Questions For Sole Prop. Architects

AV Customs

Hello All, I am new to archinect but have been a ghost follower for years without creating an account. There is a wealth of information here that has proven very valuable and I thank you all for your contributions.

I am a draftsmen. My company has recently relocated down to Southern California but I previously had founded my company in Nor. California. I took any project, for any person, and provided reasonable pricing with my focus on meeting deadlines, returning calls and asking for referrals if they felt I had provided a good service. Today, we do estates, large custom homes as well as smaller projects for our repeat clients to fill in the gaps and get some quick cash. Last year we expanded to 3 draftsmen, 1 structural engineer working exclusively w/ us and we are all being compensated well for it.

Upon moving, I implemented the same practice and got on the phone/internet. I joined Facebook groups, made social media posts on all platforms and cold called every contractor I could find. Within 2 weeks, I signed 7 contracts. What I found the most interesting and what I've seen lamented time and time again lately on this board is that there's little work during COVID-19. I got in touch with a few of the AIA higher-ups down here and they all(not exaggerating) gave me the same response. "I'm just sitting here twiddling my thumbs, no work, projects on hold, etc....I could pick up some small projects but I prefer not to since I'll LOSE money". I've seen their work and it is fantastic, they are clearly extremely competent. But my experience has been different than theirs, I'm finding tons of work, but I'm also not picky. When I get the projects that I want & we get to use full creative effort on, that's what I highlight on my portfolio, social media, etc. Personally I don't feel as if that diminishes my reputation or product but maybe I'm wrong.

It leads me to the questions...

1) Why would a sole prop architect or a small firm not take on minor additions, remodels, & outdoor kitchens/cabanas? 

2) I know we all try to pick our clients but when you have no work, is it really detrimental from a monetary and reputation standpoint to do a few projects "just to get by" for family, friends and referrals? 

3) I've seen many architects with this mentality become inspectors and plan checkers working for less than 6 figures which in Silicon Valley, San Diego, LA, Monterey, etc. doesn't stretch far. Why is this the first step rather than adjusting to the market/economy?

If there's any other info that seems pertinent to this discussion, feel free to add in.

I promise these questions are not to belittle, I've just never understood the mentality. Frankly, lot of my architect friends and acquaintances  make me feel bad & scare me when they talk about how slow they are, their projections on the future but when I talk to contractors and draftsmen they are getting rich, literally $200k-400k+ per and don't see it slowing down anytime soon. California is a microclimate from an economic standpoint so I understand that, but I must be missing something and I'd like to know if something I'm missing would bode well in my favor to implement into my practice from a brand, reputation, practice, or stress standpoint. All comments are welcomed and appreciated.

Jul 10, 20 8:42 pm

white privilege.

I'm half joking, I'm more like you, assuming you're not one of the recent flood of fake accounts to grace us with humor, who are digging for info because say their life may be that boring or they like Jerky Boys....

I do around 150+  jobs a year  and yeah post the cool ones, like 2 a year.  The real reason these peeps talk like that is they have no idea what they are doing and again - white privilege.  Like taking out a loan is a hard decision in life, vs you know, being poor and going - you'll loan me money?!?!

An analogical story:

Was working on this super high-end job as local dude in Gotham. The design architect was like homies with royalty (not to give too much away).  That dude never graced our presence, just the underlings. Anyway, it was always a pissing match between high-end architect lemming and contractor and as I explained to the contractor one day:

"The reason those black turtleneck wearing douchebags, who speak many languages, mainly useless - not English or Spanish, no one cares...The reason they say you do everything wrong is they don't even know what is right!  They make pretty pictures and hope you can build it.  They stamp their feet and leave because if you ask them one more question, you'll know how dumb they are!" - me

Contractor shakes head up and down in agreement.  He did tours and shit as a Navy Seal.   So like, this was trivial...

Write your local AIA and tell them if they really cared about people they would try to find work and help their local communities...but remember they all have white privilege...they'll just curate pictures of BLM paintings, write a crazy piece about systemic racism (they caused and continue) and wonder why no one takes them serious.

Interview: 'Joker' Production Designer Explains How NYC Became ...

Jul 10, 20 9:03 pm  · 
Wood Guy

I am completely slammed with work. I do all residential and have a few niches that I try to focus on but I will talk with pretty much anyone who contacts me, and often take on projects that are outside of my niches (which include low-carbon, high-performance homes; historic restoration; cooks' kitchens; waterfront homes). I work alone. I have always done residential design and find it interesting. I live in a rural part of one of the poorest and most sparsely populated states but still make a decent income, though I'm certainly not getting rich.

Many architects find it too challenging to work with the various client personalities, the budgets which are often too low, the many different types of construction present--especially on renovations, the fluctuating schedules, the builders who often don't respect the architect/designer's experience, etc..

But I think the biggest reason more architectural firms aren't going after the small jobs is that they can only delegate to the most knowledgeable and experienced employees. You can't delegate anything to a new (cheap) graduate or a drafter; you need someone with a wide range of skills and knowledge to do the design work, and because the budgets are not usually large enough to allow for full documentation, the same person needs to do all of the design phases, from pre-con through CA, which isn't how larger firms are set up. 

Jul 12, 20 11:02 am  · 
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In my experience, getting the commissions for 9 projects, each with $100,000 construction budget projects, are more work than is needed for three $300,00 projects.  And three $300,000 projects are not each 1/3 the work of a single $900,000 project.

9 DOB filings instead of 1, 9 invoices prepared instead of 1, 9 clients with different expectations, tastes, instead of 1, etc.  Way more time/effort is sucked up in the small projects.

And I've found that small projects are more likely to go off the rails, as the contractors doing them tend to be a bit more sketchy, and a $5,000 change order on a $100K budget can be a major problem, while the same on a $900,000 budget is almost a rounding error.

To counteract this, our fees for for smaller projects are for a higher percentage of the construction budget, but not enough make those small jobs profitable.

That doesn't mean I'm going to sit here and starve rather than take on a small project.  We've got a proposal out on one now, but we may land a bigger commission soon, and if that comes through, I'll pass on the smaller commission (or ask if they can wait 4-5 months for us to start on it, but I doubt they'll agree to that).

Jul 12, 20 12:22 pm  · 
Non Sequitur

100k to 300k (construction cost) are small projects... normally a junior staff with some supervision can knock these out quickly enough to make it profitable in the CD phase. What gets the fees up is the CA and site review stuff that typically is better handled by senior architects at a much higher overhead cost and who's time is likely less flexible than production staff. Hard to keep track of half a dozen small projects in construction.

1  · 

I still think this is a prank thread...they're getting more sophisticated.

Jul 12, 20 2:00 pm  · 
1  · 
AV Customs

I assure you, it’s not a prank thread, I’m genuinely curious. I agree with Non Sequitur. $100-300k is a small-maybe mid sized project. In California no one is touching your home For $100k unless it’s a bathroom remodel that they can blow out in a week or two, but that obviously doesn’t need permitted drawings so we wouldn’t touch that regardless. I had a guy come out an quote for my client to do a 2 bedroom, one bathroom addition, super basic, 30’ x 14’ box with one California gable. Guy quoted $500k and didn’t bat an eye.

I have 42 projects right now, and I will admit, it’s overwhelming to look at my to do list on Monday but when the city takes 4-8 weeks to plan check it’s really not a problem because once you get preliminary floor plan dialed in, elevations move quick and I can put together a set of CD’s in 4-6 hours. Everything else is 2-3 hours and sent to engineer, client or building/planning department and I can put it on my “waiting list for a week or two”. 42 projects at an average of $4,000 isn’t a bad living and I can’t lose money, it’s all just my time and a minimal gas/vehicle expense, clients pay per sheet and material costs so I have basically zero overhead. And all of that work besides maybe 4 of them will be out of our hands in the next 3 months. Just seems like a no brainer to at least partially take on smaller projects to fill the gaps if nothing else. The one point that makes a lot of sense is the delegating. That’s absolutely true. As far as I’m concerned, junior architects deserve to make minimum wage (exhaggerating but not a lot) I knew a girl who strictly drew dimensions on shop drawings for $40/hr. @ a union plumbing gig. And looked like she was going to tear my head off when I did an interview/trial run and told her I couldn’t pay more than $15/hr and even at that I’d be basically eating it the first 6 months. She had no concept of plotting, page layout, Floor plans, Site, Electrical, sections, energy calcs. Much less general function, best practices & sustainable design. I could see why it’d be hard to make small projects pencil in that scenario but again that’s kind of why my question was geared towards small firms and sole props.

Jul 16, 20 8:56 pm  · 

i had a referral from a sub i know during the initial cliff of the pandemic that i took for a ceiling permit for a commercial space where the owner had the work done without understanding a permit was needed. It was painful. And the billing ultimately not rewarding for the effort. I felt like I was fighting the owner to do the work required.

sometimes stuff just isn't worth it

don't get me started on the "but we just need blueprints" folks

mismatched expectations are usually the reason to decline work, sometimes it is because the office is good at producing certain kinds of work and inefficient at others...but usually it's mismatched expectations

Jul 17, 20 1:41 pm  · 

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