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Tuesday22 July 2014

Dear Matthew: "My firm isn't like it used to be"

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BD’s agony uncle advises an architect on how to cope in a job that you no longer enjoy

Q: These past three years I have been working for a medium-sized practice, an office I started at because I really respected its work. But the things that attracted me here have disappeared. Good jobs dropped off, I was given a pay cut, then put on really uninteresting projects. I know we are in a recession, but they don’t seem to care about quality. I know I am a good designer, and feel like I am in a different office from the one I signed up to, and I could do it much better. I also don’t see why I should do my own filing. Should I stay and hope things get better?

Matthew Turner

A: I would say one thing is clear: focus on the difference between short-term frustrations and long-term aims. Other than being underwhelmed with your office, it’s not particularly clear where you want to see yourself down the line. Do you want to be running a practice? Do you prefer the security of a salary? An idea of what you want will help you turn your attitude from passive exasperation to positive — and career-enhancing.

You could well be right that your practice is run badly. In these hard times, a lot of practices out there are struggling with demoralisation. But remember, there may well be a bigger picture you don’t come into contact with. Who knows what sacrifices your bosses may have made over these past years; they are most likely taking on projects that aren’t the most exciting not by choice, but to keep your (albeit reduced) salary going out. You might be surprised to find they could be earning less than you. From what you say, it sounds to me like they aren’t treating you so badly.

Perhaps your expectations are at the heart of this. Architectural education ill prepares us for the realities of our profession — I think tragically and irresponsibly. People can excel through
the long years of study, compounding an idealised view of the architect’s daily work, concentrating on only one set of skills and disdaining others. Perhaps because the profession has traditionally been peppered with people with money behind them, the illusion is there that if you are a good designer you will succeed. Unfortunately, it’s a bit more complex than that.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with feeling you can do it better than them — many people go it alone in your situation. That is great, and I certainly don’t want to discourage you, but make that decision with your eyes open.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that being your own boss automatically means you will be able to devote more time to designing better projects. In order to financially succeed in architectural practice, some would say you need almost to minimise the time designing and maximise all the things you maybe don’t currently rate — managing, promotion, negotiation etc.

Getting to do great architecture needs much more than being a good designer — for example, interpersonal skills can be more valuable. And, at the start, you will almost certainly have to do your own filing. I am not saying stick with a practice you don’t respect. But maybe now is the time to watch and learn from your bosses’ business decisions, improve your skills and get a clearer idea of where you want to go next.

Architect Matthew Turner of buildingonarchitecture.com has worked at a range of offices as well as being a client adviser, project manager and competition juror

DO YOU HAVE A QUESTION? Email dearmatthew@ubm.com

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Readers' comments (4)

  • JBurden

    I have to admit that I do now have a much better appreciation of what bosses have to do now that I have been a sole practitioner for a year and have been faced with finding work, negotiating fees, getting paid, keeping on top of admin, marketing, meeting running costs and that's all before I even start drawing (...plus I haven't even had to deal with the issues that employing people bring - yet.). It's been a steep learning curve!

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  • Great advice Matthew, there needs to be more your type of figure in architecture - as there is a (big) problem out there.

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  • "I don´t see why I should do my own filing".....hahaha! I bet Julia Burden does her own filing and doesn´t complain. Mathew was too kind.

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  • Perhaps if the design work isn't to your pallette you may consider starting up a small outfit on your own in your spare time?

    I did just that and work full time in practice, and part time on competitions, in order to fulfill the creative void that may be created when breaking rocks to earn the fee in a busy business.

    Try it, you may just like it, and who knows what might happen if you win that dream commission? Be prepared to put the hours in though!

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