Taking a Small Architectural Firm to the Next Level

Here are just a few of the basics:

Determine Goals:

Goals should be determined by the company president (and other partners as the firm grows).  What are the goals?   To work on fun projects? To innovate? To grow an office that will survive you?  To grow people?  To get published and become well known?  To change the shape of the built environment?  Everyone in the office should know what the goal is, and contribute to the goal.  The goal will determine many of the strategies.

Attract & Retain Great Employees:

It all comes down to the employees.  Getting to the next level depends upon attracting and retaining great employees.  A great culture is the way to do so.  Having autonomy, a sense of purpose in life (creativity and contribution), and learning opportunities are the three most significant factors in employee satisfaction.  Spreading the design projects around so everyone has the chance to work on at least one interesting (design) project at any given time provides employees opportunities to learn.  Allowing all staff members at least small ways to contribute to design provides them creative stimulation and pride.  Providing employees the freedom to achieve the stated goals in the way that they see fit allows them to feel that they are respected as individuals.

Good employees will exceed expectations when the culture supports these basic needs.  Employees who don’t meet expectations should be asked to leave so that their sub-par performance does not affect their teammates and office morale.

Hold Monthly Staff Meetings:

Monthly lunch-time staff meetings should be held to:

-Share information about the firm’s successes and objectives

-Share lessons learned

-Share knowledge amongst employees

-Present and charrette design-oriented projects so that everyone feels involved with design

Employees can rotate chairing the meetings.

Establish a Scale-able Organizational Structure:

Each employee should choose one discipline in which to become an expert.  This approach, common at large firms, acknowledges that different types of people excel at different roles.  Although one person might be fairly good at two or even all three disciplines – project management, design, or technical � no one is great at all three.  And everyone should be great, not a jack of all trades and a master of none.  As the firm grows larger, a leader within each discipline should be assigned to spearhead best practices within their discipline.

The least expensive, more junior employees should do as much of the work as possible in order to maximize profits, and keep the more experienced employees focused on more challenging and interesting tasks.  Senior employees should delegate and “coach” as much as possible, leveraging themselves to focus on the work that requires their advanced skills and talents.

The typical ratio of junior-to-senior employees at most large firms is as follows:

8-10 total employees for every 1 Owner/Principal (who can serve in the below roles as well).

1 Administrative employee (HR, finance, marketing, secretarial) for every 8-10 employees.

Each Studio or Practice Leader Director oversees about 3-5 Project Managers & Project Architects (PM’s & PA’s are equals).

Each Project Manager or Project Architect oversees about 3 Job Captains.

Each Job Captain oversees about 1-3 junior drafters.

Number of Designers is dependent on amount of design projects firm does.

An efficient 20-person firm should have a structure that looks something like this:

2 Owners/Principals

1-2 Sr. Designers

2 Project Managers

1-2 Project Architects

4 Job Captains

8 Junior Drafters/Designers

2 Administrative employees

It may be necessary to shift some employees into new roles to capitalize on their strengths.  In doing so, it needs to be made clear that PM’s and PA’s are equal.  Becoming a Project Manager should not be everyone’s goal.

As many opportunities as possible for leadership and increased responsibility should be provided, and entrepreneurialism encouraged.  A leadership TEAM is preferable to one or two leaders.  Some possible leadership assignments are:

-Technical discipline leader/Sr. Project Architect:  Has general oversight of the code and constructability aspects of all projects in the office, performs QA reviews of all preliminary plans and CD’s before they are issued, establishes best practices for, and coach the JC’s and drafters.

-Project Management discipline leader:  Has general oversight of all projects’ financial performance, establishes best practices for, and coaches the other PM’s, as well as all staff in regards to contracts and budgets.

-Residential practice leader:  Has general oversight of all residential projects, establishes best practices for, and coaches others in residential issues.

-Commercial practice leader:  Has general oversight of all residential projects, establishes best practices for, and coaches others in commercial issues.

-IT champion:  Is a resource to others in regards to computer hardware and software.

-Revit champion:  Provides training to others in Revit and develop standards, libraries, and best practices.

-CAD champion:  Provides training to others in CAD and develop standards, libraries, and best practices.libraries, and best practices.

-Professional development & community service champion:  Spearheads group educational & community service opportunities for the staff.  Team-building would be a natural by-product of such activities.

-Marketing champion:  Attends networking events, seeks out project opportunities, and prepares qualifications packages and proposals.

Grow Employees:

The company should offer a clear path to advancement and, ideally, partnership in order to provide incentive to employees.  Each Employee would be assigned one or two “coaches.”  One coach would be the employee’s direct supervisor and the second, another senior employee of the
employee’s choosing, perhaps an expert in the discipline they aspire to.  The employees meet once a quarter with their coaches to talk about their professional goals, and their coaches provide feedback on their job performance and if they are on track in achieving their goals.  The objective is to help employees get onto a path that maximizes their strengths, thus leading to growth.

Establish Practice Areas in Order to Market Effectively:

The types of projects we want to design should be determined so that we can speak at conferences, join industry organizations, and write
articles where we’d attract those clients.  Most large firm owners recommend focusing on two or three practice areas in order to provide the highest quality design and services, be more efficient (profitable), and to streamline marketing efforts.  They should also be on opposite economic cycles (such as rental units vs. high-end homes).  Again, the jack of all trades is obsolete.

Elisa Garcia, RA
Garcia Architects