May 12, 2009
by Jessica Sheridan Assoc. AIA LEED AP

Considering the economic downturn, retaining clients for repeat work is key. According to many of the speakers at the 2009 AIA Convention, the way to do this is by holding on to the best employees and adjusting the practice to accommodate modern lifestyles.

At the “Focus on Design and Global Practice” General Session, Craig Dykers, AIA, principal at Snøhetta, called for architects to “practice what we preach,” by democratizing and socializing the office. With a mixed office of international architects, landscape architects, and interior designers, his firm is not divided into typical studios. Instead, collaborations are formed and hierarchical titles and categories are discouraged. A committee of employees is responsible for making many of the policy decisions in the office, resulting in five-week vacation time and a narrow salary range (Dykers makes only twice as much as entry-level employees).

It is of ultimate importance to achieve a comfortable work-life balance. Panelists at “Navigating Life and the Workplace: How Leading Women in Architecture and Other Professions Balance Their Careers and Other Goals” discussed how this is possible by learning to be a good leader. Nancy Goshow, AIA, of NY-based Goshow Architects and co-chair of the AIANY Women in Architecture Committee, said that to achieve balance is to understand how much one can take on, and then take full responsibility to carry out the tasks required. Leadership requires knowing how to delegate, listening and being objective, taking risks, and prioritizing goals. All of the panelists agreed family must come first, but to be successful calls for an understanding of personal limits. If you are an asset to your firm and you are productive, stated Lina G. Telese, Esq., you will be able to keep reasonable hours, even request flex time, and maintain the value of your, and your firm’s, work.

With the country’s changing demographics, the Millennials will soon take up a large portion of the profession — if they stay in the field. Catering to their needs is important, and understanding the generational differences will help businesses on many levels.

If employees are happy, clients are happy, simply stated Patricia Saldaña Natke, AIA, founding partner of Urban Works in Chicago, at “Designing the Emergent Firm.” When hiring, Natke brings in individuals who demonstrate leadership in and outside of the office — many employees are board members and activists at local and national organizations. To retain emerging talent, her firm enters design competitions regularly to not only get new work, but to empower younger architects by allowing them ownership of designs. With summer hours and part-time employment options, the best employees enjoy the firm’s working environment, and this is the reason, she said, that they were voted the most family-friendly firm by Architect magazine.

For Frank Greene, FAIA, NY-based Ricci Greene Associates has enjoyed success because of the expertise of its employees. There are no project managers, only project architects at the firm. This encourages a culture of ideas and everyone has a personal stake in the work, he explained. Designing justice facilities is possible because the firm consists of diverse specialists, and, with two PhDs in criminal justice on the team, not everyone is an architectural designer.

Acknowledging the many various jobs it takes to run an architecture firm, “What’s Wrong with How Design Firms Are Set Up?” addressed the question about why ownership is in the hands of licensed professionals alone. While each state differs, the majority of the U.S. requires that owners of architecture and engineering firms be licensed professionals (in NY, 100% of owners must be licensed, although regulations may change this year dropping the percentage to 75%). This is a disservice to the profession, argued Joan Capelin, Hon. AIA, FSMPS, of Capelin Communications, as it deprives businesses of diversity and expansive knowledge. If employees who specialize in finance, marketing, information technology, public relations, human resources, among others, have an opportunity to partially own businesses, architects and engineers would have more time to focus on the creative development of their firms. Also, with a broader base, firms will be able to expand and market differently to new clients, stated James Frankel, Esq., a lawyer at Arent Fox.


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