Technologies, from computation to automation, have certainly and radically altered architecture. So have the economic transformations that accompanied their emergence as well as the concurrent financial crisis. But, in the era of mass disruptions, technological and otherwise, architecture has remained, in at least one way, largely unscathed. That is to say, the firm structure (for better and worse) persists while other industries have succumbed to an “on-demand economy” marked by flexible hours, scant job protection, and little-to-no employee benefits. Is that about to change?
Yes and no, according to Skwerl, a new company facilitating “on-demand architecture production.” Billed as “designed by architects, for architects,” the platform enables firms to link up with freelancers for specific projects. According to the CEO Melissa Leonard, this isn’t intended to—nor able to—replace the firm structure. Rather, it helps smaller firms temporarily beef up in order to take on projects that otherwise would be beyond their capabilities. It also enables individuals between jobs, or hoping to take on more work, earn some cash.
Admittedly, I approached Skwerl with the understanding that they were hoping to be a "disruptor"—a new platform capable of transforming the economic structure of a profession. But, over the course of a phone conversation, Leonard stressed the ways in which they fit into the existing model (once again, for better and worse).
What’s Skwerl’s origin story? How did it get started?
The origin story is simply recognizing the need [for Skwerl] in the marketplace. I founded Skwerl with two others who remain on the leadership team. One, Muhammad Alnakash, is a licensed architect in California and other states, and the other, Brian Novello, is a gifted designer who also has a background in architecture. I’ve been doing the kinds of things we’re doing now in the architectural field in other industries for many years. It was the perfect combination of talents.
What we see in the industry calls for what Skwerl provides. As we look at architecture—and certainly during the downturn of 2008—there has been a lot of change in the way that the industry is shaped. A lot of people have left the architecture field because of the downturn in the economy and in construction. And there’s a lot of need for students, for instance, to obtain licensing hours. At this point, there’s a shortage of talent in architecture, a lot of people are looking for others to help them with some of their project work.
Seeing this, knowing our skillsets, knowing that there are actually a lot of trends towards having on-demand types of services, it just seemed like the right time to be able to do what we are doing.
There is a lot of volatility in the marketplace—all of the ups and downs that each firm experiences as they get new projects and those projects maybe subside and then they don’t have as much work coming in. Even the market dynamics that exist are something that we can really help with and, again, we’re very sensitive to those kinds of issues.
What we see in the industry calls for what Skwerl provides
Do you think that for a freelancer this could be a full-time occupation, or is it intended to be something that supplements an existing income?
We’re not really focused on full-time at this stage, but it is a long-term desire of ours to help with that. Our contractors are working with us on a 1099 basis, and so full-time would require a change in our model. That being said, there is a lot of need for the kind of things we’re doing, so it’s of high interest to freelancers and certainly at the same time is giving a lot of benefits to the clients we work with. I’m happy to give you some stories of things we’re doing with clients right now that underscore how we are helping them achieve their own goals, making their lives easier, helping them take on new clients, getting more profitable sales, etc.
Yes, please do.
One of the things that we’re doing is we’re helping clients take on new types of projects they’ve not done before or in larger scales than they’ve been able to previously. Certainly, large parts of the industry are made up of small architecture firms, and some of them don’t have the scale to take on large projects. So, for example, a smaller, residential-focused architecture firm may not have the scale to take on a large hotel. And one of the things we are doing, just as an example, is we are helping one of those architecture firms that is traditionally focused on residential construction take on a large hotel. That’s augmenting them in two ways. One is we’re giving them the workers necessary for them to do a much larger project than they actually had the staff to do originally. Even though they are well liked and they do fantastic work, they just don’t have enough people to take on all the production work. So we’re helping them with that. The other thing is, because they have been focused on residential traditionally, they didn’t have a deeper skillset in hospitality and hotel-type construction. Again, we can supplement them with the right type of individuals, the right type of backgrounds, to help them take on those new efforts. We’re doing this across multiple areas.
We have another architect who’s basically working as a very experienced solo architect. We’re acting as his back-end production team. He’s doing the design, of course, as the architect of record, but we’re helping him get all the construction documents done, which again, he wouldn’t be able to take on with the projects he’s currently doing unless we were there to back him up.
A couple of examples there, but we’re doing it also for larger firms, not just on cases where we have small firms. Larger firms are also using us because what we’re able to do is turn around their work efforts in shorter timelines since we can allocate a lot of resources to their efforts in a short amount of time. It allows them to get things done more smoothly. We’re laser-focused on trying to keep our interactions with firms such that it feels like we’re just an extended part of their team. We’re very focused on making it so that there’s no friction at all in working with us… We’re here to help them grow, and we’re also doing it in a way that makes us feel we’re part of their extended team. They start seeing us that way and they use us a lot more when that happens.
So rather than kind of an Upwork model, you work really closely with the firms and have a personal relationship.
Exactly. We work very closely with them. When we produce something for a firm we want to produce something that looks like the firm themselves had actually done that work. So we actually adopt the firm’s standards as we work with different companies. Every firm we work with happens to have a little bit different way of setting up their sheets, their layouts, the way they like to have drawings done. We’re actually making sure that we understand each individual client’s ways of getting work done so when they get something back it looks like they actually did it themselves to the greatest degree possible.
We also do a full review of the work before they get it back against the firm’s standards, so they know what they’re getting back looks like something they produced. We actually have people who review internally. They are W2s, so we know [the client is] getting something that they want to see. Also, we want to make sure not only that the work looks like theirs and that it’s done very well, but also we want them to feel like it’s easy to work with us, so we have the ability to set up our approach of working with them in a way that is most comfortable. Some clients like us to have regular meetings with them to touch base, while some rather hold it off and actually have us do a lot of the work with less frequent contact. We can tailor that to each firm’s individual’s needs.
Again, this is not like Upwork, where somebody is just a freelancer that kind of works through them… It doesn’t feel like working with multiple different freelancers, it feels like having an extended team that is actually working through a single point of contact.
It doesn’t feel like working with multiple different freelancers, it feels like having an extended team
Interesting. So, how do you vet your freelancers? What is that process like?
We vet very heavily and we do it at multiple stages. When people first express interest in working with us they complete a survey, which gives us a general understanding of their background—the kind of technologies they have experience with, education, things of that nature. Then we have them do what we call a Skwerl Challenge. Not just one of them, actually, but multiple different challenges for the different types of things that a contractor might do for us. It’s a practical exam. They are basically doing things that would be very similar to what they would be doing with the client.
We are able to score that and see not only if they have the education and purported background but also if they actually can do the type of work we would need them to do for a specific kind of client engagement. And again, we have different types of these and that gives us a very good feel, because of course we have an architecture background so we are able to design Skwerl Challenges and make sure they are good indicators of a contractor’s actual ability to work on an engagement.
After we have a contractor engaged and as they start working with clients we monitor how well they actually are executing for any given client. We actually keep internal scores to see how that individual contractor is performing on each given type of task. That ultimately gives us the ability to not just see how they did in the initial exam but also allows us to see over time how they are performing for clients on different types of engagements. Ultimately, this allows us to assign the best possible contractor for any given task, so that the contractor gets the kind of work that the contractor is able to do, and will be happy because he or she is doing well. It also allows us to give a higher level of performance for the clients that are working with us, because they are getting people who can do the work well.
It sounds like scaling up would therefore require having a sizable internal team.
Not huge [because] we’re designing our processes in a very scalable way. Yes, we would need to have an internal team to do some of these items but the challenges are done in a way that’s scalable. People are able to answer in a way that we don’t have to hand-correct everything that’s submitted to us on these challenges. When we have the rating, it’s been a natural part of our workflow, so the ratings are basically something we’re able to do very quickly in a seamless manner. And those are tracked in a database that allows us to leverage the data in an automated fashion. We point out the kind of performances people have had in different areas and can rank stack potential candidates for any given job. So, these types of things can be done very scalably. We don’t necessarily need to have a huge team to do it.
For the freelancer, is their compensation commensurate with what you’d get if you were part of the contracting firm?
Yes, [we are] always trying to make sure we set very fair levels of compensation for those that are working through us, as well as fair levels of rates to the clients that are working with us. Based on all of our feedback, we’ve seen them both, and we’re fair on both ends of our marketplace. We’re also able to work with students, by the way, in cases where in the past they’d have to take on non-paid internships. We’re actually able to bring people on that have the skillsets and can do the work where maybe they didn’t have compensation before. So this is beneficial for them and the overall marketplace.
Would you say that your freelancers skew younger?
It’s actually very mixed. We have students, those that are in the early part of their profession that are just trying to get the experience, exposure, perhaps hours that might be used towards licensure. So it helps on the young end of the spectrum. For others that are actually in their careers, we find that there are people that are fellows that actually want to leverage us or work through us. Some of them, for instance, do certain types of work but they haven’t had the ability to do other things that they’d like to do for a long time. One I spoke with not that long ago, for example, was saying that they would love to have the opportunity to do some of the things that they just don’t get to do very often, that doesn’t take as much dedicated thought as maybe they would do in their day-to-day work but still is something that keeps their skills honed. We have others that are retirees or are looking to be retired who just want to stay engaged. This gives them a great opportunity.we’re fair on both ends of our marketplace
So again, we have the full spectrum. People in the middle of their profession, people at the younger end trying to get experience and income, to those in the later end of the spectrum that actually just want to have engagement and keep their skills crisp and be able to perhaps get more income in off hours.
Do you see this business model as having the potential to really shift up the way that architecture is done? In other words, less firms and, instead, a large body of freelancers?
That is absolutely not what we’re looking to do. We’re looking actually to lift the entire industry. We’re a support to firms. We’re here to support those that are freelancers and to just try to make the market work more seamlessly. Again, there are a lot of things that we can help with. For the people that are coming out of programs, we allow them to get exposure, experience and licensure, or hours that might be used towards that. For the firms, we help them grow. We’re not looking to reduce their staff; we’re not trying to help them cut costs. We’re trying to help them grow by helping them take on new and different projects than they were able to before. Overall, we think that we’re also able to help the profession, just in order to get people the right type of experience and to match people together that are able to do the work. Ultimately there a lot of smaller firms and this may in fact empower them to stay at the size they are because they have back-up teams to help them, so I don’t know that we’ll change that. I do think it actually has a benefit for all the parties though, and supports the existing structure the way it is.
There are a lot of small firms that just aren’t able to do the kind of work they’d like to because they aren’t able to scale, and there’s a lot of risk of hiring somebody new if you aren’t sure that you have the volume of work to support a full-time position. One of the rules for a firm I spoke to recently, for instance, is that she won’t hire anybody new for her firm unless she has at least a full year’s of work. But it takes a while for her to develop that. In the meantime, she’s stretching out her own resources through a lot of excess overtime. What’s helpful is to actually have the ability to augment their team so they can do new work, get new projects, grow, and at the point they have a more stable workflow, then they can hire somebody. It reduces their risk, all the while making sure people have the ability to earn income and get experience and the other things we discussed. So, again, for small firms it’s very beneficial and we’re finding it’s the same for larger firms.
Writer and fake architect, among other feints. Principal at Adjustments Agency. Co-founder of Encyclopedia Inc. Get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org