A Good Time to be An Architect

April 15, 2013

Is it finally a good time to be an architect? We saw this question posed recently by ChicagoBusiness.com and, like many of you, we were excited to know the answer.

“I think there’s optimism—a very guarded optimism, given where we’ve been over the past four or five years,” says Scott Sarver, principal at Chicago-based SMDP LLC, which hopes to latch on to the better economy here, boosting its billings from domestic projects to 50 percent this year from 25 percent in 2012.

Among industry giants, San Francisco-based Gensler plans to add 50 professionals here through next year, to 273, says Nila Leiserowitz, a managing director in the Chicago office.

The pool of new architects is rising, too. Architecture schools awarded 10,252 degrees in the 2011-12 academic year, up 13 percent from 9,073 degrees in 2008-09, according to the National Architectural Accrediting Board.

Things a looking up. And if the “industry giants” are hiring to meet the increase in project opportunities, it’s also probable that seasoned professionals will take this chance to open their own shops. We hope so!

A couple of months ago, Architizer published 15 Tips for starting your own architecture firm, referencing the same AIASF panel series we promoted with our last blog post. Our favorite tips:

1. Who are you?

Before you start churning out press releases and wooing clients, “the first thing you need to do to define your brand is actually to define what you want to be when you grow up,” says Sam Fajner. “You have to believe in what you do and find your passion, because if you don’t find your passion, you’re not going to be able to communicate that.”

4. Ask for advice

“Pick up the phone, select five firms that you admire,” says Fajner. “Call the CEO and say, ‘This is my name, I’m 25 years old, and I want to start my firm. I know that you started your firm 20 years ago; I really would like to have a conversation with you and understand what you went through, what were your struggles, what are the lessons learned, what are the mistakes that you did that you can save me from making?’ You’d be surprised at how many people would be receptive to that call.”

7. Enter design competitions

The bar of entry is lower than you think—and a little effort now could pay off later. “There are opportunities where all you need to submit is a couple of renderings,” says Fajner. “That will get you some publication, sometimes in Arch Record, sometimes online. You never know who’s going to read that. You have a piece that’s going to be written for you; you’re going have drawings and renderings that are online for people to see. That gives you a body of work. Even though it doesn’t get built, and you might not win the competition, you get an opportunity to be seen.”

13. Network in the whole industry, not just with architects

If you meet a furniture vendor at a party, don’t overlook her just because she’s not a designer. Manufacturers and suppliers have valuable information that could help you land some workplace design clients, says Cavagnero. “They’re really good at business development and knowing which companies are looking in town—who’s expanding, who’s relocating, who’s out looking for 30,000-foot space.” Networking with commercial realtors is a good idea, too. “The relationships you make may very well not be with architects, but they’re with other people who are looking at the same kind of work you are, but from a completely different angle,” adds Cavagnero.

Get all 15 tips here!

Of course, one tip we’d add is: 16. Make sure you are appropriately insured from the get-go.

Nothing slows down the growth of a small firm faster than having an uncovered liability or property loss. You don’t even need to be legally liable to suffer a claim. Defense costs mount up either way. Protect yourself and your assets.

What types of insurance does an architect need? Which insurance policies are available to an engineer?

One of the most popular resources on the a/e ProNet website is Insurance 101 for Design Professionals: An Introduction to Typical Liability and Property Coverages for Architects, Engineers and Other Design Consultants, where we provide definitions for a wide variety of coverages.

But better than that, you can contact your local a/e ProNet broker today and ask questions. Our members work with design professional firms of all sizes and disciplines. If you’re just starting out, make sure you ask about the benefits of a small-firm policy. You may be able to lock in a low rate for a few years while you get your footing in the new market.

Good luck!

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