This is part of an ongoing series in which we explore critical issues facing emerging and established architects. Past stories include “Why Architecture Firms Should Use Pinterest,” “15 Tips For Starting A Firm,” and "Starting Your Own Architecture Firm: Challenges for Women."
The trouble with working for yourself is that you have no one to answer to but you. As both boss and employee, you endure a legal double standard that requires you to pay twice the employment taxes on just one set of billable hours. It's taxation without commiseration!
When you go off on your own—particularly if you've left a larger firm—your world shrinks. The good news is you can broaden your horizons, at least temporarily, by pairing up with other small firms. "When you're in your own practice, you get in your own habits," says Cary Bernstein, principal of Cary Bernstein Architect. "Collaborating with a peer is a great way to shake up your own bêtes noires and improve your practice."
Bernstein spoke at the latest "Growing a Small Firm" panel, an ongoing series organized by AIA San Francisco and architect Mark Cavagnero that explores the challenges of making it on your own. Last time we learned about the pros and cons of partnering with bigger practices—gain a foothold in new markets! see your design ideas crushed under the weight of large-firm machinery!—but Cavagnero is here to tell you that teaming up with a little guy can be just as rewarding, minus the power imbalance.
The panel at AIASF, from left: Cary Bernstein, Alex Bergtraun, Eliza Hart, Mark Cavagnero (moderator), Tom McElroy.
In a conversation moderated by Cavagnero, the architects discussed what to look for in a partner, how to handle billing, and how to reassure the client that two heads are indeed better than one.
1. Collaborations are good for your resume—and your staff
According to Hart Wright Architects partner and founder Eliza Hart, teaming allows you to fatten your portfolio without expanding your firm. "To be able to accommodate the extra project you're working on as a collaboration means that you have that project under your belt, and if it's a successful project, you can market it," she says.
If you have employees, joint projects can boost their morale, too. Because partnerships can open doors to larger projects than you would otherwise have access to, your staff is less likely to get bored and move on, adds Alex Bergtraun, principal of Studio Bergtraun, AIA, Architects. "Losing an employee is an incredible loss for a firm, once they've gone through the whole training process," he says. "We try to create an environment for our employees that gives them a lot of opportunities outside our office."
2. When you seek out partners, look beyond design compatibility
Another firm's design sensibility is easy to glean from their website, but their working style is harder to gauge. "One of the first things that will irritate you about a partner is if somebody's not doing their share," says Bernstein. Collaborations require a huge amount of trust; after all, you're yoking your professional reputation with someone else's.
The San Francisco industrial design studio One & Co, by Cary Bernstein Architect, 2010. Photo courtesy Cesar Rubio Photography
3. Not everyone will be open to hiring two firms. Look for experienced clients and adventurous spirits
Clients who have worked with architects before will be more likely to see the value of a collaboration, explains McElroy Architecture principal Tom McElroy. "They understand the process and how design works, and what to expect," he says. "They appreciate good design—not just a structure and you being a draftsman." Hart concurs: "It's someone who's open, who wants to see the design be pushed."
4. In those crucial first meetings with the client, sell yourselves as a team
"There's this jazz ensemble thing that goes on in the beginning, because the client is trying to figure out, What is this collaboration thing?" says Bergtraun. "In the back of their mind, you know that one of the clients is saying, 'Do we need to pay for both? Can we just do this with one?'"
Remember that for clients, an architectural project is a stressful situation. They're forking over a lot of money and facing many tough decisions. "It's great to be able to tell the client, Here is this great team that is there to help you through the process, and no, it's not easy, and no, it's not one straight answer," adds Bergtraun. "Sometimes the fact that the collaborative team has some differing opinions—they're unified in terms of the project, but there are different ways to tackle it—actually brings a little bit of comfort to the client."
5. Before you go too far, define the relationship!
Partnerships are a blind date and an arranged marriage rolled into one. As in romance, so in architecture: Proceed with caution, and be prepared to work on your relationship. "It's important to clearly define expectations up front—if it's going to be completely in tandem or if one person's going to take on the beginning and one person's going to take over during construction," says McElroy.
Hart agrees. When you establish trust and respect between your two firms, that unified purpose will come through to the client. "They'll see this greater whole, and the potential for a better, more efficient process," she says. "The bottom line for the client is, Let's get this done on time and with good service. It helps them see that there's more manpower, more brains thinking about it, more teamwork—it's an advantage to them."
Hart Wright Archtiects and Studio Bergtraun collaborated on this residential remodel and addition in Lafayette, California, in 2009. Photo courtesy Studio Bergtraun
6. Never, ever let go of the client's hand
In this perhaps overextended metaphor, the client is your child. Their experience of your partnership should be seamless. Like all parents, you must pretend to be omniscient.
Don't confuse the client with too many staffers, advises Hart, who has tag-teamed with Bergtraun in the past. "In my partnership with Alex, we've had convenience things where while I'm not available, [he's] available, and we become one," she says. "We are completely in sync."
To make that juggling act work, you must keep each other in the loop, says Bergtraun: "You have to make sure that both parts of the team know the answers so that the contractor doesn't call up on a Friday afternoon when one of you is gone and the other is just like, 'I have no idea.'"
7. Sort out the money stuff behind the scenes
Hart suggests presenting the client with just one bill—you don't want them to feel like they're paying twice. Try to manage your costs, too. "The client has an agreement with you to pay a certain fee, and if your fee is going to be double that, they're going to go somewhere else," says Bergtraun. "You have to look at the bigger picture and find a way to structure your fees. Maybe the two of us are working together, but only one of us is doing drafting work and we go for a lower fee on that."
If all this sounds like a ton of effort for half the fee, consider the intangible benefits you'll gain from working together, says Bernstein. "As long as we can pay our bills in the short term, the efficiency to be gained by learning from somebody you're teaming with—where you didn't have to invent this or learn that yourself—is worth more than any little profit on any one project," she says. "I'm less focused on the short-term gain of maximizing the fee than on capitalizing on what we learned in the partnership."
8. Stop hiding out on LinkedIn and develop your network offline
After years of school and unpaid internships, pro bono work may be the last thing on your agenda. But it's a great way to meet other architects who may turn into good collaborators in the future, according to Bernstein. "If you want to test out a relationship, finding a smaller, non–high stakes moment to develop communication and working style is a really great way of doing it," she says. Bergtraun seconds the idea. "The people that tend to do pro bono work tend to have their hearts in the right place," he says, "and so you meet a group of people that you just want to hang out with."
A new residence in Sea Ranch, California, completed in 2012 by Studio Bergtraun. Photo courtesy Ron Bolander
9. Set aside time for your own interests (really!)
When you run your own practice, you're on 24/7. Your personal life and professional life become one. But that doesn't mean your social life should disappear. Quite the contrary, says McElroy: "If you're involved in a chorus or you're in a particular outing club or you go to a particular bar, you might meet people, and collaborations might come out of that."
And remember: Your clients are people too! Take the time to find out what you have in common with them, adds McElroy. "They invite you to do things with them, and they bring you into their life," he says. "It's an interesting and rewarding relationship."
10. Make sure you pursue the work you really want to do. No one else can do that for you
Pursuing collaborations and securing joint projects is really time consuming. Is it worth it? For Bergtraun, it comes down to what you want you want your career to be. "What do you want to do with your life?" he asks. "Not to get too serious, but you're here on this planet, you've decided to be an architect, and you have a certain amount of time to do this work. So how do you want to use that time? You can do the safe thing where you make sure you have enough work to bring money home. You could also be a little bit experimental and spend some extra time to pursue some new things. Sometimes you hit a brick wall on that. But if you do it enough times, you'll find that some avenues open up that change things completely."
So how to do that? "It's keeping your eyes open, traveling," Bergtraun continues. "From my experience, clients who are interested in this journey are also clients who travel, clients who have other hobbies. Not just people who work all the time. They're interested in their lives, and if you can show an interest in their lives and that you have a life that you're trying to open yourself up to, things will happen."