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The eight-year itch: when and why do architects decide to go it alone?

Collage new practices
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Architects who decide to set up on their own make the leap, on average, eight years and eight months after qualification, new research has revealed

The findings were uncovered by insurance broker PolicyBee which polled more than 100 people running their own UK practices about the timescales and reasons for venturing out alone.

PolicyBee head of customer service Kerri-Ann Hockley said: ‘These findings throw out the traditional school of thought, which was that most architects set up their own practice later in life. They’re actually doing it much earlier, in their early to mid-30s.’

Indeed the survey found that around one in ten small practice bosses had set themselves up immediately upon qualification. And a quarter had no clients when they started their new business.

Dicky Lewis – one of three partners who founded White Red Architects in 2017, a few years after qualifying as an architect – said the culture was changing.

He said he thought television shows such as Dragons Den and The Apprentice; shared working spaces such as WeWork and Campus London; and the app-based start-up community had all inspired change in the way architects carved out their careers.

‘We are finding more and more people in their 30s starting up practices,’ he said. ‘There is an entrepreneurial buzz around and it is extending to architecture.

‘We run a collaboration group of young practices. It bridges the gap between finishing your Part 3 qualification and setting up as a business. We put on events and expand our network.

‘There is a new attitude where we all look to engage with each other rather than hide our secrets away. We are having a Christmas pub crawl – it’s a fun community.’

Four in ten small practice owners who quit a bigger firm made the move within a year of having the original idea to break away

More than half of the architects that PolicyBee surveyed entered the profession with a plan to go it alone and run their own business at some point in their careers.

The survey found that four in ten small practice owners who quit their day job at a bigger firm had made the move within a year of having the original idea to break away. Half of those polled admitted they had no money when they started their business.

Two-thirds of respondents said they were happy with their decision and fewer than one in 10 would advise against the move to self-employment.

Hugo Hardy, who set up his own Hertfordshire-based practice Hugo Hardy Architect in 2012, following a decade as an employed architect, said he was motivated by a desire for creative control.

‘I love what I do and I am happy with my work,’ he said. ‘I feel this was the right decision for me. My expectations of success have always been measured or reserved and thus I’m happy.’

The control and ability to be selective about projects and improved income is worth it on its own

Hardy advises others to be motivated and realistic if they want to run their own practice.

‘The basic requirement is that you have something to say or do. If you want something other than what the work offers, you will always be unhappy. But if you are willing to accept what is at hand and enjoy it then you will be happy.

Part 2-qualified architectural designer Richard John Andrews started his own eponymous studio last summer, working from a studio he built in his east London garden.

‘I had learnt what I felt I needed to at an intense period of experience at Foster + Partners and other smaller practices and paid close attention to how to make architecture a business,’ he said.

’Bucking the trend and going out on my own even before qualifying has been an amazing experience – not without its challenges, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. The work-life balance is so much better, the control and ability to be selective about projects and improved income is worth it on its own.’

He expects the swell of self-employment to continue.

’Architects are dreamers and have always been, but now more people are recognising that with an efficient business to back you, it allows you to dream bigger than you ever thought possible and grow your practice.’

Nine in ten architects polled by PolicyBee said they experienced challenges when setting up their own business. These included managing invoicing, tax returns and other financial requirements; trying to win business while servicing existing clients; and adjusting to a lack of guaranteed monthly salary.

Lisa Raynes, who founded the Pride Road design franchise, said it was important to think about the realities of running your own firm.

‘There are challenges around winning clients and managing finances,’ she said. ‘Architects thinking about setting up their own business should know that the grass isn’t always greener. Yes, there are loads of benefits to running your own practice but it’s tough work too – plus you don’t have the safety net of a guaranteed salary.

’But there is support out there, as well as some options such as setting up a franchise with the support of a bigger brand to help you find your feet and find success.’

Paula Trindade was inspired to found Studio Lisboeta in London, 12 years after she qualified in Portugal, after experiencing a lack of suitable employment opportunities once she became a mother. 

‘Starting my own practice was the only way to balance my family life with my passion for design and architecture,’ she said. ‘Starting a new architectural practice for this reason and without much planning was a big challenge that has provided me with a very steep learning curve and great personal growth.’

Her tips for other prospective practice owners include seeking coaching in business and resilience as well as remembering to have fun. 

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Readers' comments (1)

  • 'Part 2-qualified architectural designer Richard John Andrews started his own eponymous studio last summer, working from a studio he built in his east London garden.' The elephant in the garden room. A part 2 that owns a home in London with a garden. There are other drivers behind how / when one sets up alone that are not covered here.

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