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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Setting up practice alone

For architects, the recession hasn??t really let up since its official start in December 2007. But, whilst some of the profession??s most established practices have been rocked by the economic crisis, there are those that have made the recession work in their favour?? 


Countless projects have stalled or been canceled; layoffs and closures continue to wrack the profession while firms scramble for work and struggle to get paid for buildings already designed. And there??s plenty of long-term statistical evidence ?? about unemployment, a lack of projects, tight credit markets ?? to back up the generally bleak prognosis. But, in the midst of all this, various new practices across the country are being established successfully. 



Whilst some of these practices have been set up in order to fulfil passions and dreams despite the recession; others have evolved out of necessity as a result of the squeeze on the jobs market. It seems the recession has acted as a catalyst for change within the industry. Whilst this change has had a part to play in the demise of some practices, it has paved the way for a new, adaptable breed of architects.



Here, Architects Choice follows the stories of five architects who decided to set up alone in the midst of the deepest recession since World War II, many against the better judgement of friends and family. We ask what spurred them to take such a giant leap of faith, and find out how they have had to adapt to survive and thrive in tough market conditions.

Thomas Furse-Roberts, Boundary Space Ltd

About two years ago my business partner and I were working in busy high-end residential firms. Both of us were senior architects and shared some common beliefs and principles about how architecture could be done differently. We spent the next year defining what we believed in and formulating our approach. We carried out some speculative projects and entered a number of competitions to help us develop this, before finally taking the plunge and establishing our own practice. 


Most architects are fairly willful people, and I suppose I had long felt that I held a principle of what good design was and how it could be delivered. Having found a business partner who shared this notion we spent a year of meeting every lunch time testing and debating how we could operate and what difference we would bring to the market. During this period I was introduced by a friend to a client looking to develop his town house in Notting Hill. It seemed this was as good a time as any to test our theories.   


Our work is heavily based in the sector we have most experience in, high-end residential; however we have also undertaken projects in the commercial and retail sectors. We believe in architecture as a part of a holistic design approach and consequently also carry out interior design, landscape architecture, graphics and furniture design. Many of these are carried out in collaboration and we put a strong emphasis on joint ventures. Recently we have also begun acting as consultants giving detailed advice to other clients on systems and methods for delivering quality in construction.


Since starting the company we have developed into other linked sectors such as commercial pre-fabricated properties, retail design and client consultancy. This was always part of our strategy and has proved incredibly rewarding albeit with a very steep learning curve.


People have kept telling us that companies forged in the time of recession are the strongest and that there is no better time than a slump. The truth is, for us, we felt the time was right in regards to our experiences and enthusiasm. Irrespective of the market we would still have gone it alone. 


It is difficult to quantify how different it would be if we had set up outside of a recession, however I do remember waking at night thinking about how I was giving up a stable job in the harshest architectural recruitment environment for a hundred years and that certainly is a very real pressure. I do believe that corporate clients especially become understandably more conservative when money is tight. They want to minimise their risk and exposure. However, this conservatism and small budgets can perversely require a great deal of creativity to respond to. Our response has often led us to experiment with new materials and methods of construction in order to achieve exemplary design standards.


Our over-riding market strategy has been to build a brand. Our website is a fundamental part of this. Although new work is unlikely to come via the website directly, I have found that once people are aware of us, the website is a key part of validating our practice and work. It has to show that we are capable and professional. And, as it is difficult to directly advertise in the very person orientated sectors we work in, we obviously try to ensure that we are likely to get recommendations from all of our existing clients and we place a lot of value on client satisfaction. Clients are our best advert. We believe that we have a very strong and unique approach to architecture and we concentrate our efforts on making sure our portfolios and marketing literature express what we believe are our unique characteristics.


What??s the best thing about running your own practice?

Getting to test what you??ve been thinking about for 15 years, and having the possibility of doing what you have always dreamed of.


What have you found to be the downside?

You have to master more than just being a good architect. Accounting, insurance, tax, administration, marketing, and IT are all roles that require time and devotion. 


What tips would you give those thinking of setting up alone?

As an architect it is easy to fall into thinking that you can carry on exactly as your previous practice did. Our belief has always been that first and foremost our practice is a business and as such we spent a great deal of time before we started considering what we would bring to the market place. In doing this we analysed our competition, overheads and systems. 


We are still a very young company, but one thing we did realise was how lucky we were to have nearly a year to prepare for going it alone. During that time we set up our websites as well as our operational systems. These things all seem so simple, yet took considerable time. Had we had to do these at the same time as running a project, we would no doubt have had to rush them.  


Abe Moshin, Mohsin Cooper Ltd

I am a RIBA Chartered Architect with about 14 years experience in the industry. When I was an architecture student I was an animateur (workshop presenter) for architecture workshops in schools, which was a great formative experience. I have worked for a variety of practices in London, Lewes and Brighton and have focused on green architecture and more recently, masterplanning and urban design. I started Mohsin Cooper in 2010 with Justin Cooper who I studied with at degree level. 


Justin returned in 2010 from a three-year stint working in Dubai. I was made redundant around this time; so we both felt it was ??now or never??. We also felt we had a solid collective level of project experience, both with strong international experience too, which is unusual for such a new, small practice.


It??s inevitable that the recession has forced a period of reflection on the profession. We think the future will be about smaller niche practices collaborating with larger firms and so are focusing on teaming up with bigger, more corporate consultants to deliver large projects abroad. For smaller residential projects, with our low overheads we can be quite competitive and offer excellent one to one customer service.


We always wanted to be ambitious from the outset, even if this meant the first couple of years would be tight for us. We have delivered a design concept for a spa retreat near Bangalore in India and are looking at many other opportunities out there. We are also tendering for several large masterplanning projects in Africa. As well as a strong International outlook, we want to focus on high quality domestic and commercial work in the UK. We are working on a couple of one off houses in Surrey and Kent and also have a modular office design for a rural site in Sussex going into planning soon. We have a couple of retrofit projects, one complete and one about to start on site and see this as a specialism of the practice.


When we first started we tried advertising in a property magazine and didn??t get a single call from this. We have learnt that networking and referrals are really the only way. We are currently having our website redesigned and think this is probably the single most important thing to get right, as it is our branding, our front of house. We also use social media, although have some way to go before that actually generates any actual leads. 


What??s the best thing about running your own practice?


We are our own bosses, we control our destiny and we thoroughly enjoy what we do.



What have you found to be the downside?


Long hours, cashflow ?? the usual really!



What tips would you give those thinking of setting up alone?

Be fearless and don??t panic. Don??t borrow money unnecessarily. Take your time and think through exactly what your USP is.  

David Shannon, David Shannon Architects

My education in architecture was spread between Ireland and the UK. Throughout my time in university I worked for many architectural practices, on a wide range of projects; from small residential through to hotels and larger commercial work. Employment in architecture was incredibly easy to come by due to the boom in Ireland at the time. People were making large investments in the built environment, for the right or wrong reasons. 


When I graduated however, Ireland was tumbling towards the deepest recession the state has ever seen. With that, I witnessed the fall of the construction industry. Some of the largest, most prestigious architectural practices in the country were forced to close their doors as credit dried up. 


I did manage to find a job at a practice, but the company??s volume of work took a big dip and with that, so did my job. I found myself unemployed, with no real prospect of employment in architecture. I then created two options for myself, either emigrate, which so many of my contemporaries did, or seek an alternative approach to architecture. I chose the latter and I started to explore the idea of creating a high street architectural studio. Then, eighteen months ago I decided to set out on my own.  


One cannot deny that we currently reside in incredibly challenging times, but there needs to be resolve and there needs to be progress from our current disposition. When I was opening the doors of the studio for the first time, I did get some people telling me that I was crazy, but I could see opportunity, where others saw inevitable failure. 


As a profession we have almost needed to reinvent ourselves and adapt to our changing economic conditions. Architects are multi talented individuals, with the skill sets to branch out into areas of the design field. I, for example have undertaken graphic design and model making work as an added service.


Due to the recession, the market is currently saturated in vacant retail and office spaces. This single factor has created opportunity for me to inhabit (what was a mortgage department of a bank) and re-appropriate a space on the high street. A negotiated rent can reduce overheads, allowing breathing space for other parts of the business. 


Some would call it unusual, I would call it alternative. I have set up an architectural studio on the high street. In this space, I sit in full view of the public, drawing, sketching, model making and doing everything else associated with being an architect. I set out to dissolve the boundaries between the public and the profession, to reveal the processes involved in the production of space. The studio is friendly and approachable to the public. 


I have a large poster in one of the windows that reads ??FREE ARCHITECTURE?? which certainly attracts prospective clients. People drop in, we have a coffee, we discuss projects, potential opportunities and alternative solutions. Being an architect is being a problem solver after all. So far, approximately 85 percent of my business comes through the door, which is fantastic.


The practice is growing at a healthy, sustainable rate and I am reaching my targets as set out in my business plan. Due to long lead in times associated with architecture, one must be patient in developing the practice. Now that people are tending to invest in their homes, rather than moving, most of my work is in residential extensions and renovations. I am also involved in some commercial work, where clients are opening new shops, cafes and small businesses. 


What??s the best thing about running your own practice?


It is immensely satisfying taking sole responsibility in designing and procuring buildings. Everyday is different and brings new challenges, there is little prescribed repetitive work that you would associate with working in a large practice. The learning curve is a steep, but an enjoyable one. 



What have you found to be the downside?


It can certainly be stressful operating on your own, as you are required to cater for all areas of your business; from marketing, to sales, to book keeping and much more.



What tips would you give those thinking of setting up alone?

You need to be brave, determined and have complete faith in your decision to take up your own practice. You must also be prepared to commit a lot of time to the practice and be a stickler for detail. Constantly ask yourself questions on how you can improve and where you are going with certain key decisions. Finally, you only live once, so cease the day.

Laurence Becker, atelier73 architecture

I started my career in architecture back in 1997, working for a local practice in Guernsey called PF+A, as an architectural technician. Unlike a lot of architects, my decision to study architecture had nothing to do with a childhood ambition. I had originally trained as a theatre designer and my stumble into architecture was purely a happy accident – but I found I took great pleasure in figuring out how all the pieces of a building came together, whether the task consisted of achieving the best design for the site, or working out the finer construction details.


My decision to become an architect lead me to move to the UK in 2000 and work for a practice called Plater|Claiborne Architects + Designers in Tollesbury, Essex, followed by CHBC Architects in Ingatestone, Essex before being made redundant in 2008 at the start of the recession. I was fortunate to secure employment with Southend Borough Council as a project manager assisting in the delivery of school expansion projects, but, as the recession hit the public sector, I was again made redundant.


Following this second redundancy I decided to ‘go it alone’. Positions for architects were scarce and employers couldn’t afford permanent contracts due to the uncertainty of the market. I also had various commitments that meant I couldn’t take a job further afield. I??d always liked the idea of establishing my own practice anyway, although I can’t say I felt I was really ready for it when circumstances conspired to make these daydreams a reality.


Getting started during the deepest recession since the Second World War hasn??t been plain sailing. I specialise in residential work, which is a mixed bag. There are still people building out there, but there are also a lot of architect’s after the same clients. Although I??ve been surprised at how many enquiries I do get, I’m hoping as we emerge from the recession it won’t be such a fight for clients.


As I was starting out my budget was tight, so my marketing strategy was crucial. I received lots of calls from companies offering advertising spots and was shocked by how expensive it all was, so I explored all the free options available to me – social media, Google, free ads on yell.com and such like. I then ran a quick survey on Facebook asking people how they would go about obtaining the services of an architect amongst other things, the response to which was a unanimous ‘Google’. So I concentrated my efforts on my website and search engine optimisation. This seems to have paid off as I??ve found my main source of work is the internet and my website.


At the start, it was all about getting work in and surviving. I fell into the trap of accepting anything that came my way, but I??ve since found this to be a mistake. I was attracting the wrong kind of clients who had nothing to spend and constantly quibbled about the fee, which meant I wasn’t really making much of a profit. 


A year on and I have re-evaluated everything and made some substantial changes. As a cost cutting exercise, I had always avoided the RIBA, as the only requirement for an architect is the ARB. I have since joined the RIBA to boost my profile. I have also reviewed my fee scale, updated my website to attract my target audience and created a USP. I have also joined the ‘Architect in the House’ scheme run by Shelter and the RIBA which, as well as raising funds for a worthy charity, offered me an opportunity to connect with further potential clients.



What??s the best thing about running your own practice?

Realising my designs instead of someone else’s is unbeatable. Being on the frontline meeting clients, discussing their projects is something I love to do too. And, being my own boss has to be up there. It’s been a bumpy ride and still is, but things are starting to pick up through various new avenues I’ve decided to explore.



What have you found to be the downside?

The difficulty with setting up anything new is getting known. It’s a bit of a ‘chicken and egg’ situation. My portfolio reflected work done at previous practices, which did not entirely reflect the work I wanted to get into. This meant I had to convince clients that I could do what I said I could without a portfolio to back it up, because I couldn’t build my portfolio until I had the work. 


I also found that as you??re building up a reputation you have to be prepared to work with a limited cash flow and this means being prepared to do everything yourself ?? the marketing, accounting, post, anything and everything – all in addition to running the projects. Being the director rather than the employee also means you??re responsible for every decision made, which is often a scary but at the same time liberating prospect. I guess if it were easy, everyone would do it! 


What tips would you give those thinking of setting up alone?

Do a business plan and think about where you want to place yourself from a marketing point of view. Do your research, work out your costs and review your plan regularly. Think about what you can offer and market this to your target client. It’s all about the research and allocating funds wisely too. I think everyone should give it a try, even if it doesn’t work out, it’s a great experience.

James Butterworth, Studio J Architects

By 2009 I had worked for the same architecture practice for almost a decade. The practice I worked for was a large national company, I was working on a variety of large commercial projects from city centre flats to large extreme sports centres. During my later years with the company I spent a significant amount of time working on education projects for colleges and universities. 


The national economic crisis and the subsequent difficulties felt by the construction industry led to widespread redundancies. I was one of many unfortunate architects and technicians to lose my job, but recognised an opportunity to follow a dream I had always had to start my own practice and be my own boss. And so, in the summer of 2009, I started Studio J Architects out of my living room in Leeds.


I??m not sure there??s ever an easy time to start up any business, no matter the financial climate. If you start up in a recession, I believe it can actually give you an advantage in the future – if you can make profits when there is little work around then, in theory, finding new work in an improved climate will be easier. However, I don??t believe that surviving a recession will automatically make things easier during more prosperous times. There is still a need to work hard, continue to find new clients and ensure your business is well placed for any future problems. 


The marketing I do is primarily online. As well as a website that highlights what Studio J does and hosts examples of projects, I use social media to communicate. I am an active tweeter and I also have a Facebook page, Linked-in profile and Flickr account. I also contribute to a well-respected local culture website, Culture Vulture. I attend selected networking events to meet people face-to-face too. All of this creates a profile for myself and Studio J and allows me to connect with a wide range of people. I find that this way of promoting myself and my business is a lot more comfortable and cost-effective than a more aggressive ??hard sell?? approach. Generally I have had a good response, gaining work and raising my profile in a very competitive marketplace without needing a huge marketing budget.


When I first established Studio J, it was very difficult to look past even a few weeks at a time – it was very much hand to mouth – hoping new projects would come through. As time has passed and my workload has increased I have become more confident about the longer-term future of the practice. I have a greater portfolio of work to show to clients, which helps greatly in gaining their confidence in hiring me. I am also able to be more selective, choosing more attractive and profitable projects to progress Studio J in the way I want it to go long-term.


In the last year or so I have been hiring other architects to assist me during busy periods. Looking to the immediate future I am hoping to be able to employ someone full time to support the growth of the business.



What??s the best thing about running your own practice?

I think the main advantage has to be having the freedom that being your own boss gives you. This can be small things like choosing your work hours to suit yourself, but also making bigger decisions that guide the company in the way that you want it to progress.



What have you found to be the downside?

A lot of people cite long hours and stress as a major problem when starting a business, but I have not personally found this to be a major issue. I enjoy my work and don??t find working outside the standard nine-to-five a big problem, I always ensure I make time to see my family and friends. I enjoy learning about all the different aspects of running a business such as marketing and finance, and this just adds to my personal skills and knowledge.


For me, the biggest disadvantage is the worry that if things should go wrong I am solely responsible for it. This is worse if you employ people, as it is not just your own livelihood at stake. Coming from a monthly salaried job it also takes time, determination and self-belief to deal with the irregular income in the early days.


What tips would you give those thinking of setting up alone?

I think the most important thing is to understand your strengths and weaknesses so that you can then maximise them, or address them. Soak up as much information as you can to develop your knowledge in the areas where your experience is lacking and never be afraid to ask for help if you need it.


Setting up by yourself can be very daunting and lonely at times. Having a network of people to support you is invaluable whether they??re experienced professionals or friends and family providing encouragement. 


Finally, don??t be put off if things don??t work out exactly as you want them to straight away. It takes time to build a solid and profitable company. Get some solid foundations in place (excuse the pun) and focus on the long-term future rather than a short-term fix.





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