Know When to Run

By | business, mutterings, working with an architect | One Comment

My architect colleagues will do some nodding here.
Sometimes you have to know when to run screaming from a project or risk losing your shirt to someone who probably makes six times your income.
-If I client is in a hurry, step away
-If a client refuses to divulge budget numbers, back away
-If a client has unrealistic expectations and refuses to listen to reason, turn and start walking
-If a client wants something for free run for your life!
The mistake I have made in the past is thinking I can change someone. If this sounds like the stereotypical doomed personal relationship then BINGO. I am limited in my abilities to educate a potential or new client as to the architectural process and rely on references in the form of previous clients and builders (I always give out a list) If after all this, it is clear that the client hears what they want to hear and nothing more or less than it is time to exit stage left.
An example: A few years ago I was hired to do an addition to an old Vermont cape. The addition was to have a large family room, two studies, a bedroom suite with closets and bathroom, a utility room, a porch etc etc. This is a LOT of square footage. I found that I could make a floor plan that made them happy but the resulting massing and scale was far off no matter what I did. I got fired from the job and lost my shirt to someone who can not only afford a second home in Vermont but can afford to renovate and add on. Mental note: future Woe-Is-Me post – why didn’t I become a New York architect so I could afford to live in Vermont. In retrospect, I realized that what they were looking for visually was irreconcilable with what they wanted for a program (the floor plan spaces) The addition was to replace a small shed ell which was quite cute and a good match for the old cape and my job was to make the new addition just as small and cute despite containing 4x the space. Impossible. There will always be someone else who will tell them they can do it. Either an architect or designer who is a better salesperson than me and will do fanciful renderings with lots of flowers that make it look okay or a builder who will say “lets just figure it out as we go” and exude confidence all over the place. Yuck. I must assume they found such a person.

Year End Summary for 2009

By | business | 2 Comments

I thought I’d write a post, mostly for myself but also for those of you who are interested in the what-it’s-like-to-run-a-small-rural-architecture-firm aspect of my blog. Well, to start with, I have just had my best year yet despite the economy. I think I have achieved a “teachers salary” this year which doesn’t always happen. Around here, outside the medical profession, teachers make good money in comparison to the local average. Oh wait, there are also the aspects of being self-employed relating to health insurance, vacation time (none), higher taxes, 401k’s and stuff like that. In most past years there have been several months during which I am under-employed – time to get the firewood in and work on the barn. But this year I was right out straight with projects. I completed three new houses, one of which is finishing up construction and one just starting, four substantial addition-renovation projects, and assorted small consulting projects. I suspect that I turn out as much “work” as a 5 person firm and really should charge accordingly. I did not manage to make any progress on my dream of creating an internet home plan business (VermontSimpleHouse.com) although with another year of research under my belt, I still see a niche waiting for me to fill it. I also had some very good press. I have tried to maintain my integrity as a small-house “green” architect although in a parallel argument to the S.U.V. issue, most people think it doesn’t apply to them “How could I possibly live in a two thousand square foot house? I have two kids!” – architect rolls eyeballs. I am also trying to become a better businessman. I have done much networking with other architects, many of whom I went to school with and attended some seminars on the business of running an architecture firm. I have gained greater understanding of my strengths and weaknesses and what I can do about them. New issues have cropped up that need addressing now that so much of my initial contact with people comes via the internet. I have had some issues with clients owing me money and “disappearing” which is something I’ve heard about from other architects but something I had rarely experienced before this year. A risk one takes when working with non-local clients I suppose. I get myself into situations where I put a lot of time and effort into a problem to arrive at a solution that looks simple and obvious – then the client doesn’t believe I did anything more than sit down for ½ hour and sketch it up. Also, many times this year I spent too many hours and given out too much free consulting and design advice on projects that never materialized. On one hand I know that people really appreciate this and I enjoy doing it but on the other hand when I look up at the clock and realize that I just spent 3 hours on an email then look over at the stack of bills next to the desk, well….

For this coming year, goals include getting Vermont Simple House up and running, hiring someone to deal with my website (which really needs some work), Photographing recent projects to pursue publishing and submission to competitions, getting melons and squash started indoors in early April, racing my bicycle up Mt. Washington in July being an amazing father to my daughter and dog, husband to my wife and taking a real vacation (with the above). Anyone have a place on a quiet lake in Maine?

Robert Swinburne in Brattleoboro, VT on Houzz
Robert Swinburne in Brattleoboro, VT on Houzz

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Robert Swinburne Architect, LLC AIA, NCARB, CPHD, DAD bob@swinburnearchitect.com 802.451.9764
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