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How to start an Architecture practice that sets you apart from the rest
March 29, 2021 at 12:30 PM
by Sagar Oke
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There was a time when starting an architecture practice meant you needed years of work experience, a large office space, dozens of employees and tonnes of supplies. Today it is 100 times easier for a young architect to start his/ her own practise with minimal investment right after graduation. Although that is tremendous, the sheer number of architecture firms and freelancers out in there has made it such a competitive market that young offices and even some of the older ones find it difficult to stand out in the crowd.

If you ask yourself, why a client should hire you and not your competitor, you might not find a satisfactory answer so easily. If you set out to find the right answer - and trust me, there is a right answer - you will realize that you have to dig deeper into nuances about who you are as an individual or a business and what are the values, thoughts and experiences that are unique to only you and no one else. The right answer does exist, but it is different for each and every practice.

Here are a few ways to determine what sets your practice apart from the rest.

  1. Self assessment
  2. Finding your niche
  3. Your Value Proposition matters
  4. Your Brand Authenticity matter
  5. Learn from your competition and your clients
  6. Be Consistent in quality and communication

1. Self assessment

Your design was probably at its peak when you were still studying architecture. Hypothetical projects that we work on in our college are pure design, a little too far from reality at times. Those are the projects that you will look back to when you try to assess who you are as a designer. You will find a common thread or two across your academic work - specific issues that you were keen to address through design, such as facades, materials, functional efficiency, adaptive reuse, conservation, context just to name a few.

You will also find that there were a few concerns that did not matter to you back then, but in practice they have become more important such as sustainability, stakeholder interests, cost optimization, BIM technology, etc. Write down all your key concerns and acquired strengths and see if your present and future body of work aligns with the same. When you set out to write a value proposition for your practice, base it on this self assessment exercise.

2. Finding your niche

There was a time when there were a very few architects around and they would take up projects of all scales, types and locations. But in today’s saturated market you are better off creating your own niche and work towards being the best architect in one or two specific categories. For clients to find you, you need to know where to find the clients and projects you want to be involved with.

Based on your interests, self assessment and work experience, you can easily narrow down your potential clientele. Your niche could be location and type specific, such as countryside residential; type and scale specific, such as small scale health care centers; or extremely specific like veterinary hospitals in the mid-western region. It is easier to find your target audience (and for them to find you) when you know exactly who they are and where to find them.

3. Your Value Proposition matters

A fair assessment of your design expertise and finding a niche for yourself help you target the right clients. But what really makes them choose you over the competition? For the client you are not just a designer, but a service provider. In order to do business with you, a client must be assured of the quality of services they would expect from you and the value you would add to the project over and above your design skills.

A value proposition briefly but vividly narrates your story as a design service provider and talks about the values that form the DNA of your company. It has to be brief and to the point. Ideally a value proposition should not be more than 3 short sentences. Here are a few great value proposition examples. Answer these questions to write a better value proposition.

  1. Why do you practise architecture?
  2. What is unique about the services you offer?
  3. What ultimately do you wish to achieve as a practice?
  4. What is it that you don’t encourage as an architecture firm?

4. Your Brand Authenticity matters

Marketing today is focussed on brand identities that the customers/ clients can easily relate to. Buying products or services has become an ‘experience’ more than a necessity. For a client to hire your firm and not the 50 other equally good designers, what matters is whether or not your proposition is genuine and authentic. Build your brand authenticity by having a clear narrative, outlining the benefits for your clients, pointing out differentiators - or things that you do differently from your competitors and convey the passion with which you do it. Make sure that the same narrative is followed through with consistency across social media platforms, websites, publications, etc.

For the lack of a better example, the moment someone mentions Bjarke Ingels (BIG) or his work, you immediately think about the larger than life propositions that are aimed at reshaping the world and animated presentations. It is the unique image that the office has created in your mind and it keeps evolving as time goes by.

Ingels has built a fawning global audience, one that reaches far beyond the ivory tower of architecture. Both his splashy clients and the public—not to mention the media—have become entranced by his straight-to-the-point communication style, his good-naturedness and charisma, and his highly imaginative (and decidedly unfussy) approach to architecture. - Spencer Bailey’s article for the Surface Magazine.

5. Learn from your competition and your clients

While assessing your services against your competitors, make a fair comparison. If there are certain aspects that your competitors seem to be better at, acknowledge the same and work on steps you could take in order to catch up to them. If you realize that your competitors’ business is going downhill, study what went wrong and learn from their mistakes.

Get as much feedback from your clients as possible. For your ongoing projects, observe where the clients may be facing issues or expect more clarity. Maintain an ongoing relationship with your past customers by way of sharing updates with them about your work. References are extremely important in our field and a satisfied client is the best marketing you will ever receive for your practice.

6. Be Consistent in quality and communication

Architecture is a slow moving process, with some projects taking a few years to complete. Be the same architect that the client hired a couple of years back. Over the course of a project, the priorities of your practice and organization may change, but you must ensure the quality of service only gets better. To make sure your entire team is aligned to the unique value system your practice is built upon, you must maintain a close connection with the architects, interns and staff that work for you.

Not only do you need to stand out from the crowd, you also need to show that you are better than the rest. I highly recommend the Business of Architecture podcast episode where Iva Kravitz shares her insights on Communicating how you’re different (and better).