Author mavenadmin

Many young architects just starting out in their career dream of working at a big name firm. These studios stand out like a beacon of opportunity of celebrity status, full of marquee projects and national or even international impact.

But there is definitely a lot to be said about working for a small firm- especially when an architecture candidate is just starting out. Over the years, I’ve found that the architecture candidates who come out of smaller firms tend to have a qualitative advantage over their big firm peers. Not only are they more passionate about the field, but they are more well-rounded. They know how to work with others, juggle responsibilities, and are also more connected to who they are and where they want to take their careers in the future.

Four Good Reasons to Work in a Small Architectural Firm

Here are four reasons why, from the perspective of an executive recruiter, young architecture and design candidates should consider working at a small architecture firm:

  1. Getting the big picture. While working for a small architecture firm offers many opportunities, the biggest is that candidates walk away with a holistic understanding of the architecture process. What I mean by this is that the smaller the firm, the more each member is expected to chip in, to be personally involved at every stage of the process not just the project design. This includes meeting and negotiating with clients, interacting with developers and construction companies, and visiting job sites. All of this is extremely valuable experience when looking for work in another firm, and it will no doubt help aspiring architects start a firm of their own one day.
  2. Learning how to think. One of the the elements of working for a small firm that many people like to highlight is the sense of independence: employees are free to come up with their own solutions to some really big and important problems. But, this sense of independence and free thinking is not really the biggest gain. Candidates from smaller firms know how to think. They are simply less afraid to ponder creative, outside-of-the-box solutions even if they end up making a significant mistake along the way.
  3. Learning how to work with others. There is no where to hide in a small firm. If you can’t learn how to get along with your co-workers, you can’t just transfer to a new department. If you aren’t able to effectively communicate and negotiate with clients then everyone will know about it. Working at a small firm demands that employees work together, and that can’t happen without mutual respect, clear communication, and realistic expectations.
  4. Personal growth. All of the above factors merge into this last one. Since there are fewer people working at small firms and more is expected of them right away, it means that new employees get a lot more personal attention and mentoring in order to bring them on board as quickly as possible.

Another important thing to note is the quality of this mentoring. The people who already work at these firms are generally passionate about their jobs and are happy to be there. This attitude will come through in their mentoring, too. They don’t see it as just another responsibility that has to get done.

With better mentoring, relationship building, and a wide scope of learning experiences, many young architecture and design professionals walk away from their small firm experience with a noticeable boost of awareness, confidence and clarity.

So, are small firms for everyone? The answer is “no,” and, later I’ll detail some of the benefits large firms have over smaller ones. My point is that there are plenty of good candidates out there who could be even better with some small firm experience in their portfolio. What small firms lack in terms of their notoriety, they more than make up in the quality of the experience that they offer to their employees.

 

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In the spirit of International Women’s Day, I wanted to dedicate this article to the topic of women in architecture and perhaps give the issue a fresh perspective.

It’s well-known that Architecture remains a tough profession for women to break into. Despite all the attention and discussion on the topic, the gender gap has only become widerin recent years. While we can point our fingers at several reasons why this is so, such as lower salaries, a hostile work environment, fewer family-friendly career-building opportunities, and a shortage of mentors, the fact is that female architects are leaving the field in droves.

A Moral Imperative?

At my leadership recruiting firm, we are continually inundated with requests by architecture and interior design firms hoping to attract women for senior leadership positions. They are interested, so they claim, in female professionals who could potentially be future directors or principals. Perhaps things are changing…

But the reality is that the architecture industry as a whole is still way behind in terms of attracting and retaining talented women- especially women who return to work after maternity leave. The industry continues to be over-run by male-dominated firms with cultures that make it extremely difficult for females to take up senior positions and build a family at the same time.

Just how bad is it? Some women report returning to work after being on maternity leave, only to find that their positions have become redundant or they are denied their previous level of responsibility even if they had successfully fulfilled their roles for years. In fact, according to one recent survey, 60 percent of mothers claimed that having children had a detrimental effect on their architecture careers. Perhaps most telling is that this perception is especially high among associates and associate directors. These are professionals who have already proven themselves on the job.

Where is this coming from?

Changing Our Perspective

When it comes to the issue of women in architecture rarely do we hear why a more equal proportion of women is important. Instead, the focus is on the “moral obligation” architecture firms have to “fix” an obvious “injustice.”

And that is precisely the problem.

This is not about putting an ideological rubber stamp on the issue and saying that the only solution is to just bring in more women. In fact, surveys such as the one cited above, prove that this has only exacerbated the situation.

Diversity Benefits Everyone

The prevailing attitude towards women and the greater issue of diversity in the architectural workplace is the first thing that needs to be examined, because diversity at the senior levels of an architecture practice can benefit everyone: co-workers, partners, clients, and the people who use the built spaces.

Diversity of gender, race, and socio-economic background is notoriously lacking in the majority of architecture practices- even among the most forward-thinking ones. This uniformity contradicts a world full of increasingly diverse populations, constructs, and attitudes. If projects are being commissioned and used by a heterogeneous group of people- whether individuals, organisations, or communities- then it just makes (practical business) sense to have a diverse team of qualified professionals in place who can best serve them.

Think of it another way… Given that roughly 50% of the world’s population is female, then a lack of females on the job means that firms are out of touch with half the people they are trying to serve.

This is on top of the fact that women tend to excel in areas that are often difficult for their male colleagues. They can typically listen more easily to clients and team members, work collaboratively, and are not inhibited when it comes to asking questions in order to better understand something.

They happen to be great designers, too!

 

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Over the past few years, there has been a growing shift in recruiting among big architecture firms. More emphasis is being placed on young candidates who possess a broad skill-set, especially when it comes to design and modeling software, even if their level of hands-on design experience may be lacking.

This trend is creating a new one in its wake, particularly for those who are already more than five years into their career. In order for these individuals to advance professionally, they are facing a growing list of requirements, such as familiarity with several complex design and modeling applications, skills in presentation and business communications, data analysis and management, time management, as well as business management.

The professionals who rise up the challenge and get training in all or most of these areas then often find that they are caught in a funny catch-22. The more they learn, the more responsibilities they are given and the less time they have to really develop any of their skills on the job. This can be very disheartening. It’s as if trying to do a good job is becoming more of a burden, even a deficit, rather than an asset.

 

Jack of All Trades, Master At None

Architecture is rarely a private endeavor. One of the unspoken duties of an architect is to design buildings and spaces that promote public welfare. But to do this properly, the architect has to have a solid combination of skills, experience, and the time and space to focus on the project at hand. This is pretty self-evident. The reality within many architecture firms, however, is that such qualities are starting to give way to a never-ending stream of interruptions, increased project complexity, and the ever-present pressure to meet tighter budget and time constraints.

The result is that in these same firms less hands-on experience is being replaced by fluency in time-saving design software, coupled with the ability to professionally juggle several balls at once.

So, the question for experienced architecture professionals part-way through their careers is where should they draw the line? Should an architect be expected to compromise on the quality of his or her work or keep skills at a superficial level in the name of “career advancement?” Consider that it costs time and money to get trained and stay on top of software updates and other technological changes, and that’s in addition to the routine training architects need to go through. Big project mistakes due to poor focus or know-how can also quickly stunt the growth of a promising career.

My advice: Today’s architects need to seriously consider the trajectory of their careers. If they feel that they are not advancing because they are spreading themselves too thin, then it’s probably time to work for another firm. Small and mid-sized firms, in particular, tend to give their employees more room to grow in their roles- not just in breadth, but in depth. At a time when quantity is given preference over quality, it can be not only a good career move, but a welcome breath of fresh air.

 

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Some smaller architecture studios that I’ve dealt with feel that they are at a deep disadvantage when it comes to bringing in new clients or recruiting talented candidates. Bigger firms, they argue, just have more name recognition, better resources, and better benefits to offer their employees. While that may be technically true, problems with marketing and recruiting often go hand-in-hand, and they often have little to do with things like access to resources.

The real issue over here is one of messaging. If you have difficulty explaining why your firm is best suited for a particular project, other than “we’re great, hire us,” then chances are you’ll have an equally difficult time explaining to potential candidates why they should come and work for you, other than “we’re great, work for us.” Many bigger architecture firms in particular still don’t seem to understand that they cannot rely on their reputations alone to communicate critical messages about their areas of expertise, the quality of their work, their culture and ethics. Previous projects won’t always speak for themselves and word of mouth will only get a firm so far.

This prevalent attitude creates a big opening for smaller studios to make some serious in-roads in the market, since good marketing isn’t just about press releases, paid advertisements, or slick copy writing. The way a firm promotes itself is closely tied to a whole bunch of intangibles, such as its culture, mission, and values. The benefit to being a smaller operation is that the architects who run these studios as well as their employees are generally more invested and connected to the business and more naturally express the culture and values guiding their work.

Smaller architecture firms also typically have small budgets to match. While this can be a challenge, in certain respects it’s a blessing because it puts more pressure on principals and their employees to get their name out to potential clients as well as talented candidates in a clear, compelling, and focused way.

Where Smaller Studios Have a Leg Up in Marketing

That said, there are several strategies that successful smaller architecture firms typically do better to make themselves stand out from the pack of their bigger competitors. Here are five of the most influential ones:

  1. They know who they are. The architects and supporting staff at smaller firms tend to be more in touch with the things that make their operation different, such as what they distinctively have to offer clients and employees, what they stand for, and what they hope to accomplish with their work. In other words, they know what they are good at.
  2. They are good at telling their story. Smaller firms tend to have more personal stories behind them, and that tale about who they are and where they come from affects how they do business. This becomes an important part of their brand that gives the studio a distinct culture and vibe.
  3. They form strategic alliances. One of the biggest trends affecting the architecture industry today is that a growing number of clients prefer one-stop-shopping rather than having to work with several contractors to get a project done. This saves the client time, money, and energy. The most successful small architecture firms are deliberately partnering up with other, compatible companies in order to offer their clients a boutique of complementary services.
  4. They get involved in community outreach. Community outreach can take on many different forms. Exhibitions, lectures, articles and research for design publications, pro-bono work, and even participating in strategic competitions, can all help to get a firm’s name out there.
  5. They dare to specialise. Being a generalist isn’t a real marketing strategy- especially for a smaller firm. Instead, it’s a subconscious a fear of making a commitment. Doing everything for everyone may seem like a good marketing strategy, but by not targeting a particular market segment not only is messaging unclear, it confuses potential clients and leaves them wondering what the firm is truly an expert at.

Successful small firms actively target the clients that make the most sense for them and turn away the ones who don’t. Of course, this doesn’t mean that they never, ever accept work outside of their targeted market segments, they just don’t put precious resources into pursuing these kinds of projects in the first place.

Bottom line, the architecture industry today is broad and deep enough to accommodate architecture studios of all sizes and flavors. How successful a firm is often has little to do with how many employees or offices it supports. Instead of just trying to beat their bigger competitors at their own game, smaller firms should be busy re-writing the rules to their advantage.

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No matter where you are in your career, one of the most valuable assets you can have is a mentor to turn to who has faced comparable challenges, overcome obstacles, and achieved some level of success in his or her life that you aspire to achieve.
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