July 10, 2009
Consulting Practice Niches Create Shelter for Architects in a Thorny Economy
Four small-firm consultant business models from Bay Area AIA members

by Zach Mortice
Associate Editor

How do you . . . adapt your skills as a designer into architectural consulting?

Does it pay to be nimble, light, and alone these days? As the reeling economy continues to wreak havoc on the design and construction industry (2,000 fewer people were working at architecture firms in the month of April alone) architects are being bounced from their jobs at traditional design firms and wondering where their skills fit into the economy’s seemingly willful refusal to build buildings. Experience from other sole practitioners and small firms that offer services to architects and architectural clients suggests that the best business model today allows architects to use their diverse skills wherever they see fit—plugging their expertise into hyper-specific micro markets that are too small for a large firm to work in, yet large enough to keep paying the bills. Four Bay Area architects have been doing just that, often after long and familiar experiences with large, traditional design firms. Though their practices are vastly different, they’ve all found that the freedom and flexibility of their consulting practices have allowed them to bob, duck, weave, and advance in a worsening design market.

Michael Bernard, AIA
Michael Bernard, AIA, has been keeping a foothold in the still-suffering design and construction industry by addressing elements of architecture that have long been neglected through design education and practice: practice management and the running of a design business.

“We never learned about that in school,” he says. “We learned about how to put a building together in professional practice and contracts, but never how to run our own business.”

To be sure, Bernard has a deep understanding of how much or how little architecture higher education programs cover this issue. He’s an adjunct architecture professor who specializes in professional practice at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.

For four years, Bernard has been what he calls a “roving manager” with his sole proprietor consultant firm Virtual Practice, where he meets with small architecture firm clients (usually from 1 to 10 people) and teaches them how to make their practice run better. Bernard had worked in traditional design firms (including a stint working for AIA Gold Medal recipient Charles Moore), but he naturally gravitated towards project management. Now, he has no plans to go back to traditional practice. “This,” he says, “is what I’m on the planet to do.”

Bernard works with 11 to 15 clients per month, out of a pool of 35 to 40. He spends 60 percent of his time searching for new clients, but rarely makes cold calls, preferring instead to approach new customers subtly by having established clients recommend him. The services he offers are applicable to sole practitioners as well as more robustly staffed firms. He consults clients on formalizing revenue models, marketing, and a host of staffing issues like hiring employees, evaluating them, and writing employee manuals. Bernard also talks to architects about “strategically managing client expectations” when clients and their designers run into conflicts.

“I solve problems the same way that an architect would, but I don’t focus on the building,” he says. “I focus on the operations and structure of the small firm.”

As all kinds of architecture firms across the nation are shedding jobs at extraordinary rates, Bernard suggests doing what he’s done: decoupling his skills (in his case, practice management) from traditional design business models and taking them directly to the market. These skills can include everything from rendering to writing specifications, contracts, or project proposals—any facet that contributes to the final design product that firms produce. An employee with such skills who is still employed in a firm, Bernard says, could easily be farmed out as a consultant to other firms and use their skills as an extra revenue stream. Thus, these marketable skills should not be thought of as a part of the knowledge base required to design a building, but as independent competencies that can be plugged into the larger design and construction economy at will.

“We have to look beyond what we’re trained to do and look at what we’ve always been good at and seek the process,” Bernard says.

Amy Delson, AIA
For firms facing laying off staff because of strangled credit markets, hesitant clients, and plummeting institutional endowments, Amy Delson, AIA, is a safer hire than most. That’s because her sole practitioner firm Strategic Facilities Planning is built to come and go with the project, in the short to intermediate term. This Bay Area-based firm works with architects (and their clients) on programming and planning activities for healthcare facilities and clinical labs. Delson says her firm is quick and flexible—well suited to today’s depressed yet rapidly reorganizing design and construction industry. “The thing about the work I do is that it enables me to be very nimble,” she says. “I can both integrate into an architecture firm and provide the service of lab planning.”

Delson used to run a full service design firm in New Jersey before moving to California. When she got to the West Coast, she began working at large firms and took on a programming project for Stanford University. She established her own firm in 1996, and began working very closely with Stanford’s in-house planning department and found that they (and likely other institutional clients) wanted planners who could become part of their practice for the life of a single project without have to bring on a large specialty planning firm.

Delson says that architects looking to strike out on their own in this way have to be ready to network and market their services heavily—at least initially. “My advice to architects looking to strike out on their own is to first determine what value you can bring to other architects or clients, and then network as much as you can,” she says. “Pro bono work can be part of this networking.”

Now that her business is well established and self sustaining, it allows her to use time that might have been spent on marketing on practice research. “If I were a senior-level person in an architecture office, I would be spending a lot of the time marketing,” she says. “Because I am relatively self sustaining, I don’t have to do very much marketing. I get to spend most of my time actually doing.”

Mark English, AIA
In the initial stages of establishing his consulting firm, Green Compliance Plus, Mark English, AIA, had quite a similar experience. To find clients for his energy performance modeling firm, he called every architecture business listed in a small firm design magazine published by AIA San Francisco—probably about 200 phone calls altogether.

“I met with as many as would listen to me, and most would because I’m not an engineer,” says English, who also runs a traditional small design firm (Mark English Architects in San Francisco). “If they hadn’t heard of me, they thought, ‘I’d rather talk to an architect who’s done this rather than another engineer.’”

Green Compliance Plus advises architects on how to meet Title 24, California’s stringent energy efficiency code for residential and commercial buildings. Established in 1978 in the wake of the 1970s energy crisis, Title 24 performance regulations are tightened every three years. The next change will take place on August 1. Much of what English’s firm does is engineering consulting, but he says his architect clients prefer getting compliance advice from him rather than engineers because he won’t “ruin their projects” with inappropriate design interventions that don’t understand architects’ design priorities. English had been doing this kind of work with his own design practice for years, but decided to formalize it as a business in January with the help of a retired engineer and a technical writer. Since then, their client base has doubled, adding another layer of insulation to his bottom line in an already chilly economic climate. It’s made his business portfolio more diverse, which creates more opportunities for repeat clients. While most small firms have to wait for decades for a single client to build another house, English can sell them energy performance compliance services before their next design.

The firm’s Web site is structured as a blog, and contains original case studies, Q&As, and tutorials—all meant to foster more conversation on practical issues about energy efficient design. “I’m not interested in the pie in the sky,” English says. “I’m only interested in the in-the-trenches issues architects have to deal with.”

Marlene Berkoff, FAIA
The sole practitioner consultancy of Marlene Berkoff, FAIA, helps institutional clients make better decisions about how to address their facility needs, which is all the more important in today’s unsettled design and construction marketplace. San Rafael, Calif.-based Berkoff Facility Strategies consults with institutional clients (universities, healthcare providers, etc.) very early in the planning process. She says her job is to help clients get right the three risk management issues they very often get wrong: how expensive a building project will be, how long it will take, and how disruptive it will be to the client’s operations. This entails walking them through options like acquiring new property, beginning new construction, or choosing renovations instead.

Berkoff was prepared for this kind of pre-programming cost analysis by studying economics early in her career. Later, she got an architecture degree and eventually took on a series of management positions at large firms. Along the way, she opened the San Francisco Office of Ellerbe Becket. During this part of her career, the disappointingly common experience of having clients call her to shut down a project after revised cost estimates roll in, thus leaving her staff idle and on the clock, made her wonder what was wrong with her clients’ initial decision making process and what could be done to improve it.

“[The architects] are doing what the client told them to do, and the client is basing [their decision] on some erroneous information,” she says.

Indeed, her business includes advising clients on whether to build a building at all, and her status as a non-practicing architect adds to her credibility. She’s not trying to sell a client on any particular design, but an actual architecture firm hired as an advisor might. This also means she’s able to focus more clearly on the clients’ needs and point of view, since she’s not committed to a particular design strategy. “What is the client trying to accomplish here?” she says. “It’s almost never just to build a building.”

Now that she’s been working exclusively with her consulting business for the last 10 years (Berkoff is in the long stage of semi-retirement that often stretches on fruitfully and interminably for architects), she is now able to market herself outside of the design profession, and set her fees accordingly.

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