Architects become architects because they are creative people, they want to design buildings and places, they want to make a difference, they want to influence and improve the overall quality of the built environment, they want to draw, they want to get stuck into the technicalities of how a building is put together.
The majority of architects didn’t spend 7+ years studying architecture because they are attracted to the idea of running a business.
The degree and diploma (RIBA parts 1 & 2) form the majority of their studies and include a year’s practical experience in between the two courses. Part 3 is the shortest part of the qualification process which is often undertaken over a period of 6 months, however, a minimum of 24 months practical experience is a requirement before being accepted. This is why it takes at least 7 years to qualify, and that’s assuming parts 1 & 2 are completed through a full-time Uni course. Part 3 is focused on professional practice and management (business management and project management) and yet post-Part 3 architects aren’t always fully prepared for what’s involved with running a business. This is easy to understand – you wouldn’t expect a newly qualified doctor to be able to perform complex brain surgery the day after their graduation.
What I’m asking is: if all architects finished their studies with a more thorough knowledge of all aspects of business management, might the entire industry be more highly valued?
In my opinion, studying architecture should include modules dedicated to business management throughout parts 1 & 2, not just part 3. Exactly how much do architecture students learn about business matters as it stands? Finance, HR, Law, Marketing etc.? As I understand it, it’s all covered in Part 3 – they have one or two lectures on each topic, an extensive reading list, a written exam and a final oral exam. They also have to prepare a case study. It covers the basics.
So for example, what about the work involved with preparing a set of accounts for a financial year end? Ask any newly qualified architect what WIP stands for – I doubt many could tell you. What about marketing and communication? It would be useful for every architect to know how to structure a basic press release for example, but could they?
I’ll be fair. A newly qualified architect can’t know everything there is to know about business management AND building design which is why Continuing Professional Development exists. But, and this is a big BUT, not enough in the way of business management is offered as CPD because the formal CPD programme has predominantly been highjacked by sales reps selling building products. Don’t get me wrong, some CPD events are dedicated to business and practice development, including finance, contract law, etc., but architects can pick and choose what they do to in order meet their CPD obligations – so if you’re not interested in finance, or marketing, why would you do a course about it?
According to RIBA, the majority of chartered practices are small (micro in fact) with no more than 10 members of staff. Chartered practices make up about half of the practices in the UK. Maybe every practice, large and small, should employ a business manager? Architects can move away from time-consuming issues that don’t relate to design. Instead they can ensure their clients get the best possible service and product because they are able to devote their full attention to fee-paying design projects, thus improving efficiency. However, for many small practices this is a luxury they can ill afford.
Going back to the educational system, perhaps the answer is to split architectural studies into different strands? After parts 1 and 2, those who wish to specialise in practice management study for a year with business managers. Those who have an interest in technology might study with software developers… those who have an interest in planning and urban design study with Town Planners… and so on.
I don’t know what the answer is, but I know that the industry is reaching crisis point. Fees are at frighteningly low levels and design quality is suffering as a result. When it comes to winning work, the procurement process for public sector work favours large corporations over smaller practices (whaddayamean you only hold £5m PI?!). Design competitions for high-profile private sector clients are attracting record numbers.
Let’s not forget that the country is still trying to fight its way out of a double-dip recession, times are tough and very little is actually getting built, but architecture as a profession isn’t going anywhere. We just have to change how we do things to respond to more challenging times.
Not a lot has changed in the industry in 175 years so maybe it’s down to education? Or maybe it’s down to attitudes – how much value does the Carbuncle Cup, for example, bring to architecture?
Here’s an idea… is it time we stopped the architectural naval-gazing and looked to new and emerging industries to learn how to do things a bit differently? Web developers are doing rather well at the moment. Let’s give that some thought.
I was delighted to be invited to guest lecture at Birmingham School of Architecture at BCU recently. Ruth Reed, Programme Director of the Prost-grad Diploma in Architectural Practice needed someone to talk to Part 3 students about Financial Management in professional practice. I have over 10 years of experience working at management level in small practices, a large proportion of which was spent managing finances – so of course I agreed.
The content of the module seemed straightforward enough: invoicing, payment of fees, cashflow forecasting, business planning, resource management, taxation, and so on. But I knew I was going to be faced with a room full of people who I could be fairly sure didn’t study architecture because they find tax issues and spreadsheets fascinating.
I had 2.5 hours to cover this enormous topic but together we worked our way through it, and finished off with 5 group exercises which I hoped demonstrated that financial management is simple. I’m delighted to report that no-one fell asleep and I definitely heard someone utter the words “I love spreadsheets” (no joke!). It might have helped that I approached the subject matter from the perspective of a fictitious small (micro) practice with a modest turnover and who employed just 4 members of staff. Scaling financial management right down to this level seems to be an effective way of understanding the basics.
A few points from the lecture (and I would welcome feedback on these points from practitioners):
- keeping accurate accounting records and updating them regularly will avoid any nasty surprises.
- a cashflow forecast and a budget are two different things.
- a traditional invoicing schedule (ie. invoicing on completion of a workstage) isn’t always the best invoicing schedule.
- setting goals in a financial business plan and regularly reviewing them as a team means that aims are more likely to be achieved.
- financial management isn’t a science, you don’t need to be an expert or necessarily even have an interest in accounting – if you can manage your own bank account you can manage the finances of a SME.
- keep it simple!
We finished off with some thoughts about other industries, particularly new emerging industries such as web development, and how they can be applied to our own industry. The message I was sharing was that the old ways aren’t always the best. I’m always looking for new ways to liven up financial management or make life easier. In fact one of the examples I cited was Angry Productive Birds. It’s a bit of fun and possibly a bit silly, but hey, why can’t time management and project resourcing be fun?
I’m pleased to say that the students seems to enjoy the lecture. They went away looking less worried and the feedback I’ve received so far is very positive. I hope to be able to deliver this lecture again in the future.
Comments from those who attended the lecture, along with comments from practitioners about managing finances would be most welcome.
Since June I’ve been carrying work on a freelance basis alongside the role I have at BPN Architects (3 days per week). I work with MADE one day a week which leaves the remaining day a week up to me. A few months ago I changed my facebook status to “time to start saying no”. There’s a reason for this.
There’s a certain amount of pressure I’ve put myself under to ensure that I try and find paid work that suits my timeframe and allows me to indulge in all the stuff that was the reason for embarking down the freelance route in the first place. There was no formula to how I planned to spend my time. As anyone who has ever worked for themselves knows, in the early days you want to please everyone, take every offer that comes your way, go to every event/seminar/conference.
It simply can’t be done and I’ve found it a challenge to manage my time.
So here are a few things I’ve learned over the first 9 months of being freelance – I hope it’s of some use to others:
- Don’t say yes to everything, think through your options. If you say yes, do you have the time to make sure you do the best possible job? (if you say ‘no’, remember to say ‘thanks, but…’ beforehand!)
- Value your time and don’t give too much of it away for free. Yes, be helpful, but remember you have a skill that is worth paying for.
- If someone helps you out, return the favour, preferably twice over. Reciprocation is rewarding (and is very web2.0 of course) – it will pay off.
- Keep neat and tidy records of everything you do. Backup every file and be meticulous about your finances including producing cashflow reports.
- Communicate well with your clients. They will appreciate regular updates and good communication is key to a good working relationship.
- Don’t let anyone down. If you say you’re going to do something, follow it up and do it!
I was asked to be a guest speaker at BCU’s media department a few months back as part of the Enterprise module of the MA Social Media course.
Here’s the video of my talk at BCU
The last couple of slides from my presentation might also be of interest: