An architecture firm is only as good as its people. Here are a few tips for attracting—and retaining—the best in the business.
By Nate Berg
From entry-level interns to top-tier management, the business of architecture relies on smart workers [staff]. To stay competitive and endure an ever-turbulent job market, design firms need to recruit the best and the brightest while holding on to the skilled talent they already have.
Look for Inquisitive Minds
When seeking new talent, New York–based Robert A.M. Stern Architects partner Graham Wyatt, AIA, says firms should look broadly at the candidates’ talents. Architectural ability and design skills are obviously important, but they shouldn’t be the only factors considered. “Look for people who are broadly educated and, beyond that, people who are inquisitive about the world, who are not just one-dimensional,” he says.
Incentive High Performance
Rewarding employees based on the quality of their work will push them to excel and make them feel appreciated. Robert A.M. Stern Architects uses a system as part of a profit-sharing model that, when the firm is in the black, issues an additional bonus to employees based on annual reviews. “The principle of it is important to the culture of our firm, which is to reward people at all levels so they feel that they’re pulling in the same direction,” Wyatt says, “and that’s really essential to our success.”
Respond to Shifts in Supply and Demand
The layoffs during the recession may seem like fresh wounds, but the market has recovered. Demand for architects is high now due to increased work and a limited supply of professionals. “Twenty to 30 percent of the architectural workforce left in the last recession, so the talent pool is much smaller,” says David McFadden, CEO of Consulting for Architects, a staffing agency. Firms need to recognize that it’s a seller’s market. “Architects are just not sitting on a department store shelf anymore.”
Regular performance reviews are crucial for employers to track progress and for workers to get positive feedback, constructive criticism, and, ideally, a chance to request a raise. Communication is mutually beneficial, but it sometimes doesn’t happen enough. “In some firms, the annual review only happens every two or three years,” says Herbert Cannon, president of consultancy AEC Management Solutions. “That can be demoralizing to employees.”
Be Less Picky, Hire More Quickly
A dearth of architects means employers need to adjust expectations and perhaps lower their hiring standards. The perfect candidate simply might not exist. “There’s still this perception that there’s people available that meet all of your criteria. But in fact there’s not and so you need to make a quick attitude adjustment,” says McFadden. To top it off, the limited supply is in such demand—the candidates you want may be under consideration by other firms. McFadden suggests acting quickly: “Shorten the time from receiving a résumé to scheduling an interview to making an offer. … You have to be quick; otherwise you’re going to lose out to a firm that is.”
Firms need to know how to hold on to what they’ve got. That was easier during the recession when many architects were happy to have any job. But now that things have turned around and opportunities are opening up, employers need to do more to keep their workers from perusing the job boards. McFadden says firms should increase compensation for the people who stuck with them during the recession, and even more so for those who saw years pass by without a raise.
*This article was not written for The CFA Blog. This article was written for Architect Magazine.com and reposted by CFA for the CFA Blog.
Editors note: Obviously, we contributed to this article, and agree with the points Nate makes. Do you agree that the hiring trend favors the applicants?Search Careers Request Talent Join Mailing List
The entire CFA team and I are pleased to announce the completion of the rebranding of our company, social sites, and website. We wanted a fresh new look that better reflects our times and services in a constantly changing world and the professionals we represent. I described CFA to as a 29 year old “start-up” because we have always reacted well to change and our brand should reflect our unique ability and staying power. CFA was successful the year it was created, 1984, and has never looked back.
Special thanks and acknowledgement goes out to our designer Ryan Kovich. Ryan devoted several months of his valuable time and energy studying the creative world of architecture and design and contemplating our brand identity. He took that knowledge and his creative energy to bring us this great new brand. Find Ryan Here.
We would also like to thank our creative editor David Gibbons. David did a tremendous job taking our ideas, filtering out the rhetoric, and providing rock solid content that expresses our brand perfectly. Find David Here.
Finally, we would like to thank our consultants and clients who gave us their valuable input throughout this process. Our rebranding efforts success would not be possible without them.
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A fictional tale about an architect and his career
The end came for William some 1,800 miles and 26 years from where it all began. It’s an all too familiar scene. The partners gather, you’re “invited” to join them in the conference room. Eschewing eye contact, you’re told what a great employee you are, how valuable your contributions have been but, alas, they have to let you go. Can we please have your keys?
Changing the world
I think all of us believe, as architectural undergrads, that we will be the next Frank Lloyd Wright, Corbusier, or, heaven forbid, Daniel Liebskind. The heroic image of the architect (Howard Roark?) resonates loudly as we work night and day developing architectural concepts that not only are going to one day save the world but more importantly land us a job at one of the “starchitect” firms who’s work pollutes the architectural press. From there it’s on to private practice, publication, national acclaim and turning down commissions that are not worthy of our talents. You want me to do what! Don’t you know who I am? Reality? There’s no time for that! Like an architectural ponzi scheme the monster must be fed, illusions must be maintained and the next generation of architects must be trained on the ashes of those that have come before.
The first taste of the real world for William, the newly minted apprentice, comes during the job search. That is when the disconnect to the real world makes its first appearance. What the architectural press does not report (or want anyone to know) is that the “starchitect” firms are built on what is essentially slave labor. “We do not pay as much as other firms and we do ask that you work day and night but when you leave here you will have the name or our great firm on your resume!” Think of what that will do for you career! Or you can work for a second-tier firm, one that actually has work built, where you may actually learn how buildings go together who will pay you a living wage but whose name you dare not mention at architectural seminars or cocktail parties. Aah, a crossroads. Didn’t Williams’ architectural education prepare him for this?
After many sleepless nights and endless coffee house discussions with friends about pursuing your craft versus earning a living William makes his decision. He splits the difference. He takes a position with a respected second-tier firm. They do good work, their drawings all look nice, they will pay him a decent salary and he could tell his friends who he work for.. I’ll cut my teeth here says Williams, than jump to the A list with my next move!
The caste system
Excitement builds, William is on his way now! This is when the disconnect to the real world makes its second appearance. He never believed it when he heard others say that it matters where you went to school. With my talent, it won’t matter! Aah, but it does!
There are three distinct education classes in the architectural profession; Ivy League (the perceived gold standard) private universities or, heaven forbid, state or city universities. (I know, I know, there are some good state schools out there, I just haven’t met any of those grads yet. Anybody out there a K-State grad?). In the mid-eighties William was an apprentice at a mid-size, nationally recognized firm in New York City. Not a “starchitect” firm but rather a trend follower that produced middle-of the road work. As a private university grad he thought he stacked up pretty well amongst his peers except for one small thing; his lack of an Ivy League degree.
That precluded William from ever landing a coveted “designer” position, (which would have allowed him to walk around the office with a black sweater on his shoulders and Corbu styled glasses hanging around his neck discussing the tenets of post modernism). Or from designing a three-story nursing home addition that neglected to consider that the existing buildings structural system may impact the design until a column showed up (pointed out by a state university grad) in the middle of the door entering the addition (on all three floors and the entire building had to be shifted to the right). From a Yale trained architect.
Instead, he was relegated to “project architect” status, producing construction documents while directing a team of drafters (again, state university grads). It takes a while before what is happening to you sinks in. You convince yourself its good experience, you’ll have your opportunity to design your own projects at your next job. So you jump ship, looking for the Holy Grail.
The next job is always going to be different. After three or four jobs come and go the little voice in Williams head grows louder. I can do this! Look at all the idiots I’ve worked for! None of them were as talented as me. Maybe I should open my own practice. How hard could it be? Then I’ll be free to design what I want when I want it. I’ll show them! So he takes the plunge and starts his own practice.
The excitement is palpable. What’s so hard about this? He sets up his “studio”, hangs his licenses and private university diplomas on the wall and waits for the phone to ring. You convince yourself that you are different from the thousands of other firms providing the same services as you. Why is your firm better?
Because it’s yours!
The work starts to trickle in, run-of-the mill stuff but yours none the less. It won’t be long now! This may last or year or so, and the glow of the start-up is still burning. William pretends not to hear that little voice in his head. After a year or two, he’s still not doing the work he wants to do, still compromising, but hey, he’s got to put food on the table. This goes on for several years with varying degrees of success. Smaller projects are published, prestigious institutional clients are added to the firm roster and William becomes an “expert” in a project type that he didn’t even know existed prior to starting his practice. But the signature projects aren’t there, the ones that will land him on the pages of Architectural Record, and no matter how hard he tries the engine just won’t turn over. And there’s that voice again…
Reality Disconnect three
It starts to dawn on William that making a living working at architecture and creating works of architecture (or being able to look yourself in the mirror) are two separate things. “I’m not sure if it is the same in other professions but there is no correlation in architecture between talent and success” says William. Some of the more successful architects (in financial terms) that he has been associated with couldn’t even draw or think three-dimensionally. One would think that those attributes would be prerequisites for an architect, but a well trained low paid intern, tracing paper and a copy machine are adequate substitutions.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Jeff Foxworthy, the comedian responsible for the “You might be a redneck if….” comedy routines and joke books. You can do the same thing with architects says William. “You can make a living as an architect if….
-You are willing to compromise any values you may possess
-You have no problem with clients coming to you to “execute” their ideas (here’s a photo of another project we like, can you do this?)
-You recycle your designs (but change the corner roof hats to something “contemporary”)
-You have no problem undercutting your competitor’s 3-4% fee just to get the job
The architect hangs his hat on the adage ‘architecture is an old mans profession”. So we toil for years working for others or in our own practice waiting for the opportunity to show that we are not like the rest. We have talent damn it! It’s what keeps us going. And you would be surprised how long one can fool themselves thinking that the next one is going to be the one.
After several years in private practice, the little voice in Williams head starts to bellow. Is this all there is? Can I do this for another 25 years? He starts to think that private practice may not offer access to the once-in-a-lifetime commission he craves. Maybe it’s time to join one of those A-list firms? After all, look at all of the experience I have running my own practice? Who wouldn’t this expertise on their team? Well, as it turns out, pretty much nobody.
In the world of architecture leaving a private practice to once again become an employee is seen as an act of failure. Partners and principals distrust your motives, and staff can’t understand why anyone would want to give up working on their own to work for someone else. (I can understand that thinks William, it is a sentiment he shared as a young intern.) But he decides to give it a shot. “What else am I doing”, he thinks to himself? And then he realizes that after all these years nothing has changed. Architects are still being slotted based an educational bias, the people in charge don’t really have as much talent as him (if any at all) and the young generation of designers and architects leaves much to be desired.
William believes the profession has collectively suffered a death by a thousand cuts. Piece by piece our role of master builder has been dismantled. And we have no one to blame but ourselves. First it was construction management. What do we know about construction? We can’t possibly be committed to designing a project with constructability in mind, or seek creative ways to reduce a project’s cost without sacrificing functionality. Instead, we opened the door to having an intermediary injected into the architect-client relationship. What about energy efficient buildings? After all, before the “green movement” architects had been designing energy efficient buildings for thousands of years. As architects, what could we possibly know about the planning and design of “green buildings?. Obviously not much, as the profession sat idly by and lets LEED accreditation get fostered on ANYONE who can pass the exam. Need a green building designed? Call your neighborhood LEED accredited plumber!
William comes to realize that clients view architects as nothing more than a commodity, a means to an end. There is no holy grail out there, no Fallingwater, Guggenheim Museum or clients with vision. Just the same get it done and get it out of here mentality. The fire in William is extinguished as he realizes that it is nothing more than what it is.
“Sometimes you get little opportunities to make a difference, over time maybe they add up to something. But you don’t see those projects as opportunities until they’re in the rear view mirror. That’s the problem with looking for the next best thing; you can’t always tell when it’s right in front of you. Maybe it’s just learning something about yourself, about what makes you tick. I don’t know, but I’ve got another 25 years or so to figure it out. I’ll get back to you. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m wanted in the conference room.”
Don’t laugh this could happen to you….
This article was first published in 2009. It’s still relevant.
Robert Vecchione is an architect/designer and principal of the multidisciplinary firm Cobrooke Ideas-Architecture-Design (www.cobrooke.com).
And he is not William.
Does being an architect imply you’re creative?
I had someone remark recently that using the phrase “creative thinking” in my firm description was redundant because being an architect implies creativity.
Is that true?
We’ve all been in and seen our share of uninspired buildings that don’t deserve to be called architecture. A majority of the built environment is comprised of buildings. How can we all be so creative and wind up with the built environment we do? Isn’t there a distinction among architectural firms, those who fall in the more creative side of the spectrum (think Gehry, Hadid) and nuts and bolts production firms?
Doesn’t a market exist for both buildings and architecture?
If so, are there creative and non-creative architects?
Can creativity and creative thinking be quantified and marketed as a service?
Or is being an architect enough?
Robert Vecchione is an architect/designer and principal of the multidisciplinary firm Cobrooke Ideas-Architecture-Design (www.cobrooke.com)
May I ask why?
Aah architecture. The grand old profession of Wright, Sullivan, Mies and Kahn. The ability to shape cities with one’s own hands, to change lives and alter the course of history. To be Howard Roark of the Fountainhead, dreaming of blowing up your own creation because the client, a necessary evil of the profession, doesn’t share your noble vision.
So very romantic.
And so very wrong.
In the last five years the profession has shed about 60,000 jobs. They’re not coming back. Firms lucky enough to have a backlog of work make up the manpower shortage through technology. Profit margins, traditionally minute in the best of times are non-existent. Consolidation of mid-large size firms is rampant and sole-practitioners are an endangered species. The construction industry is not far away from engulfing architects in the construction process because architects use building information and drawing technologies like CAD, Revit and BIM. We’ve been commoditizing the profession for the last 20 years. That tide is not turning.
Our colleges and universities still eschew teaching the business of architecture, and graduates are ill prepared to deal with the realities of a profession in decline. And don’t dare ask them to draw. A pencil? What’s that?
Then of course there are the clients. The noble benefactors who embrace the architect for his vision, his ability turn their dreams into reality! More likely they’ve shopped around, solicited ten proposals then negotiated two or three firms down to the coveted 3-4% of construction cost fee that fits so well into their bottom line. And the architects fight tooth and nail to see who’ll reach the bottom first. Work is work.
Here’s my advice. Architecture, in its most pure form, is an art that few can understand, enjoy and appreciate. It is exhilarating.
It is not nor should it ever be a job!
It shouldn’t be bought and sold. Be passionate about all design. Architects are inherently creative. Pursue creative collaboration with other design professions. Cross pollinate. Design objects, think creatively at all times and tell everyone you meet that design matters. But practice “architecture” for yourself. Design spaces for yourself. Live in them, work in them, and dream in them. Don’t sell your ideas, your soul, your heart, to anyone. Be selfish because they don’t get it.
If you have to find another way to support yourself.
I’m sure Starbucks is hiring.
Robert Vecchione is an architect/designer and principal of the multidisciplinary firm Cobrooke Ideas-Architecture-Design (www.cobrooke.com)