how NOT to run a design firm

being an unlicensed architect, but who has done some moonlighting work, and never actually had an employee, I think I’m more than qualified to speak intelligently on the subject of how to run (and how not to run) a design firm. I’m an insanely sarcastic individual in case you haven’t caught on yet. bust seriously, I do feel like I have gained some insight, so I’m going to share.

7 years ago when I began professionally practicing architecture, the lowly cad-monkey that I am was, I was fortunate enough to get hired on at a medium sized firm where I was able to work sort of in the middle, which is to say I worked closely enough with the partners to see the design/client juggling side but not so close that I learned nothing about construction document production.  after two years with this firm, minus a small stint with a crap residential firm, which will forever remain anonymous to protect the guilty, I moved on to two subsequent firms with similar but different management styles.  (can we say micro management on crack) The combination of the three has given rise to the post you’re so completely engrossed in right now.

There are several categories that I see as fundamental to any design firm and they are: works, benefits, mentorship and individual responsibility.

I’d like to start with works. by works I mean the firms’ portfolio.  while not all firms are fortunate enough to get starchitect-level clients, how you show your work, and consequently how you, as the boss, feel about the work, will greatly effect how your employees feel about producing the work.  All architecture has it’s challenges, stresses, disappointments and rewards.  the trick is not to focus on the stresses and disappointments.  no project is perfect…..EVER. so, if you value your work, so will your employees, which will in turn push them to produce a better product.  this makes everyone happy.

mentor-ship – employees, especially young interns or those seeking licensure, want to feel as though they are working for someone who takes an interest in their work and in their development as an architect.

in my first internship I worked under an architect of the “old guard” (by old guard, I mean he once tried to put a scale to the computer monitor and argue with an interior designer that the door was NOT, in fact, 3′-0″ wide).  not only is he a brilliant architect, but he has a strong desire to see young architects grow and is not just willing but downright forceful in making sure that happens.  the exact opposite of this is my example of what NOT to do – the “redline” mentality of quite a number of architects out there.  they operate on the assumption that interns and recently licensed architects don’t know shit, so they just fill a sheet with redlines and turn us into cad jockeys instead of architects.  if you aren’t willing to mentor your employees and allow them to make mistakes and move past them, instead simply telling them what is and is not correct, then they’ll never be able to move into our third topic which is –

individual responsibility. after all, shouldn’t it be the goal of every boss to have a team of interns and architects that are for the most part self-sufficient enough to produce complete documents while you focus on design and bringing in new work?  if not, it ought to be.

employees who feel that they just come in and correct mark-up sets all day will have no desire to go even the extra foot, let alone extra mile, on any project which will drive up production time and drive down production quality leading to more redlines and more unhappy discontented employees.  see where I’m going with this?  there’s this kind of circular thing happening here, right?  😐

lastly, and most importantly, benefits. this isn’t just about money, though that is important (who doesn’t want more money, right?).  benefits, or perks can vary widely from firm to firm.  some use bonuses or profit sharing or paid insurance, whatever it is, all firms have some kind of benefits package that is more or less standard for everyone.  but I think there are more important benefits that should be incorporated into any successful firm structure.  some of the most successful firms I’ve seen (meaning firms with very low turnover rate in employees) are ones that live by the “work hard play hard” moto.  getting that christmas bonus in november/december is nice for everyone, but it’s not going to keep your people excited and engaged the whole year round.  neither is paid health insurance.  in the “work hard play hard” theme one simple thing that is insanely successful, in my not so humble opinion, is the office happy hour.  every friday at 4, the office shuts down and you have a happy hour – wine, cheese, beer, pigs in a blanket, whatever.  it’s a social event, a team building event for the whole office, including you – the boss.  using simple, small gestures like this to show your employees you give a damn about them in a capacity other than how quickly they can turn out a set of condo documents goes a long way to creating and keeping productive and engaged team members.  other ideas abound along the same theme like summer family picnics, or the infamous office christmas party where the receptionist gets loaded and takes off her shirt, or company sponsored trips to the go-cart track/golf course/shooting range/whatever.  the point is, some of the most important benefits you can give your employees don’t necessarily effect their bank accounts.

this really turned in to “how NOT to run a design firm”, but the title is catchy so I’m keeping it.  😛

the bottom line here is, as an architect and as the head of a design firm, you need to value your work, value your employees and value their personal and professional growth.  otherwise you’re going to be breaking in a new intern or architect every two years (and we all know that takes at least 6 months and is a huge pain in the ass) which hurts your productivity and will show in your final documents.


About Jeremiah

Birth: April 6 - Upstate New York Education: Savannah College of Art and Design Bachelor of Fine Art - 2003 Masters of Architecture - 2003 Member AIA National since 2004 Member AIA Florida since 2004 Member AIA Jacksonville since 2004 Member Emerging Design Professionals Jacksonville since 2006 Emerging Design Professional President 2009-2010 View all posts by Jeremiah

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