Changing the default of architectural practice

The default is a starting point. Designed as a minimum viable option and path of least resistance. Rethinking your default can set your practice up for success.

Some architects start their practice like they were buying a new computer. Going with an off the shelf model with pre-loaded software and the basic hardware. Additional software may be loaded, hardware upgraded, but more often people start with the default. There’s merit to this in that it’s guaranteed to get them started. If they’d paused to consider how they might be using that computer however, they might realise that configuration is not right for them — it might not have all the software required nor the hardware to suit. The default hinders their work instead of helping. It fails to anticipate all that may be required in the future.

Many architects start practice when the side hustle they have becomes too big for them to manage on the side, or a project opportunity pops up that is too good to refuse, or they leap because they’re ready or they can no longer work for someone else. It’s all about embracing the work, the architectural projects, and it’s less often about the practice as a whole. They adopt a default practice, considering how they might deliver projects, and less often how they might establish a sustainable practice. The majority of practices start with the default: little consideration of marketing, managing staff, business development, or financial management. Those thing that don’t come pre-loaded.

The problem with the default is that it rarely accounts for change. Architectural practice is evolving. Project delivery is becoming increasingly complex. Approval requirements are regularly changing. Materials and construction methodologies and techniques progress and change. The hardware and software utilised for doing the work is ever changing too. Practice can adapt, but sometimes it’s not really what’s wanted.

The default is driven by the loss aversion of the profession. Architects seeking to recapture the roles and responsibilities that are diminishingly the domain of the profession — foremost of which are project management and associated contract administration. It’s limiting the ability of practices, and consequently the profession, to grow and evolve.

There are nevertheless many architects who have dismissed default. Quietly getting on with finding new opportunities and areas in which to utilise their considerable skills as an architect. In doing so they divest aspects of practice that no longer serve them and focus on new areas they can benefit from, are interested in and where they can make a difference.

The point here is that typically the architects rejecting the default have already started practice. They started and later shed the areas of practice they no longer wanted to be engaged for. Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know until you start. The default is useful at least in getting you started. I’ve nevertheless become curious about how starting with a default practice might be limiting the opportunity to evolve faster and take advantage of the changes happening around practice.

Architects are seldom taught enough to run a practice before they start their own. Yet there’s a large number of hugely successful practices and likely many started with the default — it’s not necessarily a hindrance. There’s likely an equal or more numerous number struggling, just getting by. It often comes down to choice. The choice, to continue the computer analogy, whether to reject the default, load different software and/or change the hardware .

How do architects find success in spite of the limitations of the default? They usually seek out assistance with those areas of practice that they’re deficient in, knowledge of marketing, managing staff, business development, or financial management. Choosing specificity in the practice, whether that’s methodological, typological, geographical, material, philosophical, environmental, services and scope, or something else. It is in thinking about what’s working and what’s not, with regard to the practicalities of running a practice or in their own fulfilment.

The thing that I’m curious about is how might architects choose not to start with the default? Alternately, if they’re still living with a practice that’s close to the default, how might they choose to change?

Being intentional about making change and rejecting the default starts with a series of questions:

What is a good fit for me in my practice? The type of work I want to do, how I want to do it and in what way.
Where do I want to be in 1 year, 2 years, 5 years and 10 years? Planning and setting goals.
Asking why things are done a particular way, is this the right way for me? Questioning the precedents, the default.
How might I get there? Being intentional, seeking help, support and accountability. Establishing a strategy and the tactics to realise it.

Are you still working with default settings or architectural practice? What do you need to question to change from the default?

Picture by Chris Kane on Pexels

Hi! I’m Michael

I’m an architect and coach. I help architects rethink their practice and support them as they uncover better ways to work. I’ve worked in architecture for over 25 years, and I ran my own practice for 14 years. I understand architectural practice from the inside out. Fun Fact: my NSW architect’s registration is #10 007 and I have a license to skill.

I believe improving practice takes asking hard questions and deep listening.

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