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You Survived: Introduction: Your Firm Survived the Recession - Now Foster a Thriving a Practice.

By Michael S. Bernard, AIA, and Nancy Kleppel, Assoc. AIA
June 14, 2011

Editor’s note: This is the first in an exclusive series that will present a broad spectrum of ideas related to professional practice and how to better run an architectural firm.

At all times, it is essential to have a vision of what you want your practice to be. Without some idea of the future it is hard to plan. But, how do you make that vision come about?

In both good times AND bad, it is useful to sit down periodically to ask questions such as:

•           Where do we want to go?

•           What kind of work do we want to be doing?

•           What do we want to be known for?

•           What do we value as architects, professionals, designers?

•           What makes sense for us at this stage of our personal, professional, and firm evolution?

The answers to these questions define a firm.

Over the course of the coming months, we aim to provide a comprehensive overview of business strategies essential to the support and sustainability of a successful and growing architecture firm. We adhere to the idea that an architectural practice is, first and foremost, a business enterprise. Good design needs good business sense to make it possible. Good business is not a distraction but, rather, clears the way, allowing us to think clearly about design without the day-to-day worry of how to keep the lights on.

At the same time, we will present an accessible approach to allow firms to perform a self-analysis, which can reveal what a firm at the crossroads should do next. This process is intended to improve your ability to get your arms around complex decision-making – both about the existential reality and the core values and attributes of the firm. This may also be a transition analysis. Here, our objective is getting the results of the analysis and then applying them in the decision-making process, all with the objective of determining how to move forward.

We will follow this overview with subsequent articles and useful “thought-exercises” that specifically focus on the components creating this vision. In some instances, we will present universal challenges that affect firms regionally or nationally. We may illustrate these challenges with anecdotes from design firms that have held fast to their visions and, by doing so, have kept their operations on solid ground through the recession. We will articulate several specific points critical to this success, several tools or strategies that firms employ to manage change, to adapt to an unpredictable economy, and so on.

We don’t propose to have solutions to every issue, just observations and opinions. Now is an important time to be sure not to waste resources by going after the wrong work – or after the RIGHT work with the wrong strategy. We emerge from a deep and durable recession with limited resources at the very moment when we need them the most. Now, more than ever, principals – and firms – have to be very smart as to where it is worth investing these scarce resources. We also have to be savvy to developments in our markets as they happen, and to understand the meaning of these developments.

Our objective is to present concepts and strategies that are simple to understand and implement. These concepts are intended to be actionable, restricting our focus to a manageable number of points, which are supported by anecdotal solutions devised by design firms, scalable to firms of different sizes.

The importance of having a vision is our focus. Not the specific vision, but rather the imperative of having one. Our objective is to present pragmatic and strategic insights into creating more stable, predictable, adaptable, and, ultimately, more successful models for design firms as we face a transformed and rapidly changing business environment.

Many of the topics we will address in this series are fundamental to the successful operation of small- to mid-size design firms. In the absence of a full-time managing principal, firm owners often learn to run the business reactively rather than taking a pro-active stance. What we propose here is a strategy in which a business model is deliberately devised, guiding us towards our goals, rather than one in which we rely solely on the in-flow of projects to determine the shape of our business.

About the authors:


Michael S. Bernard, AIA, Principal, Virtual Practice Consulting, serves as strategic adviser to design and construction firms. Since founding his consultancy in 2006, Michael has collaborated with firm owners to address the range of vital functions, including: development of revenue and growth models appropriate to the size of the firm; strategic business development and marketing; and mentoring of key staff to foster their development as effective project leaders. His clients also include landscape architects, interior designers, lighting designers and general contractors. Michael is adjunct professor in the Architecture Department at the California College of the Arts, San Francisco. He recently completed his term as a Director on the Board of the AIA California Council, where he continues to act as Architect-Adviser to the Academy for Emerging Professionals.


Nancy Kleppel, Assoc. AIA, Principal, Nancy Kleppel Consulting, has pursued a career in architecture for more than 25 years. Beginning in the office of William Rawn Associates, she went on to a professional architectural education at Harvard University’s GSD and spent several years in practice. For the past 15 years Nancy has been directly engaged in the essential issues that drive firm growth and success, including marketing, business development, and firm organization and management. In 2003, she founded a consulting practice, providing integrated strategic marketing, business development, and communications services to a broad mix of clients in design, architecture, engineering, and the arts.

(click on pictures to enlarge)

David R. Tribble