An informal poll of recent M.Arch graduates resulted in a very interesting statistic: approximately ½ are either unemployed, working for free, or “working for themselves” though many of these new “firms” have yet to win contracts or projects. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, this statistic mirrors the national unemployment rate in the profession. For those who are fortunate enough to gain paying projects, residential remodels seem to dominate. More after the break.
Not surprisingly, residential remodels have historically formed the backbone of up-and-coming and smaller architecture firms. So we decided to solicit two perspectives about the residential market. One is provided by the architecture firm, E4 Architects and its principal, Mr. Ned Engs, AIA. Mr. Engs began interning and working summers while he was a graduate student at SCI-Arc. Upon graduation he worked for a mid-size firm and was laid off during a recession not unlike the current one. He opened his own firm two years later and since then his projects have spanned the residential and commercial spectrums. The other perspective comes from the Prudential Real Estate affiliate The Bryant Group. Mr. Matthew Bryant and Mrs. Mahvash Bryant, whole hold a law degree and an M.B.A., respectively, possess experience that ranges from real estate sales and rentals to property management. Throughout they have worked with many vendors, including architects.
Let’s start with reality. The consensus from both the architectural and real estate perspective is, obviously, that money is tight. People want to make their dollars stretch as far as possible. So what are some better business strategies? Says Mr. Bryant, “Before the economy turned sour, everyone was making money just by showing up for work. Now you have to work harder and smarter. In the case of real estate, technology has revolutionized our business.” In fact, the use of networking tools to generate interest and business cannot be underestimated and is often touted by architecture business consultants like Marjanne Pearson and Nancy Egan. Mr. Engs offers similar observations, “We explore every opportunity for work by keeping in regular contact with business associates and clients; leveraging online tools like Facebook, LinkedIn, Yelp and our own website.” That said, engaging these tools must be done wisely and in a meaningful manner: no one wants to be spammed by asinine quips on Facebook or they run the risk of the “hidden” button. Moreover, nothing replaces good, personal service. That means being thoughtful about the client’s needs, honest about what one can really offer, and respectful of what the client says. “Intangibles like trust and confidence may be more important than ever before,” says Mr. Engs. Mr. Bryant concurs, “The internet can never replace such things as personalized customer service.”
Nevertheless, the fact remains that the economy appears to be merely limping towards recovery (though officially the recession is over). Yet there is a silver lining. Mr. Bryant observes, “Statistics show that other than some occasional upheavals, the trajectory of the housing market is always up over the long term.” What’s more, those buying are clearly serious. That is good news for smaller and newer firms because it means that there is work to be had. The kind of work available, however, is different from pre-recession.
The key seems to be innovation. Mrs. Bryant observes that for those who purchase homes or investment properties, the goal is no longer large-scale remodel or repair. Instead, the emphasis is on strategic renovations and repairs that creatively enhance the property while keeping costs down. Mr. Engs elaborates: “My clients are thinking more creatively…Now it’s a lot more interesting: modify existing workspace for live/work; design a compact living space for my aging mother at my existing residence; create a guest quarters on a ranch that is in stark contrast to the main house. Commercial is still slow, but we’ve seen a pattern in the past: commercial is first in/first out; residential lags and their cycle is far lengthier.”
In fact, this is potentially a good opportunity to exercise true innovation both in design and business. That bodes well for those planning on hanging up their own shingles. What’s important to remember, however, is that these economic times demand new approaches in every aspect of the profession. How? Mr. Engs advises, “Stay lean, creative and forge alliances with people. These networks will help in the future. Focus—you can be a jack-of-all trades but as the saying goes, you’ll be master of none.” As to the business aspect, he reminds that, “a lot of operating a firm is about sales.” Indeed, the new creativity may just include creative thinking, and that must surely now include how to run an architecture business. Better.