In our search for tips to give designers and design firms that are just starting out, we asked leaders of some successful architecture practices to look back to their early days. Their answers range from cautionary to proscriptive, and should offer hard-learned lessons for architects thinking about launching their own practices.
Robert Frasca, FAIA, Partner, Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Architects
I read [the Up & Running series] with great interest and…we did most all of what the series suggested. What we didn't do until later was train people in all aspects of the practice which produces the future leaders. That involves not only doing good work (which we have done) but in getting good work which was where we were remiss in the past. We get good work by showing what we have done but also by giving the client the feeling that they would enjoy spending the next three or so years with us. The latter is both an inborn talent and on the job training. It has led us to do even better work, create future leaders, and is important in staff retention.
The seemingly obvious need was to get work from whatever client or building type available, to grow the firm and stabilize as quickly as possible. In reality, it is much better to decide what kind of work you really want to do for the next thirty years of your life and meet people who are in that field. Help them, know them, spend time with them. Eventually the work will come, and it will be the kind of projects you really enjoy working on every day.
Mark Cavagnero, FAIA, Founding Partner, Mark Cavagnero Associates
Mark Ripple, AIA, Partner and Director of Operations, Eskew+Dumez+Ripple
Architecture at its essence is built on relationships. And of course after 30 years of doing it, it makes perfect sense. My late partner [Allen Eskew] used to say that architecture is a great act of optimism, because the fact of the matter is if we're building something for somebody it means they're investing money in something tangible and usually long term. So it represents an act of optimism on their part that there's something great in the future and it's worth spending hundreds or thousands or millions of dollars on. But what comes with that is understanding that for any client, whether it's an institutional client or a residential client doing an addition on their home, there's risk and there's uncertainty because, by definition, they're not architects, they're usually not contractors or developers. It took me 30 years to really understand this: what they're mostly looking for is what we like to call architect as trusted advisor. They need the consigliere, they need the person sitting at their right hand side that they trust implicitly, and is on their side of the table, and when they're confused or frustrated or upset or need assistance and guidance. That’s the ultimate role that an architect can play.
Lawrence Scarpa, FAIA, Principal, Brooks Scarpa Architects
A successful practice requires cultivating relationships and being involved in your community. These relationships take time to develop. Because I moved from city to city often, I rarely had the time to develop these kinds of relationships, so when I finally settled in Los Angeles it was like starting over. Had I known this, I probably would have given more consideration before moving so often.
My best advice for someone starting a practice is to find a place that you like and stay. Everything else will work itself out. As I did, you can overcome the lack of connections and people you know. Those come naturally with time. Work hard to do the best design work, but service your clients with the same enthusiasm and dedication. The service you provide, in most cases outweighs the design you create. Focus on a particular type of work, be it housing, commercial interiors, educational facilities, etc. But most of all: be patient! The practice of architecture takes time and it is very difficult to be successful on a large scale without first being successful at smaller scales. Small victories eventually lead to bigger opportunities.
Ann M. Beha, FAIA, Principal, Ann Beha Architects
If you stand for your vision, and great work in your area of practice, the best team members will seek you out. All clients are not equally ideal for a practice. The cultures and the aspirations need to be aligned, and bridged. Never be afraid to say no. Learn from other firms, but never follow too closely. It doesn't matter what they do, it matters what you do. Don’t be shy. Don’t let anyone let you think you are less than you are. Large and complex projects may be available earlier than you think. Push for the big opportunities. Someone else is pushing, for sure! Public work is an enormous opportunity and it is critical that good architects contribute to the public sector. As Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey pondered, “Weekend? … what’s a Weekend?” It’s 24/7. Be prepared. You slept as a child.
Thomas W. Chessum, FAIA, Principal, CO Architects
While we were resistant in the early years of practice to trying to capture our developing culture and values with definitive statements—possibly for fear of stemming our natural development—we continued to press on with evolving the shared understanding of what we were building as a practice. This, in turn, provided the current clarity of culture that we bequeath to our up-and-coming future leadership. Passing on the torch is easier when there has been a depth of investment in delineating the inspiration behind the practice, through words as well as action.
One of the most important things you can do in the beginning of a firm is deciding what kind of firm you want. You should be able to analyze your weaknesses and your strengths and then adjust those against what kind of firm you're going to have. You cannot be everything to everyone.
William L. Rawn III, FAIA, Founding Principal, William Rawn Associates, Architects
Design talent does not ensure professional success. Luckily, both [co-founder Ted Flato, FAIA] and I shared a passion for design with entrepreneurial zeal. Too often young firms venture out without an owner/partner focusing on the bottom line. Enjoy passion and commitment to design, but always realize that financial sustainability and a sense of urgency for future work is what ensures that a young firm will enjoy the patience to select the projects that sustain one artistically and professionally.
A young firm must have a clear sense of its purpose. At Lake|Flato, our goal is to craft buildings intrinsically of their place and rooted to the natural realm. This clarity of purpose energizes the firm, and will sustain it through good times and bad.
Gordon Gill, FAIA, Founding Partner, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture
Starting an architectural firm is both exhilarating and daunting. Like any project, it entails the excitement of limitless potential compounded with a deep sense of responsibility, accountability and, of course, risk. After eight years of practice, our firm has been extremely fortunate.
Looking back, a few thoughts come to mind that we considered and, I think, should be considered when starting a firm. Define a clear philosophy or approach to your practice that is achievable, and hopefully, needed. Surround yourself with individuals you trust who will be constructively critical, supportive, and who have a balanced appetite for innovation and reality. Be involved in the daily decisions of your firm; focus on the culture and the people; intellectual capital is your greatest asset while leadership from afar is a recipe for disaster. Manage your firm carefully; the economics and the design are equally critical; make the tough decisions. They'll be worth it in the long run. Lastly, be brave, think big and have fun everyday. Energy is infectious and breeds success.
Marion Weiss, FAIA, and Michael A. Manfredi, FAIA, Cofounders, Weiss/Manfredi Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism
Competitions are a wonderful way to begin a practice – it’s how we began ours. The dreams are well stated and high ambitions are evident at the beginning. It took some time for us to realize that not all projects, and clients, begin with the DNA of a dream or true value of design. Initially, we thought every project had the capacity to be the most extraordinary (fill in the blank) but today we are aware that time is an elusive resource and it is essential for us to find projects and clients that believe in an architecture of consequence.
What do I wish I had known going in? Not much more or would never have done it. A real business plan would never have justified it. What do I wish I had learned faster? Mechanics of a business, more about production systems to get more efficiency, the power of the sell. What we did that propelled us? We did work that people were interested in and we enjoyed doing, networked effectively – volunteered, talked to anyone who would listen and, yes, we were ridiculously fearless. Starting, frankly, is easy. It's staying in the game that is hard. You have to always stay conscious about quality, anticipate down cycles, be willing to start again, and thrive on change.