the architecture of constructing a practice

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    why didn't they teach us...

    Gregory Walker
    May 28, '12 10:50 AM EST

    "why didn’t anyone teach us ‘business skills’ in school?"



    if a nickel were deposited in my bank account for each time that phrase has been uttered the past 4+ years, i’d be… well… mark zuckerberg (or at least as wealthy on paper. at the ipo.). what that phrase implies is entirely dependent on who’s asking: students and young interns may be lamenting a body of ‘missing’ knowledge they perceive as vital to landing a job. a 45+ year old architect may be wondering how fend for themselves after being laid off. employees (and even the employers) of a struggling firm may be trying to understand why their situation has come to be.


    part of the answer to that question lies in the demographics of the profession itself: over 60+ of the firms are 1-2 person entities. the balance largely work for 50+ person corporations. (something we’ve noted before). the gulf between how each is successfully run is staggering. if undertaken at all, how should the academy approach the topic? broad overviews don’t seem to be what’s desired as much as the nuts and bolts capacity to ‘run a firm.’ yes, it’s easy enough to teach the fundamentals of accounting, managing a firm and understanding how to market your services. and teaching these skillsets is something that should be deeply integrated into any professional practice course (which have, largely because of naab’s own critera, focused on ethics or broad frameworks than practical fundamentals). but, if we’re going to teach nuts and bolts, which sizes are we teaching? quite literally, there’s no ‘one size’ solution even possible to collect and transmit.



    part of the answer is cultural – beyond the academy’s unease with the messiness of practice, there’s modalities built into the profession itself that help keep business secrets…well, secret. For example, the cost of entry (how much it takes to start a firm from scratch) for architecture is very low. we’ve documented this before as well. so, if you’re an enterprising young architect and you’ve developed an ability to have clients entrust you with leading their projects, the only real aspect you need to know is how to keep it all together as a business. how many small firms are willing to risk training a rising star to become their potential competition? to be fair, many do but logic dictates they would want (rightly) to do their best to ensure that training and knowledge will be used to help their undertaking, not to be taken and used against them. and really, would we expect Coke to entrust the entire secret formula to their entire company?



    mostly, though, i’m convinced that it’s a commentary about the insecurity, instability and exposure this recession has placed upon almost all professions. in the case of architecture and our own self-loathing, it’s partly a commentary of our own ineptitude. bluntly put, most of us simply don’t know how to run a successful practice. period. my experience over the years is that most people, no matter their profession, simply don’t REALLY want to own or run a firm. they’re quite content to be a part of a larger vision (and there’s nothing wrong with that). and if most people had any idea how hard it really is to run a successful business (or one with the pretense)…well, we wouldn’t get so many new firms that, statistically, are doomed to failure.  so, what’s the lesser of two evils? passing along worthless bad habits or letting everyone figure this out for themselves? and it’s also a commentary about how we’ve let our profession become so susceptible to forces well beyond our control, ones which cause so much disruption and pessimism when moving the wrong way.



    now, I’m personally not that concerned about having to teach the gamut of business specifics in school. for starters, most of the information that could be transmitted would lack any real context to help push it beyond any other ‘theory’ that’s being learned. in other words, it won’t mean much until you’ve gained some experience in a firm (however good or bad). and, for the limited amount of time available, i’ve argued before that a focus on the technical development is a higher priority. in the end, for most professions, the transmission of business acumen and best practices seems like the sort of banner the aia and other organizations should take up and maintain (and having co-led a topic on starting a firm at the 2007 national convention, alongside one and another amazing firms, i can verify there are opportunities to get that knowledge). in that regard, there are a number of resources available here, here, here, here and here.

    finally, though, it truly is important to remember the context we're in: all the amazing business skills in the world couldn't have predicted or saved firms from a 40-60% drop in construction related work over so short of a period of time. it's literally unfathomable for most people who've practiced over the last 50 years. this doesn't obviate the need to learn these skills, but just keep in mind there's no panacea for this kind of fall.

    so… what does it mean for you? 


    • on a related note (re: your quote "there’s modalities built into the profession itself that help keep business secrets" and the opacity of business models) have you s eenBryan Boyer's BRUTE FORCE ARCHITECTURE AND ITS DISCONTENTS on OMA's business model as a widely disseminated model of iterative praxis?

      May 28, 12 1:28 pm  · 

      hey nam - no i haven't thanks for posting that up.


      May 28, 12 3:03 pm  · 

      "...most of the information that could be transmitted would lack any real context to help push it beyond any other ‘theory’ that’s being learned."

      this is key for me. in either initial or graduate studies, i would not have been at all receptive to anything that would have helped me now. the 'teach business' complaint about architecture school is a misplaced blame game. you learn business by doing business... or not. 

      May 30, 12 7:48 am  · 

      I've often wondered if more employees knew what went on behind the scenes if they'd be as willing to strike out on their own. They might just realize that being the employer isn't all it's cracked up to be.

      Of course, it could go the other way as well. If all the employees knew the business secrets they might all leave and go out on their own because there would be nothing stopping them.

      May 31, 12 1:06 am  · 

      Huge topic with many debatable points - thanks for making the effort to broach the topic.  Below is my attempt at coherency on a part of it:

      The question for me is, rather, why do so many firms defy, and not embrace, the concept that Time = Money, and both are limited?  We are selling design, and design and construction related knowledge.  If that is the case, then shouldn't the successful firm be maximizing the time it spends on Design, and minimizing the time spent on non-design efforts?  We sell design, but we all utilize the same instrument - a set of plans, elevations, sections, details, schedules, and specs.  It makes incredibly little sense the amount of time firms spend on working on the "look" of their instrument used to convey intent.  To whom?  At the end of the day, it is to the contractor.  When is the last time you heard a contractor complain about the legibility, or artistry of the drawings?  We somehow easily forget who we are creating the documents for.  The design is for the owner.  The documents are for the contractor.  Tell me, where is the flaw in the logic that all architects should follow the same standards in producing the instrument?  Can you imagine the time saved, when one designer leaves a company and goes to the next, with little down time to learn how the nuances of the new place?  Can you imagine the time saved on the Contractor's end, knowing exactly where to look for something always?  Can someone  answer how in anyway standardizing the document set in any impinges or hinders the design being relayed within the drawings?  It is stupid.  

      For me, architects have needlessly added additional layers of complexity, that I have yet to find the logic behind.  For me, the logic behind decisions made and procedures followed is anything but logical - office politics, old dogs not wanting to learn new tricks, power trips.  Business is about accountability.  and I have yet to see an architecture firm that truly holds itself accountable, holds itself to systems that account for decisions made.  I've worked for the 5 man firm, to the 40, to the 110 that's part of a national firm.  And yet the model is still the same: give the PMs/Principals free reign.  Let them do whatever they need to get the job done and hit the multiplier.  If they hit it - great.  If they don't - how do you solve?  There's no system, no checks in place to refer to where the project went off course.  And certainly no system in place to review data to apply to the next project.  

      I'm hoping that my experience is the one-off.  But I have seen behind the curtain.  How do your PMs come up with the cost  to do the next project?  Sure they perform a bottom-up, but wouldn't it be nice to have a reference of similar projects?  

      I'm sorry, but we can be so much better.  We could all use a fresh dose of business skills and decision making.  We could certainly all be more professional by being more accountable.

      Jun 3, 12 11:56 pm  · 

      thnx for post. ıt s great..

      Nov 29, 12 6:30 am  · 

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Central to the blog is a long running interest in how we construct practices that enable and promote the kind of work we are all most interested in. From how firms are run, structured, and constructed, the main focus will be on exploring, expanding and demystifying how firms operate. I’ll be interviewing different practices – from startups to nationally recognized firms, bringing to print at least one a month. Our focus will be connecting Archinect readers with the business of practice.

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