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A Time to Breathe

By Michael A. Sciara, AIA, LEED AP

As young architects, the current national economic recession is most likely the first we are experiencing since entering the A/E industry. To our more ‘mature’ colleagues, they have ridden the wave of the market before and have some wisdom to share when the design industry starts to ebb and flow. One such topic that seems to be a frequent flyer is an issue of sustaining and growing market identity despite the current economic downturn.

If you are anything like me, you spent the last decade on an express train that only seemed to stop long enough to pick up your architecture degree, sign your IDP transcript, show up at a Prometric testing center to sit for the exams, and maybe attend your wedding and produce a few future "architects." Busyness has stifled our business model somewhat by not allowing us to develop the leadership skills that will take us through the recession to better position ourselves when the national upswing starts to happen.

Because business has slowed for most, we have been given the chance to meditate, prioritize and restructure the way we market ourselves and the firms that we represent.  Whether you have been victim of the "employee reduction" program, had your hours cut or been fortunate to have kept your position during this recession, a great opportunity exists. One that allows you to develop your skills, explore passions beyond architecture as well as test new strategies as a firm to become a voice in the marketplace that college and the previous economic climate didn't allow time for. I have found that this time has allowed many firms to be more flexible and creative, with most firms being willing to get behind their vision casters.

In 2000, during my third year of architecture school, I ventured out into the marketplace looking for a full-time position as a junior architect. I knew that I wanted to be in a firm that was diverse in the projects they selected to take on and would provide a training ground to develop my professional skills. After interviewing with a few prominent firms in my area, the finalists were chosen, negotiations were met with satisfaction from all parties and selection was made. This process of professional growth continued every few years as I gained experience in all industries within the building community. This ‘Starbucks’ mentality became the norm for me and for others as we sifted through the menu of job postings found on and selected a position that best suited our taste preferences. Somewhere along the line, I recall one of my older and wiser principals mentioning that his position as an adjunct architecture teacher financially saved him during the recession of the late 80s and early 90s.

I met his comment with wonder for two reasons. For one, in 1989 I was still in elementary school. The other, because it seemed hard to believe that the job market that always served me well could ever stop offering me the proverbial tall, grande and venti-sized options that I’ve come to expect. The recession he spoke about had to be just a fluke, right? (OK, College of Fellows, stop laughing at my naiveté!)

Fast forward to 2010, many architects now fall under great temptation to take any position or project that comes their way simply because of the lack of opportunities that are available. A new mindset can easily beset us that shifts our thinking into survival mode. In some instances, this is necessary for a season. However, I am convinced that there remains a greater opportunity to prosper despite the current hardships we are facing.

Maximizing this recession to our advantage takes creative thinking engaged in participation with community. As we seek to build ourselves, our relationships and our businesses, they all begin the same way – on firm foundations. Whether that foundation is your belief system, heritage or leadership team, one thing is for sure – it needs to be secure. You need to have a clear vision and goal in mind coupled with the understanding of your inherent strengths and weaknesses. If we stand firm in the knowledge of what we are called to do as architects, than we can become flexible with the strategy that brings us to our destination. Many businesses end up failing because of a lack of this knowledge as some follow industry trends, people and opportunities while others lead the same out of their overall vision.

A lane shift that we as architects can all take, after establishing what our market identity will be, is how we can better tailor all of our other efforts to suit the overall vision. We are all looking at ways to maximize a more strategic approach to win more work. However, we must not just win more work, but more of the right work.

Like most firms, we have responded to more request for proposals in the last year than we have in the last decade. You may think that this contradicts my last statement about winning more of the right work, but before you throw stones, let me explain. While we have said ‘yes’ to many new opportunities, we have said, ‘no’ to even more. Why are we able to say ‘no’ when we get phone calls asking for our professional design services? We understand our identity. Our increase in responding to more RFP’s than in previous times is a result of our overall realization of our goals: to increase our firm’s exposure, tap emerging markets, sharpen our persuasive writing skills and the quality of our deliverables.

When the economy started to nosedive, a sudden spike in hits to websites like and started to rise. There exists a universal reaction to reach out to our network of contacts to find a sharp signal of possible opportunities on the horizon. While this exercise is almost a requirement, as leaders we need to have the foresight to deepen our client relationships as we collect them. My firm boasts the fact that 95% of its business is from repeat clients. This would not be a reality without a strong customer focus. It is equally important that as we establish our identity we are rigorous in establishing intimacy with our clients. Knowing your client’s needs and goals is one thing, having him or her trust you with them is another. This takes time and it comes through sincerity expressed through quality and efficient design, budgetary awareness, client-oriented marketing strategies, and flexibility of the bottom line, all while strictly adhering to your firm’s mission.

As a firm, we have benefited from this down time. It is necessary in order to think outside of the box and engage the relationships that we spent so much time building during the previous years and serve them in new ways. We have won considerably more work by offering more inclusive basic services and avoiding boiler plate project management techniques.

As a design professional, you can apply these same strategies to your development as well. Take the time and bring outside voices into your own personal marketability plan. This is a great time to say "no" to some of the bullet points you thought you needed to include on your resume and say ‘yes’ to those that will more effectively express your true identity. We all have gifts in certain areas that are important to develop. There is a wealth of resources available that will help you do that, whether its continuing education courses, certifications or accreditations. Maintaining your affiliation with the AIA is important because they can become the support you need to cross the bridge. Don’t forget to apply the same principles regarding client focus to your own sphere of influence. Most likely, you were relieved of your duties because of the firm’s financial outlook, but assume the role of one who was honorary discharged. The relationships you formed with your principals and former employees still need a little TLC.

The key to remember is this is a building season. Be encouraged to know that the tools you are gaining and the strategies you are testing are not in vain. As the Ferris wheel makes its way back around again, you will be positioned stronger and have more to offer the industry and your clients.

Michael A. Sciara currently works as a Project Architect at JRS Architect, P.C. in Mineola NY. Michael also is an adjunct professor at New York Institute of Technology, taking the advice of his former principal. Mike is a first time contributor to the Connection, looking to use this downturn to develop his writing skills and serve the architecture community.


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