Guide to architecture practices

Published: 13 Apr 2018 By Kate Marks

Architecture practices are not one-size-fits-all. While searching for your next job, it is prudent to have knowledge of what architectural practices you may come across, and which type you may best fit into.

The creative environment

Although creative companies share many characteristics, there are also identifiable types. Ask yourself which one you belong to, because that will influence much of how you approach your staff and the whole issue of HR and people management. Creative companies encompass a wide spectrum, ranging from architecture and interior design, product and graphic design, to fine art, publishing, fashion, music, TV and film. My own experience is largely with companies that could be described as being related to the built environment, so: architects, interior designers, product and graphic designers. Even so, there are many similarities across the spectrum. Let’s take a look at some common types of company in the architecture and design world and see if you can find one that best mirrors your own.

One man bands: not quite slaving over a drawing board or computer in a garret with a guttering candle, but the modern day equivalent. Driven by the desire to create and living from hand to mouth. This member of the species is common and often has to supplement more creative projects with house extensions or similar work to feed self and dependants.

Micro-studios: Started as a solo player and through luck, perseverance, talent or a combination of these, gained more lucrative or prestigious projects which have propelled the solo artiste to form a band of perhaps five or six people. Still probably working from the largest bedroom or a purpose-built extension of the owner’s house. Looking to make the leap to their own premises. An exciting place to be, where hope is high and the possibilities endless.

Small to medium boutique design agencies: Often started by a few friends from university or a family based partnership. They have a strong brand and want to keep it that way. The founders will be supported by a young and enthusiastic team of 2 juniors, largely straight from university. Very much driven by the mindset and ethos of the founders, but still desperately clinging on to the concept of creativity, client response and flexibility. Beginning to realise why the companies that they left to set up on their own had so many policies and procedures in place. Have experienced their first ‘rogue’ employee and are conscious of the time, cost and repercussions involved. These three will form approximately 85 per cent of design practices. However, the size and influence of the remaining 15 per cent is significant. These can be classified in several ways. The ‘names’: As it suggests, the name of the practice reflects the names of the owners or founders. Now rather cynical and jaded, they have developed a successful practice over 10 or 15 years and have put in place the next level of management so that they can still focus on design while someone else does the day-to-day running of the company. They have developed a niche portfolio in a couple of sectors which provides them with regular workload and income. They’ve grown to employ perhaps 25/30 staff and it looks as if they may need to grow further. This is a slightly frightening prospect and they suspect it may have implications of some sort in terms of employment and responsibility towards staff, but there is no urgency to look into it. The next level of management will do so for them. They may develop into …

Black cape architects: Founded by a famous individual, usually male, and rather orientated around his personality, ego and lifestyle. This is what most architecture students assume they will be or dream of being before the harsh reality of life in the architecture profession hits them. Highly successful in the commercial sense or in their profile, these individuals will die in harness through a combination of ego and failure to provide for the future. The attraction of working for one of these practices is to have the name on your CV. It is likely that you will learn a lot about the creative process simply by hanging on the coat tails of this famous individual, but it is equally likely that this is an unrealistic way of directing your career: your own chances of developing your own design profile are more limited, or you may not be as talented as the individual concerned.

Cooperative: Some SMEs may go down this route, for instance, where the company ethos began with ‘we all studied together and got on well, so let’s start a business’. This may sound like the practices described above, but it is different in that it has kind of settled into itself. There was no ego strong enough to wish to become a black cape architect. Those who founded the company, hired staff and acted as mentors to hone their design talent and management skills. A very egalitarian company where the founders do not take exorbitant salaries or take all the kudos for the work produced by the practice. They still enjoy what they do and pass on this love of design throughout the company. Graduates and less experienced staff members love it and learn a lot. These companies save the tortured souls that emerge from university wanting to change the world and help them to find a way to make a difference or make their mark in the profession without needing to have their name in lights above the highest building in the world’s national capitals.

Business disguised as ‘design’: Big, big, big, except when the economy crashes and they cut their cloth (and staff) accordingly. Often international, they see no limit to their horizons. Probably the most commercially astute, they have robust systems and procedures in place for almost every aspect of their work. Typically very competitive in their salaries and with good benefits and compensation packages. They may compromise on design and tend to be client focused rather than innovative. You need to be able to play the political game to get on, as well as developing the hide of a rhino. A great training ground, you’re unlikely to fulfil your creative dreams here, but can make use of the generous opportunities for training and development to make some steps to your own self-actualisation.

Family: Tend to be long established with a broader demographic than most creative companies. They are able to engender a great deal of loyalty and long service. Their reputation as a caring company is not ill founded. However, the route to the top is likely to be through length of service. They are founded on a somewhat paternalistic hierarchy, almost like an apprenticeship scheme; you may hear: ‘we had to do it, so they can too’ regarding working through the night, hours redesigning lobbies and toilets, filing drawings, and so on. These companies provide perhaps a more secure working environment than most. Their designs and creativity are unlikely to set the world on fire, but are generally of a good workmanlike standard. Again, this is a fine training ground for a structured approach to work. The law is unlikely to be broken ever because the level of risk is minimal. These examples illustrate the wide variety of creative environments that exist. They also illustrate the vastly different approaches to people management that can occur. No one type of working environment will fulfil the needs of all creative individuals. Ultimately, people generally gravitate towards the environment that suits them best and best enables them to express their creativity.

Extract from HR for Creative Companies by Kate Marks. Available from RIBA Bookshops

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