Support team

This is the 8th instalment in a series of 10 articles where we attempt to categorise chronologically and thematically the list of things you will need to start your architecture practice, and furnish it with the glimpses of insight we’ve accrued during the first three years of our architecture practice, Mihaly Slocombe.

8. Support team

team

When: Progressively
Importance: High
Cost: Moderate
Difficulty: High

A big part of your success as an architect stems from the people with whom you surround yourself. This goes for your accountant and lawyer as much as it does your consultants and builders. Unfortunately, there is no shortcut to achieving harmony within your professional relationships: your only reliable path is years of trial and error.

Your accountant and lawyer will help you set up your company if that’s how you choose to establish your practice. Then accompanied by your banker and insurance broker, they will provide ongoing support for your tax returns, business activity statements (BASs), salaries, contracts, insurances and banking needs. We do our own banking and 3 of the 4 BASs each year. We have our accountant do the June BAS, along with our tax returns, to make sure everything adds up at the end of each financial year.

Having the right accountant is important: avoid those who think of themselves as a facsimile of the taxman as much as those who are happy to cheat him. Your accountant should be able to help you realise as many tax efficiencies as you can within the reasonable confines of the law:

  • If you are doing very well financially, and earning within the highest (45c in the dollar) or second highest (37c in the dollar) personal income tax brackets, having a company structure might allow you to keep money in the company at a lower (30c in the dollar) tax rate.
  • Even if you are not doing so well, you can still benefit from tax deductions and GST input credits. You will need to keep all your receipts of course, and possibly a logbook for some activities like transport and travel, but there is no reason why you can’t claim the GST back on all of your business expenses, as well as deduct: architecture books, stationary, printing costs, lectures, conferences, office equipment, travel to and from building sites, and architectural pilgrimages overseas. Architects may not get paid much, but loving what we do means plenty of potential tax deductions.

When it comes to specialist consultants, there are as many as you can possibly want: structural engineer, quantity surveyor, land surveyor, environmental consultant, landscape architect, traffic engineer, geotechnical consultant, mechanical engineer, fire engineer, heritage consultant, disability access consultant, town planning consultant… Just to name a few. You will generally need to seek quotes from multiple consultants for each project to satisfy your clients that their fees are fair, but it is worthwhile pushing for those who do good work, understand your needs and work well with you.

It is good to maintain contact with at least a couple of each type of specialist consultant. Some projects will be more suited to particular consultants and there is always the possibility that a consultant might be too busy to take on a new project.

One realisation that has dawned on us over recent years is that putting up with inferior work from your consultants, or trying to reduce their fees for your clients by reducing their scope, only means that you spend more time covering the holes, time for which you are unlikely to be paid. The fairest outcome for everyone involved is to do your job as an architect as diligently and thoroughly as possible, and expect the same from your consultants.

Builders should be carefully selected and nurtured as with all of the aforementioned individuals, but doubly so. To put it in the clearest possible terms: the wrong builder will ruin your life. He will transform what should be the most enjoyable phase of any project into the most upsetting. You will be stressed, overworked and unhappy; you will dread visiting site, the place where your dream of many years is taking physical shape; and worst of all, you will very likely end up with a building that falls well short of your expectations. We have had one such experience, about which we may one day write a lengthy article, and we will never work with the builder in question ever again.

Finally, learn to speak the language of everyone in your support team. This is most relevant for your project work. Architecture is a complex animal, with many stakeholders possessing many priorities. Learn to speak client, planner, engineer and builder and you will go a long way to helping those around you buy into you project and, in so doing, help you make it better.

Cashflow

This is the 7th instalment in a series of 10 articles where we attempt to categorise chronologically and thematically the list of things you will need to start your architecture practice, and furnish it with the glimpses of insight we’ve accrued during the first three years of our architecture practice, Mihaly Slocombe.

7. Cashflow

money

When: Soon
Importance: Moderate to high
Cost: Cashflow does not cost, it earns
Difficulty: Moderate

To put it bluntly, you are not going to make much money during the first few years in your new architecture practice. Dare we say that you may not make much money during any years of your architecture practice. In fact, if making money is your goal, we recommend you stop reading this blog right now and become a project manager: according to My Career, you will earn on average $55,000 more per year than you will as an architect. Architecture is a great source of passion and happiness but it is not a great source of income.

If you’re still reading, we take it you’re still interested in starting your own architecture practice so you’ll need to know about cashflow. Evidence shows that only 50% of small businesses survive five years and only a third survive ten. A big part of this is to do with cashflow, that is, the money coming into your bank account so that you can spend it on the endless things that keep your business afloat.

This list will include some or all of: salaries, rent, utilities, insurances, registration, memberships, library, professional development, equipment, petrol, stationary, consumables and many more. Most items are spaced out fairly evenly across the year, but some, like insurances and registration, arrive in the form of annual payments and require forward planning to accommodate the extra financial load.

Invoices to your clients should be regular, monthly is ideal. Invoices spaced out according to project milestones will make your cashflow more erratic than it needs to be, as well as demand large, concentrated payments. You will do well to avoid sending out invoices for project phases whose output your clients have not yet seen, but otherwise don’t be afraid to charge for the work that you’ve done. Much easier for your clients to swallow (and consequently much more likely to get paid) than a $15,000 invoice every six months are $2,500 invoices every month.

Our invoices are due within 14 days of receipt and on average are paid within 11 days. In the event of invoices that are not paid on time, be diligent about sending out reminders: hopefully your clients have simply misplaced / forgotten the first invoice and will remedy the situation immediately.

If you find, as we do, that despite your best efforts your project invoicing is haphazard, or even if you don’t have quite enough work to keep you busy, we recommend you seek complimentary salaried work. The emphasis here is on complimentary: if you can avoid it, don’t get a job working at McDonalds. You can seek part time contract work with other architecture practices, you can teach, you can write. We have been teaching construction and design subjects at the University of Melbourne for the past 3 years. In addition to helping our cashflow considerably, during semester making up about 30% of our income, teaching provides a welcome outlet from, and re-energises us for, the regular work of our practice.

Electronics

This is the 6th instalment in a series of 10 articles where we attempt to categorise chronologically and thematically the list of things you will need to start your architecture practice, and furnish it with the glimpses of insight we’ve accrued during the first three years of our architecture practice, Mihaly Slocombe.

6. Electronics

laptop

When: Soon
Importance: High
Cost: High
Difficulty: Moderate

This is the most expensive part of establishing your architecture practice, though you can save costs by utilising electronic hardware you already own. As a minimum, you will need a computer, printer, modem and camera. Probably the biggest decision you will make will stem from the operating system you choose: Mac or PC. With the resurgence of Apple market share over recent years, most software is now available on both platforms. The exception to this rule is Autodesk’s Revit, though its competitor, Graphisoft’s ArchiCAD, is and has always been built for the Mac.

We were introduced to Apple’s OS operating system while working at Perkins Architects before we established Mihaly Slocombe. We have never looked back: we run Macs and only Mac-compatible software. We would be lying if we said we weren’t seduced by the Apple product lineup, though their reliability, seamless hardware / software relationship and sophisticated interface are also very attractive. A decent Macbook Pro will set you back around $2,500. A similar iMac will set you back around $2,000.

Unfortunately, specialised software is an almost impossible financial ask for a young architecture practice. To purchase the minimum necessary software packages like AutoCAD, SketchUp, the Adobe Suite and Office for two users will cost around $30,000, plus ongoing annual upkeep. This is easily equivalent to your entire first year of earnings. This reality makes us angry: software manufacturers are clearly out of step with the buying power of small businesses. Suffice it to say, you will do what you need to do.

Invest in the best internet connection that’s available to you, and couple it with a good modem, wireless router, wireless printer and network attached storage device. We recently purchased Mac Airport products that together establish a very reliable wireless network, far superior to the Netgear devices they replace.

The need for a physical server is a thing of the past. We use Dropbox and love it: automatic syncing across all our computers and mobile devices, instant backups of our work, zero hassle. A 100Gb account with Dropbox will cost you $100 a year, nothing compared to what you would have had to spend on a server. The network attached storage device is for those of you who, like us, are pedantic and paranoid: a tertiary backup system on site just in case the internet breaks down. We have discussed the advantages of Dropbox and Cloud computing in general in this recent article.

Finally, while the camera attached to your smartphone is adequate for most circumstances, it won’t be of much use in low light conditions or in the tight confines of internal rooms. We recommend you invest in a compact digital SLR like the Sony NEX range of cameras: they are significantly cheaper than their larger digital SLR cousins, but still boast interchangeable lenses, full manual functionality and great image resolution. The Sony NEX3N costs $950 including one prime and one zoom lens.

The studio

This is the 5th instalment in a series of 10 articles where we attempt to categorise chronologically and thematically the list of things you will need to start your architecture practice, and furnish it with the glimpses of insight we’ve accrued during the first three years of our architecture practice, Mihaly Slocombe.

5. The studio

office chair

When: Soon
Importance: High
Cost: Moderate to high
Difficulty: Moderate

Though it’s entirely possible to work at your kitchen table in your pyjamas, do your printing at the local Officeworks and meet your clients in a local cafe, you will soon find that these are rituals of distraction. Do not be fooled by the warm sense of accomplishment you get after cleaning out the fridge or hanging out a load of clothes: these are tasks for before 9am and after 6pm. Put effort into developing alternative rituals of productivity: we have found that performing our work in a dedicated working environment is the first step to achieving this.

In your working environment, at the very minimum you will need as many desks as you have workers and a separate space to take meetings. You will also need storage space for your project and administration folders; samples and trade literature library; and stationary.

We have yet to take the leap to a formal studio, but have reached a compromise that at the moment works perfectly for us: our studio is in our spare bedroom (16sqm) with sufficient desk space for two people together with all our storage requirements, while our dining room (13sqm) doubles as a meeting room, with a wall of architecture books bestowing a satisfyingly architectural energy. Not quite as official as a separate studio space, this setup is much cheaper than having to pay the additional rent and utilities, has a 10 second commute time and allows me to be around whenever our 1 year old son does something new and amazing.

We dress for work every day: jeans and a shirt are sufficient, only architects meddling in corporate environments need be slaves to the suit. This might go without saying now that we employ a student, but beforehand there was always the temptation to stay cosy and snug in tracksuit pants and hoodie. Resisting this temptation lends a noticeable improvement in attitude to the day’s work.

For hardware, we make do with an A4 colour bubblejet printer, though should probably upgrade to an A3 colour laser. We have an account with the inestimable Creffield Digital Print for anything larger. We have staplers, hole punchers, paper stock, envelopes, arch lever folders, cutting mats, model making material, stamps, plastic folders and plenty of pens. Printers are not expensive, though ink cartridges are. Do a bit of shopping online for these consumables, and you will save a great deal.

For furniture, we have a pair of beautiful Aeron chairs, an investment in good posture and healthy backs. For the rest, remember you’re an architect, so your desks and bookshelves can be both well designed and extremely cheap. Our friends and colleagues at Foong and Sormann use Ikea legs with a sheet of formply as their desks. Bookshelves can use strips of plywood strung between stacks of bricks.

The law

This is the 4th instalment in a series of 10 articles where we attempt to categorise chronologically and thematically the list of things you will need to start your architecture practice, and furnish it with the glimpses of insight we’ve accrued during the first three years of our architecture practice, Mihaly Slocombe.

4. The law

lady law

When: Immediately
Importance: Critical
Cost: Moderate
Difficulty: Moderate

Boring but important, to get started in your new architecture practice you will need to address a number of legal requirements. Many architects skip elements of this step, possibly judging that the legalities are time consuming and obstruct true creativity. Be wary of anyone who tells you to “just start working and worry about the law later”. The whole point of the law is to have it set up right from the beginning: we take the view that true creativity flourishes when we’re not worried about being uninsured, having a poor client agreement or getting sued.

The following list is only relevant for Australian readers; for everyone else we recommend you check your local tax, registration and insurance legislation:

  • You need to incorporate a company, create a partnership or at the very least register as a sole practitioner with an Australian Business Number. We opted to set up our practice as a company. It was more expensive but offered the greatest financial flexibility and legal protection: its very purpose is to protect its directors and staff from being sued. A simple company will cost in the order of $2,000 to establish.
  • You need to be a registered architect in the State or Territory where you are practicing. Registration as an individual costs around $200 a year.
  • You need to have professional indemnity insurance. It is a requirement for registration and is designed to protect you in the case of professional negligence. We use M and R Insurance Brokers and pay $1,350 a year, though for comparison’s sake, Architeam offers an interesting cooperative insurance package that is cheaper but requires you to donate some time each year to various activities.
  • Public liability insurance is also a good idea and protects you in the event that a guest hurts herself in your studio or if you and your staff damage something outside your studio. It costs around $400 a year. If you have staff, you will also need WorkSafe insurance, which is designed to protect you and your staff should you or they get hurt.
  • You need to have templates for contracts with clients, employees and builders. We have gradually and continuously refined ours to reflect the way we work and embody the lessons we’ve learnt from past mistakes. The Australian Institute of Architects have very good contract sets available for purchase, along with a vast array of useful practice notes available to members. The awkwardly named Blue Turtle Management and Consulting, whom we have discussed previously, also offers some useful contracts and templates tailored to the architecture profession.

Additional insurances and legislation requirements, of which there are many, can be addressed when you need them. There’s no need to pay for director’s insurance, register for GST or register to practice in other States and Territories any earlier than necessary.

Identity

This is the 3rd instalment in a series of 10 articles where we attempt to categorise chronologically and thematically the list of things you will need to start your architecture practice, and furnish it with the glimpses of insight we’ve accrued during the first three years of our architecture practice, Mihaly Slocombe.

3. Identity

mihaly slocombe

When: Immediately
Importance: High
Cost: Very low
Difficulty: Easy

Your identity covers all things that represent you and your work: your name, your logo, your stationary, your digital presence. This part, put simply, is fun.

What will your practice be called? You might name it after its principal architects as we have done, or after the location of its gestation, or perhaps after a driving philosophy of design. Our decision here went like this: we felt our work should speak more loudly than our name, and, considering that we were not interested in locking ourselves into one single idea, nor creating a dynasty to outlast us, we wanted our name to be tied to who we are. Hence Warwick Mihaly and Erica Slocombe became Mihaly Slocombe.

What will your domain name be? Ideally, it will be the same as your practice name: it’s worth checking availability prior to deciding. We opted for a .com.au suffix because we felt the .com version is more American than international. We also suggest observing the lesson that we, to our detriment, ignored: you will need to spell out your domain name many times via phone, so keep it short and phonetic. Reserving your domain name will cost around $20 a year. Hosting an email account – infinitely more professional than a Gmail account – will cost around $110 a year.

What will your logo and letterhead look like? To start out, design these yourself: it’s cheap, satisfying and will equip you with all the digital files you need to tweak your contact details as you evolve. This is what we did. Once we’re more established and can afford the outlay, we will have a graphic designer put together an holistic identity package: logo, letterhead, business card, website, twitter feed and blog among others. This is likely to cost anywhere upwards from $5,000. When we do so, we will try very hard to treat the designer in the way we like to be treated: we will brief her with our aspirations, then let her surprise us with her ideas.

How will your website function? Undoubtedly, the website is to the 21st Century what the business card was to the 20th: it is where your entire public profile begins, so make it good. We built ours ourselves (with the help from a few tech friends to get over the really tricky bits) using a freeware content management system called Drupal. It’s like a skeleton website onto which you bolt the components you need. However, having now spent a lot of time managing both it and this blog, we suggest WordPress is an even better way to start: it has a sophisticated back end that lets you track every manner of usage statistic, but is fast and easy to set up and allows you to build in complexity as you need it. WordPress.com sites are free.

Finally, keep in mind that your work should and will speak much more loudly than your identity, so don’t take it too seriously. As you mature, as your practice evolves and your tastes change, you can always update it.

Clients

This is the 2nd instalment in a series of 10 articles where we attempt to categorise chronologically and thematically the list of things you will need to start your architecture practice, and furnish it with the glimpses of insight we’ve accrued during the first three years of our architecture practice, Mihaly Slocombe.

2. Clients

clients

When: Immediately
Importance: Critical
Cost: Priceless
Difficulty: High

With the exception of a small number of studios that carve a successful career through competition work, clients are your gateway to income. These are the miraculous people prepared to pay you to do what you love: make architecture. In the beginning, they are likely to be your family and friends. As time goes on, your circle of clients will expand to include friends of your friends, then to colleagues of your friends, and finally to complete strangers.

The number of clients you need differs depending on the sorts of projects they are offering you and the magnitude of your fees. As discussed previously, our friend and colleague, Steve Rose, started his practice with four projects. We established ours with three good ones worth between $500,000 and $1,500,000 each. The two more expensive projects turned out to be pipe dreams and soon died, but the smaller project survived and was joined by others, generally more modest in scope.

If there’s any secret to be uncovered that will help you attract new clients, it’s to do good work then put it where people can see it. We put ourselves out into the physical and digital worlds as much as we can, talk passionately about architecture with our friends and family, and generally stay open to new opportunities. It’s rare that any of these activities result in direct commissions, and almost certainly not straight away, but it’s important you build your presence in the minds and lives of people around you.

Nurture your opportunities carefully: each client embodies the potential for many more. Strangers years down the road will come to you based on the work you do for your family today.

There is one small but outrageously important detail concerning clients that we never fully appreciated until we started our practice. When you work for someone else, a project that goes on hold for town planning or pauses for a lengthy client consideration period means little: your boss simply gives you some other work to do. When you work for yourself, projects on hold = no work = no income. Such lulls can be filled creatively: we entered a design competition during a quiet month at the end of 2011. These days, our financial obligations make such lulls harder to endure. It is important therefore to maintain momentum on your projects, keep them moving along as quickly as you can, and if you’re able, space them out so you always have something to do.