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The Fine Art of Balancing Creativity with Profitability

Author and management consultant Keith Granet has spent several decades dispensing practical business advice to design professionals

By Nalina Moses

After a scuffle with a client, Howard Roark, the architect-hero of the movie The Fountainhead, boasts, "I don't build in order to have clients; I have clients in order to build."

Even if you’ve never seen the movie or read Ayn Rand’s original novel, it’s obvious that Mr. Roark never practiced in this economy. The truth is that running a successful architecture practice involves building a client base right along with the buildings. Yet it's an aspect of the business that many architects, who are so passionately engaged in their design and construction work, find especially challenging. Perhaps depictions of manifesto-toting auteurs like Roark are to blame, but, of course, so are the generally dismal business conditions architects have been soaking in for the last several years.

So, Keith Granet's new book The Business of Design: Balancing Creativity and Profitability (Princeton Architectural Press ) is especially welcome. Granet, who began his career as a college intern for Art Gensler, FAIA, in San Francisco, went on to study finance and to work within the design industries. His Los Angeles company, Granet and Associates, provides management consultant services to some of the best-known architecture and interior design offices in the country. AIArchitect asked him about the challenges of making a business out of architecture.

AIArchitect: You recommend that architects always search for new work, and always turn down work that isn't a good fit for them. Does the current economic climate change this rule?

Granet: Absolutely not. There is nothing worse than working for someone who doesn’t trust you or value your services. You will lose so much ground in your business if you spend a couple of years working for the wrong client. I know this is difficult when work is at a shortage, but find other ways to get work rather than taking on projects with bad clients.

Some architects have a bit of Howard Roark in them, believing that raw talent is everything. You emphasize that a large part of running a successful design business is social, about connecting with other people. How can architects to do this?

Raw talent is worth every penny, but it is not good enough alone. In fact, if you look around you can see that raw talent is far rarer than the ability to sell a design. Otherwise, the world would be full of only beautiful buildings. I am a true believer in relationships—with your staff, your clients, your vendors, your consultants, and other team members. When a relationship is established, the process is smoother and the chance to work collaboratively is much stronger.

I recommend that struggling architects get involved in their community. Pick an organization or charity that you are passionate about and volunteer your time. You will most likely be the only architect there, and it will eventually lead to work. I also believe that when you give back, it will come back to you, and you will be rewarded for your efforts. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but someday.

There's a famous architect in New York who says, "Architects should dress like bankers and bill like lawyers." What can architects do to command more authority and collect fees like other professionals?

They should always have a contract. They should stick by the letter of the contract, and treat it like it is a business deal, rather than a favor that a client pays their bills. You should always bill consistently on a monthly basis. Being haphazard about your billing practices breaks down a client’s confidence that you are running a creditable business. Also, be prepared to stop work if the client is not paying their bills.

What are some of the common weaknesses and strengths you see in architect-led businesses?

Where do I begin? A blessing and a curse of design is that we love what we do, and for that very reason we often think getting paid for it is not as important. If you run a financially successful business, then the opportunities to design more [and] take on pet projects are far greater. I think architects are their own worst enemies. If clients thought that a fee had a range for the talent they were in search of, they would accept higher fees, but because too many architects are willing to lowball their fees just to win the project, the clients are given a much more powerful position. When was the last time you negotiated with a doctor or a lawyer?

The greatest strength that can carry an architect into successful contract negotiations is their passion for the work they do. If a client can feel that passion, and if [it’s] articulated correctly, the client will want to pay for someone who is that passionate about their work. Good architects are problem solvers and great listeners.

How do you see the business of architecture changing in coming years?

I think the greatest challenge in today’s world is communicating the value of design to the consumer. I think we have a responsibility to educate a client on the difference between good architecture and excellent architecture, and the more we educate the more it will be valued. I do think more people are paying attention to design, which is wonderful. We just have to convince them they need to pay for it.


Keith Granet. Image Courtesy of Granet & Associates.

Image courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press.


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