The Business Behind Design

Steven Burns, FAIA, spent 14 years managing the firm Burns + Beyerl Architects, during that time the firm’s earnings grew at an average rate of 24% per year. After creating ArchiOffice®, the intelligent office, project management and time tracking solution for architectural firms, Steve took his management expertise to BQE Software, where he is refining their business strategy and product development.

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January 23, 2014

Years ago I sold my Chicago-based architectural firm of 17 people after being presented with an offer I couldn’t refuse. Over the next two years, I visited nearly 200 architectural firms all around the country. I spent anywhere from one to five days in these offices, learning how they operated and observing their culture. It was an eye opener to say the least.

As I toured firms of all sizes or specialties, I started seeing some disturbing patterns. I frequently saw three common flaws that could put an architect’s practice in peril.

Saving the World One Building at a Time

Architects are notoriously under-compensated, for many reasons. One reason, I observed too often, was what I’ll call the Struggling Artist Syndrome. For architects with this syndrome, being poor is a badge of honor–like a war wound. They pride themselves on the meager compensation received for the hard work they do, the value they provide their clients, and for building a better world.

In truth, architects aren’t motivated by money. We’ve arrived at this profession out of a potpourri of passions; art, design, construction, urban planning, environmental stewardship, etc. I can guarantee that you will never find anyone who entered our profession with the intention of making money.

Most architects are too timid to even discuss finances. When asked about money, like a practiced politician avoiding a question on global warming, they’ll change the conversation to something they really want to talk about, like design and construction.

But if you want to get paid, you have to be able to talk about money and why your firm, its staff and its project management practices are exactly what a client needs.

You also have to be able to talk about business practices with your staff to ensure projects are managed properly and profitably. This is a must to have positive cash flow and a sustainable business.

If you don’t think you can do this, hire an Office Manager so you can focus on designing. Otherwise, go work for someone else.

Not Minding Your Own House

Many Architectural firms place a heavy emphasis on presentation. Clients see their offices as pristine, artistic and orderly. They believe this visual order is reflective of how a firm runs its business. But during my tour of architecture firms, I frequently found that the neat organization did not extend beyond the office’s elegant façade. In reality, most firms’ internal processes were the opposite of orderly.

Architects spend hours making sure structural, mechanical, electrical, plumbing and architectural considerations are in perfect balance to one another when designing a client’s building. But when it comes to managing all the components of their own house such as accounting, marketing, human resources, project and resource management, they drop the ball. If their office management was a building, it would look like something Rube Goldberg designed.

This disorder may fly in a good economy but when times get tough inefficient management will drag your firm down.

Forgetting How to Share

One thing you learned early in school as a kid, hopefully, was how to share. Kids who didn’t share weren’t popular, and occasionally got beat up. The same goes for adults–usually without the beating part.

In my firm visits, I noticed a disturbing trend of firm owners withholding project financial information such as fees, costs and profitability data. Guess what, this didn’t work out too well. This miserly practice prevented workers from fully doing their job and left many feeling marginalized, frustrated and ready to quit.

For a project to go well there needs to be total transparency–for employees and clients. Employees feel valued, engaged and can make informed decisions. Your clients feel greater trust when you keep them informed. And out of this trust comes repeat business and referrals.

If you really want your architectural firm to succeed, avoid these pitfalls. Get your own house in order before trying to build someone else’s. Know that you have to talk business with clients. You can’t just be the creative designer. If you can’t wear more than one hat, reassess your career goals. Lastly, create an environment of open communication that engages staff and inspires them to do exceptional work.

Editor's Note: This is sponsored content. All text and images were provided by the sponsor company. 


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