Archive for the 'Professional Practice' Category

Letter To My Beloved Profession (Guest Post)

Today I have the pleasure of introducing you to Marie-Claude Soulard, an architect based in the San Diego area and the owner of Soulard Architecture. Last week I posted a new discussion at the Entrepreneur Architect Linkedin Group titled Architecture is Dead: Let’s Reinvent the Profession.

The following is Marie-Claude’s response to my challenge to imagine what our profession could be if we started from scratch with a blank sheet of trace paper.

I’d love to know your thoughts on both my challenge to reinvent the profession and Marie-Claude’s response.

Hope you had a blessed and very happy Thanksgiving.

Marie-Claude Soulard writes:

During this Holiday week, as I reflect on the last few years, I find myself feeling thankful.

Thankful for the recession. Yes you have read correctly.

I am thankful because from this deep and long lasting economic crisis, a light finally has been shed on the true state of the profession. Architecture as a profession and a business is in serious need of overhaulin’.

A coming together of all participants in the business of the built environment needs to happen. I would like to see collaboration, sharing of ideas, partnerships.

1 – Starting at the academic level, the architecture schools’ curriculum of the 21st century need to include collaboration with contractors, developers and business owners. Business classes: how to start your own firm, social media marketing, old fashion networking, clients relation building, business plan writing, construction skills: how to build.

2 – After graduation, the newly minted architectural intern should enter a dedicated network of architecture firms. The firms would have for their mission to mentor and form the next generation of architects; truly guiding the interns towards licensing. This mentorship should be one of true collaboration between the interns and the architect firms where each party gains and learns from each other. This network of architecture firms should be based on a new business model that embraces collaboration and possibly even partnership between contractors/developers/architects. These firms should be on the cutting edge of technology, sustainability and laboratories of new ideas.

3 – Lawmakers at the City, State & National level need to eliminate lobbying and loop holes and require that the services of an architect be utilized for all types of buildings. No exceptions.

4 – The residential market should be recaptured by architects. In collaborating with major land developers, contractors, designers, in an integrative approach to design. By developing a marketing campaign aimed at homeowners to increase their awareness of architecture and design.

5 – NCARB and AIA will need to be revamped to stay relevant. Their missions should include the propagation of architecture to the masses and the support of the business of architecture.

Why not for 2013 have a Mega Symposium on architecture and the business of the built environment. I would like to see a brainstorming of ideas to establish the blueprint of the collaboration of all in the creation of the next generation of buildings and cities.

Take this list, add to it, share it and make it your own. Take action, Make things happen.

With gratitude and hope,

Marie-Claude Soulard
California Licensed Architect #C-33310
LEED AP BD+C
email: mariesoulard@aol.com
Tel: 858-455-6672

photo credit: nicoventurelli via photopin cc

Architectural Interns: Read This Now!

Bob Borson from Life of an Architect blog published a great post today about Architectural Interns. It includes tips, suggestions and requirements from some of Bob’s friends, including me.

If you know an architectural intern or a recent grad looking for work, this is a must read.

My Micro-Economy is Broken

My residential architecture firm designs, builds and renovates homes for high-earning individuals living in Westchester County, NY, one of the nation’s wealthiest regions. The success of our firm depends on these people having the income and confidence to invest in their properties.

With much effort and perseverance, our boards have been filled with work throughout the recession, mostly with smaller scale projects offering lower overall fees. Since 2008, revenues have decreased each year, with the year 2012 being the most depressed in the decade-long history of our firm.

Yet, we consider ourselves extremely successful. Firms throughout our region have shuttered and the unemployment rate for architects has continued to increase.

During the years before the recession, our project lists were loaded with large-scale residential projects. The historic Hudson Valley is full of old houses in need of renovation or reconstruction and our workload required a full roster of architects, support staff and a well equipped open studio in which to practice. Licensed architects and rent in Westchester County (located about 40 minutes north of mid-town Manhattan) doesn’t come cheap. We worked hard to build a reputation for the highest level of quality and innovative design, and our fees are commensurate with the expectations of our clients.

Many of our clients work locally for large corporations (Pepsico, IBM, etc.) or commute to New York City; bankers, venture capitalists, lawyers, doctors.

Residential architecture is a tough profession. It relies on homeowners having access to large sums of money. Some save a lifetime. Others earn it quickly with high paying salaries and annual bonuses. In order to commit to an architecture project our clients must have enough money left over after paying living expenses, taxes and savings. They must have enough confidence in their own economic situation to proceed with a project costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.  If that funding and confidence isn’t present and available, our project list shrinks and our earnings shrink with it.

Here is how my micro-economy works:

  1. Large corporations employ people at all levels. Some of those people provide services and/or knowledge to the company worthy of a high salary; an amount determined by the marketplace.
  2. As incentive to stay with the company and not seek employment elsewhere, the company offers benefits and annual bonus payments based on the company’s success and specific performance standards set for each employee.
  3. Each year, that valuable employee works hard, contributes to the success of the company and earns her salary. If the employee meets specific goals, further benefiting the company, she earns an additional bonus payment as per her agreement with the company.
  4. After taxes, expenses and required savings, if the employee has enough remaining, she puts it aside and saves for an architecture project; additions and alterations that will improve the function of her home and make it a place better to raise her family.
  5. With enough saved, she evaluates the current economic conditions and confirms the stability of her employment.
  6. With enough confidence in her financial situation, she seeks an architect and becomes our client.

So at this point, two conditions must be present for a residential architect to be hired. She must have enough money for the project cost and enough confidence in the economic conditions around her to pull the trigger and proceed with the project.

Money and confidence; without both pieces in place there is no project.

And here is where it gets worse.

If there is no project, there is no revenue for the firm to pay our employees, who then cannot proceed with their own “projects”. We don’t hire consultants (who also have employees). No contractors hired, no subcontractors, no equipment rented, no building materials, no products purchased, no suppliers, no laborers…

Each project benefits dozens (maybe ultimately hundreds) of people. When one project is delayed, the others that do proceed absorb the difference. When dozens are delayed, we have micro-economic meltdown.

My micro-economy is broken.

One or several of the links in the process of hiring an architect is missing. Have salaries been reduced? Bonuses eliminated? Have corporate layoffs caused a lack in confidence? Have new laws, rules and regulations caused corporations to take a defensive strategy of reduced expenses and minimized investment? With a pivotal national election pending, are corporations and employees alike, frozen by an uncertain future?

I don’t know the answer. I am an architect, not an economist.

I do know that our situation will not improve until our clients have the funding needed for their projects and the confidence to proceed.

How is YOUR micro-economy?

Is Our Profession Really Experiencing a “Meltdown”?

Many of you have probably already read this article posted to Salon.com this past Saturday. There have also been a few similar articles written in the New York Times and WSJ.

Is our profession really experiencing an all-out “meltdown”, or are we no worse than most other businesses and industries trying to survive the most depressed economy since the Great Depression? (Many claim it is even worse than the Depression, but that is not the topic I want to discuss here.)

It is bad, no doubt. Painfully bad!, but is the profession collapsing to the point where young creatives have no chance of ever becoming practicing architects? Are we at the point when the practicing architects should give it all up and follow other paths?

Or… must we evolve, expand, grow and reclaim our profession? Must we take control of our destinies and reconstruct the Practice of Architecture for the generations of creative professions to come?

Let’s talk…

How do you measure your success?

There’s a saying in business, “What gets measured, gets managed.”

Winning companies track several metrics to gauge their performance and measure business success. ROI (return on investment), EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization), average sales, website traffic, employee churn and average inventory are all key business indicators. Large retailers track same store sales, days of supply and stock to sales ratio. Public companies are required to publish quarterly results and business metrics are the tools they use to communicate the health of their business to regulators and investors.

Much like how an experienced pilot continuously views her instruments to better understand how and where her aircraft is operating, successful companies track their performance to better understand how and where to focus their attention.

Do you know how successful you are? Do you know where you need to focus your attention to improve your results? Do you track metrics?

In addition to some of the standard metrics listed above, as an Entrepreneur Architect, a few metrics you may also want to track are; the number of overall projects per year, average project budget amounts, proposals to projects ratio, time from proposal to project start, and time from project commencement to construction start.

Track whatever you think will improve your results. Review your metrics on a regular basis and view your business from 20,000 feet. You may be surprised with the results.

Do you track your performance? What metrics are YOU using?

How do you measure YOUR success?

Our Architectural Services Proposal

Several years ago, I attended a local AIA seminar presented by a fellow architect and the Chapter Council. The topic was “alternative agreements”.

What I learned during that interactive meeting was that for some projects, selecting one of the many legal documents available from our national professional organizations an appropriate way to protect both the architect and the owner when entering an agreement for architectural services.

There are other times though, when a simpler, “friendlier” document may be a better alternative.

The seminar presenters offered some examples, which got me thinking more about our own documents. As residential architects specializing in additions and alterations, we had often suffered through the pain of negotiation and contract revision initiated by a client’s attorney. We had even lost a few projects due to unreasonable, unnecessary and/or unacceptable changes. Other times, prospective clients just froze in fear of signing a scary looking legal agreement. We needed to find a better way…

So, with inspiration from from that very informative seminar, we prepared our own set of legal documents.

We developed our proposals to be clean, clear and straight-forward. We used large print and easy-to-understand language. Our Standard Terms and Conditions document is designed to look more “legal” and supports the “friendlier” proposal. The Proposal Package is always sent (via email and USPS first class mail) with a select portfolio, a cover letter and a complete list of references.

Our proposal also doubles as our agreement, so if our prospect wants to become a client, they just sign on the bottom line and send it back to us.

Since we started using our documents, the time between proposal and project commencement has been greatly reduced… and we no longer get to meet new and interesting attorneys.

Since my previous post here, and another similar post on the Entrepreneur Architect Linkedin Group, I have received several requests to share our Proposal/Agreement documents. I feel that the more we share with one another, the better our whole profession will be.

So, in that spirit… below are links to our Architectural Services Proposal, our Construction Management Proposal and our supporting Standard Terms and Conditions document. We have developed these documents over the past several years and continuously revise and update them. They work for us and I am happy to share. (They may NOT work for you. See the “legal stuff” below.)

Now for some legal stuff…

I am in no way recommending that you use these documents. I do not claim that they will protect you, your firm or your client. I advise you to have an attorney and your insurance company review all your legal documents, including your proposals and contract agreements. By downloading the documents linked above, you are agreeing that Mark R. LePage and McCarthy LePage Architects, PC have no responsibility for claims that may arise from the use of these documents and waive any and all liability, directly or indirectly.

I welcome general comments regarding this post below. If you are interested in discussing any specifics regarding the linked documents, please post your comments at the Entrepreneur Architect Linkedin Group.

Have YOU developed your own proposal and/or agreements? I would love to learn from what you have done. If you are interested in sharing, please send copies to blog@fivecat.com.

Do you use AIA Contract Documents? Let’s talk agreements…

Several years ago, we constructed a new Proposal document that doubles as our Owner / Architect Agreement. It’s 5 pages long and, together with a separate 2 page “Standard Terms and Conditions” document, it includes all the protections of the AIA document… but looks and reads much friendlier.

Fivecat Studio specializes in large residential additions and alterations, so we’re dealing with homeowners. Back when we used AIA Documents, we spent way too much time negotiating contracts (or waiting for our prospects to recover from their shock). Very often, the agreement ended up going to their attorney for review and, of course, revision. It was never a pleasant experience.

We haven’t met any new attorneys since we moved to our friendly document and the time between proposal and commencement has been greatly reduced. It’s one of the best business decisions we ever made.

How about you? Are you using AIA Documents, or another agreement? Are you using agreements?

Please share.

BUILD LLC

I been following the BUILD blog for about a year. BUILD LLC is a small design/build firm located in Seattle, specializing in modern residential and small commercial projects. They maintain a very nice website and post to their blog on a regular basis.

Their most recent post, Thank You Sir May I Have Another, is a nice reminder of the things we should all be focusing on as we wallow through this mess of an economy. The subtitle of the post reads, A ten-point plan for keeping a smile on your face as the economy kicks the crap out of you.

I was also pleased and excited for the BUILD crew to read a nice little article about BUILD LLC in the current issue of Custom Home magazine (congrats guys).

Do You Tweet?

From Architectural Record:

It seems like everyone these days is constantly plugged into their technological devices, tweeting their whereabouts, Facebooking their statuses, and publicizing anything and everything about themselves. Companies are even engaged in the phenomenon, using social media tools to market their products and services. But for architects, do these online pursuits pay off?

Design firms that have integrated social media into their practices report a spike in interest in their work — particularly from journalists, publishers, and other architects. However, few can say their efforts have directly led to new projects … yet. Social media is so new to the profession that it may take a few years before the benefits can be measured, but some firms are investing now with high hopes for future rewards.

Read more.

Being present online and social networking has worked for us at Fivecat Studio.

About three hundred people read my Living Well in Westchester blog every day. Several past and future clients have become our “fans” on Facebook and we’ve received several new inquires for residential projects directly referencing Twitter as their source.

Are you ready to tweet? Come “follow me” at www.twitter.com/FivecatStudio.

CORA Revises Position Paper to Reflect Architects’ Feedback

The Congress of Residential Architecture (CORA) has updated their recent position paper addressed to state governing bodies and the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

I did not endorse the original document distributed last month, but the changes released today have improved the document enough to where I am comfortable supporting its basic premise.

I do not support the entire document.

As a small business owner, my top concerns are over-regulation and over-taxation. I will be a much more active supporter of the paper when its authors add an item or two referencing the issues that every American small business (residential architects included) is struggling with. I am not interested in supporting any document, or organization, that promotes more regulation, more professional requirements or advocates installing more barriers to the practice of architecture.

Credibility is earned, not granted by the state or a professional organization. Architects, individually, need to take their profession back from the contractors, construction managers, owners reps, kitchen designers, interior designers, etc. In fear of liability and/or resistance to change with the times, we have given it all away.

I personally refuse to accept the status quo.

At Fivecat Studio, we are working to give our clients not only what they want, but more importantly, what they expect. We are no longer trying to change the perception of our clients or educate them to the process of design. We have learned to understand their expectations, built systems to address their concerns and provide services that result in well design architecture and very happy clients. I am not looking to the state, the AIA or CORA to make us more successful. I welcome the changes CORA is advocating, but I am not waiting for changes to occur before we strive for excellence and make the changes required for Fivecat Studio to become a successful business.

Read the latest version of CORA’s document and let me know what you think. If you agree with its basic concept, send Duo Dickenson an email, requesting that your name be added to the document. I did.

Then, take a look at your own firm and start making some changes. Discover and meet your clients’ expectations. Take risks. Do it differently. Be an entrepreneur and succeed… all by yourself.


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