Hand-dipped candles from Atelier, the retail store spin-off of Atelier Cho Thompson
Alicia Cho Photography Hand-dipped candles from Atelier, the retail store spin-off of Atelier Cho Thompson

In a time where rapid change is inevitable, the building industry is bracing for the next turn in the economy. Here are five things you can do now to develop a strong foundation on which to increase your firm’s resiliency.

1. Operate with greater efficiency and clarity.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a common response to suggestions of change, but I’d counter that continuing to practice the way you have for the past five, seven, or more years will start to hurt your bottom line. Automating or outsourcing some of your workflow can save significant time and money. Low-hanging fruit include integrating a 3D printer into your model-building process, writing Autodesk Revit scripts, or moving to a software package that makes it easier for anyone in the firm to check project status.

In June 2019, Workshop/APD moved to the online project management tool Monograph. The shift has helped streamline the firm’s workflow. “A need for faster, easier communication among leadership was the impetus for our shift to Monograph, and the software has certainly helped with its very graphic, intuitive presentation of our data,” says managing director and senior associate Stephan Thimme, AIA. “Its immediate and clear snapshots of project status have helped us to speed up internal communications and thus streamline project planning and staff allocation.”

2. Use data to track what your successes and capitalize on it.
Start making data work for you by measuring the things you are doing now, or by identifying items that are easy to measure, and then creating more informed metrics around them.

Review your 2019 proposals. What differentiated wins from losses? Was the number or type of touch points—for example, meetings, emails, and phone calls—with the client a factor? When is the last time you surveyed past clients to understand why they picked your firm? What do your current clients respond to most?

Data tracking is about continuous improvement. When I was a consultant several years ago, I took a close look at all of our proposals, finding similar threads or language used in the winning versus losing ones. I also asked our clients about their first impression of my firm, what stood out in their memory, and to articulate why they continue to work with us. Ultimately, I was able to increase proposal wins by 30% the following year simply by understanding how to better position my firm’s offerings with prospective clients.

Data can also serve as a guide to decision-making on internal policies. For instance, a growing number of companies inside and outside of architecture are offering remote or flexible work environments. Data points to collect on your firm’s current workload that would help test whether remote working policy is feasible might include hours worked on a project; ability to deliver a project on time and on schedule; noticeable changes—good or bad—to the overall project outcome; and overall profitability of a project.

Tracking these data points using your current toolbox could reveal an interesting story of success, productivity, and even loss. Consciously start to identify metrics you can use to help make more strategic decisions going forward.

3. Prototype new business development methods.
Finding additional—and potentially better—ways to prospect for new clients is a win for any firm. Start by growing your following and community through social networks or through your firm’s website. This can be as simple as posting updates more frequently, responding to comments, and interacting on other people’s posts.

Identify areas where you can increase awareness of your firm and services. Is there a local hashtag you should be adding? Once you have identified your clients, see which platforms they are most active on and start a business account on that network.

Small practices might say they don’t have time for social media marketing, but plenty of small firms will tell you that the time is well spent. Phoenix-based design firm The Ranch Mine has successfully used Instagram to grow its residential practice, attracting more than 25,000 followers. “Instagram has given us a platform to engage with a wide network and variety of people in a consistent and casual way,” principal architect and co-founder Cavin Costello says. “Through stories and our feed, we have been able to interact, educate, learn, show our process, and tell our story, leading to great clients and quality connections around the world.”

4. Create pathways that enable innovation and failure.
Find ways to build, or at least invite, a culture of innovation within your practice. Does a vehicle exist through which anyone can recommend a new way to do things? Do you provide a space where people can freely talk about best practices from past experiences, which you may later consider adopting? Can anyone make recommendations that may improve the way the firm operates?

There is one caveat to embracing innovation: You must accept that not every idea will work. But you also don’t have to adopt every idea. Many pioneering ideas do not carry as much insurance risk as, for example, a physical building.

Los Angeles–based RoTo Architects is now creating new lines of service through its sister company, RotoLab. Nels Long, RotoLab’s co-founding director, says, “After graduating from SCI-Arc, Michael [Rotondi, FAIA, RoToArchitects founder and principal,] and I bonded over the need for architects to take a controlling role in shaping the future of the architectural discipline, starting with a practice that takes on projects outside the realm of a typical architecture firm.”

By looking beyond the stereotypical scope of an architect, RotoLab has developed expertise and services in robotics, software development, real estate development, and music experience design. “Besides generating its own income from cross-sector projects,” Long notes, “RotoLab has been invaluable in transforming the way its parent company approaches its typical projects either from innovation in practice or the tools that are available for us to perform our services.”

5. Test new services and diversify your revenue streams.
Have you ever, over the course of a project, identified an opportunity that added value to your clients? Perhaps your office design inspired your client to ask for an updated logo. Now is a good time to inventory the skills of your employees to see if they can support new service lines.

You can also explore other revenue streams by partnering with your favorite clients, who understand the greater value your expertise provides or will let you help with something they never thought an architecture firm could—or would—do.

Atelier Cho Thompson, a relatively small architecture firm in San Francisco and New Haven, Conn., has offered graphics and branding as a service since its founding in 2014. Last year, the firm opened Atelier, a retail store in New Haven that offers objects from the firm’s designer connections as well from as local artists.

Storefront of Atelier Cho Thompson's retail store, in New Haven, Conn.
Alicia Cho Photography Storefront of Atelier Cho Thompson's retail store, in New Haven, Conn.
Atelier Cho Thompson and Oakland, Calif.-based creative studio Manual Labor designed a step stool and coat rack as a donation to an annual fundraiser for Design Industries Fighting AIDS (DIFFA).
Marble Rye Photography Atelier Cho Thompson and Oakland, Calif.-based creative studio Manual Labor designed a step stool and coat rack as a donation to an annual fundraiser for Design Industries Fighting AIDS (DIFFA).

“We opened up a store this year because we wanted to curate a selection of our favorite designed objects and to eventually roll out a product line of our own,” says co-founder Christina Cho Yoo, AIA. “We also started offering branding and strategy services because our clients sought them, and we felt that our ability to fully execute our concepts gave us a leg up. Fast-forward six years: Our clients say they love the one-stop shop approach to our design services as it reduces coordination on their part and ensures a cohesive final product across many platforms and scales.”

The five steps I’ve outlined are only starting points for evaluating your practice with a fresh eye. Change is hard, but it ultimately leads to growth. Take the time today to build a stronger practice in the future.