride designing small, minimalist houses on the Big Island's remote coastline, including one for himself, his wife, and their young son. He works nimbly—without much more than a sketchbook, a laptop, and a Web connection—and he is unwilling to give up the lightweight, flexible entity he's created.
“I hate offices; they take all the life out of your work,” says Steely, an avid surfer. “But I'm getting to the point where I have to have people around. How do you create an office that doesn't become a dinosaur?” For now, the answer is to stay small and focused. He's working on six projects—the same number as five years ago—but he enjoys a higher quality of clients, contractors, and jobs, which represent roughly $8 million in construction costs. “I think having the predilection to keep things precise and in control will steer me in the direction I want to go,” he says. However, he adds, “Ten years from now, who knows? At that point I might be burned out with being involved in every single project.”
Where to go from here with a small staff is also the question that plagues David Jameson, AIA. Nine years old this fall, his Alexandria, Va.-based firm no longer has to beg for the attention of magazine editors; they're calling him, and so are high-caliber clients. Yet Jameson, who oversees a staff of four, is still more interested in the design details than in being a firm figurehead. “My end-all goal is to keep control of the project,” he says, “and I think what will happen is that as the [people] who work for me get better and better, we can do bigger and bigger projects with the same amount of people.” It's not larger houses he's hoping to add to his portfolio but rather commercial and public projects that are inhabited by more people. “We just did the interior build-out of an art gallery, and on opening night it was gratifying to have 300 people standing around enjoying the space,” he says.
Berkeley-based architects David Arkin, AIA, and Anni Tilt are also revisiting the road ahead, balancing their management styles against their professional goals. Because the married couple value being an active part of every project, they've grown their nine-year-old firm slowly and deliberately, to four architectural staff, a bookkeeper, and an office manager. And although their ideal project mix runs to equal parts residential and non-residential, they've recently stepped up to larger-scale work, such as a retreat center in China and a hot springs resort in California. As these project types evolve, “We'll need more people because there are more details to coordinate and systems to integrate, but there won't be that much more mental energy that needs our attention,” Arkin says. “I've finally figured out that you can only carry so many projects in your head.” The couple has added employees who are skilled in both construction management and the building efficiency that Arkin Tilt Architects is known for, and now they share office space with their structural engineer. “We're integrating those issues into the design process earlier on, and it's the right direction,” he adds. “It's good and healthy. I think we have more bright brains around the table.”
Arkin has a good point. At this age—having established a solid footing but still charting the mythical next level—hiring exactly the right mix of people takes on greater importance. “One of the marks of this age is knowing what kinds of staff you really need and going after them,” says Falmouth, Mass., architect Jill Neubauer. The age of her firm coincides with her children's ages. Since opening her doors in 1994, she has worked part-time while raising them—and wants to keep it that way. Thus, her growth plan revolves around building more intensive relationships with dedicated clients. Right now, for example, she's designing furniture for a client for whom she spent the last five years designing a house. And whereas over the years there's been an ebb and flow of employees, some of them part-time, now Neubauer is looking for a fourth person who will stick around and help take the firm to the next level. “I want to grow to these four people but have a very solid staff, the right staff,” she says.