Over the past few years, pressure has been mounting on project architects to get through their projects quicker. While a desire for an increase in efficiency may be nothing new, it’s coming at a time when architecture firms are facing a revolution in the industry. New technology, shifts in client needs, economic interests, and environmental issues are forcing studios to change the way they research, design, and construct projects. Many architecture firms are also expanding their teams to include a wide range of experts from a variety of fields and backgrounds.

These trends lead to some real issues of feasibility and burnout among project architects in particular. How can they manage all of this added complexity without compromising on the quality of their work, their career, or their health?

The answer: they have to learn how to work smarter, not harder.

How Project Architects Can Increase Productivity and Still Keep Their Sanity

Here are three areas that all project architects today need to be paying attention to if they want to not only survive, but thrive in their career:

Basic training in project management. New architecture graduates often learn the hard way that architectural design is only a small part of what they do on the job. Business management and communication skills are absolutely essential, yet many candidates are never trained in these areas. The absence of these skills are all the more glaring for those who reach the level of project architect.

No matter how creative or passionate a project architect is, there is no getting away from the fact that behind every process there are people, technology, physical activities, and deadlines that must be considered and coordinated. Project architects need to be trained in basic project management. To be effective they need to learn how to properly plan, implement, and evaluate their projects so they know what to do, how to do it, and by when they can expect to get it done. This includes how to delegate responsibilities, prioritise project goals so they can tackle them with as little interference as possible, and how to develop projects that both solve real problems while seizing new opportunities. If their firm won’t provide this training, then they should strongly consider getting it on their own.

Knowing where technology begins and ends. With an increasing number of stakeholders getting involved in architecture projects, traditional “manual” procedures and systems are being replaced by technology enabled processes, such as mobile communication, real-time collaboration, Building Information Modeling (BIM) and virtual reality aided design. These advancements certainly offer numerous benefits to project architects, but only when they are implemented properly.

Proper implementation, however, requires a delicate balance.

On one hand, the added complexity in the design and development process as well as the need for speed, is pushing project architects and the firms that employ them towards greater reliance on technology to do the job. Project architects who make the effort to keep their tech skills fresh can significantly benefit from computer-aided design, the real-time exchange of ideas and data, the automation of repetitive tasks, the creation of reusable templates, and the customisation of these tools to follow the firm’s typical work flow.

On the other hand, technology can create different problems in it’s wake. Project architects in particular need to be careful about becoming overly reliant on these tools, assuming the technology will basically manage itself so that projects are plagued with glaring, yet easily preventable, mistakes and set backs, or are cookie cutter representations that are out of touch with end-user needs.

Treating each project as a learning experience. This last area is typically a lost opportunity among project architects and the firms they work for. One of the biggest mistakes that project architects make is not turning each project into a learning experience that can guide future projects. Often the pace of a project can be so quick, it can be a challenge to evaluate along the way which strategies are working and which ones aren’t. Then, when one project ends, the next one begins.

As the project progresses, project architects have a lot to gain simply by taking notes. After the project is completed, there should also be a little time spent on evaluating what went well and what could have been better. There are several questions that should be asked, like:

  •     How well did the team work together and share information?
  •     How were deadlines and budget constraints met?
  •     How was the communication to clients conducted and what was the level of client satisfaction regarding the project?
  •     How effectively were resources allocated?

The answers to these questions provide vital information that can be used to improve the project management experience going forward, resulting in fewer headaches, greater efficiency, and even greater project quality.

In closing, project architects may have a lot on their shoulders these days, but they don’t have to be crushed under the weight, nor do they have to compromise on quality. The greatest amount of positive change requires a little training and a simple change in approach.

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Given today’s hot job market for architecture and design professionals, many architecture firms are exceptionally focused on how they can adjust their incentives packages to attract marquee talent. But, they seem to be missing out on one of the most important talent acquisition and management best practices out there. The firms that have a well-developed orientation process which carefully and deliberately on-boards their new hires, are enjoying high retention rates and employee satisfaction and better over-all performance company-wide. It’s a competitive edge that few firms can afford to overlook.

How You On-Board Your New Hires Will Affect Your Bottom Line

According to an Aberdeen survey conducted in 2013, organizations with established employee orientation initiatives are able to “drive business outcomes, including accelerated productivity and improved retention, when they are aligned with learning and development.” More specifically, the businesses in the survey saw a 50% increase in employee retention rates, since the new employee orientation program was used as a means to reaffirm the new hire’s decision to join the organization and ensure a long term commitment.

With the war for talent in architecture and interior design going strong, the need to attract, retain, and develop talent has become all the more important. There is also the flip side: employee turnover can get costly. Some of these costs are direct, such as the time and money needed to find and train a replacement. Other costs are harder to measure. A low retention rate can consume mental resources, dampen employee morale and can lead to a loss in revenue opportunities. Plus, departing employees may join a competing firm, bringing all of their skills and experience with them.

Part of the reason why on-boarding new employees falls flat is that new employee orientation is considered to be solely an HR initiative. But firms should really be looking at it as a company-wide opportunity to catapult new hires into a path of high-performance and high-growth.

On-Boarding Your New Hires the Right Way

But, not all employee orientation initiatives are created equal. The most successful ones tend to have following three elements in place:

  1. There are clearly communicated expectations and a clear path to career development. The firms that on-board new hires the right way are very clear about where they are trying to go and how they are going to get there. They also emphasize and value career development- a process that starts the minute new hires show up to work.
  2. The new hire is actively brought into the firm. Instead of being left to fend for themselves after the initial round of introductions has ended, new hires regularly meet with designated employees during the first few days on the job to answer any questions that come up about the work, the department, or the firm. Later on, many of these firms pair up the new hire with a dedicated mentor.
  3. There is continual, actionable feedback. This last factor can make a very big difference to new hires as well as those who work directly with them. The firms with effective orientation programs make it a point to give new employees feedback on their work- both for the things that are good well as the things that may need some improvement. If the work does need some correction or improvement, then these firms openly explain to their new employees how to create a better outcome.

In short, for all the time, energy, and money that goes into attracting the best talent, firms should also be investing in the process that will help to keep these new hires both engaged and on board.


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In the previous two articles of this series I discussed who Millennials are and what they needon the job these days in order to stay motivated and loyal. In this final article, we’ll take a look at some practical things architecture firms can start doing right now to hold on to, encourage and develop their young talent.

Getting Real, Staying Committed

Before I get to those practical changes, however, there is one final issue that needs to be addressed. After perhaps sensing an impending shift in the way business gets done, the senior leadership at many architecture firms have already started to refocus their efforts in leadership and skills development, as well as employee impact and engagement. Many have also attempted to put into place an assortment of forward-thinking initiatives and tools, like open work spaces, cutting-edge design technology, and innovative job descriptions.

Yet, for all of this effort, there remains a big divide between what firms say they are committed to doing versus what ends up getting done on the ground. In fact, it seems the more firms try to cater to their young employees, the more the very things they are trying to avoid only rear their ugly heads. The solution as I see it is for firm leadership to reassess not just their systems, but the attitudes and values behind them.

I’ll give an example… There is a wide-spread perception that Millennials as a cohort are job hoppers.

Let me turn the tables a bit.

Few will argue with the fact that many bigger architecture firms these days seem to care more about short term gains than they do about the long term life and career of their professional employees. Pigeon-holing employees into limited roles, pressuring them to work long hours and offering unattractive compensation packages is still standard procedure. This goes hand in hand with the fact that young architecture candidates see an archaic linear path to career development looming up ahead.

Given these circumstances, it’s not so surprising that Millennials are such a nomadic bunch. What are they getting back for all of their hard work, anyway?

Reputation and flashy benefits alone are not enough to motivate and hold on to top talent if these individuals feel they are unappreciated, under-utilised, unchallenged, unheard, treated like a commodity and bored. The first big epic step architecture firms need to make is to recognise this attitude of short term gain, realise how self-destructive it really is, even to their bottom line, and truly be committed to making a change.

The Evolving Architecture Firm In the Age of the Millennial

As firm leadership do some soul searching, there are four key areas that need the most attention and investment:

Rethinking Benefits and Career Advancement

This means benefits that look beyond seniority to reward hard work as well as soft skills, such as taking initiative, thinking creatively, collaborating, and helping other team members. It means spending more resources on skills development, with a particular emphasis on a learning-by-doing model where, for example, architects can spend project time physically on site, or can get experience working in various different departments of the firm. It means including ways for them to make a tangible impact, like improving the efficiency of the design process or enhancing the client experience. It means investing in your employees and not treating them like a commodity that can be easily replaced.

In the end, promotion and skill acquisition then become a personalised process, not a systematic, faceless exercise in human resources.

Rethinking Hiring

There are two parts to this.

The first involves an evaluation of the job titles and corresponding responsibilities that are currently in the firm. Firm leaders need to pinpoint where people are unhappy with their work, where mistakes are consistently getting made, where the design process is getting held up, and then use this information to redefine and realign positions. Redundant and irrelevant positions will disappear, while retained positions can expand so employees have the option to take on new and/or challenging projects.

The second is about the hiring process. When an architecture firm wants to hire a Millennial, senior leaders have look beyond skill set and focus on finding those candidates who don’t have the stereotypical narcissistic, entitled, and inpatient personality traits that can make leading young workers so difficult.

Rethinking Feedback

There is the perception that Millennials need hand-holding on the job. But perhaps this is really about a need on their end for personalised, constructive feedback that allows them to see their progress over time and is backed up with clearly communicated options for career development.

Though it may be true that Millennials have a difficult time when it comes to the virtue of patience, there are many young hard workers out there. They just need to know where they are holding and not feel like their contributions are being drowned out by the contributions of others. This can be done through smart mentoring programs and peer and management reviews as well as self-assessment reports where the employee offers a synopsis of his or her work progress.

Most Millennials need some measure of autonomy, the ability to have some input in the direction of their career development, and not have it inadvertently “erased” through shifting policies or decisions made by those disconnected to the actual work getting done on the ground.

Rethinking Communication

Senior leaders should reassess the way communication gets done and data is created, managed, stored and shared within the firm. Since Millennials are bent on real-time or near real-time communication and the access of information, in-house communications technology may need an upgrade.

In particular, senior leaders should be looking for ways to open the lines of communication throughout the firm. For example, there can be an internal instant messaging system that allows employees to contact members of their teams, other departments, as well as clients and perhaps even senior leaders. There should also be a move towards cloud-based document management solutions so that employees can access and edit files anytime from anywhere.

In short, when it comes to Millennials, money, great benefits, cutting-edge design technology, and the promise of future career development is not everything. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from all of this is that sometimes what matters most is just the work and the feeling of being understood and useful.

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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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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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After the acclaim that followed the opening of Frank Gehry’s Louis Vuitton Foundation museum in Paris two years ago, it would seem that modern starchitecture is as strong as ever.

But, the view from within the industry suggests that the winds are shifting. Far from the panacea it once promised to be, starchitecture has been slowly falling from its lofty perch. What’s replacing it is a movement where unbridled artistic ideals are being tempered with simplicity, practicality, and relevance.

In order to meet these demands, a new class of architects is emerging where artistic expression follows functionality, durability, and attempts at creating real solutions to our problems.

The Starchitecture Bubble is About to Burst

Before we can talk about why starchitecture is on the decline, and what this means for the industry as a whole, we first need to define where starchitecture even came from in the first place.

For almost two decades, starchitecture has been seen as the solution to a whole host of regional problems from declining economic activity and a depressed real estate market to cultural irrelevance. The idea seems simple enough: hire a famous architect to design a major iconic building- say a museum, cultural center, university building, or a high profile office space. Then, sit back and watch as your city attracts a never ending flow of tourists and business investment while enjoying a cultural renaissance.

Ask the boards and committees that plan these projects what they are thinking, and they will  point to the apparent success of iconic buildings such as the Guggenheim in Bilboa, Spain (also from Frank Gehry).

But the reality is that merely attaching a famous architect’s name to the side of a eye-catching building more often than not doesn’t solve the problems that were intended, and also more often than not, creates new problems in its wake. The struggling cities funding these projects are usually dealing with fundamental economic and social problems, and what they really need is fundamental solutions. Purposely hiring a famous foreign architect to create a controversial, conspicuous building or transportation hub that’s out of touch with surroundings won’t do it.

Where the Architecture Industry is Headed and What This Means for Architecture Candidates

Architects who continue to pursue artistic expression at the expense of things like function, social relevance, the needs of their clients, and even budgetary concerns, are putting their heads in the sand and will soon find that their ideals are no longer relevant. New architecture candidates can prepare for the changes ahead by being aware of following trends:

Artistic sensibility. In the recruiting business, we are already witnessing an increase in demand for architects and designers who possess a sensitivity to the needs of their clients and a project’s surroundings. The result of the fact that more attention is being focused on functional, yet stylish spaces that conform to the surrounding area and are built to last.

Using technology to enhance and strengthen design, not define it. Instead of relying on architecture and design software programs to produce incongruous or improbable forms, technology will increasingly be called upon to enhance design and consider factors that too often get over-looked, such as the look and performance of various building materials as well as the building’s response to the local climate and sun light. Technology can also be used to conduct stress tests and predict durability over time.

Architects as problem solvers. Above all, architects really are problem solvers; but they are meant to solve problems of a different sort. In the years to come, architects will be recruited to think practically about how the people live in or use the space they are designing. They will have to consider the needs, dreams, and desires, and even the daily problems these people face. While this may be happening to a certain extent today, it’s not enough. That attitude is changing, though.

The bottom line is that architects can still be problem solvers, but only when they are solving the right problems in the first place. It doesn’t take a starchitect to do that; it takes good architecture.


Take the quiz: Which Starchitect Are You?

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Architecture firms today are facing a competitive landscape that favours both consolidation and collaboration as well as the ability to quickly adapt to changing trends. In this brave new architectural world, there are two main pathways to success: either be hyper-focused on a niche market, or figure out how to expand the quality and quantity of the services being offered, all while maintaining a healthy profit margin.

This trend is perhaps the main driving force behind the recent uptick in M&A activity throughout the architecture industry. It certainly seems easier and quicker to tap into an existing operation rather than build up something from scratch or agree to an acquisition rather than closing down a studio and letting its carefully cultivated reputation, client list, skilled staff, and connections go to waste.

But expansion via a merger or an acquisition is definitely not for every firm. Trying to bring together different organisational structures, cultures, and missions isn’t easy, even with the best due diligence. It may look good on paper, but the process is often full of pitfalls, dead ends, and unexpected, often costly obstacles.

For this reason, some studios may want to consider one or more M&A alternatives as a long-term solution. Even with these alternatives in place, an M&A could still happen later on. But at that point, the firm will be in a better position to find a good partnership.

  1. A strategic alliance (also called a soft merger). With a strategic alliance each practice can maintain its autonomy, physical work space, and brand name. But, the partnership opens the door to collaboration: shared resources, experiences and expertise. Building a strategic alliance is a way to expand without exposing the firms involved to some of the liabilities that come with a formal merger or acquisition. If things don’t work out, the firms can just choose to end the partnership. The downside to this, however, is that the firms may be less motivated and committed to making the partnership successful.
  2. Bringing in outside leadership. Another option for studios looking to expand while maintaining their full autonomy is to bring in seasoned leadership from other firms. Though this practice is fairly common (and successful) in the business world, it is much less so among architecture firms. But when management and leadership talent is needed to properly support growth and development, and there is a shortage of individuals within the firm to take on those roles, then it makes sense to bring in outside leaders who possess strong management skills and all-round business experience. Of course, firms need to have the right approach to hiring so they can attract talented executives who can truly meld with the firm’s unique culture and mission.
  3. Develop a leadership and succession plan from within. Having an internal group of up and coming leaders who could be tapped to fill new positions or take over a current one, is good business sense for any firm regardless of where it is in the growth cycle. Especially important is the fact that these talented professionals already work at the firm and are thus familiar with its culture, mission, and methods of approaching and completing a project. To get such a system going, however, requires time (at least five years) and effort. But, it’s worth it since there will be people ready to take the firm to the next level whether or not that involves a merger or acquisition.

Bottom line: M&As are not necessarily a quick and easy solution to a gap in market reach, expertise, or talent, and some firms may find greater success if they try other strategies out first before they consider such an arrangement.


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There is an old Chinese quote about leadership that came to mind the other day:

To lead people, walk beside them… As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence… When the best leader’s work is done the people say, ‘We did it ourselves!’

-Lao Tsu

Leadership is not an individual endeavor, but it is how we tend to view it- 0ne lone individual who forges ahead and affects change. A quick glance through history reveals many such examples of individuals who inspired whole movements, people like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Mother Theresa.

But the reality is that change and progress on a communal level can only happen if the leaders have the support, commitment, ownership, and enthusiasm of the people they are leading. Gaining that kind of devotion usually requires that leadership is working for the greater good of the organisation or community. Few people will passionately follow someone who is focused solely on his or her own goals.

Why Leadership is a Challenge in the World of Architecture and Design

In an ideal world, the biggest names in architecture and design would be embracing this path to leadership. They would be champions for the greater good, blending artistic expression with a real dedication to the needs of their end users. Employees at these firms would have not only a sense of ownership, but a shared commitment to working with clients and the community at large and to designing functional, athletically pleasing spaces that both blend in and enhance the environment.

But, we have yet to reach that ideal in practice. Architecture and design is one of the few industries that, for better or worse, awards celebrity status to it’s star performers. It almost venerates and feeds the self-centred attitude that many so-called starchitects have to the extant that in some select markets an architect’s name alone can supersede practicality and push budgetary concerns aside. There are numerous examples of clients who chose to follow the artistic whims of a starchitect and his or her team at the expense of the greater community. Many of these same architecture studios and firms also struggle with leadership development, employee satisfaction and engagement, as well as customer outreach and communication.

Building a Leadership Community

Regardless, some firms are successfully building an engaged and loyal community around their core goals and vision. So, what are they doing differently? Where ever this is happening, there are usually the following five qualities:

  1. They hire the right people. These firms are very clear about what they are and where they are headed. They know who they are looking for now and what they want these employees to look like in the future
  2. They emphasize continuing education and career development. These firms realize that a defined career path encouraging leadership development, continuing education, new experiences, and mental agility, are the best employee perks.
  3. Employees have access to mentoring or coaching. No person is an island. People perform better when they are rooted in a community empowered to counsel, challenge, and hold them accountable.
  4. They support a collaborative work environment. There is a working system of feedback, communication, and a healthy exchange of ideas.
  5. They extend ownership. Every member of the firm has some level of ownership in the firm itself- whether it’s equity participation or the ability to affect the direction the firm takes.

In short, the firms that are looking for ways to encourage their employees to give more and stay around longer should first consider how well leadership goals are aligned with employee goals. When a firm is only focused on the endeavors of the lone leaders at the top, then employees may instinctively step away, taking their passion and commitment with them.

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Due to shifting business models, a growing economy, and an aging baby boomer generation preparing for retirement, a significant number of small and mid-sized architecture practices are expected to hit the market over the next few years.

This may seem like great news if your firm is looking to expand operations with a merger or acquisition. But, the sheer number of available opportunities belies the fact that not all of those opportunities are created equal. How do you decide which firm is worth buying or even if buying or merging with another studio is the right move in the first place?

Success for the Few; Failure for the Masses

It is well known that the longevity of mergers and acquisitions between companies across all industries is dismal. Numerous studies set the failure rate of these business arrangements at somewhere between 70% to 90%. What may have seemed like a great match on paper doesn’t always work out in real life. Just like any relationship, without a certain level of chemistry and the sharing of some core mutual values, the chances for long-term– even short-term– success are slim.

That said, this article is not about the legal side of buying another practice. While this is certainly important, and you need to be doing your due diligence, there is another, less tangible side to successfully bringing two practices together.


Awareness is Key

Success begins by really getting to know your firm (things like your core mission and value proposition) as well as the practice you want to buy into (Who is running the firm? Who are they as individuals? How do they operate? What does their culture look like? What are their core goals and values?).

You also need to be clear about what your reasons and goals are for acquiring another practice. Often, firms going into an merger or acquisition thinking it’s the easiest next step for growth and expansion. But, their goals could have been better met through some other arrangement, less intensive relationship, such as a joint venture, or the hiring of an outside group of professionals who excel at some core competency, such as marketing.

Success additionally means getting to know a whole bunch of people: the people who are employed in your firm, the people who are employed at the other firm, as well as who these companies are already serving and working with.

Realise that the architecture industry is going through a period of significant transformation and disruption. These shifts are the result of a number of technological, social, and economic factors. (I’ve written about them over here). The fallout of all of this change is that the role of the architect and the studio as a whole is shifting into unknown territory– from project director to project consultant, and in many cases, from a specialist to generalist. Any studio that your firm considers for a merger or acquisition, should help your firm make this transition more easily.

The difference between buying an architecture practice (or any other creative business for that matter) versus other kinds of companies, is that you are not just buying revenue streams, a client base, or hard physical assets. You are also buying a lot of intangibles, such as their approach to the design process, their style, their culture, work ethic and the quality of their relationships. These things are harder to measure, yet they are usually the factors that can make all the difference between success and failure.

The bottom line over here is that a successful merger or acquisition doesn’t usually come easy. It takes a lot of consideration, effort, and resources to make it work. Giving the process what it needs from the beginning will provide your firm with the best chance for success, or at least avoid an arrangement that you’ll come to regret later on.

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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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