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Credit: Mark McGinnis

Things are a little scary for architects these days. Hammered by a deep, long downturn, firm principals have trimmed staff, moved to less expensive office space, and deferred equipment upgrades—and often their own salaries. More than three years after the housing collapse, the recovery seems less precarious, but maddening slow. It’s a long time to be scraping courage together.

Consider, though, what it’s like to be in this business with your spouse. Couples who’ve tied the knot professionally face obvious risks. It can be dangerous to have the same source of income. When recession strikes a shared job sector hard, as it has architecture, there’s no safety net. And even the most successful couples-run practices often are built on convenience rather than strategic and complementary capabilities. That can make it tougher to retrench when the pressure is on.

Nonetheless, family-run businesses have natural advantages. There’s a built-in trust that comes from sharing traditions and values. Also, it’s hard to overrate autonomy. You can make important business decisions quickly. Your partner understands when you work late or clock out early to coach softball. If you’re going to be working hard, you may as well be doing it together.

But how do couples power through a prolonged bad patch? “A good rule of thumb is you want to increase your communication in proportion to the severity of the downturn,” says Joseph Astrachan, executive director of the Cox Family Enterprise Center at Kennesaw State University (KSU) Coles College of Business, Kennesaw, Ga. We spoke to a number of spouses around the country about how they’re handling the recession and making sense of what’s ahead.

 

slow dancing

“Family businesses have generally weathered economic downturns such as the current one better than non-family businesses,” Astrachan wrote on KSU’s website. “Family businesses are focused on their long-term performance and not on quarterly returns, so they can sort of buckle down in a tough economy.”

One mark of a healthy partnership, he says, is the ability to adjust living expenses when business conditions change. In Berkeley, Calif., Arkin Tilt Architect’s scrappy ethic—they’re experts at using salvaged materials—applies to how they live their lives. “We try not to be super-exuberant when we’re flush because we know other things come down the pike,” says Anni Tilt, AIA.

“We can work with very few expenses if we need to for a bit of time,” agrees Tilt’s husband, David Arkin, AIA, LEED AP. In addition to sharing the office lease with a structural engineer, they bike to work, and their conference table is a chunk of bowling alley on a base of old plumbing parts. “We haven’t borrowed money to make things happen,” Arkin says. Throughout the recession, the pair was able to hang onto their six employees because they had a financial and client reserve.

The premise shifts when only one partner contributes to a firm’s billable structure. David Webber, AIA, runs Austin, Texas–based Webber + Studio with his partner, Ransom Baldasare, who oversees administration. “He was highly paid in the high-tech sector, so we probably could be bringing in a better income if he was in a different job,” Webber says. However, Baldasare’s expertise in marketing, directing photo shoots, and designing ads allows Webber to focus exclusively on billable hours.

“We both have too much invested not to be determined to make this a success,” Webber says. “If I found someone as skilled as he, the person wouldn’t have that sense of ownership.”

The flexibility inherent in many couples-run practices helps to even out economic swings. At Zack | de Vito Architecture in San Francisco, Lise de Vito, Assoc. AIA, acts as a pressure valve of sorts by drumming up projects when the design/build firm needs billable work, and backing off to concentrate on marketing and family life during flush periods. “When times are good, it’s easy to generate an adequate income with one of us working full time,” says Jim Zack, AIA. “And by having Lise, we don’t have to hire right away when things get busy.”

In Chicago, Tigerman McCurry Architects is set up differently than most firms, which may have contributed to its longevity. Stanley Tigerman, FAIA, and Margaret McCurry, FAIA, both had successful practices before joining forces in 1984, and they’ve continued to work independently on different project types. “Up until now it’s been one of us carrying the other through as the pendulum swings back and forth,” Tigerman says.

That’s McCurry’s role right now. With enough billings to cover five employees and two years of work in the pipeline—nearly all residential—they’re in enviable shape. Still, they’ve renegotiated the office rent and trimmed their own salaries, determined not to repeat past mistakes. “Thirty years ago, Stanley took out a loan against the furniture to keep people who were loyal,” McCurry says. “It took years to pay off, and when we paid it off those people left anyway.” And two years ago Tigerman gave up a percentage of ownership so the firm could compete as a woman-owned business, a strategy they say has yet to pay off.

filling the void

Many firms are scrambling sideways these days, couples included. With the family nest egg at stake, there’s more pressure to create secondary income streams as commissions shrivel. One example is Stefanie Brechbuehler and Robert Andrew Highsmith, a married couple who met as architecture students at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and launched Workstead in 2009, of all years. During slow times, the pair designed a series of light fixtures, which they assemble in their Brooklyn studio/storefront. That first year, Highsmith says, they sold more than 50 chandeliers at $1,800 apiece.

Highsmith, who has a freelance gig, also designs furniture. Brechbuehler studied interior architecture and learned about business strategy while working at Michael Graves & Associates. “Michael Graves’ practice includes architecture, interiors, and products, and I always understood that interiors were very profitable, products were extremely profitable, and architecture was not,” she says. “It was clear you had to combine those areas.” Adds Highsmith: “It’s been wonderful to have this balanced business model from the beginning. We’ve never had a period where we’ve had to rely solely on design billing.”

With two children at home, Katherine Chia, AIA, and Arjun Desai also are looking harder at product design. The married principals of Desai/Chia Architecture, New York City, spent a year and a half prototyping Recess Lav, a slim sink distributed by AF New York. A second one, Surface Lav, is in the works. “To make it through this rocky period we’re examining the types of projects we’re pursuing and making the product section more prominent on our website,” Chia says. “It’s a challenging time in terms of figuring out how to be nimble, and our conversations are pretty fluid because we can talk about these things at home.”

Sometimes family life spurs creativity. Not long ago, Charlottesville, Va.–based architects Christopher Hays and Allison Ewing made Christmas gifts for their friends: a boxed set of bookmarks crafted from architectural photos that Hays snapped during a family trip to Paris and the south of France. From that experiment they’ve spun off a fledgling wholesale business called BookofMarks.

“We thought about it and came up with this notion of a book of bookmarks with historical and cultural descriptions that create a portrait or tell a story about a place,” says Hays, AIA, LEED AP. Just before Christmas 2011, they developed bookmarks about Charlottesville and did a test run with local retailers. Now they’re eying urban destinations in the U.S. and Europe and looking into coordinating with art museum exhibits—the fingertip version of a catalog. “It’s instant gratification compared to doing architecture,” says Ewing, AIA, LEED AP.

Teaching is a fallback for some, and not just as a recession strategy. Hansy L. Better Barraza, AIA, LEED AP, splits her time between teaching at RISD and practice at Studio Luz, the Boston firm she runs with her husband, Anthony J. Piermarini, AIA. “Creativity comes before profit for us—it’s a hard thing to swallow,” Barraza says. “That’s why we’re privileged to have academia to support us.”

Talk about splitting your time. Phoenix architects Matthew and Maria Salenger, AIA, formed colab studio in 2007 to pursue their interest in merging architecture and art. But Maria kept her day job at Jones Studio, a local firm where Matthew also once worked. “It seems like a bad decision in these economic times, particularly here in Arizona, to leave a paying job,” Matthew says. Aside from him, colab has one full-time employee, and Maria clocks in evenings and weekends.

Admitting that it’s a “messy” arrangement, especially while raising a 4-year-old, Maria relishes the alternate reality of working on large-scale commissions with a firm that’s been around for a long time. “It’s an interesting challenge to swing from the very practical when you’re developing concepts for big projects, to being way out and thinking theoretically on a more intricate scale,” she says.

As the Salengers suggest, the recession has forced many couples, especially those supporting children and staff, to ask the hard question: Is architecture a sustainable family business? The answer isn’t always yes. “We realized in 2007 that it wasn’t feasible to continue to try to have 100 percent of our income be dependent on residential work, at the mercy of individuals who might suddenly decide to drop the project,” says Linda Taalman, co-owner, with husband, Alan Koch, of Taalman Koch Architecture in Los Angeles.

Ironically, she says, commissions have been plentiful in the past few years. Yet she’s double-booked to make the math work. Taalman’s full-time teaching position at Woodbury University pays for her own salary, since her income from the business is needed to support its three full-time employees. Now Koch is pursuing a new business opportunity unrelated to architecture, and Taalman hopes to devote more time to design.

“We realized over time that we love doing architecture, but it’s very difficult to make it work” together, Taalman says. “Most architect couples I know have another source of income—maybe a trust fund or funds in the stock market or real estate—and often don’t tell you. I think you have to be really open to change; nothing is permanent.”

eggs in a basket

The recession was a moment of shock that caused many spouse-led firms, subsidized or not, to reflect on where they’ve been and where they’re going. It helps to take the long view, if you can. “We’re both 41, and understand that economic cycles are quicker than the motion of our career, so we’re not in it for the immediate reward,” says Luke Ogrydziak, who runs Ogrydziak/Prillinger Architects in San Francisco with his partner, Zoë Prillinger. “We have a live/work situation, and it’s exciting for our two children to witness architecture peripherally and understand that it is work. It’s a horrible profession but also very rewarding.”

McCurry and Tigerman are 69 and 81 years old, respectively. It takes their kind of experience to put the low points in perspective. “There’s a friend there for a hug if something goes awry,” McCurry says. “We’re extremely different in many ways—I love the outdoors; he’s an indoor type. But not in the way we approach aesthetics and values. We’re both strong-willed so things can get a little gritty, but others in the office know it’s just us being edgy and it won’t turn into a collapse.”

“I agree with that,” Tigerman says. “Architecture is a field you have to love, because you do it day and night for 50 years. The upside is that architect couples understand what the other is going through with a bad client or situation. You have someone to console you when things don’t go well, and I think that’s important.”