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Firm Operations

Pushing the Envelope of Architectural Services During Changing Times (English)

In contrast to many firms limiting their menu of services to only the basic services described in AIA documents, your firm should always seek additional services to offer your clients and prospects.


After four decades in the industry as a practicing architect, software developer, and business consultant, I have realized that architects suffer from the most unusual handicap; they are often pigeonholed by their own training and the industry’s spotlight on building design, leading to a narrow view of the broader potential of their skills. While their education arms them with formidable design and technical abilities, primarily geared toward creating buildings, it simultaneously restricts their vision, making them believe that this is the only path they should pursue. In contrast, lawyers and doctors are recognized for their ability to adapt and apply their core skills across diverse roles in the marketplace, from administration to policy-making and beyond. Architects also have this potential, yet it remains largely untapped as the allure and recognition often focus on traditional paths and iconic structures.

The Status Quo

The recent AIA Firm Survey report provides data on the various services members offer. I will touch on services I believe are conspicuously missing in a moment. Here is the list in descending order of participation by members: 

Between 55% and 97% of members provide the following services:
• Architecture
• Interior Architecture & Interior Design
• Pre-Design Phase Services (programming, master planning, strategic planning, feasibility study, site plans, site selection process)
• Renovation / Adaptive Reuse 

~30% of members provide the following services:
• Zoning / Code Compliance
• Sustainable / Resilient Design and Certification
• Space Planning / Test Fits
• Pro Bono / Public Interest Design
• Historic Preservation 

~20% of members provide the following services:
• Community Design Processes/ Engagement
• Design-Build
• Urban Planning and Design Development
• Construction Project Management
• Capital Needs Assessments

~10% of members provide the following services:
• Program Management
• Project Cost Estimating
• Design Development
• Expert Witness
• Graphic Design
• Landscape Architecture

~5% of members provide the following services:
• Forensic Architecture / Damage Assessment
• Energy Modeling
• Practice-Based Research / Evidence-Based Design
• MEP Engineering
• Structural Engineering
• Building Commissioning

Being Nimble

It is my firm belief (pun intended) that every business, regardless of size, should constantly consider its service offerings and alter its business plan to accommodate new services that respond to changes in the marketplace or anticipate upcoming trends. In my experience, architects rarely look at their business this way. More than any profession I know, architects limit their menu of services by offering only the standard, basic services described in AIA documents. Your firm should always seek additional services to offer your clients and prospects. The new services can be considered a completely new revenue stream or something you can provide to existing clients in addition to your standard services. To an audience more attuned to business economics, I would suggest these are services you can “upsell” to your clients.

The list of architectural services currently offered by your peers is a fine place to start. I advise looking at your geographic market and seeing which services, based on your understanding of market demands and upcoming trends, make the most sense for your firm to consider. Then, update your business and strategic plans to accommodate these new services. Don’t take on more than you can chew. Consider just one new service your firm can offer and begin to “market” it. Create a thoughtful webpage dedicated to the benefit your clients will receive from such a service and your firm’s capabilities. Think about this from a client's perspective: Why should they care? How does this benefit them? What does it look like to engage with you in this process?

Add Value to Your Assets

You are a creative professional. Your ability to analyze a situation and find creative solutions is your stock in trade. I know most firms apply their incredible, creative skills to benefit their clients while neglecting the problems and needs of their own businesses. Remember, your clients own the assets you have poured all your creative juices into. Typically, you get nothing out of all that value besides fees for your services (and we know that these are never enough). So, start applying all those skills to create more value for the asset you own: your firm.

Possible Services in Your Future

Consider some lesser-known services, as they will diversify your offerings and provide your firm with more flexibility, increased differentiation, and greater resilience as our industry continues to be impacted by the economy and, dare I say, Artificial Intelligence. The world is rapidly changing, and we are at risk like never before. If you think your firm is well-positioned in the market and immune to the effects of AI, think again.

Virtual Reality Experiences: Odds are your architecture firm is either currently using VR to offer immersive previews of your architectural projects to your clients or dabbling in this technology. Either way, we all understand VR's extraordinary benefits, especially to clients incapable of visualizing your set of drawings and renderings. Once you start using VR, you appreciate how it informs your design decisions long before you present them to your client. But don’t stop there; you can extend this technology to create virtual tours for museums and historical sites, or even virtual staging for real estate.

These institutions don’t have the skills to handle these technologies in-house. For firms that have mastered the VR experience, be proactive and approach the institutions in your geographic area that can benefit. They are probably not thinking about this—but with the right proposal, you can sell the benefit and help them drive interest, membership and contributions.

Furniture and Product Design: Your understanding of materials and structure can be applied to designing bespoke furniture or household products, blending functionality with aesthetics. One of the keys to business success is your ability to make money while you sleep. Too many firms believe their skills are providing architectural design services (every hour counts) but forget that the assets you design have value. Most of your projects are buildings, and your client owns that asset. All the great design skills you brought to the project don’t bring any value to you, but to your client. Imagine you created designs for furniture and other household or business products and made these available for purchase on your website or through a third party. People around the world shop 24/7. There is no better feeling than waking up in the morning and seeing money rolling in while you were sleeping.

You don’t need to invest in inventory. Your creations can be licensed to others or you can create a supply chain that begins with each purchase. By marketing your design elements on your own website, you broaden the public’s understanding of your talent, skills, and usefulness.

Graphic and Digital Design Services: Architects' presentation skills are amongst the most impressive in the visual arts. Whether it is creating a presentation for a competition, or for a community board, your firm has skills with software tools that far exceed those used by graphic designers. Create a division within the firm that exploits these talents and markets them for unique client needs such as marketing materials, digital presentations, website design, etc. If you are uncomfortable leaving the confines of the AEC industry, start by marketing your talents tailored for construction and other design firms.

Brand and Identity Design: This could involve creating a comprehensive visual identity for buildings or complexes, including logos, signage, and wayfinding systems. But, again, you don’t need to limit these branding skills to your existing projects or only to building systems and developments. Your ability to solve physical problems through the built environment is easily adapted to solving brand and identity design problems.

Disaster Relief and Modular Housing: Designing quick-assembly shelters and other modular housing solutions can be an essential service, especially in disaster-prone areas. This doesn’t need to be restricted to disaster areas either. In many States, affordable dwelling units (ADUs) are becoming popular, and your ability to capitalize on this trend is not difficult to achieve.

Heritage Conservation and Restoration: Using your detailed eye and training for historical styles, your firm can specialize in the preservation, conservation, and restoration of historic buildings. As construction costs climb and the inventory of aging buildings increases, firms that market their ability to revitalize existing buildings for new purposes and protect the historical integrity of deserving buildings are seizing an inescapable opportunity.

Space Planning and Efficiency Consultant: With the knock-on effects of having more people work from home, your firm can build a business division around optimizing space in offices, homes, and public places to enhance functionality and energy efficiency.

Lighting and Landscape Design: I don’t know a single architect who doesn’t incorporate lighting and landscape design into their work. We do this as a natural result of our standard services. However, formally defining these services will enhance your control over the aesthetics and bring efficiency to the process.

Acoustic Design: Offering design services focused on the acoustics of spaces—essential for concert halls, theaters, restaurants, and even offices is not a high bar to accomplish. As with lighting and landscape design, yes, you will have to have engineering skills to develop, but this isn’t rocket science and should be of concern anyway. Now, highlight this to your client as a critical component for a successful project and earn fees for the service.

Temporary Installations and Pop-Up Designs: Designing temporary structures for events like exhibitions, trade shows, or temporary marketplaces is a natural extension of your skills. What is missing is the marketplace's ability to connect the dots between their needs for these items and your firm’s ability to deliver them.

Art Installations and Public Art Projects: Use your design skills to create sculptural and artistic installations in public spaces. Once again, all that is missing is the prospect's ability to connect their needs to your firm.

Accessibility Consultant: Your firm can easily capitalize on the opportunity to ensure spaces are accessible for all and provide expertise in designing inclusive environments that comply with legal standards. You don’t need to be an “ambulance chaser,” but there are ways to market your services to those who will benefit.

Urban Farming and Green Roof Design: As urban farming grows, your firm should consider marketing green roofs and other urban agriculture projects that blend aesthetics with functionality.

Policy Advisor for Urban Planning: Consult government and municipalities on urban development, zoning, and sustainability policies based on your architectural expertise. You can do this pro-bono to better position your firm for upcoming projects.

Educational Workshops and Seminars: Teaching design thinking, architectural software, or DIY home improvement projects, engaging with the community, and promoting design literacy are more ways to illustrate you and your firm as thought leaders and be top-of-mind in the community for a variety of opportunities that can capitalize on your skills.

If I had more time, I could continue. There’s almost no end to the amazing things architects can do beyond designing and constructing buildings. Only two things are missing: your ability to market your diverse talents and the public's ability to connect you with their needs.

For more advice on running a successful architecture and professional services firm, visit BQE University. 

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