How To Start An Architecture Firm

The ability of an architect to map out and build their own firm relatively early on in their career is envied by other professions due to the flexibility and freedom it provides. Whether you’re just starting out, or you’ve got years of experience working for others behind you, setting up your own business is a readily available goal. In fact, according to the Architects Council of Europe, over 4000 of the 7000 firms in the UK consist of a sole practitioner.

Before you get out your pencil and compass though, there’s some groundwork that needs to be laid, and we’ve got some top tips to help you get started on setting up your own architecture firm.

  1. Identify your niche
  2. Ensure you have the right qualifications
  3. Create a business plan
  4. Choose your premises
  5. Buy equipment
  6. Market your brand

1. Identify your niche

The first thing you’ll need to do is chisel out your niche and decide what kind of architecture firm you want to run. What makes you different as an architect? Is there a gap in the market you could fill? Or perhaps you have a specialist skill that sets you apart from the competition. By identifying your unique selling point, you can capitalise upon it to help you stand out from the crowd.

The best way to find these gaps is through thorough market research. Look at what other architecture firms are doing, how they’re marketing themselves. Keep up with the current trends and try to predict where they could go in the coming years. For example, right now sustainable architecture is in demand due to the ever-growing environmental movement.

Alternatively, you could choose to focus on a certain type of architecture, whether it’s residential, commercial, industrial or landscape. You may find that by focusing your business in this way, you’ll be able to attract bigger contracts rather than more niche projects.

2. Ensure you have the right qualifications

They say Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the same can be said of the architect that designed it. The process of becoming an architect is a long and challenging one, with years of higher education and specialist qualifications needed along the way.

First and foremost, you’ll need to have an architecture degree recognised by the Architects Registration Board. After completing your undergraduate degree, you’ll need to do around a year of practical work experience at an existing architecture firm. You’ll then need to go back to university to complete a two year post-graduate degree, such as a BArch, a Diploma or a MArch. This is where you’ll be able to hone in on a specialism, like landscaping or green architecture. Once you’ve graduated, you’ll need to complete another year of work experience before sitting the Advanced Diploma in Professional Practice in Architecture (ADPPA). Once that’s done, you’ll officially be able to call yourself an architect.

Surely once all that’s out of the way you’ll be able to get started on creating your own business, right? Well, not quite. While at this point you may be fully qualified as an architect, and able to design and create awe-inspiring structures and shape the skylines of cities across the world, that won’t necessarily prepare you for managing a business. Therefore, you may also want to look into training courses in areas such as business management, accounting and administration.

3. Create a business plan

Much like a building needs to be extensively planned and sketched out before any building can begin, a business is the same. So, now you’ve finished your training, you’re a qualified architect, and you’re ready to start your own firm, it’s time to put together a business plan.

To start off, you’ll need to decide on what kind of architecture firm you want to run. Consider what kinds of projects you want to focus on and what your style of architecture is. What are your strengths and specialisms? Think carefully about what the competition is doing, and more importantly, what they’re not doing. Is there a gap in the market you could fill?

You’ll also need to think about whether you’re going to work alone, or employ a team to work with you. For bigger projects, you’ll likely want others to share the workload, but that will come with additional salary costs. This will inform whether you register your business as a sole trader, or as a limited company, which you’ll then need to register with HMRC and Companies House. Additionally, you’ll need to make sure your premises are filed under the correct use class with the Local Planning Authority.

What do I need to include in my business plan?

Once you’ve figured out the details of your architecture firm, you’ll need to write things up. Make sure to include:

  • The type of architecture firm you want to run
  • Your niche, or unique selling point
  • Whether you’ll be working alone or will employ staff
  • Your budget
  • What funding you have
  • Where your business will be based
  • Branding and marketing

4. Choose your premises

When you first start out as an architect, working from home is a very viable option. This can save on a lot of initial costs and can be a great way to build up experience and a client base, without the risk of losing money on commercial rent if the work dries up.

However, if you’re looking to build your business and bring in bigger contracts, working from a small home office won’t cut it. For those bigger jobs, you’ll need a dedicated space to set up your equipment and hold meetings with clients. The style of the building and how much space you need will depend entirely on your business and the type of clients you’re looking to attract, but enough space to fit your desk, equipment and some comfortable chairs for meetings is a must.

Consider carefully where you’re going to base your business, as this can affect the level of client you’re able to bring in. A high level contractor is less likely to want to travel out to the middle of nowhere to meet their architect, so looking for a premises in a city with good transport links could be a great benefit. The same can be said of potential employees, who will want an easy commute to the office. However, if you’re working on a smaller scale as a sole trader, you may find that a quieter space away from the hustle and bustle is much more comfortable, and affordable.

Perhaps most importantly, you’ll want your premises to reflect your ideals as an architect. If you’re focused on sustainable, eco-friendly architecture, be on the lookout for sustainably built premises to back up your principles. Or if your niche is quirky, unique buildings, then a generic, blocky, grey premises may not be a great fit.

Throughout this whole process, make sure you’re keeping your budget in mind. Rent or mortgage costs on a commercial premises typically range from £1000-5000 a month on average, but this can vary wildly depending on the type of space you invest in.

The same can be said of the potential financial losses your business could make if something were to go wrong. From damage to your building due to fire, flood or extreme weather, to a client slipping on a wet floor and injuring themself, no matter how much you prepare, you can never completely eliminate the risk. However, by investing in a comprehensive architects insurance plan, you can rest easy knowing that whatever happens, you’re covered.

5. Buy equipment

Just like a chef needs ingredients or a painter needs paint, any architect worth their title needs the right tools for the job. Whereas this used to consist mainly of pens and paper, modern architecture has become increasingly more technologically advanced, and increasingly expensive.

CAD modelling software, for example, is essential in the modern industry, but can cost up to £2,000 a year in some cases. Luckily, you may find that cheaper monthly subscriptions are available instead, making it much more affordable.

Equipment as a whole will likely be one of the bigger up front costs you’ll face when getting your business off the ground, so consider your needs and budget carefully. Some equipment you should consider includes:

  • Desks
  • Comfortable desk chairs
  • Desk lighting
  • Drafting boards
  • Drawing light boxes
  • Rulers, tape measures, t-squares and other measuring equipment
  • Compasses
  • Pens and pencils
  • Erasers
  • Tracing paper
  • Cutting mats
  • Paper trimmers, cutting knives and scissors
  • Computers
  • CAD and other architectural software

6. Market your brand

Marketing is all about being eye-catching and peaking the interest of your potential customers. Luckily for you, architecture is an incredibly visual business with numerous ways to showcase your awe-inspiring designs and concepts.

In architecture, your main way of attracting clients is through networking. Join local business networking events, attend architecture conventions and speak to as many other architecture firms as possible. This is especially helpful if you’re a specialist architect, as you could be the go-to firm that others point towards when certain projects come up. It’s also worth entering as many competitions as possible, as winning or even just placing is a fantastic way to get your brand out there and adds a lot of credibility when potential clients come calling.

Online marketing is another great way to promote your brand, whether it’s through a website or social media. Social networks like LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram can be a great way of getting your name out there and allow you to be a part of the conversation in places where architecture is discussed. You could also consider Google paid ads, which lets you bid to place ads on the first page of Google.

If all this is too much, though, perhaps look into hiring a marketing agency to take care of the hard work for you. Bear in mind though, this can get pricey, especially in a specialist field like architecture.

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