How to start an architecture company
Are you thinking about setting up your own architecture firm? We worked with Nicolas Tye, Director of Tye Architects and past Chairman to RIBA East, to put together eleven tips to help you turn your dream of starting your own architecture company, into a reality:
1. Chisel out your niche
Think about how you can add to or revolutionise the current architectural landscape. Is there a gap in the market you can fill? Are your competitors doing something you could do better? Maybe you've noticed that there are no architects specialising in sustainable design in your area, or that the local urban designer doesn't market themselves well enough to attract consistent footfall.
Identify your unique selling points and determine how you'll make your architecture business stand out from the crowd. If you're filling a gap in the market, advertising yourself efficiently and keeping up with demand, your business is likely to flourish.
2. Check you have all the necessary qualifications and paperwork
Though a vision and passion can take you a long way, there are practical steps that need to be addressed when starting an architecture firm – such as ensuring that you and whoever you choose to employ are licensed to practice. In the UK, this means having an architecture degree recognised by the Architects Registration Board (ARB) and at least two years' professional experience under your belt.
You will also need to determine what kind of structure your company will have and act accordingly in order to remain compliant as your company progresses. There are four key structures your business could take:
- Sole trader: you will be the exclusive owner of the business
- Partnership: this is between two or more individuals
- Limited company: private company whose owners are legally responsible for its debts only to the extent of the amount of capital they invested
- Limited liability partnership: some or all partnerships have limited liabilities, and it exhibits elements of partnerships and corporations
Each structure has its own requirements and legalities associated with it. If you decide to be a sole trader or work with a partner, for example, this will have to be reflected in your self-assessment tax return. If you decide to take on employees, you will need to register for PAYE online.
Being included on the Architects Register is also essential. As stated on the Architects' Registration Board’s website, registering with the ARB means you can legally call yourself an architect and it tells your clients and members of the public that you are a fully trained and qualified professional. You can find out how to register here. The annual retention fee for 2019 has been set at £111.
3. Lay the foundations with a business plan
As with any start-up, you'll need to develop a detailed business plan before embarking on your journey. This should include:
- A description of your proposition
- An analysis of the market and your competition
- A SWOT analysis – a study of your firm’s potential strengths and weaknesses, as well as potential opportunities and threats
- Your marketing plans
- Your financial forecasts and your pricing model
Do you know how you will be funding your business? Not only will you need to determine how you'll finance your initial office setup costs, but you will also have to establish a) how many clients you will need and b) how much you will need to charge them in order to stay afloat once you're in business.
Employee salaries, a marketing budget, registration/membership fees and your workspace & tools are all specifics you should account for when allocating your funds.
4. Select your premises and equipment
When you're choosing your office location, finding a space that showcases your aesthetic and design principles is key. If your style is modernist, create a space that reflects this; if you're a green architect, make your office eco-friendly. Due to the nature of the industry, an architect's office acts as a shop window for potential clients to quickly see what you can do and how creative you are.
On a more practical level, there are several questions you must ask yourself. How much space will you need? Do you want to save on office costs and work from home? If so, can your home accommodate a studio? If you choose to work elsewhere, will you lease or buy? Suitable lighting, proximity to amenities and easy access for potential customers are all factors you must also consider.
Once you've identified your basic architect office requirements, you can move onto the details. Just as a chef needs their knives and a handyman needs their toolbox, any decent architect too needs a collection of tools at their disposal – be that a desk, scales, tracing paper (or a coffee machine!) – to help them in their endeavours.
Investing in tools can put a real dent in your finances, so consider leasing some of your equipment when you first start out. CAD modelling software for instance carries with it a hefty price tag, so you may find paying the monthly subscription fee more manageable than buying it outright.
The tools you need will vary according to your speciality, so make a comprehensive list of the equipment you intend to use and ensure you have sufficient funds to purchase it and sufficient space to house it.
5. Design your brand
Just like your workspace, your company name and logo should also reflect your firm's identity. As the foundation of your branding, it is important that the name and logo you choose are unique to you. If you have big growth plans, make sure your branding is transferable on an international level. Having to rebrand when expanding is something you should try to avoid, so pick a short and snappy name which is easy to pronounce across as many languages as possible.
Once the basics are in place, ensure that all of your branding is geared towards reaching your target demographic and that your messaging is consistent across all channels. Don’t be afraid to test your branding on mentors, friends and family. Any feedback is good feedback.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help if marketing isn't your forte. There's a lot of help and advice out there; our latest article in which we spoke to branding experts at global marketing agency Mediacom, is a good starting point.
6. Launching your website
If a client is looking for a local architect their first port of call is likely to be the internet. If you're not online, the chances of you being commissioned fall drastically. Not only will you be more difficult to discover, but your company will be less likely to have any online reviews. Prospective clients want to know that the architect they are choosing can be trusted, so many will base their final decision on the reviews they read.
Having a website not only legitimises you, but it also provides a great platform for showcasing your work. If you don't have any finished projects to show off, consider incorporating your designs and sketches into your landing page.
When you do finally have finished projects to display, make sure you invest in a good photographer to document them. If you are concerned about setting up a website yourself, work with a professional web designer. As largely visual enterprises, architecture firms demand equally visual websites, so high resolution, professional pictures are a must.
7. Build your portfolio
Not all types of architecture jobs will seem like the right fit for you at first or be the dream project you had always envisioned working on, but it's important not to turn your nose up at anything when you're first starting out. Smaller jobs may not help you advance on a creative level or get you published in a reputable magazine, but they will help you build a portfolio of work. Once you've proven that you can take on and successfully complete minor projects, clients will start trusting you with more ambitious ones.
8. Develop a marketing strategy
When it comes to marketing for architectural firms the usual core principles apply. When developing your strategy, the first thing you need to think about is the audience you are trying to target. Are they older and more likely to see your efforts in a newsletter or a flyer? Are they internet-savvy and more likely to come across an advert on social media, or whilst browsing a niche forum, or reading a blog?
Instagram is a visually attractive way to showcase your designs and explain the philosophy behind them. Here's how other businesses are using Instagram for marketing. Blogs can be used to collect feedback, network, and inspire others as well as being a platform where you can exhibit your work. If you can find a topic to focus on and become an authority on the subject, chances are you'll be noticed by potential clients.
Memberships can also be useful marketing resources for your architecture practice and should not be overlooked. For instance, becoming a RIBA Chartered Practice isn't obligatory, but it can be extremely useful from a marketing standpoint. Accredited members are given exclusive listing on RIBA's 'Find an architect' directory, which attracts 60,000 visitors every month and their Client Referrals service can match your firm with potential opportunities. Fees vary depending on the number of employees, so you can check out the application form and membership benefits here.
9. Network, network and then network some more!
When you're a client-facing company, networking is paramount to building up your client base. Getting involved in local business networking groups or attending consumer and industry shows organised by entities like the RIBA, is a great way to spread the word about your company and meet potential clients.
And you shouldn't limit yourself to solely meeting industry individuals or clients looking for architects. Be it physically or digitally, mingle with and reach out to anyone and everyone who could help you find more work further down the line.
Talk to other parents at your children's after school clubs; contact the authors of articles you enjoy in order to establish relationships with like-minded individuals; use your social media accounts to create your own personal, online gallery – exhibiting your designs and sharing future plans with your friends and followers; become the voice of authority in forums dedicated to your area of expertise.
10. Enter design competitions
Entering competitions or design awards is likewise a great way to get your name out there and start making your mark within the design community.
Some competitions only require you to submit a couple of designs to enter and the effort is well worth the potential reward. Even if none of your projects end up being built, winning or even just placing in a competition will give you positive publicity and something impressive to add to your portfolio.
11. Get the right architecture insurance
As an architect, having the right insurance is vital. You're relied upon for your advice, precision and judgment and a fault in your measurements or design could result in major financial difficulties for your client and even put people's safety at risk.
The ARB dictates that all architects in business or practice must have adequate cover in place under Standard 8 of its Architects Code of Conduct. This may be professional indemnity insurance to cover legal and compensation costs should a client accuse you of negligence, or it could also include employers' liability if you have employees. Read more about our flexible insurance for architects here.