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The Coach: ‘I don’t want to ditch my staff every time work subsides’

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Careers expert Matthew Turner advises a practice principal struggling to handle the peaks and troughs of the business cycle

I’ve moved from being a sole trader to taking on staff when I have projects. When the work level subsides, I have kept the staff on while searching for new work, to demonstrate I have the capacity. Yet should this search not bear fruit, years of profit will have been squandered on salaries. I am not having the usual architect’s gripe about fee levels – I earn well when busy. But how do I manage to go from flat-out delivering one project to having nothing on the books? 

Matthew turner

There is little more frustrating than seeing the well-oiled machine of an active office with efficiently working staff splutter to a halt – and you resort to stop-gaps such as subletting workspace to pay the rent, rather than getting the next sustaining job. You’ve identified a main challenge of running a small business. I find it incredible that architecture schools barely touch on the basics of business, even though many architects end up running one.

Riding the peaks and troughs of the business cycle is hard. My hunch would be that, like many architects, your time spent on a job is not proportional to your fee, with a long tail of involvement post-planning consent, as the intrinsic uncertainties of the construction process suck in your time and attention.

The time to be looking for the next job should really be straight after winning the first one

Too often, architects feel a huge duty to a project once it is being designed. This is admirable, but perhaps not good business. I frequently see architects give away more time than they need to when things beyond their control happen; other businesses would work hard either to not allow this to occur, or ensure they were paid for it. 

It may seem obvious, but the time to be looking for the next job should really be straight after winning the first one, and keeping a tight rein on your time spent in relation to the fee charged. 

Try also to think creatively. Why do small practices operate so separately? For example, is there scope for pooling staff resource, or outsourcing, to iron out some of the issues you identify? 

Another way is to develop the type of work you have; to be more income diverse. Are there opportunities to add either regular income (why part-time teaching works well for some), diversification of services (say, BREEAM assessments, visualisations), or even find passive income (property being the most obvious possibility). 

Any or all of these might be relevant or not to your skills, resources and interests, but my point is there are a number of business models. Serial, one-off architectural projects can work, but this model of working can be at the least consistent end of the spectrum. 

AJ coach Matthew Turner is an architect and careers consultant who runs the Building on Architecture consultancy. To contact him with your questions, tweet @TheAJcoach or email him in confidence at hello@buildingonarchitecture.com 

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