This is the first in a series of guest posts by architect and business consultant Lucy Mori. We’re puff-chested proud to host Lucy’s valuable insights into the top things architects need to get right when setting up for success. It’s a best practice bonanza relevant to everyone working in built environment design, so non-architects — that’s you, engineers, surveyors, planners, and the like — read on. If you want to be sure not to miss an update sign up to our newsletter for monthly content alerts. Lucy Mori, we tip our AEC hats to you.
— Synergy Ed.
Time to get down to business
Most architects become architects because they like designing and building buildings. They’re really passionate about that. They’ve all studied for seven years to qualify — it’s a big motivation.
When they’re running a practice or a business, architects get absorbed by the client and the project and they want to get that right. Many are perfectionists. They keep working away to make their designs perfect. What they very often forget to spend any time on is their own business, they almost always put that to one side.
I think what’s really important for architects, and for any built environment designers, whether they’re sole practitioners, a small practice, or even a larger firm, is to allocate decent chunks of time in their diary to their business. And to allocate this time before it becomes absolutely urgent.
It’s a matter of using your calendar intelligently to say something like “Monday mornings I look at my bank accounts, I check my invoicing, and I check the stage of projects, then Friday afternoon I look at the staffing and the resourcing for the coming week”.
I think this is where a good project and business management software can be invaluable — it can help architects actually visualize where their time is spent.
How to set up your schedule to include time for business
In the UK and elsewhere the barriers to setting up an architecture practice are fairly low. The challenge is that architects don’t think about planning ahead and they don’t structure their business. That’s OK for the first job. If you’ve got two or three jobs, or more, then you’re firefighting from one deadline to the next. You look at your schedule and you say, “I’ve got a client meeting, a planning application to get in, a meeting with a contractor, a meeting with a supplier, a sub-contractor …” and that sets the calendar, deadlines and the key dates for the project.
What gets forgotten is that along with the increasing complexity of managing multiple projects with multiple people, architects need to also set aside time for administration. Things like:
- making sure your insurance is up to date
- ensuring you’ve got the right supplies
- checking your IT
- updating computer licenses
- making sure your website is working
- doing your invoicing
- thinking about recruitment
- working out holidays for staff, and so on.
It gets much more complicated the bigger you get.
This is why RIBA provides a benchmark for this. A few years back they recommended a ratio of one admin staff to six architects. I see that happening less and less. Now I see a practice of ten people, even twenty people, managing with no admin staff at all, with perhaps some outsourced services.
You see the frustrations of directors saying, “I’m interrupted all the time, I can’t do the design work because people keep asking me about their time off for holidays”. In the end, the director or practice takes on all that responsibility and quickly finds they’re not spending any time doing the design work they love.
The importance of assistance and automation
If architects actually employed a practice manager, or an administrative assistant to take on managing some of those non-architectural parts of the business, they could then free up their time. Even though employing somebody in this capacity might be seen as an overhead, it ends up a financial benefit.
Also, look at what technology can do to automate things. I think there are two things here — firstly, technology can help in terms of time tracking apps that integrate with your accounting, and accounting systems that integrate with your invoicing. These things definitely save time. A lot of it. Secondly, if you’ve spent the time thinking through the business processes, you can delegate these tasks to non-architectural staff.
The power of peers
I think architects can reach out enough to learn from each other more. Occasionally I come across groups of architects that meet as a peer group, to share experiences. Sometimes they’ve been organized by professional indemnity insurance companies, or by other organizations or associations. However they come about, they can be a great way to learn, or to piggyback on others’ experience. With things like office manuals, new recruits may bring documents from where they’ve worked before, or experience with other software or apps. If you’re a small practice in West London, and somebody else is in a small practice in East London, you’re not necessarily competing but you can share stories about recruitment, or on pay levels, or on how to retain staff, or whatever.
If you’ve got a good peer group that you can share your issues with, you can find solutions together. You can help each other out.