expand your practice

Should you expand your architectural practice?

May 24, 2017
  • Article by Penny Craswell

While there are some benefits to keeping small, many architecture firms seek to expand, utilising strategies such as an active approach to business development, growth into new sectors leading to more projects, and hiring policies to increase staff numbers. But there can be hiccups along the way, which is why it’s vital to consider the infrastructure and systems that must be put in place to make growth beneficial and avoid overreach or instability.

In a small practice, administrative tasks, IT, HR and marketing may be done by the architects and designers themselves, but when businesses reach a certain size, it is best to hire specialists who can dedicate their time to these tasks.

Turner is an architecture studio that has grown from seven staff at its inception in 2001 to 100 staff 15 years later, which is a growth rate of about 20 percent per year.

Victoria Square North by Turner. Photo courtesy the architect.
Victoria Square North by Turner. Photo courtesy the architect.

For this practice, the appointment of general staff over the years has facilitated its growth, starting with an IT manager, then a full-time HR manager. “Having someone full-time in that job, which coincided with the GFC (global financial crisis) tailing off and architecture starting to pick up, made such a big difference, and contributed to our growth,” explains Turner managing director Karl May.

Next was a business development manager who was able to identify new business opportunities for the practice, followed lastly by the creation of the managing director role itself. “When we were a small practice growing, at some time I was the IT manager or the HR manager,” May says.

“Now, the management team set the direction and I liaise with different parts of the practice to make things happen, giving us new strength to drive bigger changes. You need to put the structure in, otherwise you end up getting stuck at a certain level.”

Union Balmain by Turner. Image courtesy the architect.
Union Balmain by Turner. Image courtesy the architect.

The history of Turner’s high growth goes right back to its first years in practice when it secured one particular repeat client with many projects, which, in combination with some early architectural competition wins, secured a pipeline of projects very early on.

The practice’s hiring policy is bold – the team is unafraid to hire staff even when there is no project for them to work on yet. “Our growth strategy is organic, but it’s high growth. We believe that if you hire the right people, the work will come to you,” says May.

Rosebery Avenue Phase 4 by Turner. Render courtesy the architect.
Rosebery Avenue Phase 4 by Turner. Render courtesy the architect.

Koichi Takada describes the question of whether to hire the staff first or wait for the projects as a bit like the chicken and egg. But, more important for his practice, Koichi Takada Architects (KTA), is ensuring the studio’s culture is reinforced. Communicating with and educating his team on the practice’s particular approach to design has been vital as the studio has grown.

“My clients come to us because our product is unique. Without a strong concept there’s no point in doing it,” says Takada. “Design is the DNA of the practice and the office has to facilitate this. You need to show the culture and philosophy, and how we draw.”

When the studio was small – up to 15 people according to Takada – this information was passed on naturally. Past that point and it needs to be formally taught. “When you expand, you need office support and proper infrastructure. But, most importantly, you need to create an environment where each employee can perform at their best, including me.”

East Village Retail by Koichi Takada Architects. Photo by Tom Ferguson.
East Village Retail by Koichi Takada Architects. Photo by Tom Ferguson.

For Koichi Takada, the growth of his practice has been fast, but his approach to life is not. “In our busy business lives and fast-growing economy, I encourage people to ‘slow down’ and think more before we make rushed decisions,” he says. “In my practice, we see every challenge as an opportunity.”

It was during the GFC in 2008 when the world ‘slowed down’ that Takada decided to establish his practice, which now numbers 45 staff. “I saw an opportunity in the industry. As design and construction businesses across the board struggled, it became, to my eyes, a more level playing field.”

Cave restaurant by Koichi Takada Architects.
Koichi Takada Architects.

Even though the practice now has numerous architecture and interior projects across a number of sectors, for Takada it is very important to keep a boutique approach to design.

“I started with a white desk and an empty sketchbook, with infinite thoughts,” he says of the studio’s beginnings. “Even today Koichi Takada Architects carries the tradition of starting every project fresh from a blank sketchbook.” This way the practice aims to come up with original designs for each individual client.

“My clients come to us because our conceptual approach is unique and the outcome creates a point of difference,” says Takada. Creativity is the lifeblood of the practice and, as the practice has grown, it has become increasingly important to communicate this approach, which focuses on unique and innovative designs inspired by nature and contemporary urban life.

Cave restaurant by Koichi Takada Architects.
Cave restaurant by Koichi Takada Architects.

Up to 15 people, this information is passed on naturally, but as the practice grows past that point, it becomes important to create an environment where each employee is working according to the same creative design process, which is at the centre of the practice.

Koichi Takada Architects’ early business and design success centred on restaurant design, for which the studio became well-known. But the business really began to expand when the practice was able to extend into other sectors and start doing large, architectural projects.

Infinity by Koichi Takada Architects. Render courtesy the architect.
Infinity by Koichi Takada Architects. Render courtesy the architect.

Takada says: “Designing restaurants gives us a lot of freedom. We love experimenting with innovative concepts in our restaurant projects.” Now, the unique qualities that Koichi Takada brought to signature restaurant projects like Cave, Tree, Shell, Ippudo Sydney and Zushi are also being carried into private residential and multi-residential design. The studio has several large architectural projects under construction around Australia and is about to announce its first international project.

While growth isn’t everything – some of Australia’s most awarded architecture studios choose to remain extremely small – it is important when you do grow to get it right, outlining the vision and principles of the practice, recognising where there are gaps in personnel that need to be filled, ensuring infrastructure and policies are in place, and reinforcing the culture of the practice at every step of the way.

Lead image: Arc by Koichi Takada.

This article originally appeared in AR148 – available online and digitally through Zinio.

Interested in more architectural business advice? Read the pros and cons to producing a monograph here.

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25 May 17 at 1:19 PM • ST

Growth is directly related to cash flow and cash flow is directly related to the amount of fee income from projects. If your located in a state where there is a critical deficiency of commercial projects and developers who will engage with architects (even once let along repeatedly), then growth remains serious risk to the ongoing sustainability of the practice.

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