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Why Architects Shouldn't Be GeneralistsWhy Architects Shouldn't Be Generalists

 
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Posted: 02/08/12 06:16pm  Reply with quote
Why Architects Shouldn't Be Generalists

I'm prepared to catch a lot of flak from my fellow architects for this article, and look forward to the dialogue. It is my opinion that architects should be specialists in only a couple types of projects. Many of us, especially sole proprietors or those at small firms, feel that architects are problem-solvers that can design any type of project by undergoing the same linear process of design regardless of the project type. But just because we can doesn't mean we should.

My opinion is informed by my professional background. I grew up working in my father's 30-person architectural firm from a very young age. Before starting my own firm, I was trained at some hugely successful and large companies, including Gensler, and have worked full-time in the industry for over 20 years.

Large firms understand that in order to be successful, specialty niches are necessary. This doesn't mean that large firms don't design many different types of projects. They do, but they have "practice areas" or smaller groups within their larger organization that specialize. And it is not very easy for employees to shift from one practice area to another. The best firms only want employees with expertise in the type of projects they're working on unless they are entry-level employees who don't yet have any expertise.

While working at Gensler, on occasion although rarely, architects from a different practice area tried to pinch hit on my commercial interiors projects when their practice area was slow and mine was understaffed and desperate for help. This often resulted in projects going over budget and over schedule. Yet these were very bright and talented architects, some of whom worked on airports and high rises. They were simply not specialists in commercial interiors. Extreme efficiency is a necessity in order to be really successful in our industry. As large firms grow even larger and buy up or put many of the medium-sized firms out of business, it's hard to deny this fact.

When merging my firm with my father's firm, we expanded the number of our practice areas to three: office space renovations, retail bank renovations, and custom homes. My areas of expertise are offices and banks, while my father specializes in banks too, in addition to custom homes. Although we often assist each other, I won't take the lead on a custom house project even though I've designed a handful of houses. In recruiting, we hire senior employees who have completed hundreds of projects, not just a handful, within a practice area.

Having a couple niches - especially those that are counter-cyclical - is a good idea so that when one practice area is slow, the other often is not. Moreover, architecture has become so complex that it is impossible to keep up with the technology, products, building codes, and programming knowledge for more than a couple different project types. When an architect takes on a project type in which they have little or no expertise, a great deal of research is required, every detail has to be conceived and drawn from scratch, and significantly more time is spent. Therefore, they either lose money on the project, or need to charge significantly more for something that, as a general rule, an expert could do better and for a lower cost.

Historically, architects have been generalists, even master builders, and many still like to see themselves in that vein. But architecture gets more and more complicated. Some might argue that many successful doctors are generalists, but the human body is not changing that fast, not yet anyway. Most attorneys, on the other hand, do specialize in one or two areas of law, even believing that it is unscrupulous to take on case types in which they do not have significant experience. And isn't good architecture more important than good legal services? Of course it is (now I've pissed off the attorneys too, including my significant other)! With this approach, attorneys get much of their work referred by other attorneys which makes marketing a whole lot easier for them. Wouldn't it be nice if architects did the same instead of being so competitive with each other? Even if we didn't refer work to each other, having one or two specialty niches makes marketing to a specific clientele, such as bankers or attorneys, much easier than marketing to anyone and everyone who could possibly need an architect. But more importantly, why be a jack of all trade and a master of none?

Elisa Garcia, RA
Garcia Architects
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Posted: 01/15/15 04:45am  Reply with quote

When merging my firm with my father's firm, we expanded the number of our practice areas to three: office space renovations, retail bank renovations, and custom homes. My areas of expertise are offices and banks, while my father specializes in banks too, in addition to custom homes. Although we often assist each other, I won't take the lead on a custom house project even though I've designed a handful of houses.
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