Letter to BUILD
February 11, 2009, 11:39 pm
Filed under: Letters

A few weeks ago we received an email from a very talented young architect in training that we interviewed several months ago.  It’s an important letter because it exemplifies many of the thoughts and concerns we’re hearing across the board amongst architects entering the profession.  The letter (posted with permission) and our subsequent response should resonate with anyone who is starting their own business, contemplating it or already in an established business.  In our humble opinion, these are the characteristics that make any small practice successful (key points in bold for those of you short on time):

I have been keeping my eye on your blog since we met months ago and today’s entry has finally inspired that I get back in touch with you to at least let you know how my architect career is so far as well as maybe pry a little knowledge out of you.

Not too sure if you remember everything from when I visited your office, but in addition to architecture I am intensely interested in incorporating furniture/woodworking into my future design path(s).  I only had limited involvement with it in my graduate studies and became hopeful of finding a way to fulfill my desires on my own rather than through academia.  Perhaps it is too soon to be discouraged but my current path is not taking me toward this goal, not even relatively near it actually.  Unfortunately I made a poor choice for a first job after school – a choice that I am locked into so long as the market stays where it is.  Turns out that the ratio of well crafted desert-modern buildings to el-cheapo housing and condos is not what I had imagined.

However, your entry on the Build blog, and the corresponding link to the newly revealed SPD division, has given me back some hope.  A small studio producing excellent work in the range from cabinet to home is inspiring to me.  My current status as over-educated drafter (driven by all but one project being put on hold in my office, which saturated said project with project managers) has recently left me quite the opposite – uninspired and wanting.  I have gone so far as to hunt for cabinet-shop openings recently, only to find that they too are having trouble staying busy.  The dream of going out on my own is something that keeps me at my desk accruing IDP hours, but I don’t want to wait until I am able to open my own studio/shop to start figuring out how to do it.  Also, when I think of your previous advice about how getting a job at a fabricator is better than a job at a bad architecture office, I think of how much more I could be learning by assembling cabinetry than I would by filling in letters in a 400-line door schedule.  (Please don’t write this off as a spoiled kid out of school wanting to design the whole building instead of earning my way to the up – I truly just want to maximize my learning in preparation for future work)

I wouldn’t expect you to give away all of your secrets to success, but considering the informative nature of your blog and your willingness to help me in my original job hunt have led me to write this email and ask simply – what makes it work?  Did you have mentors to bounce ideas off of?  Or did experience at other offices provide all the experience you needed to hit the ground running?  Did you start with some good contacts/clients or did they come as time went on?  Are there things I can/should be doing now that can help me for when I am on my own (or with a small group)?

I am sure that this isn’t a simple answer, assuming there is one at all (unless the SPD division is hiring lackeys).  Any insight you have would be help to me.  I imagine the state of the economy will give me some time before I really have to worry about making life changing decisions – I just want to start preparing sooner than later.

If you don’t have the time or don’t want to respond to such a long email, I really do understand.  Either way I will continue to check your blog regularly, especially now with the addition of the SPD work and any new designs that come from it.

Best regards,


p.s. it was not my intention/expectation to leverage a job out of you, but I wouldn’t be offended if you kept me in mind if you ever heard of something coming available…

We’re honored to be on the receiving end of this letter, thank you for keeping a pulse on us and thank you for the accolades.  We’re more than happy to lay out our “secrets of success” and the lessons we’ve learned so far:

We hope that BUILD LLC, SPD and the BUILDblog look clean, tight and professional out there in the world – we’ve put a tremendous amount of time and energy into the presentation of each over the years.  The fact of the matter, though, is that we started out doing basement remodels, seismic retrofits, re-siding buildings, and whatever we could get our hands on as a couple of young architect/builders.  As unglamorous as this work was, we were grateful for it.  Our first jobs came from friends and the community around us.  As the years went on (10 of them now) the jobs became larger, more architectural and more photogenic.  Our point is this – all these slick architectural websites out there are a bit misleading.  They don’t allow young architects to see the steps between starting out on their own and someday having admirable projects under their belt.  Getting work that you can learn from, work that establishes a clientele and a track record is important – even if you don’t get beautiful photos out of it.

We too had our gigs with other firms –big firms, little firms, firms that you’ve most likely heard of, firms that you probably haven’t, architecture firms, engineering firms…  Wherever we were, we were constantly doing architecture, design and building in our personal time.  If the learning curve at the office bottomed out we could always route the momentum into our side projects and moonlighting.  It’s not necessarily your employer’s responsibility to fulfill all of your professional ambitions.  Moonlighting is great – it offers you the experience of running your own firm without having to be financially dependant on the profits (or lack thereof).  Over the years we’ve noticed that architects either choose to live powerfully or, by default, lose their momentum and subsequently lose their passion for architecture and find themselves in a 9 to 5 “job”.  Architecture is a lifestyle, not a job – keep designing and building whether or not you’re on somebody’s payroll.

There is no substitution for hard work.
Most of that hard work will also not be doing architecture.  We’ve become just as passionate about book-keeping, finances, organizing and data tracking as we are about design.

We had and still have our mentors and they are critical to our continuing development.  They’re not the Rem Koolhaases and Neil Denaris that academia is always holding up like the Holy Grail though, those guys are too far from our reality.  Our mentors are scrappy, they have both feet on the ground and they have gritty challenges just like we do – only they solve them with more skill and wit.  Mentors are important; choose them wisely, rather than having them chosen for you.

We learn everyday.  The experience we gained at other offices in town was invaluable but this is an infinitely confusing and complicated profession that requires a constant learning curve.  We certainly did not hit the ground running with everything we needed to know 10 years ago.  Our peers working as employees for other firms will still have to go through everything we went through when they go out on their own -there’s just no other way to learn it.  If you want to be running your own firm, our advice is to get out on your own as soon as you can and tackle the first 5 years (they say the first 5 is the toughest and we agree).  Doing small architecture projects does not require a license in most states either, don’t let the long process of licensure stop you from starting your business.

People skills are more important than architecture skills.
We know plenty of skilled architects who will never be successful at their own practice because they don’t know how to communicate.  By the time most architecture students shoot out of graduate school they know enough about design to get going.  However, most recent architecture graduates don’t have training in communicating and being personable which is critical if you want to enroll a client in a design vision.  If you’re in a big firm – push to get out in front of, near, or at least in the same room as the clients and consultants.

We go out for drinks as often as we can.  Seriously.  Architects have a tendency to become reticent and introverted over the years – losing that prevailing humor from the college architecture studio days.  A martini or two helps us blow off steam, keeps us humorous, and keeps the lines of communication alive.  Alcohol is good for architects.

A good business is every bit as complicated and intricate as a marriage.  We (the business partners here at BUILD) have more contracts and agreements signed with each other than either of us do with our respective wives.  Choosing the right business partner(s) is vital, it is more important than your education, more important than all the glossy photos in the magazines and more important than the names on your resume.  It also helps if you can go out drinking with them (refer to above).

We once went to a lecture by Will Bruder and he said one of the more profound statements we’ve heard in our professional careers.  He said that you should honor your clients – they could have gone out over the weekend and bought a house on their credit card. And while that may no longer be the case in our current credit crunch – I think you get the point.  Your clients (or future clients) will trust you to lead them on the adventure of design and construction – what an honor to be at the helm of that journey.

Designing a house or an office should be fun.
Clients don’t want to come to boring meetings.  It’s definitely something that requires constant crafting, and I can’t say that we always succeed, but it’s part of the Architect’s job to make the process of design engaging, interesting, and well… fun.

Everything above is to be taken with a grain of salt.  It’s not necessarily right or wrong, simply the lessons that keep emerging for us – and we continue to work on all of them day by day.  We really enjoyed the letter which was sent because it got the juices flowing and because we like knowing that there are bright young architects out there asking the important questions at the right times in their careers.  And while we don’t have positions open at the moment, asking the right questions definitely gets a resume bumped up in the queue.



20 Comments so far
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I just thought you guys would have more to say on the matter – LOL. Just kidding, that’s a great list of what makes a firm work.

Comment by dsl

Yeah.. it’s a bit long. We’re trying to figure out some way to reward the readers that actually make it through a longer post like this. Free BUILD T-shirts?

Comment by buildllc

Given your love of good drink – I think you guys should design up a way to send your loyal readers a martini in the mail for finishing longer articles.

Comment by gus

HA – Gus, we love it! “Thank you for finishing the article – we’d like to present you with the BUILD mailable martini capsule”. I’m sure there’s no legal or health department issues with than one…

Comment by buildllc

this resonated with me strongly. I’m 1-1/2 years into running my own company, and going through all the worries of finding work to pay the bills and trying not to let my creativity be stifled, what a fantastic post guys, really. Inspiring!

Comment by adam crain

One of my favorite of your blog posts yet. Owning a small (not Architectural) shop of my own, I can totally apply your anecdotal lessons to my own business. I would only add that I find frequent exercise to be imperative for me to keep my business (and relationships) in order. I’m guessing you had this and other things yet to share but you had to draw the line somewhere (as evidence by the earlier comments on length).

Comment by Samuel

“People skills are more important than architecture skills.” This is THE universal truth and one that cannot be dismissed by even the most brilliant among us.

All architects have one thing in common–intellect. The great architects have something else in common–charisma.

#1 a special quality of leadership that captures the popular imagination and inspires allegiance and devotion

#2 a special charm or allure that inspires fascination or devotion.

Charisma comes from empathy, courage, knowledge and even love. Always look them in the eye, never cling to the corners at gatherings and listen.

Comment by Les Fitzpatrick

Thank you, thank you, thank you!! As the principal of firm just about to turn 5 years this year, your post was great to read and also learn that the more difficult times maybe over. i am inspired by your firm and ability to share with your colleagues. One large Margarita for your guys!

Comment by Susan Welker, AIA

Thank you for the inspiring blog. As you know, I earned a Masters in Landscape Architecture at a juncture in our global society that is not conducive to firms hiring recent graduates who want to design gardens. I took the plunge to start my own garden consulting and design business. I feel like a blind woman walking without a guide, nevertheless, have found a few who are willing to talk to me about taking me on as a consultant. Even in this uncertain economic climate, I find there are infinite possibilities for pursuing my passion for design.

Comment by Cyndy Journey aka Duff's MOM

Thank you so much for this post.

As a 4th year graduate architect (a title I prefer to intern) I have been asking many of these same questions, but have not had anyone to turn to for answers. This post reminded me why I started my blog – as a means of expressing my creativity and keeping current in the architectural world while I work towards my license.

I have had only had one possible opportunity to moonlight and it fell through due to many issues none of which were related to myself or the owner. If I had one follow up question it would be: how did you go about finding work without a body of professional independent projects to fall back on (especially when your friends and family cannot afford to hire you)?

Comment by selophane

There’s an important distinction to make amongst your community: There are potential clients with limited funds and potential clients without funds at all. Both groups are extremely important to your business. Clients with limited funds require you to streamline your design process and be more effective. Individuals or groups without funds have just as much potential to forward your business. While I wouldn’t embark on a project with a client lacking the appropriate finances, it’s just as important to foster the relationships and craft the conversations with them. Some of these people will become your greatest promoters. You need these people telling their friends at dinner parties what an effective architect you are if you’re going to make it.

As an architect you’ll find that you need to be “on” all the time – even when you’re at a party you’ve got to have your architect cap on if you’re going to create work for yourself. If your direct community cannot afford to hire you –continue fostering those relationships, but explore some other circles of people as well.

As far as marketing goes, working on projects in a larger firm at which you are an employee should not exclude you from incorporating those projects into your personal experience. To what extent you can use that material for your own purposes varies between one firm and the next, and that’s something you’ll need to negotiate with the firm, however you should be using that experience in some capacity to leverage your own endeavors.

Starting our own practice, we were willing to do practically anything and the jobs we got were in no way glamorous. From basement remodels to rearranging kitchens we kept the design services to a minimum (to accommodate tight budgets) and sometimes we even did the labor ourselves. Sometimes the entire design package was a couple of pages of detailed sketches over drinks.

This is a tough climate even for established firms like ourselves. It will be extremely challenging to bring in work for the next 6 months but one of the greatest advantages you have moonlighting is your design fee. Firms have leases, receptionists, fax machines, other things to pay for in addition to the person sitting at the computer. The average hourly rate for an architect in the Pacific Northwest probably ranges from $80 an hour to well over $150 an hour. As a young, one person shop working out of your home you can probably charge as little as $20 per hour and still make a profit. Charging a quarter of what an Architecture Firm charges is very appealing for homeowners right now. Use that to your full advantage.

Comment by buildllc

Great letter and response! Passion, hard work and a willingness to engage clients on their own terms are all critical.

I would like to add a caution about moonlighting. It is against the firm policy of most large offices to allow their employees to moonlight because of real or perceived liability concerns. Be aware that it does put your job at risk, partly because when principals are looking to make layoffs they may see someone who has something going on on the side both as not being committed to the firm and having a fallback plan. Be very careful to make clear to your personal clients that you do not represent the firm you work for; don’t use your business card, e-mail address etc from your day job. All that is not to say don’t do it, just be aware of the issues.

Comment by David Houston

David brings up a very good point. Thanks for bringing more perspective to the conversation.

Comment by buildllc

[…] Click here to read the letter and response! […]

Pingback by Build LLC responds to letter «

When I was an employee for one of the larger firms in Seattle I was paid so little that it basically covered living expenses. Not having owned a car at the time, those expenses were rent, food and clothes (none of which extravagant). Any other ambitions (like taking a trip or setting aside some money in an IRA) meant that moonlighting wasn’t a luxury or a hobby, it was a necessity. I understand the points being made about larger firms (or any firms) being adverse to moonlighting but, honestly, this profession pays so little it’s hardly a choice for a young architect trying to do more than just survive. Large firms need to pay their architects better or accept that the more ambitious of their employees are going to take matters into their own hands.

Comment by anonymous

i made it through the letters and the comments.
straight up with an olive please!

great response to a great letter.
i cant agree more with the need for people skills, its necessary and it is quite important for all of us. working with clients, consultants and city officials effectively is a skill and an art form in and of itself.
we joke in our office that architecture students should be required to get a conditional use permit before they decide to be architects.
happy architecting.

Comment by iheartmies

iheartmies – Love it! Yes, architecture students should, indeed, be required to get a conditional use permit before they decide to be architects. Nicely stated.

Comment by buildllc

Thank you for the great post. I did indeed make it through. Now I shall start drinking heavily and await success at any moment! In seriousness, it’s inspiring and helpful to hear this frank advice. Yours looks like a great practice and I look forward to following it.

Comment by Vincent

P.S. Feel free to drop by:

Comment by Vincent

Vincent – You couldn’t have had a more apropos blog entry than a Barry Schwartz’s lecture. I just watched both of his TED lectures last night and am preparing a blog post on his paradox of choice lecture. Great blog, looking forward to keeping up with it.

Comment by buildllc

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