When one turns their hand to going solo and starting a company, there are innumerous factors that tend to pull them back. Although an architect desires to have an eponymous firm and design their dream house, only a few succeed while doing it. Lee Calisti is one of those who have lived to accomplish a great deal by starting his architecture firm. He hails from a small town, Greensburg in Pennsylvania, and has managed to strive through the challenges faced by his firm since 2003. Propitiously so, his designs have enabled people to live more comfortably. In his interview on starting an architecture firm conducted by Business of Architecture that is available on Youtube, his lucid and coherent experiences give an insight into how things work out in practice.

Interviews with Architects: Starting an Architecture firm: Interview with architect Lee Calisti - Sheet1
An interview with architect Lee Calisti _ ©YouTube
Interviews with Architects: Starting an Architecture firm: Interview with architect Lee Calisti - Sheet2
Architect Lee Calisti’s firm_ ©Architect Magazine

Why start your firm?

Lee Calisti started his firm so that he could have a relatively flexible schedule and spend quality time with his family. It was the time when his son was born in 2002 when he felt that the usual long hours of commute to work were becoming more painful. The flexibility of time that he could now enjoy allowed him to work even after his family went to sleep. At this stage, he was financially stable and could initially take up the risk of starting afresh. 

On the other hand, he has expressed that having one’s firm allows them to have more say in the design process. According to him, any job requires long hours on a small part of a specific project. However, setting up your firm means working on all aspects of it, but at a smaller scale, at least initially. Furthermore, it poses an arduous challenge of wearing many hats to not only work on a small portion but various fragments. For a designer, the first step towards building their firm involves a self-analysis of how well settled they are in life. Over the years, once the firm starts doing well as it did for Lee Calisti, only then can one start making more money than their previous job. 

How to take it forward?

Once you’re in it, there has to be a different outlook altogether. The rigidity in the field of work now breaks, followed by a significantly more amount of work to be done. Commercial and small projects are the savior boat while you start sailing in this sea. The relationships developed with professionals from other related disciplines from the past job prove to be highly rewarding later in one’s practice. It requires you to spend time with the contractors and even the people from the community. 

In the initial time frame, there are no projects or leads for around two months. Adjacent to that, there is a whole firm to set up as you’re not a freelancer. It involves the need for completing official requirements such as business cards, letterheads, telephone numbers, bank accounts, etc. Besides, the process of building a good network can result in acquiring clients early through serendipity. During this time, the approach has to be thoroughly task-oriented and focused on only getting tasks done. The closing of the month and the sudden rise in projects can make it hectic, but it is necessary to maintain a steady flow of work. 

The key advice

Investing in the process is fundamental to start a firm. No matter how things are, believing in yourself is crucial while staying connected to the profession. Recession can bother you from time to time, making it essential to keep yourself at work and not become overconfident to turn down work. A piece of advice from Lee Calisti that he would tell himself ten years ago is to be careful while selecting and turning down work. Firstly, to not consider inquiries as a project.

These make you happy but eventually result in false satisfaction. Additionally, turning down a job while feeling that it is beneath you, should be avoided.

Besides, the referral network that develops over the years can account for an organic flow of clients. In today’s fast-evolving times with technology, the acts of marketing have drastically changed. Talking to people, writing blogs, social media, as well as a website, can account for some very interested clients to understand the design process. The former architect himself writes blogs on – https://thinkarchitect.wordpress.com/ which has enabled him to get a client too. Lastly, community-based organizations and developers can fetch a few projects for an architect. Therefore, it is essential to maintain a relationship with them.

The interview was a captivating one where Lee Calisti spoke about his adventurous journey over the past decade from when he had started the firm in 2003. He gave some real insights and mentioned the challenges that individuals face when starting solo. Through all the opportunities and tests, he has highlighted how the practice of architecture is highly dependent on the various relationships one builds; with the skilled professionals in different fields, the unskilled labor, and most importantly the community to serve. A truly inspiring journey of his showcases his passion for architecture. 


An architecture student who understands the power of words and feels that architectural journalism goes beyond design by playing a pivotal role in initiating meaningful dialogue. He believes that architects can change the world and make it a better place to live, work and play in.

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