Is it possible to be successful in architecture and make money? Of course it is. Here are some thoughts about how.
The recent RIBA Building Futures report “A Future for Architects?” included a paragraph about the prevalent view that architects are not good at or willing to be business people. These views were put forward by the 15 ‘Client Representatives’. Here is the full paragraph:
“Some representatives on the demand side also perpetuated the view that architects are so preoccupied with their ‘vocation’ that they do not consider that practice is a business, and are less excited by the prospect of creating a successful business than a high profile in the profession. There was also some continuation of the belief that architects are arrogant and focused on embodying their own ideologies rather than providing a service to clients. However these views need to be put in the context of the great esteem in which UK architects are held internationally and the undoubted profitability of many of our better established and high profile firms.”
So clients hold us in high regard, and some of us are profitable, especially if we are famous. But many architects aren’t interested in being successful in business. Do these views sound familiar to you?
One thing that frustrates me about these views is that because they are held by some architects – who tell me ‘architecture is not a business’, ‘design is not about profit’ – it can easily be assumed that these views are held by most, if not all, architects in practice. But I don’t believe they are.
I do think that many architects have difficulty achieving serious business success. I also believe that many architects would like to make their businesses more profitable. Yet this can be difficult because the skills you need to run a business are not the ones we focus on in our education. Making things worse is the idea that unless one is Norman Foster, one cannot be successful in architectural terms and profitable at the same time.
Be a good architect and make money
So is it possible to bring a more business-minded approach to your practice whilst retaining design quality? Is it possible to be a good architect and make money? I think it is – I’ve spent many years helping practices do just this.
If you’re proud of your design achievements, but not about your profits, and you’re interested in doing something about it, here are four things to get you thinking.
1. Make time to work On your business
How much time does your practice spend on looking after its own health? How much time and money do you spend on marketing and business development? If the statistics are anything to go by, it isn’t enough.
According to Colander’s recent RIBA Benchmarking Survey of Chartered architects practices (pdf link), only 13% of staff in these practices were non-fee earners, whilst Colander recommends between 20 and 33%. Why so few non-fee earners? Perhaps it is because non-fee earners are seen as a luxury, but they aren’t. These are the people who will help your business become more efficient.
Another underspend area is marketing. Colander’s benchmark for Chartered Practices turnover spend on marketing is between just 1.5% and 2.5%, and only 37% of practices surveyed met or exceeded that benchmark. But the benchmark itself is incredibly low.
The Chartered Institute of Marketings own Marketing Trends Survey for Autumn 2010 (pdf) showed that the average marketing spend for an organisation with a turnover below £1m was 9.96%, dropping to 7.61% for a turnover of £1-10m, three and four times the upper limit of the Colander benchmark. We are starting from an incredibly low point here. Perhaps it is because good marketing requires strategic direction, which requires time spent on the business.
Start to allocate more of your time and money to look at, review and help your business become more successful in financial terms. If you need to, spend some of that money on getting some good outside advice. Of course, this means learning how to let go of a small part of the chargeable work you do to your staff, but they’ll thank you when it means they have a job in a year’s time.
2. Understand your clients better
Before you spend any money on marketing, advertising, PR or business development, make sure that it will be money well spent. Key to your strategy must be a full understanding of your clients. You need to know more about who they are, where they are going in the next 10 years and what is really bothering them now.
Make time to identify your clients well, and listen to them. Get your staff to help you – they probably know your clients better than you do.
3. Focus on Delivery
When you know what your clients really need, make sure that you focus your time on delivering to those needs. Some of your clients will prioritise cost, some quality, some speed of delivery. What matters is that your primary focus is the same as theirs.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t use your design skills to deliver to that need. Your design skills are an essential element of the tactics you will employ. Use them well, without distractions. Make sure you’re not spending time on aspects of a project which are of no concern to your client. When you can deliver, then you get the opportunity to capitalize on a satisfied customer.
4. Demonstrate the value of Design
Whatever your clients priority, you can deliver it through good design. As a result, good design becomes an important factor in customer satisfaction.
If value for money is important, show how your design skills delivered it. If meeting standards has been an issue, show how you used design to deliver a solution. If the client needs a collaborative approach, make sure your design skills contribute to the success of the collaboration.
Make the value of design a key element in the way you communicate your success in delivering their project. Tell the story through design, keeping design in the loop. By sharing the importance of design to the success of your clients projects, you will help them value it on their own terms, and it will become part of the story.
These are just four ways you can help make your business more profitable, without sidelining the importance of your architectural skills. Indeed, pursuing these goals will help dispel the myth that architects “are arrogant and focused on embodying their own ideologies rather than providing a service to clients”.
If you’d like to know more about how they might work in your practice, why not get in touch?
Capital A says
Very informative article tackling a vitaly important topic. I am a self employed Architect in sole practice, being profitable is vital. With no staff, limited funds and even less time, what can a sole practitioner do to increase profitability?
Hello, and thanks for posting a comment.
Being a one man/woman band has its own special challenges as of course you have to do everything that has to be done, but the principles are the same with any size firm.
I wrote a little about the four basic elements of the business development cycle in this article:
How to pay your staff (and yourself) well. Profitability isn’t only about setting your fees right, it is also about what leads you generate (and if you can make them pay), delivering efficiently and getting everything you can out of the success of your project.
If you would be interested in talking about it further do drop me a line via the contact page with your phone number. As with all good architects your first conversation is free!
Hi!I am a 19 year old 1st year student (architecture) from South Africa and prior to reading your article titled ”Architects: A Businesslike Practice vs Design Quality – how to get both”,I was feeling extremely discouraged about the career path I have chosen because of the one thing that is common among all architectural blogs–architects complaining about the lack of compensation and the little value people put on their hard work.What upset me the most was the fact that I’ve wanted to be an architect literally all my life and now all of a sudden,due to knowing so much more about the field,I am having second thoughts because lets be brutally honest-the cost of living is not getting any cheaper and passion will not pay the bills.I should however thank you for this article as it has re-motivated me and made me aware that architecture can indeed be a lucrative business practice with the correct strategies in place.I love architecture and cannot imagine my life without it but also
can’t afford to spend 6 years in university for peanuts.Thank you for a great article.God Bless
Simon Owen says
This is a great post for many reasons; you’ve summed up the feelings of a lot of people either currently trying, or are walking the path, to getting in to the industry.
A lot of people in many areas of building design are disheartened right now, as a recruiter I see it a lot, but there are also a lot of passionate people doing great things despite the current problems.
You are in your first year and a great position to prepare yourself for getting in to a good practice – believe it or not, now is not too soon to start thinking and actively working towards it. The best Graduates that I see have done the following:
– Looked for, and taken, any opportunity to get industry related experience during their courses.
– Attended CPD (Continued Professional Development) seminars ran by their professional body outside of lectures, partly for the information, but also to get in contact with people who are in the trade.
– Emphasise their desire to learn the basics in a live environment. University will give you them in a teaching one, but the first thing that most Graduates find in their role is that there is a lot of difference doing a project in class to one in practice!
– Learn about the wider world, read beyond the university texts (Twitter is fantastic for this) and one had started a blog of their learning process, trends that they saw and ideas that they had which was key for them securing a role with a top practice.
The thing with the above is that it will build your knowledge and profile to the outside world as being not just another Graduate, but someone who has really thought about what they are doing, where they are going and want to do. More importantly, it will give you access to people who can, and will, help you.
Last thought, if you are in year one and preparing for your new role in 5 years time now, that is also 5 years for things to improve, or for the industry as a whole to adjust to the new economic climate. That means that the world will be a different place then to what it is now (for better and hopefully not worse!) and you will have best prepared yourself for it.
Best of luck and enjoy – construction as a whole is a wonderful field to be in!
There is a lot of truth behind what you have said.Your advice is greatly appreciated.Thank you.
Nick Schumann says
I am not actually an architect but have worked with and for architects now for over 30 years and can tell you that you views we’re equally as valid 30 years ago as they are today. I had dinner in London last night with Derick Henstra who is a close long time friend and am sure is someone you will know of. Our conversations often revolve around the issue you raise in relation to South Africa specifically where the construction industry remains somewhat “behind the times” in terms of process and attitudes (e.g. Architects are still not required to provide a specification as a standard deliverable and the quantity surveyor tends to specify in the BQ which of course tends to reflect what they have priced rather than what the architect has designed!!).
The advice above is excellent – I would add to that the need to extend your horizons. By that I mean working on different types and scale of projects and think about spending time in different countries so as to gain maximum experience and become a valuable commodity
Stick with it and good luck
Thank you for the advise Mr Schumann.
Great piece, like you say we pay too little time to the non fee earning part of the practice, even though in reality it might make your practice function better and allow time for the important things you personally as head honcho cannot put time into.
For most of us we never had any vocational training or prep to go into business, even if you’ve worked in other practices then decide to go your own route, it’s one hell of a shock to the system, insurance, tax, NI, PII, that before you do any “design” work. But the benefits with client and contractor interaction can be rewarding, it’s not all bad out there it’s just a mountainous learning curve.
One thing we’ve learner as a practice is to be as adaptive as possible, you cannnot just be a specialist in one field these days, you have to turn your hand to many, it is also important that you know where to ask for help in your business as well, there’s no shame in it.
A funny quote from Sir Bobby Robson “you must love the game beyond the prize, because if there’s no game, there’s no prize anyway”
For SMEs & small practices it could read “you must understand your business beyond the design, because if there’s no business, there’s no design anyway”
Hope this helps
Hi you guys has totally helped with your comments am a grade 11 leaner at Thohoyandou technhcal high in limpopo south africa i liked buing an architecture with my heat but from what i have heard now that those people earn pinuts i think i will think it again.
Alice Ngigi says
Thanks for sharing this advices
Alice Ngigi says
this article will help many.
AN informative article. A successful business person needs to create time and work on his/her business
True time is key