Lay your foundations well

Whether you’re building a commission or your own business, getting the fundamental structure right is the key to success

In the nine years between the first and second editions of my book ‘Starting a Practice’, a lot has changed in the prospects for new architectural practices. And as one might expect perhaps, much has stayed the same. The good times have been, gone and, for a few, might even have come back again. Such has always been the rollercoaster ride of running a practice and not only in the early years. While much of the core advice still holds good, especially around putting in place a robust business plan, what has become clearer over the years is that the decline of the general architectural practice has continued slowly but relentlessly and if you are to succeed you are ever more likely to need one or more specialisms, a strong and particular ethos and/or a determined approach to design that marks you out from the crowd of companies selling building design services. Just being an architect doesn’t hack it any more.

What this means is that before setting up a practice, serious time needs to be spent thinking about and shaping your new venture; your offer to potential clients, the way you are going to operate, your business culture and your design approach and capabilities. In short, you are going to have to design yourself a practice and give the process as much care, creativity, attention to detail and time building it as you would on your most significant architectural project.

In his 2004 book ‘The Modern Firm’, John Roberts discusses the need to design both the strategy and the organisation of your business and suggests elements that need to be considered: people, architecture (structure, governance, internal agreements etc), routines and culture. While Roberts is writing about the very largest of firms, the same principles equally apply to any humble start-up practice and, as with design, time spent at the beginning sorting out a brief, considering options and identifying the core parameters of the business proposition is unlikely to be time wasted.

You have to give the process as much care, creativity, attention to detail and time as you would your most significant architectural project.

In this spirit, 'Starting a Practice' is arranged in the familiar structure of the RIBA Plan of Work (now the new one) and takes the process of practice design through a series of iterative stages, from strategic definition to evaluation. At the core of this is a chapter equivalent to part of Stage 4 (technical design) on business design that deals with the way that you understand, reflect on and shape the working elements of a practice. There are four of these.

Practice culture

This defines the sort of business you intend to run and in particular the way you will treat both your staff and yourself. It will help to ensure that you run a professional, competent and even happy firm, and keep you in line with the law, your insurer’s and society’s expectations and also your own vision for your practice – whether it is to achieve social change, win the acclaim of your peers or make a worthwhile living. This is where its ethos fits in, as well as the management structure that will allow you to stay solvent and the working methods that will keep you sane and help you to run jobs efficiently and effectively. Practice culture probably wasn’t much discussed much at architecture school, unlike the very different next element.

Design culture

This deals with the way you design as a practice. If successful, a good design culture will eventually turn a series of individual projects into a coherent body of work. This may be a matter of style, but even more importantly it should focus on issues of practicality, cost, sustainability and building performance. A strong design culture may be difficult to maintain at the outset as you are pushed about by the insistent demands of clients, planners, builders, budgets and the need simply to get on; but ultimately it will be what your practice is judged on, even above the personality of individual partners or directors. A clearly structured approach to design and a well understood design methodology should be laid out in advance of any individual project so that you can explain your intent cogently to clients and waste no time getting on with the work when you are appointed.

Service delivery

A separate design consideration, service delivery will also flow from these two. What is it you will provide to your clients and how will you go about it? As with other service-oriented businesses a lot will depend on whether your immediate outputs keep your clients well informed, and feeling consulted and generally cherished. Will your drawings and reports have a house style? Will you always attempt to be positive and fully on top of your brief at meetings? How much time will partners give to individual projects?

Practices and policies

While these will reflect your practice design in more formal terms, they are also important in communicating your underlying principles to clients, staff and outside bodies as well as to important players in the life of your firm – such as bank lenders and insurers. Some clients, especially in the public sector, may require sight of your stated policies, especially on issues such as employment and environmental standards. In the long-term practices and policies will form the basis of a quality assurance system, but more immediately they should be there to help you establish and define your practice design.

Finally there are two issues should be fully considered as design problems from the outset of setting up a practice that initially will not seem too pressing.

Information management

How you will deal with the endless flow of information that is attempting to get your attention; the information that you need to know but that may be elusive or even off your immediate radar; and then all the information the practice will be producing itself and that needs to be checked, issued, stored and, as necessary, rapidly retrieved? This used to be called filing but has become a problem of a different order altogether.

Knowledge management

If you are any good you will be learning how to do better all the time; developing standard routines, documents and design elements that you can systematise to help the practice work more effectively next time round; learning from past experience, successes and failures to improve delivery on future projects; and developing probably the most valuable asset of a practice, its intellectual property.  Good practice design will help capture your invaluable corporate and collective knowledge from the outset.


Simon Foxell is author of 'Starting a Practice: A Plan of Work', published by RIBA Publishing