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7 Tips for Starting an Architecture Firm - Tip 07: Plan It Out

 

This post is part of the How to Start an Architecture Firm series.

In February 2006, Christian, Michael and I went to work on forming our own architecture firm. The following is tip number seven of seven in our start-up strategy.

Side Note: After an almost two year break between Tip 06 and Tip 07, I thought it was about time to wrap up this series. We've had an interesting two years, surviving the recession and emerging as a viable and busy architecture firm. Enjoy!

Tip 07: Plan It Out

Architecture firm start up plans

photo credit

When architects dream of running their own firms, they often flash right to the fun stuff:

What types of buildings will we design?

What will our design philosophy be?

While these are important questions, it's important to design your business with equal thought. When I think back to Modative's founding, I don't think as much about that actual first day of being out on our own as much as the six months leading up to the launch. During this time, we met once a week to hash things out while still working our day jobs for other architecture firms. Because the three of us lived in the three corners of Los Angeles, we would either meet online (thanks ichat) or we would drive to USC at night (where we all had gone to school) and sneak into a classroom at the VKC building.

VKC USC Architecture Start Up Classroom

The VKC @ USC. Photo taken by Bobak Ha'Eri, on May 27, 2007

It was important to determine certain things before we all quit our day jobs. We didn't meet to create some exhaustive business plan that no one would read, but to determine general goals and strategies for the company. If you don't establish a grander vision from the start, two things are likely to happen:

1. You'll get too busy doing actual work (projects) and your firm will operate without a vision. This is like designing a project without clear goals or concepts: it can be done, but it doesn't lead to a great product.

2. You'll have no way to measure at whether you've been successful in achieving your goals.

One of the ways we got organized was to develop a strategic plan. The first step in that process was a SWOT analysis. SWOT is an acronym for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. Here was our original SWOT analysis from 2006:

SWOT Analysis

Internal

External

Strengths

Opportunities

1.creativity

2. team approach

3. design ability

4. “technology”

5. organizational ability

6. diversity

7. presentation

8. leadership

9. network

 

 

 

 

 

1. former employers

2. large/ diverse residential pool

3. location - los angeles

4. network-friends and family

5. real estate agents, contractors

6. development projects

7. building possibly

8. “non-architecture” projects

9. diversity of los angeles

10. money in los angeles

11. music, movie, sports industry

12. “housing buble” burst

13. having lower fees

 

Weakness

Threat

1.not having “own” portfolio

2. no professional license

3. weak “field” const. experience

4. no infrastructure (equipment)

5. other than type “V” construction

6. staff quantity

7. experience/ age

8. inefficient staff-to-principle ratio

9. publicity

10. financial resources

11. credit worthiness

1.other capable firms

2. “housing bubble” burst

3. # of firms in los angeles

4. general misperception of no need for architect

5. major markets outside of los angeles

6. having lower fees

7. lack of credit and cash

 

 

 

 

 

Looking back after six years of being in business, many of these initial SWOT assumptions were correct. Over the years we've been able to take advantage of our strengths and opportunities, while reducing the weaknesses and threats. In the end, developing a strategic plan was easy -the final document was only five pages long.

Choose Your Partners Carefully

If you have business partners, this planning process is even more critical to determine if you and your partners share the same values. We all knew each other since our early days at USC, but just as important, we had overlapping work experience prior to starting Modative, meaning that we had worked together professionally prior to starting our firm. Here's a diagram we posted on our website back in 2006 showing our experience overlap.

modern architecture firm partners experience path

Now that we've shared Modative's founding story, it's time to begin your story.

 

Use the navigation below to get caught up on all of our 7 Tips for Starting an Architecture Firm.

los angeles modern architecture firm

7 Tips for Starting an Architecture Firm

00   architect firm

00 Bootstrapping

Not a tip, but a critical theme in our start-up adventure.

posted 12.03.09

01   architect firm

01 Be Cheap

posted 12.08.09

02   architect firm

02 DIY (Do It Yourself)

posted 12.18.09 

 
03   architect firm

03 Get Advice

posted 12.22.09

04   architect firm

04 Learn from the Bad

posted 01.22.10 

05   architect firm

05 Start and Stay Small

posted 03.03.10 

06   architect firm

06 Stay Flexible

posted 04.05.10

07   architect firm

07 Plan It Out

posted 03.13.12

The bad news is that this is the last of the 7 Tips to Starting an Architecture Firm.  The good news is that we're learning and posting new tips all the time.

Stay up-to-date by subscribing to this blog by adding your email to the subscribe form. Or, if you're a technocrat, you can grab our rss feed.

How an Architecture Firm Stays Organized

 

When we founded Modative we went through a lot of exercises to create a strategic plan for how to organize the business operations of our design firm. Business operations is a subject matter rarely touched on in Architecture School let alone in most design firms. In fact, most firms operate in the same chaotic manner in which an undergraduate architecture student operates when struggling to weave an endless amount of work into a cohesive final project. Bad decisions, unclear goals, and a lack of clear action items inevitability leads to mass consumption of caffeinated drinks, all-nighters, and mismanagement of time and energy. These bad habits, first developed at a young age, are very hard to break and continuously infect most firms’ culture, becoming an endless cycle of mismanaged projects, bad decisions, and bad ideas. All you have to do after interviewing most architects is drive by after hours and see if the lights are still on or call on the weekend and see if someone answers the phone.

At first, you may think this is the sign of a hard-working office, but most likely it is a sign of poor firm culture, bad project management, and burned-out project teams. At Modative, we are all for hard work, and I would be lying if I said we never work extra hours or on weekends, but there are a lot of firms that run their studios like sweat shops. Not because they have to, but because they have no other choice. The continued mismanagement of project operations and lack of prioritizing and internal communication means mass amounts of energy are spent on tasks that may seem urgent at the time, but really are just the result of poor decision making, over-promising to clients, and a clear lack of short and long-term objectives throughout each phase of a project.

“The Clothesline”

architects clothesline wall

The first book I purchased on my iPad was Making Ideas Happen, by Scott Belsky. After reading about various strategies and concepts regarding methods for implementing ideas and achieving results, I realized it was time to revisit Modative’s strategic plan. It was time for our business operations to evolve into something even better. There is a section in the book that discusses using “progress as a motivational force.” So we modified some concepts found within the book and developed our own strategy to clearly identify action items by “surround[ing] ourselves with progress”. We start every Monday morning by sitting, not in the conference room, but in front of our “clothesline”: a wall made up of a series of horizontal steel cables from which 11X17 sheets of paper are hung from clips, clearly identifying projects, their schedules, and crucial action items that prioritize every project’s goals.

architecture firm organizationSome of this week's goals

We intentionally didn’t make each project sheet overly complicated. Each page has a project logo, a color, and a title. Each item gets assigned by the project manager to a team member, along with a due-date and a check box to show when each item has been completed.  The system allows for very little mis-communication and prioritizes each item so there is never any confusion about what should be worked on when. Our goal at the start of every week is to ensure that we are focusing our energy on things that truly matter that week, will make our projects better, and make our clients even happier. Through “visual organization,” we have been able to develop a system that has become integral to our office’s creative process, keeping us focused and even more engaged then ever before.

architects organization trench

No matter how creative the team, mismanaged office operations lead to the loss of a project’s full potential. A project may seem great in the end, but let’s start thinking about how much better things could have been if a project’s full potential was realized by a team that wasn’t dragged through the trenches along the way. Even award-winning firms suffer from disastrous mismanagement of project operations. Often, long after the AIA award is on the wall, the client and the office are still in recovery mode. The financial ramification brought on by a lack of a clear strategic planning to balance the creative excellence within a firm, can kill morale and ultimately affect everyone’s productivity let alone everyone’s bottom line. In Scott Belsky’s book he explains, “that everything in life is a project, and every project must be broken down into Action Steps...” Well, at Modative, everything really is a project. I’m just glad we are able to rely on our “clothesline” to clearly organize and prioritize our ideas and actions. This way, our clients can be confident that we will inject all of our energy successfully towards reaching their project’s goals.

Being organized allows us ample time to do what we love most: designing and being creative, while still having plenty of time to enjoy life and walk Bella, Modative's office dog.

architects office dog architecture Firms with Dogs
Bella- The early years (before lots of walks)     
Bella- after more organization (& after lots of walks)

 

Contributors to this post include Krystal Návar, Derek Leavitt and Michael Scott .

Do Architects Know Graphic Design?

 

To us here at Modative, modern architecture is really more about a way of thinking than a style. It's about doing things better, even if it means abandoning old traditional rules. We carry this same critical thinking into the occasional graphic design assignment. An example of this recently occurred with our business cards.

Architect's Business Cards

Four years after our initial order, a few of us were running low on business cards. The natural architect instinct is to redesign the entire card; however, since we're still happy with our logo and look, we decided on only a few minor modifications. Subtracting instead of adding - much like we would do in a building design - eliminating the unnecessary.

architects business card back

No changes to the back of our business card. We like the bold simplicity and abundance of orange that screams "pull this business card out of the jar for the random prize drawing".

architects business card

The front of our old business cards.

The first subtraction was an easy call: nixing the fax number. Honestly, we don't want faxes. We've contemplated eliminating our fax machine altogether. Anything that can be faxed can be scanned and emailed.

We also considered removing our physical address. The physical address on our business cards has actually been the cause of confusion over the years because it listed our mailing address, not our office location. When we originally designed the cards, we did this intentionally, because we knew we'd move our office a few times in those early years. And we did.

Unfortunately, more than one person has shown up at our mailbox for a meeting. Since we don't want two addresses on the card (too much clutter), we narrowed it down to three options:

  1. Keep the mailing address
  2. No address, but have "Los Angeles" to give people a sense of our location
  3. Go with no address or city and rely on people going to our website to find our two addresses.
creative business cards

Variations of the "Los Angeles" Option. We didn't like the way "Los Angeles" looked on the card. It was as if we forgot the rest of the address.

In the end we decided on Option 3: no address. People have much better access to the web than they did even four years ago when we first printed business cards and our website clearly provides both our office location and mailing address.


modern architect business card

The new ultra simple business card sans fax and address.

Integrating Graphic Design and Architecture

We enjoy graphic design, especially when it's integrated into the architecture, like the graphics work we did as part of the Fashion Square Car Wash remodel.

architect graphic design

New sign graphics designed by Modative.

car was sign remodel

The old sign

car  wash los angeles

Simplifying the signs at the welcome canopy.

old car wash remodel

The old cluttered welcome canopy.

For the Fashion Square Car Wash, we designed all of the signs and graphics, including business cards, coupons and staff shirts.

We've found that providing our clients with graphic design as part of our beyond architecture services provides for a strong consistency between the graphics and architecture, making for a successful project.

 

Contributors to this post include Christian Návar, Michael Scott and Krystal Návar.

Modative Architecture Joins Homeless Housing Competition Team

 

We're big believers in incorporating personality and creativity into our professional brand. In our Rethink Your Resume guide, we encouraged integration of personal interests and photos into professional resumes.

But a resume is just one step in a career. There are so many opportunities to use this strategy.

Once such opportunity was our recent team application to participate in the Urban Land Institute's 1,000 Homes Competition for Housing the Chronically Homeless in LA County.

This annual development competition asks young professionals with different backgrounds to form teams of four to eight members and submit a group application. From those applications, the judges  select five teams to participate in the competition.

Our team, called Team HETED (Homeless Empowerment Through Efficient Development), consists of five members with a variety of experience in development, construction, real estate finance, social work, and architecture. While we were confident in our chances of being selected based on our backgrounds (resumes were part of the application), we took no chances and got creative and personal with our statement of interest.

Instead of the typical, bland, corporate sounding group statement, we split our statement of interest into short blurbs about our individual personal interest in entering this competition. Our statements also include our role on the team, education background, and a small picture.

Here's a sampling of our statement of interest page for the competition application, reformated for this post:

1,000 homes homeless housing competition

Team HETED homeless housing competition
The decision to enter this competition is very personal for each member of Team HETED. While our goal is to combine our skills to create an innovative solution for the homelessness issue in Los Angeles, we feel compelled to share our individual motivations for entering this competition.
Jed Tarr Developer
Jed Tarr  Development + Project Feasibility
William Warren Group
Development Associate

Arizona State, B.A. Economics + Real Estate, 2007
I think this competition will be a great exercise and experience working together as a team and with the various city agencies to confront a serious issue that not only affects city budgets but more importantly people’s lives.  I personally expect this program to inspire my career as a developer, to include non-profit and low-income projects. I bring to the team experience in overall development, including project feasibility & management.
 
Connor Humphreys Finance
Connor Humphreys  Finance
Budget Finance Co.
Director of Acquisitions

Emory University, B.A. Sociology, 2006
This competition provides a chance for me to expand on the real estate related community work I have been involved with in Los Angeles. The competition will allow me to use my expertise and experience in order to provide a valuable service to a section of the community that often goes overlooked. Through my work in residential mortgage finance, I have been involved in efforts to provide counseling and housing solutions to Los Angeles communities that have been hardest hit by the recent wave foreclosures stemming from the mortgage crisis. I have done extensive work building financial models and projections related to real estate and mortgage investments. I hope to bring this skill set to my team to strengthen our project through building a solid financing foundation for our development. I am excited at the opportunity to work with other young professionals across different professional disciplines to bring positive change to the problem of homelessness in the Los Angeles area. I think that the wide array of expertise that each member of my team brings to the table will allow us to create a strong, comprehensive plan that will not only provide shelter for the homeless, but will provide empowerment for members of the community who have, in many cases, been forgotten.
 
Laura Leavitt Social Work
Laura Leavitt, MSW  Social Work
Columbia University School of Social Work, Masters of Social Work, 2009
                                                      
Kenyon College, B.A. Psychology, 2005
With over five years of experience as an advocate for disadvantaged communities, I have seen the life changing effects of providing housing and social services to individuals and families in need. For the homeless, housing does not simply imply having a roof over one’s head.  Housing means safety, health, community, job productivity, educational opportunity, and most of all, hope. With the same vigor that I organized a nationally recognized campaign against homelessness for survivors of domestic violence, I will use my skills in program development and community outreach to establish an innovative, comprehensive and sustainable program that will change the lives of the homeless community in Los Angeles.  My complex understanding of homelessness will strengthen our inspired multidisciplinary team and help guide the project towards a model that is both relevant and tangible, as well as effective and efficient.

derek leavitt architecture
Derek Leavitt, AIA  Architecture + Development
Modative, Inc.
Principal + Founder

University of Southern California, B.Arch + Minor Business, 2000
I love being an architect, but often feel that something is missing from my professional life. My industry is primarily geared towards designing buildings for the wealthiest sector of our population. One of the reasons I became an architect was to use design to make a difference in the lives of people whom need my help the most. This competition is the opportunity I’ve been waiting for to use my design and development skills to assist both the people that lack the basic human need of shelter and the communities that seek creative solutions to homeless issues. I am enthusiastic about the diverse skills of Laura (my sister), Jed, and Connor and our ability to create an innovative and appropriate concept for the competition.
 

Our fifth team member, Idalia Santos, was added to our team after this original application was submitted. Her knowledge of development and construction combined with her passion for homeless issues makes her a highly valuable part of our team.

Going creative and personal can be difficult. The easier approach is to play it safe and go with what's been done before. However, for Team HETED, the creative route worked as we were selected as one of the five teams to participate in the competition. Our team is now  partnered up with the City of Glendale and Path Achieve Glendale and over the next six weeks we will develop a proposal for a permanent supportive housing project in Glendale.

 

What are your thoughts on professional applications?

 

 

The Architecture Report - Fall 2009

 

What's in season this fall...

 Out
Five Minutes Ago
 In
1
  Ignoring "Green"Talking "Green"
 Walking "Green"
2 Traditional Resumes
Internet Job Postings
Creative & Bold Resumes
3
 2D CAD
Separate Programs for 2D CAD & 3D Modeling
 BIM (Building Information Modeling)
4Classic Architecture Terminology
Archi-Speak Simple Explanations of Great Ideas
5Theoretical Projects
Architecture Competitions
 Pro Bono Architecture

The Kayo Connection

 

Design

Although Modative is at its core an architecture firm, we have always been interested in expanding beyond this traditional role into both development and construction. Hence, the whole "Design, Develop, Build" tag line (see below) and philosophy. As of several months ago, I'm happy to announce that through collaboration, our push into these two other fields is complete.



Develop

As previously announced, we have had an ongoing collaborative relationship with Pacific Beacon Properties, LLC, a development company, working on two small lot subdivision projects in Los Angeles. We not only provide architectural services for Pacific Beacon, but assist with development analysis and decisions.



Build

For the "build", we have teamed up with Libiano Construction Inc., headed by Mark Libiano. We have known and worked with Mark for many years and the results have been great. Libiano Co. is also involved the the two small lot subdivision projects, offering his construction expertise throughout the design and construction process. Having a close collaboration with Mark has proved so successful, that we have decided to offer this collaboration between architect and contractor to other potential clients as a true design/build team.



The Kayo Connection

With this design + build collaboration comes the opportunity to collectively market our services as well. This is where Kayo comes in. Kayo is a long time (11 year) friend and colleague of the three founders here at Modative. She also happens to be Mark Libiano's wife. So, who better to go out there and spread the good word of both entities.

Just as we here at Modative have let you know a bit about ourselves in the profile section of our website, we thought we would give you a sneak peak into the life of Kayo N. Libiano...



Early Years

Canadian born, Kayo moved to Southern California at the age of 3 and began her training in classical ballet, continuing as an avid dancer for over 17 years. She attended dance academies in the OC, LA and even studied ballet in Japan for a year, so it was not surprising that she greatly appreciated the arts and cultures of different countries from an early age. Though, what did come as a surprise, was when she wrote in an essay in Junior High English class that she wanted to be an architect, NOT a dancer when she grew up. Her thought process was that the body deteriorates with age, but the creative mind lives on... What sealed the deal of her conviction was when she fielded comments like; “There aren’t many famous female architects in the world” or “How will you succeed in such a male dominant profession?” Kayo’s stubborn and tenacious personality took hold and she set out to prove everyone wrong.

Fight On!

The instinct to create personalized spaces always interested Kayo and she was constantly rearranging furniture, designing accessories and painting pictures on the walls in her family home. Her first sewing machine was gifted to her at the age of 10 and though dance was her #1 passion, making her own clothes and throw pillows came in as a close second of her favorite things to do. By the time she graduated from High School, she had completed 3 years of technical drafting courses as the only girl in the classes and her hopes of attending architecture school were cemented in place. USC served as a training ground where she honed her skills and where she met many of her future colleagues whom have greatly influenced her career thus far.

Experiences in the Field

Post graduation, Kayo went to work for David Jay Flood Architect (DJFA) with her friends, Derek Leavitt and Michael Scott whom both graduated a year before her from USC’s Architecture school.As a team player, she worked on several architecture and interior projects.From DJFA, Kayo took a job as Project Manager at Jacquez Marquez Architects (JMA), where she got a taste for designing high-end homes and day-spas in Beverly Hills and Greater Los Angeles.

Going Corporate

Knowing the importance of the great American Corporation on the economy in the United States, Kayo worked for Merle Norman Cosmetics as a franchise designer, where she built-out stores and oversaw installations for studio owners across the nation from Las Vegas, Chicago and New York.

One of the Guys

As girly as Kayo might appear on the outside, she has no problem sporting a hardhat and a construction belt on-site, or dealing with city officials.Whatever it takes to get the job done, she is up to the task, even if it means roughing it with the boys.Her path crossed with Christian Návar, another old friend from USC at Studio 9one2 Architecture when she moved to the South Bay. As a designer and project manager, Kayo kept the office organized and had the opportunity to collaborate on beautiful contemporary homes, commercial buildings and most importantly, developed contacts with a slew of subcontractors which are vital connections in the building industry.“It's all about who you know and how well you can keep up good public relations!”

To Have and to Hold

The little secret to Kayo’s success in architecture comes from her husband Mark, whom she dated since her senior year at USC. Being a General Contractor by trade, Mark has steered and coached Kayo through the nuances of the architecture/construction world and while letting her make her own mistakes, has above all, taught her what it takes to survive in the admittedly “male dominant” building industry. Today, Kayo works hand in hand with Mark (whom she married in 2007) to build his growing construction company and also acts as the link between Modative and Libiano Construction, Inc. as a Design + Build team. She heads-up the two companies’ marketing and is an enthusiastic supporter of both thriving businesses.

Monday Morning Meetings

 

It sounds simple enough, but proper communication is one of the keys to our success here at Modative. Although much of our daily internal communications are informal: a quick e-mail, a check of the office calendar, or conversation while walking to get coffee; there is a weekly ritual that ties it all together: The Monday Morning Meeting.

-

Monday mornings at 9:30 a.m. everyone in the office meets to review all projects and internal office issues. Meetings are guided by a multi-page list showing all tasks, appointments and milestones for each project along with who is responsible for each item. These are not design meetings, but rather organizational open forums - an exchange of information and ideas related to office and project management. These Monday meetings really set the pace for the week around here.

-

For us, designing how we do business is as important as what we design in our business.

-

Well ...have to go now, the meeting starts in a few minutes.

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