10 Tips for Growing an Architecture firm for Larger Projects
Recently, I received an email from a follower of this blog who asked for advice or book suggestions that will give him insight into the organization and business side of scaling an architecture firm to work on larger projects. I thought this was a fantastic question that every architect has to face when leading their firm and getting opportunities to work on projects that is twice the size of their usual ones.
So I’ve decided to do my best at answering this question through this post and I’ll focus first on organizing your architecture firm and then touch on some of the important business aspects of larger projects. I’ll also share some books that I’ve read that will give you more in depth insight into how successful firms operate and grow. Keep in mind that these are my opinions and I welcome any additional advice in the comments section below!
Firm Organization for Larger Projects
1. Growing your team of consultants
Just like every other architecture project that we work on, it’s important to carefully select your team of consultants who will help you realize your vision for the project. With larger projects, the range of expertise that your project requires will expand from simple mechanical, electrical, fire protection, plumbing, and structure to include interior designers, code consultants, cost estimators, construction managers, other architects, and specialty fields for particular building types like exhibit designers for museums.
This expansion of your team of consultants will be more or less dependent on the services that your firm provides and whether or not you’ll keep these services in-house for a larger project. For example, say your firm provides both basic architectural and interior design services for all of your current projects that are 50,000 square feet and they’re already pushing their deadlines. Do you think they would be able to provide these services for a project that is 500,000 square feet? If not, you’ll have to consider adding an interior design firm to your list of consultants for the project.
In most cases, owners will also have a list of consultants that they prefer to work with and they might have a few in mind. Be sure to ask the owner(s) if they have any consultants that have worked on past projects with them and whether or not they would recommend them for this project. This will save you time because the consultant will already have an idea of what the owner is looking for in their project.
If you’re planning to grow your architecture firm and would like to keep these services in-house, you’ll have to plan ahead and estimate the amount of architects and designers you’ll need to add to your team to complete the project. This will always be a balancing act because you don’t want to overstaff or understaff your team for the project otherwise you’ll either lower your profitability or run into legal issues for not completing the project on time.
2. Growing your team of architects + designers
At some point in any successful architecture firm, there will come a time when growth is inevitable and you begin to expand your team of architects and designers. When you start this expansion, I recommend that you start by reflecting on your firm’s vision, reviewing the current projects that are going on in the office, and comparing their deadlines with your upcoming list of projects.
Then, use this information to determine whether or not the teams on your current projects are well balanced. How many project managers, architects, and designers are working on one project at a time? Are these projects profitable for the firm? If not, is it because the team is overstaffed or understaffed? If the teams are working great on every project, each one is profitable, and your firm has so many upcoming projects that will require more architects and designers, then it’s time to grow!
3. Choosing your firm’s modeling software
Every architect has a list of software, or drafting supplies, that they prefer to use. However, as your in-house team and project sizes start to grow, you’ll have to start looking into new software that’s designed for larger teams and projects. For example, many architects and firms prefer to work in Computer Aided Design (CAD) software for all of their projects, which allows individuals to work on one project by themselves. This works for smaller architecture firms who work on small to medium sized projects.
However, once your firm moves into larger projects where everyone on the team needs to work simultaneously on one project, CAD will become a hassle because it doesn’t allow everyone on the team to work simultaneously in one project file. CAD also requires the designer to draft every architectural view, which effects the coordination of every drawing. This is where upgrading your firm’s software to a Building Information Modeling (BIM) application makes the most sense.
BIM software, such as Autodesk’s Revit, allows all members of the architecture and design team to simultaneously work on generating one digital building model, which automatically generates floor plans, sections, elevations, and on and on. The beauty of working with BIM software like Autodesk’s Revit is that it also allows your team to share the BIM model with your consultants and they could work within your model all at the same time. This leads to less coordination issues between the architecture and consultant teams as well as out in the field during construction. Just make sure your consultants are already using the same BIM software as you are and that the one you choose has sharing capabilities.
4. Developing office standards for your firm
As your architecture team and software continue to grow, you’ll need to start developing some office standards that could be put together in a PDF manual or printed and left on new employees’ desks. Having office standards will save you headaches down the road of answering the same questions time and time again. There’s a standard for almost every task in an office, so I recommend taking some time to brainstorm some of the most asked questions and giving examples on how something should be done or look when it’s finished.
In particular, every architecture firm must set office standards for their drawing sets and have an example for everyone to reference. This should include things that are most important to your architecture firm like font types, sizes, leader types, logo placement, drawing series and type of drawings within it (i.e. A-100’s are floor plans, A-200’s are elevations & sections, etc.), and anything else that you think is important for your firm.
Aside from drawing conventions, these office standards can also be developed for submissions to requests for proposals, project cutsheets, all stationary and writing materials, and so on and so forth. By setting these office standards and having a manual somewhere on your office(s) server, you’ll save yourself a lot of time and headaches from answering and showing someone how to do something time and time again. I highly recommend doing this early in the architecture firm’s life and constantly revising and/or building on it with time.
5. Hire project managers who can lead your projects
With your new company standards and ever growing team of architects and designers, you’re now in a position to effectively take on larger projects. If you’re planning on simultaneously working on several larger projects, I highly recommend hiring project managers who can help you come up with realistic goals, deadlines, and stay within the fees that you and the owner agreed on.
Far too often, architects who are leading their practice tend to take on too many projects and attempt to be the architect, manager, and draftsperson. This works for small practitioners who have decided to stay as a smaller practice that works on small to medium sized projects. However, as your clientele and scale of your projects grow, there’s no way you can manage your clients, consultants, and in-house team on multiple projects alone.
Instead of trying to do everything on your own, develop a list of the essential qualities and responsibilities that someone needs to have in order to be a project manager for your architecture firm and start searching for the best person to fill the role(s).
Bonus: Developing a strong firm culture
When your teams and standards in place, develop your vision for your firm’s culture and how you’d like everyone to feel when they’re working in your office. Does your office feel more like a design studio where everyone is collaborating and sharing ideas? Are there lounge areas for people to work on laptops or to take a short break from their workstation? Is your office more casual than formal? Do you strive for comradery and health? This is very important for the millennial and younger generations who are inevitably going to be working for your firm.
I won’t say much more on this particular topic because it’ll be highly subjective. Just remember that having a strong firm culture that supports and puts your employees first is important for maintaining and scaling a successful architecture firm.
Business Organization for Larger Projects
1. Developing an in-depth contract
As the size of your architecture projects grow, your liabilities will grow along with it. To put it simply, you’ll need to review your contract documents against the services and final products that you’ll be providing to the owner. In most cases, larger projects will require additional services and your fees will also be greater. This means that you’re taking on so many more risks and you will definitely want to get your lawyer involved for reviewing any legal documents between the owner and you.
2. Updating your architecture firm’s liability insurance
Since your liabilities will be much greater on these larger projects, you should let your insurance company know about these new projects, talk to them about the services you’re providing, and let them know how much additional risk you think you’ll be taking. Taking this extra step of talking about these new projects and your plan of fulfillment will help you get the best rates for your firm while also building trust with the insurance company.
Letting your insurance company know about an increase in project budget, fees, and risks is very important because they’ll be able to cover you in the event of any litigation. If you happen to be in any litigation in the future on these larger projects, you’ll be thankful to know that your insurance company was up to date with your larger architecture projects. Along with your lawyers, the insurance company will be able to better protect your company and you if you keep them updated throughout your new ventures.
3. Financial team & software
While you begin hiring new architects and designers, you’ll also need to start hiring an in-house accountant who can help you keep your invoices, payroll, and tax documents organized. This will help you save yourself time and headaches from attempting to perform accounting related tasks. Instead, you’ll be able to focus on growing your firm and focusing your time on architecture related tasks on projects in your office.
Remember to ask your accountant(s) if there’s software that she/he prefers to use to organize all of their information. Do some research into that particular software and compare it to the one that you’re already using in your office. Ask your accountant(s) for their thoughts on both of the software and allow them to choose the one that they can use best.
We’ve all experienced and observed people who have spoken up about new software that will help a business save time, work more efficiently, and stay organized only to be forgotten or forced to continue using the company’s old software. When it comes to working more efficiently as an architect, designer, or accountant, we should be more than willing to listen to new and emerging technologies that will reduce our liabilities and increase our profits.
4. Project management
Once you have these larger projects and your in-house team together, it’s important to bring together the team for a large project and have a finance, design, and execution meeting. At this meeting, there should be the lead principal, project manager, project architect, designers, and accountant in attendance. The goal of this meeting is for the project manager to share information about the project, including the firm’s fees and final project deadline, and have a charrette with everyone to figure out realistic deadlines for every phase of the project.
At the end of the meeting, the principal and project manager can bring the resulting information together in project management software (such as Microsoft Project) and share the schedule and fees with both the firm’s client and the team. The accountant can take this information, create line items in their accounting software of preference, and assign a budget to each phase. Once the project commences, the accountant can invoice the client as laid out in the owner-architect agreement and the project manager can keep everyone on track.
5. Sharing the firm’s budget and fees in-house
This last point on the business aspect of working on larger projects is my opinion on sharing the firm’s vision, legal obligations, budgets, and fees with everyone working at the firm. I know this is a subject of debate among many architects, so feel free to let me know your constructive thoughts in the comments section below. So here goes.
Just like I mentioned in point #4 above, I believe that it’s important to bring together the entire in-house team of architects, designers, accountant, and anyone else who will be working on a particular project and sharing all of the information about a project. As a younger architect or designer, this is not only an educational session that will help us grow the number of successful architects in our profession, but it also puts everyone on the same page in terms of the firm’s obligations to the owner, the budget that we have to work within to remain profitable, and what our vision is for the project.
By sharing this information, everyone in the team will be able to hold each other accountable and work together to meet deadlines because they helped set them at the meeting, stay on task throughout every workday because they have a full understanding of what the firm needs to get done by specific dates, and they’ll feel like they’re a larger part of the firm because of the transparency. Younger architects and designers in the team will also learn more about their obligations in the profession and be able to grow into higher roles as the firm continues to expand.
As any successful architecture firm grows and expands their portfolio, there are so many different areas of expertise that the leaders will have to understand at a deeper level. In many cases, architects try to learn and juggle everything about architecture, law, accounting, marketing, human resources, and any other important part of a successful business.
My biggest advice is to stop splitting yourself into a smaller and smaller person by attempting to do all of these different roles. When you’re starting to grow your architecture firm, you’ll obviously encounter issues in all of these different areas and be forced to learn the general ideas of each area. However, when more tasks start to emerge in areas other than your expertise as an architect, develop a list of qualities and responsibilities of someone who you can trust to take over this area of your business and hire those people.
Spend your time focusing on doing the things that you’re best at and learn to trust others to help you in your business. Setup your architecture firm for success with the software that your teams prefer to use and continue developing your office’s standards. Once these things are in place, work on the things that make you happy, which is the reason why you started the business in the first place.
If you’re at this point of contemplating the growth of your firm, I’d like to congratulate you because you’re successful. Don’t let the idea of scaling your firm scare you because you’ve already made it this far from where you originally began.
Good luck and feel free to add to my list of advice or let me know your thoughts in the comments section below!
P.S. Here are some books that relate to these topics that I highly recommend
There are three books that I’ve read and relate to everything that I mentioned in this post. To be completely transparent with you, I am an affiliate and I’ll earn a very small commission if you choose to click on one of the books linked below and purchase it from Amazon. Although I would appreciate it if you purchased the books through my link, feel free to purchase the books anywhere else. I hope they can help you as they have helped me. Thank you in advance!