Starting up Awesome

A blog about starting up an architectural business in sunny, crisis-ridden Italy



Jan '13 - Nov '13

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    Location, location, location. Free location.

    By bigness
    Jan 22, '13 11:33 AM EST

    When you think about setting up an office you obviously should start to work out, first and foremost, how you are going to get clients. But that is such an extensive subject (and really a lifelong quest for anyone in any business) (and I know really so little about it right now) that it would really make no sense trying to address it in one blog post.

    The second thing you think about is the office itself. The physical space, your location.

    We started working together about two months ago, each one in his own house with the occasional rendez-vous at Stefano's place (he has a bigger flat). But this is time-consuming, unsustainable (specially for spouses and flatmates) and, personally, I find working from home terribly distracting. WIth the added downside of not being able to receive clients.If you have some money saved you could rent a space, but what you really want is somewhere you can stay for free. You won't be draining your resources, and you will buy yourself a little bit more time before you HAVE to close that contract and get that cash.
    In our case we have no money, so we don't really have any other choice but finding a place for free. We have been thinking and pursuing a few different solutions for this, and all of the possibilities below did yeld some results.

    So, these are the solutions we came up with:

    -SQUATTING: ok, this is not for the faint-hearted. With the crisis' switch still very much on the "ON" position, empty buildings and office spaces are abundant. And lots of them have been on the market for so long, nobody is really visiting them anymore. Because of the contract system on commercial leases, a large number of places here are still connected to the mains (what you really need is just electricity). Depending on the situation this might/might not solve your "presentable space to receive clients in" problem, but it will give you a place to work in. And furnishing a space guerrilla style, or being able to dismantle and carry away your own office every night, or at any given signal can be a design challenge in itself. I know of at least three offices of friends that have been squatting for several months: one in London, one in Paris and one in Beijing. We thought about this briefly when a few other option collapsed, but it's a choice based on an attitude we realized we didn't have. Or maybe just call the owner up and beg for mercy, who knows.

    -SHARING AN OFFICE: this takes a little networking, and it's only a temporary solution (in Italy they compare guests to fishes: if they stay too long they will start to stink), but there are plenty of offices out there with vacant desks, you just need to ask around. You can try and trade rent for some work, or try to negotiate a very low monthly cost, which will probably be all-inclusive. Try and be as subtle as possible when portraying your stay. Don't be scared about asking non-architectural companies: if you keep it tidy and not too noisy (and move back home for your all-nighters) you should be fine. "Normal" people don't have much of a clue about the differences between a normal business and the architectural one.

    -COWORKING: these places are popping up up like mushrooms after the rain, even in a country like this where novelties usually get strange looks and shrugs. It is strongly connected to the crisis and the empty offices: owners are trying to come up with ideas to fill them up, and coworking is one of them. Costs are relatively low (200-300 euros per month for a desk) but in my opinion is only feaseable if there is one or two of you. More than that, and you'll be probably better off renting a place on your own. It all depends on the facilities you will have at your disposal for that price, the quality of the location and how much that will be worth to your business. This is not really free, but having furniture, a meeting room, printers and an internet connection without the initial set up costs is way ahead than having an empty, cold room somewhere.

    -LIVING AT THE OFFICE: this is another solution we came up with in the long nights planning. It takes commitment, but it's not that unthinkable. If you rent a flat, then why not look for an office that you can live in? Look for somewhere with a few rooms (easier in Europe I am guessing, where offices are often housed in old buildings with a more fractioned plan, rather than open spaces in purpose-designed building) where one can be turned into a bedroom. Toilets with a shower are not that uncommon, or you can force yourself to a tight fitness regime and shower everyday at the gym, I did that for a month once and is not that bad, I lost some weight too. If there is no gas, ikea has some funky units with electric stoves and built in dishwasher. Yes, you will be living inside the place you work at (insert your own jokes about the working hours) but since you'd be paying rent for a room anyway, then why not pay just one rent for both? It might be obviously something the owner of the place might not like: it is up to you wether you disclose your intentions or just hint at the fact that architects work a lot, and you might have the occasional sleep-over.

    -TRADING WORK FOR A FREE PLACE: go to estate agents, estate management companies, developers and the like. Present yourself as a young architectural company that is looking for a place to stay, and say you are willing to trade work for a year's rent. There's loads of buildings out there whose owners need renovations done, paperwork filled and filed. Since at the beginning not all your working hours will be paid for, this can actually a very good deal. It will usually take a double contract, one for the rent and one stating what kind of work you will do to cover that cost, but it shouldn't be anything out of this world.


    All of these solutions have something in common: you have to travel light and be very organized. Be nimble: beggars can't be chosers and often they wont be very comfortable. on that same line of thinking, I am starting researching on the subject of paperless offices, and the other day I had to refrain from buying a huge mid-eighties drawing table for 70 euros: just moving the thing to an upper floor would be a nightmare. But it comes with the territory, and it has been turning into an interesting learning experience from a professional point of view too. And your hope will be always on the chance of moving to somewhere more stable within a few months.


    • great post, bigness. and you're right, this kind of thinking remains relevant throughout your career.

      one consideration that maybe isn't often consciously considered but has impact - and i think is part of how many people choose where to be even if unintentionally: where you plant your feet is, in many ways, a reflection of your values as a designer. or, if it's not, it can cause questioning of firm identity and make marketing difficult. 

      Jan 23, 13 6:55 am  · 

      You are absolutely right Steven. All you do reflects on the perception other people have of your work, and at these early stage I find myself constantly balancing between having to accept any occasion, freeby, work or commission I am offered, and having to be selected and "editorial" in what we do and how we do it, since we have very little if no room for mistakes.

      Jan 23, 13 8:22 am  · 

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About this Blog

Starting up your own practice is often something you only dream of... what if one day you woke up and realized that you really had no other option? Young, determined, absolutely pennyless and without much of a clue, these are the chronicles of Richard and Stefano trying to start their dream practice: Osom Architects.

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