business staying power

How architecture practices can overcome business challenges

May 24, 2019
  • Article by Deborah Singerman

Projects stall, prized associates land jobs overseas, the economy in your specialist field tanks and off-the-plan apartments go way, way off. How do architectural practices plan for – and cope with – the business of staying in business?

“I’m not sure that you can succeed as an architect if you don’t have a good dose of resilience,” says Adam Haddow, principal director at SJB Architects.

“Our job is to find something – within a brief, from a site, within the context – and exploit or refocus that to leverage experience and convince clients to win rewarding work. We need to shift people’s opinions or expectations about what it is they want, or what they think is necessary or important. This takes persistence and, I would contend, resilience.”

This is against a backdrop of forces out of your control – and what a difference it makes when they are favourable. For Alec Tzannes, the 35 years or so of his studio, Tzannes, have been relatively stable.

As its founding director, he reflects on what he believes “has been a reasonable time to practise as an architect. The underlying forces that shape our workload have increasingly favoured the development of the discipline and improved integration with society”.

Aiding this, he cites “for New South Wales, the mandatory use of architects for multi-residential projects above a certain scale (State Environmental Planning Policy 65, circa 2001) and the creation of the City of Sydney Local Environmental Plan, mandating Design Excellence from about the same time, both securing structured roles for architects that previously did not exist”.

Nevertheless, architects can never rest easy. Winner of the 2018 Australian Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal, Tzannes believes the following skills and values will benefit architects whatever the circumstances:

  • “relevant knowledge and practical skills
  • ethical values and behaviour (and working for entities that share these values)
  • maintaining professional integrity (reputation), and
  • design distinction and excellence on well-founded evidence (not just media perception).”

Resilient practices also “treat all staff respectfully, reflected in ethical workplace behaviours including above- market remuneration and employment of motivated, talented people encouraging their development as a whole person as well as their professional attributes,” he says.

This is consolidated by ensuring that “people feel part of the design process and are properly acknowledged for their work to clients and the broader community”.

Haddow agrees. Even during the most heartbreaking times “when work dries up”, he believes that “you do everything you can to pedal faster, to eke something out of nothing”. These are tough words that challenge practices to not only maintain “the status quo of running the business”, but also stress the need to create new opportunities and direction.

During quiet moments, “you have nothing to lose and generally a lot of time to be able to commit! Resilience in this realm is about moving forward when often everything around you is pulling you back!” he says.

Tzannes adds that when the business is under stress, it is still important to protect “values [and ensure] margins are maintained”. Stay “consistent in the marketplace to ensure all clients get the same message about who we are, what we cost and what are our points of difference,” he says.

Organisational adviser Sue Leslie has an informal, but best-adhered to, bottom line. She recommends having “operational systems understood by staff, communication channels well established, flexible work arrangements and a culture that values trust and diversity, and is free from discrimination, stigma and bullying”.

“Without these matters properly understood and managed, there isn’t a business to talk about or worth being part of or worth investing in,” Tzannes says.

Cash flow and diversity

A practice is not sustainable, however, unless finances and operations are under control, Haddow contends. Resilience stems as much from “leaders of the business creating the right conditions for excellence as it is about delivering excellence itself.

Architecture is a collective exercise. To achieve something great, we need people to be striving for the same ambition within conditions that allow them to be their best… scaling the business accordingly, providing clients with quality assurance, within an environment that supports people, considering their differences and life shifts from early career through having families and later to finding balance and fulfilment”.

Haddow says SJB’s embedded culture “supports a fair, even and equitable workplace”. The firm is now focusing on diversity as an essential ingredient of resilience. “For too long the middle-aged white man (of which I am acutely aware I am one) has controlled the industry,” notes Haddow.

“We are focusing on helping to create pathways that make it better for everyone who
is a part of our studio. As far as I am concerned the receptionist is as critical to our success as the directors are.”

To the joy of many in Sydney’s architecture community, Haddow opened The Architect’s Bookshop
in Surry Hills at the end of 2018. “In retrospect, this was a small act of resilience. It provided a place for the general promotion of architecture in Sydney, and an opportunity to design
a bespoke retail shop. When you are spending your own money, you’re doubly committed to getting it right!”

He says non-architects thought him mad, but those in the industry said, “and you have to get Anne [Proudfoot, who ran the Australian Institute of Architects’ bookshop Architext for 28 years], and I did.”

Haddow and the store manager know that a bookshop is more than a place to buy books; it is also a place to survey what is happening in the world, and where “you bump into friends and colleagues”. And it is on such tangible intangibles that a profession’s resilience rests.

This article originally appeared in AR159 – available online and digitally through Zinio.

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