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Business Stability in Volatile Times: Good Design is Not Good Enough

Steve Whitehorn loves architects. He said as much to the audience during his presentation “Business Performance: Building Stability in the New Norm,” the fifth event in the Leading Architecture in a Changing World lecture series. As the managing principal of Whitehorn Financial, however, he does not love the recent concessions that the architectural profession has made to clients, contractors, and other members of the building industry. According to Whitehorn, the degradation of smart business practices impacts the ability of architects to produce good work. It also destabilizes the profession, now and in the future.

Over the course of the evening, Whitehorn touched upon a critical point multiple times: communication is key to the designer’s professional and financial success. Refreshingly, the examples he used to illustrate this concept were unconventional. Of course an architect must be capable of explaining design strategies and formal issues to owners, governmental authorities, and other interested parties. However, the ability to communicate essential payment expectations and deadlines to a client is perhaps more important to the continued survival of a practice.

As Whitehorn stated, money is a sensitive subject for architects. We like to believe that design is an art form, and that any discussion of funds sullies the integrity of the profession. The reality is that architecture is a business. Accordingly, it is the responsibility of the designer to inform the client that he or she expects to be paid – on time and in full. Moreover, designers must be comfortable discussing which services are included in the contract, which ones constitute additional services, and how additional services will be billed. Whitehorn indicated that the silver lining of these conversations is that they reveal as much about the client as they do about the architect. Good clients understand the cost associated with great design and are willing to pay for it.

Strong communication between architects and clients also has secondary benefits, since it builds a bond of confidence between the parties. Once established, a trusting business relationship can be nurtured to ensure repeat commissions. And because it costs more money to generate new clients than to manage existing ones, forthright communication can result in a reduction in operating expenses. Moreover, the shared confidence of a pre-existing connection can reduce risk because, as Whitehorn quipped, “people sue because of a lack of a relationship.” It can also help to prevent acrimony during construction, when the circle of influence around the client shifts from the architect to the contractor. The architect protects himself from risk by maintaining the client’s trust in the goals determined by both parties at the outset of the design process.

If, as Whitehorn asserted, most architects are accidental entrepreneurs, then the profession must accept that practitioners need to hone their business acumen to guarantee stability in a volatile industry. Business development, which is really the formation and maintenance of strong client relationships through direct and constant communication, should be at the forefront of every designer’s mind on a daily basis. Whitehorn’s dictum, that relationships are a verb, not a noun, must be taken to heart because, in times of trouble, good design is not good enough.

Matt Shoor is an architect, writer, and educator currently employed by Macrae-Gibson Architects. He is a frequent contributor to e-Oculus, and can be reached at mshoor@gmail.com.

Event: Leading Architecture in a Changing World: Business Performance: Building Stability in the New Norm
Location: Center for Architecture, 04.29.13
Speakers: Steve Whitehorn, Managing Principal, Whitehorn Financial
Organizers: AIANY Chapter Professional Practice Committee and Chapter staff