Architects and Business Management

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.


Financial Management in Architecture

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.


New Media and the Future of Practice

I delivered a workshop (of sorts…) to around 30 architects at RSAW’s annual conference at Chapter Arts in Cardiff on 9th December.

The idea behind the workshop was to firstly take a look interesting web-based projects. In doing so, I hoped to get delegates to see the internet as more than just email and practice websites. Amongst other things, I shared Mapumental, FixMyStreet, GoGenieSuchTweetSorrow, Give Me Back My Broken Night, Tales of Things, and Substrakt’s BAApp.

You can view the slides for my presentation over on SlideShare.

I went on to explain how certain web tools are helping to enable community-led planning (based on the recent work I’ve been doing around Neighbourhood Planning) with Slider Studio. We looked at StickyWorld in more detail along with some other ideas that have come out of the study.

This was followed by an open discussion about technology in practice. A particularly hot topic was the idea of monitoring comments and feedback through web channels and how best to manage this. I would welcome any questions that we didn’t have time to cover in the session here. Use the comments box below.


Practice makes Perfect

I’ll be running a workshop at the RSAW conference in Cardiff on 9th December 2011. The focus of the event is very much a response to the current economic climate and a broad array of speakers will address certain themes:

  • As the recession continues to bite, how are emerging architects finding new approaches to winning and carrying out their work?
  • How are the established players reacting to the new challenges?
  • Are the old models for building architectural practices out of date?
  • Do we need to look at new, more flexible ways of making design happen?
  • Is collaboration the answer?

Having discussed with the organisers what delegates are hoping to get from the event, the focus of my session will be to look at new media and growth industries for ideas and inspiration for the future of architectural practice.

Through my afternoon breakout workshop, I’ll be showcasing some interesting and exciting projects from the creative and media industries to inspire delegates to think differently about their approach and service. I’ll be sharing my experience of using social media as a powerful communication tool and demonstrating practical examples of the ways that web-based tools can save money and add value to working practice.

If you’re an Architect or if you work in practice and would like a day of inspiration, I suggest you book yourself in. It should be a great day. All the details are over on RSAW’s regional page of RIBA.


Time Management & Learning To Say No.

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

And here’s the Q&A Session (I was speaking alongside Marverine Cole and Hick Holzherr – Nick had to leave early so it was down to Marverine and me to hold court)

The last couple of slides from my presentation might also be of interest:


Accessibility – Response to a question

Yesterday, whilst learning to use Expression Engine, I learned that creating links to open in a new window was a bad thing. No further explanation was given so I turned to Twitter with the question: Question about creating web content: why is opening a link in a new window considered bad in terms of accessibility? I had a whole heap of really insightful and helpful replies so seeing as I’m learning so much about web accessibility, I figured I might as well share it here.

http://twitter.com/Laura_Hatch
Web content answer c/o @MartinHatch [see below]:
1) Considered bad bcos blind/partially sighted users get disorientated…..when a new window opens as they lose the trail of where they have come from i.e. there’s no back/history in current window but
2) Opening a new window IS acceptable in terms of accessibility if you warn the user beforehand by putting “(opens in new window)” as part of the text for the link. However another downside is that it’s also sometimes confusing in less robust web environments such as on mobile phones where there’s not a clear interface for multiple windows / tabs.

http://twitter.com/MartinHatch
I was a technical architect on the RNIB Website, feel free to ping me any questions around accessibility

http://twitter.com/NajmC
I have never liked it, in terms of accessibility or otherwise. Hate having new windows/tabs opening everywhere & as I’m easily confused I _always_ try using the back button before I realise :) there was a time when it was said that opening a new window was used to keep visitors on your site but if I click a link it is because I want to visit that page and will go back to the original site if I want to. Usually have enough tabs open don’t need them being opened for me :)


http://twitter.com/since68
I think it becomes difficult for screen readers to follow what is going on. It also is a bit messy with all those open windows.

http://twitter.com/dracos
http://diveintoaccessibility.org/day_16_not_opening_new_windows.html might be of interest.

http://twitter.com/editorialgirl
Because ‘less savvy’ users don’t realise a new window has opened, then they get confused when the back button doesn’t work.

http://twitter.com/supercooljames
The user should be allowed to decide if they want to open in a new window. Forcing this removes the option

…and in response to James above Alison said:
http://twitter.com/alisonvsmith
Agree – did you know about @a11yLDN taking place @ City Uni on 20th September?

[at this point I did indeed book myself into the Accessibility London event on 21st September]


http://twitter.com/richpayne88
I think it’s because most screen readers rely on the ‘back’ button, so it leaves the visually impaired stranded. Though I should stress that’s an educated guess, rather than a concrete answer.

http://twitter.com/BookJo
contact @scope for advice


What do you think about RIBA’s Website?

Last week I attended a workshop with RIBA Client Services. London-based Director of Membership Services Cathy Ditchfield and Client Services Advisor Bobbie Williams were in Birmingham to talk through the client services process, and to advise on how the RIBA and Chartered Practices can make the system work better for all parties.

Typical scenario: someone is looking for an Architect, they call up RIBA Client services who provide them with a shortlist of chartered practices (3 – 5 practices on average) which has been drawn up based on location, the size of the project, and a number of other factors (specialisms required, previous experience, etc). The online client referral system works in the same way – but requires users to register and log in.

The online directory is there to allow a visitor to the website to search, using various filters, allowing them to draw up their own shortlist, or find contact details for a specific practice or member.

If you are a chartered practice, you have a better chance of making it onto shortlists for project leads if your RIBA practice profile information is kept regularly updated. Better profile = more work. Simple, right? Well no actually, because in a nutshell, RIBA’s website sucks.

Architects often get a lot of stick for their websites, and RIBA needs to lead by example. Their website should be clean, easy to use, functional, accessible and look great. It’s none of these things. It’s outdated and clunky – I could be wrong here but from memory the website has changed very little since it’s first incarnation. It’s stuck in the land of Web1.0 due to its lack of perception to the users needs (be that members, or clients). It’s difficult to navigate and the menus are confused. It’s clogged up with masses of outdated information, not least because members find the login and profile updating process complicated and time consuming. The search system isn’t intuitive and unless you have precise information, you are unlikely to find what you are looking for (see image above).

I should say at this point that Bryant Priest Newman has a really good relationship with the institute and the practice supports the regional office wherever possible – Regional Head, Matt Dobson, has a reassuringly fresh outlook and is always willing to listen to members.

You may have noticed that I’m fond of the odd moan, but I always try to do something constructive in order to put it right. So that was my question to the RIBA team last week: as fee-paying members, how can we make sure something is done about the website? The problem here isn’t just that online client services and the online directory don’t function efficiently, the wider problem is RIBA’s website as a whole.

Incidentally, fellow Practice Manager Su Butcher blogged about the online client services system back in April 2009. As far as I can see, nothing has changed since then – but the Client Services workshops are hopefully going some way to address the issues.

So, Cathy’s response to my question…. alarmingly it sounds like the website isn’t at the top of RIBA’s marketing strategy and the only way it will reach the top of the list is if members share their dissatisfaction and make the institute realise how important a good website is. So, encouraged by Cathy and the team, I’ll be dropping Harry Rich (RIBA’s Chief Exec) a line. I would share Harry’s email address with you here, but at the time of writing, I can’t find it on RIBA’s website. I rest my case your honour.


Can Creativity be Taught?

I was asked recently to give some thought to a planned creativity session for a company away day. I think Paul was probably hoping for a response that read something along the lines of: sounds great Paul! Unfortunately he found himself on the receiving end of my waffle. So here it is:

Assuming you are using the IDEO video [I recommended that Paul and his team take a look at this video which I saw at a recent Arts Council workshop], I think its important to stress what makes it so inspiring. I think it’s because of the team – individuals, personalities, skills, approach – and why that broad cross section is so effective in making the process a creative one. In my opinion you can’t teach creativity, but you can:
a. inspire and
b. tap into the skills of individuals that they (or you) might not have thought were relevant to the day job.

In my experience, ideas and creativity come from questions. In other words, an idea evolves creatively through thought and analysis provoked by questions. More often than not, questions are asked by someone in the group that may not necessarily be the most creative thinker, but they may be able to see around the outside of an idea, better than the person who came up with the idea in the first place.

Feedback sessions from exercises are key. If you split your group into 2 teams a bit of competition could be really effective. You might want to consider assigning roles to members of opposite team – this is similar to the approach at the Arts Council workshop I attended. Maybe take it in turns with each exercise to take a different role. For example a ‘builder” would constructively critique an idea (it sounds a heck of a lot nicer than “critisiser”!) and give 2 criticisms and explain them. A “fan” might be assigned the role to come up with 2 reasons why the idea is good and again, explain why. An “operator” could take on the role of the person on the other side of the table and respond by imagining they are in the client’s shoes. The team presenting an idea will take on board all the feedback should reconsider their approach – feedback isn’t bad, it makes things better.

Approach, process and team are key – not necessarily the ideas themselves.

Away days are brilliant – we had one at BPN a couple of years ago (we went to Walsall Art Gallery), but the most useful part of the day was the debrief in the pub afterwards where we all relaxed and talked about what we were really thinking! I think that just about sums it up.


Advice for Architecture Students

These are tough times, not least for Architecture students desperately trawling through the RIBA Directory of Practices writing to every man and his dog in the hope that someone will be able to offer them an opportunity. On the back of a few conversations that I’ve had recently with those looking for work, here are a few tips for students (in fact, anyone who’s been made redundant) to make sure that your application is hitting the mark.

Firstly remember that practices are being inundated with applications so you need to make it obvious that you are instantly employable. Think from an employers perspective – an Architect running a business might suddenly find themselves with a tight deadline on a large drawing package. They need to know that you are up to the job, so good quality legible drawing samples are essential. You still need to get your personality across, but remember that the stuff you think is important might not necessarily be the thing your prospective boss is looking for.

Personalise the covering letter. An application with an anonymous covering letter won’t grab your prospective employers attention, however, spending a little time researching the practice you are applying to, perhaps mentioning key schemes that you admire, or explaining your understanding of their working ethos, means you’re more likely to get noticed. Flattery won’t necessarily get you everywhere, but it can help (don’t go overboard though, you don’t want to embarrass anyone!).

Think about the presentation of your CV and covering letter to prove that you’re thinking about the bigger picture, not just the fact that you have an degree in Architecture. A little thought about font, colours, graphics and layout will not go unnoticed. Make sure work samples are large enough to be legible. Low resolution images aren’t worth using.

I lose count of the amount of CV’s I see littered with spelling mistakes. It’s instantly off-putting. Spellcheck is there for a reason – don’t risk it, just use it!

Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback about your application. Most Architects have been in your shoes at some point or another, so will probably be able to spare a couple of minutes to chat with you about what could be improved.

Good luck, stay positive and keep trying.


Blogging in Practice

I’ve been getting my blogging fix over at Bryant Priest Newman Architects’ blog for a good while now and seems a bit of a shame not to pull some of that content over here. Yes, it probably is cheating so I’ll make it a brief summary instead.

My most recent post was based around the debate that I took part in at RIBA West Midlands. We were discussing collaboration in Architecture, but what I found most interesting was the continuing scepticism about using web-based collaborative tools. On that basis, I’ve written a piece for the next edition of Area Magazine, the quarterly newsletter sent to all RIBA registered Architects in the West Midlands, about the opportunities Web2.0 can bring to Architects.

The post prior to that was the day I unwittingly managed to get Bryant Priest Newman onto the homepage of the Architect’s Journal website simply by sharing a photograph on Twitter. Take a look at The Power of 140 Characters.

Other blog posts:
Web2.0 & Architecture - A day out at Hello Digital 2009
What is Innovation? - An insight into my stream of consciousness resulting from a questionnaire received from the National Office of Statistics
Social Media & Web2.0 in the Built Environment – Preparation for Be2Camp Brum in 2009
Too Tired to Tweet? Too Busy to Blog? – My first ever rant


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