Is it a good time to start a practice?

15 July, 2020

A plummeting economy may not seem like the best time to branch out on your own.

Paul Zara hadn’t planned to leave Conran & Partners where he’d worked for 35 years and was a board director.

But the pandemic changed his mind.

He had one of those ‘now or never’ moments prompted partly by work dropping off at Conran but also with the knowledge he had a list of clients who were keen to work with him if he decided to go solo.

His decision was helped by the realisation that setting up on your own is comparatively simple, thanks to technology and the growing acceptance of remote working.

Zara also wants to rediscover the thing that made him want to become an architect in the first place.

“I want to go back to having fun, doing between three and four projects a year – and I want to design,” he says.

He’s also taken on a role as a design director for a new hotel business and relishing the novel challenge of being on the client side and “helping build the business”.

But for most architects starting out the biggest headache is getting your first fee-paying job.

Sean Griffiths who along with Charles Holland and Sam Jacob launched FAT in 1991 when the UK was in the middle of a recession says that downturns are good times to launch a practice – even without any work.

“The fact that you haven’t got any work means you can afford to be adventurous, controversial, provocative and ridiculous which makes it fun.

“Also in a recession, other interesting people set up new things that can give you projects to work on and credibility – as long as you do not expect it to be lucrative … in our day it was art events, advertising startups, night clubs and artists owning cheap houses.”

Even though building opportunities were extremely limited during the global financial crisis of 2007/8, it too spawned a generation of architects who cut their teeth on pop-ups or ‘temporary projects’ often defined by a powerful social agenda.

One of these was Assemble who started by building temporary projects that were creative and relevant from cinemas to structures under empty flyover under-crofts.

Like other practices that set up at the same time, including Studio Weave and We Made That, it wasn’t simply their projects that singled them out. They were also pioneering a new kind of collaborative way of working and didn’t see the need to be registered with ARB.

The opportunities for new startup practices in 2020 are very different. But there are still lessons to takeaway from previous recessions.

Here are some of them:

  • Just as Assemble responded to the economic circumstances of the last recession, start-up practices in 2020 need to come up with a response to the current challenges.
  • What will your practice offer that’s distinctive? Think back to FAT in 1991 and Assemble in 2009 – neither had the experience of working for a big practice but both found new opportunities in the midst of an economic downturn.
  •  How will you work and do you even need an office? One of the big headaches for young architects wanting to set up on their own after finding themselves out of work used to be start-up costs. Now all you need is a Cloud service like Amazon Web Services.
  • Lockdown has prompted us to assess how we want to live in the future and understanding the new opportunities this creates will not only bring in work but gives you a compelling story.
  • Are you confident you can deliver a specific service better than anyone else and stand out against the competition? Neither Assemble or FAT had experience of working for anyone else but they had huge confidence despite little business acumen. A mixture of the two is probably sensible.
  • Do you have the right people? Studios that set up in the last recession often included artists, designers and others educated in entirely non-visual disciplines. Now, more than ever, hard skills- on their own- no longer cut it.

Archiboo has consistently championed young practices via the Architect Pitch. Our next Pitch is now open for entries.