To be or not to be… an independent architect? This is the question that seems to perpetually haunt every graduate that has survived the toils of architecture school. Even architects with sufficient work experience hesitate before taking the leap. Finding and establishing a unique design identity in a field packed with creative individuals is a daunting prospect, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done successfully. It takes a mix of courage, talent, determination, and an extra helping of a few tips to reach the goal. 

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Starting a private architectural practice_©https://www-marketing–refresh-es.translate.goog/5-buenas-reflexiones-sobre-marcas-urbrands/?_x_tr_sl=auto&_x_tr_tl=en&_x_tr_hl=en&_x_tr_pto=nui,elem

When I started contemplating taking the step into the business, numerous online pages offered abundant understanding on the technical aspects, but few prepared me for hard lessons in running a business. Whether you’re a freshly minted novice, a partner in a firm, or simply someone who likes quick reads between tasks, you’re sure to find something of help in the following list of “Things I wish I had known before starting a private architectural practice”:

1. It is Not Easy.

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‘The Thinker’ perfectly summarizes the independent architect’s conundrum_©https://www.theconfidentteacher.com/2016/01/thinking-hard-and-why-we-avoid-it/

Starting on your own may look rosy to anyone who has been through the grinder. Sure, you get more freedom & space to design, but running a private architectural practice successfully also depends on leadership, commitment, and determination to achieve the vision set by you. 

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As a business owner, the architect has to understand his/her role as a leader in motivating, guiding, and instilling the company values into team members. The responsibility to steer the office through troubled times, keep prospects coming and maintain the standard of work falls on the chief architect’s shoulders. 

The most challenging task is to coordinate with many people at a time – consultants, team members, clients, vendors – all require steady communication and diplomacy. This would prove tougher for architects of introverted natures as the job requires tactful interaction to some degree. In such cases, it is best to find a business partner who shares your design ideals and is charismatic enough to manage communication. When roles are distributed according to strengths with your partner making up for where you lack, the organization will benefit on all fronts.

2. Your Practice Becomes Your Life.

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Burnout rates are high among the architecture community_©Malte Mueller

Needless to say, managing all operations of a practice can be time-consuming. In addition to designing and coordinating, tasks like drawing up contracts, handling finances among others require careful attention. If you are someone who prefers to be in full control, your personal time could very easily get eaten up and you may be running short of work hours. 

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This is no 9-5 job and if improperly balanced, could lead to early burnout and exhaustion. The owner needs to learn how to delegate tasks and focus his/her time & energy on matters that truly require attention. Handling the big picture stuff, giving clear instructions to your staff, and leaving the smaller details for them to manage is a great way to get things done while being in control. 

When you open your business, it can become integrated into your life in such a way that it might be indistinguishable from your personal life. After all, this is a huge accomplishment and you’re right to be proud. There can be a thin line between pride and obsession though, as I have often witnessed independently established colleagues chatting endlessly about their projects in social gatherings to people who looked quite clueless. Remember, not everyone you meet is a potential client. 

Avoid trying to pitch or market your work in every conversation and keep it light unless brought up by others. The key to networking is to discuss & offer answers where it’s required and exercise humility where it’s not.

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While it can be interesting to hear about your work in general, bringing it up often can lead to mixed feelings in others_©Antonio Guillem

3. Architectural Competitions and Social Media Are Powerful Tools.

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Competitions are win-win situations for everyone involved. Participants get exposure & the competition owner gets the best proposals_©Young Architects Competitions

Once the ground work is done & the practice is open for business, the architect needs to make himself seen in the community. The old-fashioned word-of-mouth system can get you started, but to sustain, your work should reach far & wide. Participating in architectural competitions and winning them will give you a chance to showcase your skills and make people take notice. Publishing work in well-received magazines is another way to gain visibility & attract clients. 

If nothing else, your company should have an eye-catching website and accounts on major social media platforms with all necessary information to guide prospective enquiries to the office. Make sure the accounts are actively posting content by sharing the work your practice is doing; if navigating the internet is a tricky affair, a dedicated team can be employed to handle social media presence.

4. Discipline and Ethics Matter.

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Personal values play as much a role in the success of a company as an individual’s talent_©https://ongolo.com/2021/03/21/importance-of-building-mental-strength/

There is a saying – ‘If we do not discipline ourselves, the world will do it for us’ (Feather. W). Discipline and ethics are integral to the success of any company. The owner must set an example in professional conduct across time management, attire, respectful communication, teamwork, etc. Making it part of office culture ensures that employees follow these values when representing the company outside as well. The level of professionalism in the team can speak volumes about what the practice stands for. 

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Before you begin, chalk up a list of negotiable and non-negotiable terms and adhere to these. Sometimes, it is okay to let go of projects or people that don’t align with your beliefs even if it means losing a lucrative opportunity. Your actions will establish the reputation you have among your peers; moral ambiguity can tarnish a hard-earned image within short spans. 

5. Compromise for The Right Projects.

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The right project can open the door to several better ones_©Arek Socha on Pixabay

Your ideal project may come with constraints. The budget may be less, there may be other designers on board or the construction team may be inexperienced. If doing this project can reap large rewards in the long-term, consider doing it despite the circumstance. For example, designing a café or franchise outlet at a low cost can open doors to other such work coming your way as there is more visibility in a commercial project as compared to a residential one. 

Partnering with other architects for a project can result in your name being suggested for other works. On the other hand, staying onboard a project with toxic work situations, even one where your dreams took form, is inadvisable as it can take away your time from better opportunities in the offing. Work with the right people on the right endeavors.

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6. Knowledge is Everything.

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Architects are observant & curious individuals_©Ar. Shruthi Shetty

Starting a firm equals being responsible for the smallest details of your projects. The chief architect of a practice has to be technically sound in the bare basics of conventional construction. We need not be experts, but without knowing how the structure or services would work, the design will be little more than a 3D image and far from feasible. Cultivating a habit of learning from everyone and everything at an early stage can give plenty of traction in later projects. 

Another trick is to keep your eyes open to what others in the field are doing. Being aware of local architecture trends boosts the clients’ confidence in the designer’s ability and improves the quality of your work. Put that Instagram ‘follow’ button to good use and explore new ideas architects around you are engaged in!

7. Respect your Work.

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Experiencing the ups & downs of a project are what shapes a designer_©Shutterstock

If there is one thing we as designers are guilty of, is to often undersell smaller projects. Learning to be proud of every work we have done, be it as trivial as a bathroom or as huge as a mall, is something that every architect should practice, especially when setting out on their own. There are valuable lessons learned and experiences gained through the execution of a project that cannot be found in textbooks. Be confident in the expertise you have acquired and take every current undertaking seriously with a positive attitude. 

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At times, you may have to take a tough approach when dealing with difficult people on the project; it is crucial to stay professional and put your foot down on non-negotiable design choices. Ego is the enemy of progress – make sure to keep it at bay and do what is best for the project.

8. Cool Offices Make the Best Designers.

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Inside Studio PKA’s library in Mumbai, we see experimental materials & curious forms put to good use_©Sameer Chawda for Studio PKA

If you’re starting from a one-desk room, as many architects initially do, be prepared to establish a good working space in the future that fosters creativity and caters to every need of an architect. Invest in infrastructure that is needed; printers, high-end computers, software, measuring tapes, sketching tools, drafting tables, etc all come under the umbrella of what an architecture firm needs. As the space will not be used only by you, take care of the employees’ and clients’ needs. 

Small details like extra dustbins, coffee machines, greenery in the office can spruce up the space and raise the energy of inhabitants. Cheerful colors & graphics that inspire designers, sufficiently spacious discussion & meeting rooms for different-sized groups, ample light & ventilation, and clean premises are integral. An architecture firm reflects the design principles it stands for; well-designed offices create good impressions.

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9. Projects Are Evolving Habitats.

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Redesign of a bathroom over time (L-Before, R-After)_©Rafael Soldi for SHED Architecture & Design

Long after projects are duly completed, I have received calls for modifications or renovations from clients. Spaces evolve with their inhabitants, changing and growing with time; their intended purposes may be entirely different from what the initial brief would have been. An architectural practice should keep in mind to design for future needs that may come up while at the same time addressing present requirements. 

The owner of the practice is also obligated to address any structural or performance issues with the building after its handover. As the building’s designer, it becomes the architect’s duty to take responsibility for its successes and failures equally. Ensure correct methods are incorporated at the time of construction itself, as per consultant suggestions to avoid discomfort to the users or in the future.

10. Don’t Forget to Design!

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Do what you love_©Shubh Cheema & Associates

While all the above tips are meant to prepare any architect to set off on his/her individual career, they are all less important than the final tip, which is to make time for doing what you love. It is easy to get bogged down with the day-to-day workings of the firm, but always remember why you started your practice in the first place. 

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Carve out time to work on integral parts of the design process and engage with your team to explore the best solutions. These are the fun parts of running an office, where you get to make your hours and call the shots on how the design shapes up. Most importantly, as the chief architect of your creation, incorporate your signature design concepts into every project. Have a blast and enjoy the roller coaster ride of a lifetime!

References

Steff Green (2013). The Complete Guide to Starting Your Own Architecture Practice. [online] Workflowmax.com. Available at: https://www.workflowmax.com/blog/architecture/complete-guide-starting-architecture-practice. [Accessed 26 Sep. 2021].

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Journal. (2012). How to Start Your Own Architecture Firm: 15 Tips From the Pros – Architizer Journal. [online] Available at: https://architizer.com/blog/inspiration/industry/how-to-start-your-own-firm/. [Accessed 26 Sep. 2021].

Author

As an architect, designing gives Varsha an insight into what she truly enjoys - observing people & the complex, interwoven layers of society. She may be a sceptic, but has the soul of a wanderer. She reads (mostly Harry Potter) to escape the mundane & is now exploring her writing.

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