Architects: Here’s how to consistently create beautiful, cost-effective projects

Most architects I know chose their career because they love to create beautiful designs.

I really admire that mindset, and it makes them awesome at what they do. Yet the same creativity and perfectionism that makes architects great, can sometimes put their business and profits at risk.

In almost any creative career, there’s a constant struggle between creativity and practicality. A writer can spend hours perfecting their wording, but it may not be a great way to earn a living. On the flipside, if they churn things out as quickly as possible, they won’t get the quality and results they want.

The same is true with graphic design, landscaping, filmmaking, and other creative fields. The people who are super successful usually know how to strike a balance–create something marketable and exciting, yet figure out a PROCESS that’s practical and money-making.

(Ironically, the most profitable projects for A/E’s are the ones that don’t get constructed. They get paid for their design, but don’t need to deal with construction headaches or delays. Yet unfortunately, these tend to be the least fulfilling, because it’s not a lot of fun to see your work go down the drain.)

One of the most extreme instances of an architect whose unrelenting pursuit of perfection caused heavy delays and huge increases in cost is Santiago Calatrava’s well-known riverbed complex in Valencia, Spain, known as the City of Arts and Sciences. As the New York Times reported, the project included a performance hall, bridge, planetarium, opera house, and science museum. It was originally expected to cost around $400 million, but as things got more elaborate, it surged to over 3X that amount, which was way beyond what the region could afford.

This is an extreme case, but it’s not uncommon for architects to struggle with the desire to make something beautiful, which can drive up costs. This can sometimes be a good thing, but you need to stay practical too.

As a risk manager and consultant, it’s my responsibility to think of myself as my clients’ business partner, and show design firms how to keep their process cost-effective and efficient, and keep an eye on profits–while still maximizing their creativity and producing stunning projects.

Here are 4 pieces of advice I give clients to help streamline their process and maximize their profits:

Choose the right people. When assembling a team, some architects focus more on the talent of the people they’re hiring than their ability to execute. This can lead to an amazing end result–but can cause delays, budget overruns, and headaches along the way. I’m not suggesting that you forget about talent–but when possible, it’s important to keep a healthy balance between talent and practicality. As John D. Rockefeller once said, “Good management consists of showing average people how to do the work of superior people.”

Keep an eye on your budget. It may sound obvious, but you’d be amazed how many architects get started on a project, and work for many weeks before calculating their expenses and making sure they’re staying within budget. This can be a surefire way to waste a lot of money. Ideally, you should check your budget every week, and think about ways to create more efficiency, without sacrificing quality.

Start with end in mind. We may SAY this all the time, but not necessarily apply it to our projects on a consistent basis. Ideally, you should create a timeline specifically laying out each stage of your project. This should include expected changes and revisions, and other common “hiccups” that can happen along the way. Does this mean you won’t encounter challenges along the way, added costs, and other unexpected events? Of course not. We all know that the design and construction process never goes as planned. With that said, having a detailed plan gives you the best shot at carrying out a process that’s smooth, efficient, and streamlined, and walking away with the highest profit. Design with the end in mind!

Choose the right projects. While it can be tempting to take on a new challenge, there’s usually no need to reinvent the wheel. If you’re familiar with doing a certain project type, and have a process that works–that’s the ticket to success. The architects I know who do similar projects again and again, not only become masters of their process and work more quickly than their competitors–they also create stellar designs, because they have a deeper and more profound understanding of their craft. To be clear, I’m not saying you should never try new things or enjoy a “change of pace”. But being selective and becoming a specialist creates significant momentum on many levels.

People tend to underrate the little things. Most successful firms have a set of fundamental principles that guides them. If you consistently follow a proven system, you’d be amazed at the results you can achieve.

-Steve Whitehorn

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