Designing an Architectural Practice

Colander Founder, Caroline Cole on creating a thriving architectural practice....

I happen to believe that it is really important that those who create our built environments value the contribution that architects can bring to the party.  But, this can only happen if architects are able to engage with the world from a position of professional and financial strength and respect.

Without a strong business, and a healthy profit, architects cannot afford to be good professionals: to improve their craft through research, to be curious, to expand their knowledge and explore better ways of delivering value to their clients and society.  Without an income that does more than simply pay the bills, these sorts of aspiring, professional ambitions become unattainable: there just isn’t the money to nurture and develop new ideas, or to invest in new technologies and improved ways of working, let alone to enable the luxury of time to innovate or enhance intellectual capabilities. 

Most architects find it incredibly difficult to run a successful practice.  And I don’t just mean the day to day grind of running a business, most of which seems to revolve around money, I mean the business of creating wealth from happy people working on interesting projects, that in turn feed the good reputation of the practice.

But why is this so hard?  The main reason is that architects like being architects.  The things that excite and fulfil most architects revolve around designing and creating projects. As a result, given the option of working out the cash flow for the next three months, or creating an effective new business submission document, or ensuring that the office manual conforms to all the latest employment legislation, most architects retreat to their project work.

It is worth noting that architecture across the globe remains a cottage industry.  In the UK, more than half the practices employ fewer than five people; less than 5% have more than 50 people.   Now, many architects will be happy running small practices: undertaking the kind of work that tends to come their way but some will have a desire to break into the markets that favour larger practices.  For these, it is important not to underestimate the enormity of change that will be needed to transition a small organisation that is trusted by one-off, primarily local clients to one that is trusted by national or international corporate clients.  Certainly in the UK markets, there is an ever-increasing divide between the practices that do domestic and local work and those that do civic, corporate and commercial work. 

To attract the right clients with the right projects, yes, you need to be a good architect but you also need to be running the right kind of architectural business.

So, how do you create a thriving architectural business that meets your aspirations?  I think the key is forward planning and blue sky thinking, coupled with some very honest and pragmatic analysis of the markets and of the people that will need to be convinced to take a punt and work with you.  I don’t think this means starting with the straightjacket of a business plan – or rather it doesn’t mean starting with an accountant’s view of a business plan.  Personally I think the spread-sheet of figures that so many people think constitutes a plan is simply the thing that falls out at the end of a well crafted vision – it is not the starting point. 

Because we are talking about setting up an architectural business, I’d like to suggest starting not with a spread-sheet but with an architectural manifesto; a description of the quality and type of architecture that the leaders the practice want to do.  The trick then is to create the right business environment and culture that will enable this to happen.

So if you want to create a successful an architectural practice: start with a dream.