Architects and Moonlighting

Bob Borson —  February 8, 2013 — 18 Comments

Come on and admit it – we’ve either done it or we’re thinking about doing it. It’s the siren’s call of moonlighting, beckoning you to the edge of darkness with the promise of being addressed as an Architect and getting something built that is uniquely your own.

I originally wrote a version of this article several years ago but I thought it was worth dusting off, making a few modifications … try and get the conversation going once again (now that people other than immediate family visit this site). I would love to add your thoughts on the subject down in the comment section so that this can truly be what it was intended to be … a resource for others to hear about the pros and cons related to the practice of moonlighting.

Thank you

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Believe it or not, moonlighting has dark undertones as it’s very name might suggest. There are advantages and disadvantages to taking on work outside of normal business hours, and I think it’s worthwhile to review what they might be. I read an article on moonlighting in Residential Architect some years ago and there was a quote in there I will never forget (well, I did actually forget it so I am paraphrasing here):

“…moonlighting presents a dangerous risk, if a person wants to do their own work, let them start a firm and struggle and starve..”

Yikes! That person sounds nasty! Well, that or they have been burned by the liability issues that moonlighting can create for an architectural firm. The other remarkable thing about this phrase was that at the time, it came from the chair of the A.I.A. Practice Management Advisory group. For me, the part about “struggle and starve” suggests that the person taking on the moonlighting work is ill-prepared and unlicensed … which suggests youth and inexperience. So for my purposes here today, I am going to focus on that demographic: the youthful, inexperienced, and unlicensed.

Previously I had sent an email of to the current chair of the AIA Practice Management Advisory group to see if the AIA had a position paper on the matter that I could share. I’ve never heard back. I would wager that the A.I.A. either does not take a position on or does not support the practice of openly allowing moonlighting.

I’ve done some moonlighting in the past – although it has been years since I took on work without the knowledge of my employers – but I always took the approach that it was okay if the projects I accepted did not compete with those of my employer (i.e. different market sectors). I have done a few addition/ renovation projects and one free-standing restaurant. I was probably in my late 20’s when I did these jobs and in all cases, I received some sort of financial compensation. The restaurant project that I worked on paid me enough money to buy the computer equipment and software I needed to work from home, and have some cash available to buy my first house. While that all sounds pretty good, the final results tell a different story.

I was originally asked to review some plans and a “specifications sheet” for a new restaurant that some old friends of my family were going to build. I grew up next to these folks and had known them for 25 years so of course I wanted to help them. They had operated a steak restaurant in the area for years and wanted to improve their position in the prime streak restaurant business here in town. I charged them $50/hour – but I didn’t limit the number of meetings, and I didn’t charge them for my time for those meetings. I was also clear up front that I didn’t have the time or skill set needed to produce proper construction drawings so they would have to retain the services of another licensed architect for that scope of the project. The person they ended up choosing to prepare construction drawings suitable for permitting (based on my design documents) turned out to be even less equipped than me. I had stepped out of the picture after construction started and it was around 9 months later that the family called me back in telling me that the project was in trouble and they needed my help. The construction documents were in such bad shape that the contractor had stopped working when it was discovered that the building had dimensional busts throughout and the steel package couldn’t be completed. The project sat at a standstill for several months after pouring the slab, and the owner was getting killed with paying the interest on his construction loan. I agreed to come back and help them complete the project but, in an effort to be a nice guy, I told them they could put off getting paying me for my time until the project was complete and they had some positive cash flow. I spent the next year of my life going to 2-3 hours worth of meetings a week until the project was done – never sending a bill as promised. When they opened, I sent them my bill which was around $12,000 (a King’s ransom for me) but a remarkably low number given the amount of time I had dedicated to getting the restaurant finished. That was 1998 and I still haven’t been paid. Guess what? I don’t talk with them anymore. At one point, the son called me and told me that I was making his Dad feel bad by sending a bill that said “now 472 days past due” and would I please stop sending those types of letters – he didn’t even call them what they were … “bills”. The lesson I learned was don’t try to do anybody any favors. From then on out, I either took on work and charged what we agreed upon, or I did it for free with no obligation for payment.

I learned that if you don’t charge people for your time, they will abuse it. Why does it always seem that the people who you are trying to help will be the worst to work with? You offer to help someone out with a consult and sketch out a garage addition for free because you’re a nice person, those are the projects where they will ask you a billion questions, conveniently forgetting that this is how you make your living – this thing that they are asking you to give them for free.

Another consideration for those considering moonlighting work is to take a look at your client. Are they hiring you because they are your neighbor or your Aunt? Or are they hiring you to moonlight the project because they are looking for a price break? The latter will always make the worst client because they obviously don’t place a lot of value on your time or the services you provide. They might not have the financial resources suitable for the services they need (which put ‘s you at risk for not receiving what meager fees you are probably charging) otherwise, they would probably go a more traditional route of getting architectural services.

You should also be aware that while architecture firms can’t technically be held for work that employees do on their own time, as with all legal matters, there’s the written policy and then there are the nuanced interpretations. If the work you plan on moonlighting is similar to the work you perform where you work, the work may be construed by the client (and the client’s attorney) as being produced under the supervision of the firm, thereby exposing your firm to liability by association for any of your negligent acts. If you use firm resources, like copiers, Fax’s, cad equipment, advice from office peers, if you are in a decision-making position at your firm, and the firm doesn’t have a policy against moonlighting, your firms tacit approval of the use of these resources suggests that the firm benefits from and condones the moonlighting. With liability claims being what they are, principals at firms should think twice before allowing employees to use firm resources for any outside endeavors.

There are other reasons I am not a fan of unsanctioned moonlighting but to put it simply, I don’t think there are any real positives other than financial short-term gains and considering the potential pitfalls, even those can be dubious. Here are some of the arguments I’ve heard supporting moonlighting:

I work in a large firm, how am I going to get project management experience doing toilet partition wall details?
Join an A.I.A. committee or donate some of your time to any of the number charities that could use an energetic future architect, get involved with Hearts and Hammers or Habitat for Humanity – the list can go on and on.

I am a super designer but no one here cares, I need to take on work so I can express myself and get my name out there!
Enter competitions if you want to introduce the world to its next greatest architect.

My office doesn’t pay me enough to survive, I need to take on extra work to pay my bills.
Okay, I don’t have an argument for this one – not in this economy. 5 years ago I would have told you to go find somewhere else to work. If the firm doesn’t value you enough to pay you your worth, what does it say about how you feel about your worth by staying? I will take a pass on this statement now – let’s talk in a few years.

The people who want to hire me think I’m great and are willing to pay me what I’m charging.
I would ask if you are charging the correct amount. Most young energetic future architects will readily admit that they don’t understand billing and office management so it might seem like a fortune to get paid $35/hr for drawing up house plans. Do you understand or know how many hours you will have to spend preparing the drawings? What time from your friends and family you are forfeiting? What about taxes and social security or are you just not going to worry about that? Something in the neighborhood of $12.50 of your $35 should be going to Uncle Sam so you need to consider how important your gains are for $22.50/hr.

I can appreciate that anyone with the endurance to read this post might leave thinking I am bitter towards moonlighting, maybe because I’ve been burned … there is definitely some truth to that. What I would hope for is that you evaluate the validity of your moonlighting opportunities and direct your energies towards something with more of a long-term gain. I donate a lot of time to the A.I.A. – to our mutual benefit, although there are times when it doesn’t quite seem quite so mutual. I have entered design competitions and have picked up some award prize money. I have aligned myself with various charitable organizations like Dallas CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) who have events to raise funds and awareness for their cause, (in the case of CASA it is an event called Parade of Playhouses). I have also designed dog houses that benefited various charity groups and dog parks; I didn’t win any money on the playhouses or the dog house but the doghouse won first place and the coordinators of the CASA event have asked me to design the playhouse for the events title underwriter for the second year in a row. I’d say that was pretty good exposure and all of these things were done with the knowledge and consent of my firm.

Since I am not a lawyer and have plucked my research off the Internet (everything you read is  true on the Internet – right?), you should not interpret what I am saying as sound legal advice, or even unsound legal advice. At best, you should leave this post with something to consider before you go and find out the specifics of your own situation. I expect to get some additional information from the A.I.A.’s Practice Management Advisory group as well as some advice from an insurance firm that specializes in insuring architects. I’ll post whatever interesting bits they provide in the comment section when it arrives.

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  • dan

    I filed a 20 day preliminary notice on a remodel project about 15 years ago. The contractor came in with his wife; calling me “unprofessional”. A contractor should know what a 20-day prelim. notice is; it’s standard business practice. It basically states that you have the right to be paid. A 20-day is required before filing a mechanics lien, if need be. It has to been filed with the first 20 days of starting a job; i.e.; “I have a right to be paid”. In addition, after receiving payment; a partial or full release from lien is also filed. This basically says, “I got paid”. When push comes to shove, you have to keep a roof over your head.

  • Ian Toner

    Great post. I’ve been on the other end of moonlighting. I started my one-man operation a few years ago, and often had (and sometimes still do have) potential clients come to me with projects, as well as numbers from “an architect friend” of theirs who would be doing the project as a moonlighting gig. Of course, their fees were always incredibly low, since it was all “free” money to them (i.e. no taxes, insurance, office space, software, hardware, etc to pay for, plus they have a full-time job already and don’t necessarily “need” the money anyway) and it was a chance to actually design something. Sometimes I could explain this to the potential client, sometimes I couldn’t.

    I would agree with Bob that you should be aware of the person’s reasons for hiring a moonlighter. If it’s an old family friend or a relative, maybe they really, honestly just want to give you a chance because they like you (I’ve had this happen). Often, though, people are just looking for a deal, and don’t understand what an architect does and why it costs what it costs.

    The most important thing to do is to have a contract, in writing. There’s no excuse not to. If you don’t know how to write one, start with one from another architect, or use an AIA document. My contracts are in proposal format, with three parts:

    Part 1: Project Scope. This lays out what I will and will not do as part of the project, and lists the main design issues to be dealt with.

    Part 2: Design Schedule. This lays out the number of meetings, what the process will be like, and how long I estimate it will take.

    Part 3: Owner’s Responsibilities. This is a short list of the things I’ll need from the Owner–site access, any existing survey information, information for permit applications, etc. Most important is the last item on the list: Prompt Payment of Design Fees. I don’t hand over any final drawings without all fee payments being up to date.

    Part 4: Fees. This lays out the fee, and how it will be paid (I often make partial payments due at meetings; it’s harder to ignore me when we’re face-to-face). I have a bullet-pointed list of what the client is getting for the fee. Then I list what would qualify as additional services, and what the rate is. This includes, among other things, extra meetings not mentioned in the Design Schedule section. Finally, I explain what reimbursable expenses are and how they’ll be billed.

    Really, I can’t say enough how important a contract is, even for small projects, even (especially?) for friends and family. It opens up a frank discussion about what’s going to happen, and lets the client know you’re serious.

  • Paul Scharnett

    I hear this, Bob. Lots of problems with moonlighting.

    I have come to the firm (get it? “firm”) belief that I don’t do work for family and I don’t take anything my family sells. Except my mother, who I would do anything for. Friends I will do work for, but I set everything in stone up front–either it’s free or it’s worth my time and theirs to get serious.

    I have a big rule about life: relationships are the single most important item in life. They’re truly the best legacy to leave behind. Thus, there is no reason to ruin a relationship just because someone can’t say “no.”

    On another note, it was always crystal clear to me that any work outside of the firm/office was never on the firm’s/office’s equipment–ever. I figured it was always unprofessional to abuse an office’s equipment for personal use. Perhaps this is a regional thing?

  • architectrunnerguy

    Great article Bob. A lot has changed in the past 25 years. Back in the 80’s as principle of a 16 member firm we routinely gave moonlighting jobs to the staff architects, including personal/vacation houses for builder clients. We wouldn’t be doing that now however.
    And charge for your work, doubling normal fees for “friends” and family…LOL! Although interestingly I have recently done two free freehand concept sketches, one for a person who lost their house in Sandy and another who had hired an architect but the house was a trainwreck. He was more of an engineering type and the creativity showed it.

  • Stephen

    I have mixed feelings about moonlighting. I worked at a large firm for 10 years and will never forget the time I did a quick sketch for a friend planning an addition (never expecting payment). I printed the sketch at work to a shared printer and by chance the principle watched my sketch come out of the printer as he was waiting for a document, I almost got fired right there but I talked my way out of it and dodged a bullet.

    Years later I started to moonlight again but this time I was smart enough to work on my moonlighting projects at home on my own equipment after hours and I carefully choose the projects that I thought would be fun and profitable. I really learned a lot about dealing with clients and managing my time and client expectations.

    At that time I was unlicensed and I couldn’t get licensed in Ma. unless I went back to get my Masters, some of the money made from moonlighting helped to pay for my Master’s degree and getting licensed as an Architect.

    I did take some risks certainly but my approach was to be very thorough and go above and beyond to reduce risk. I think it was partly from that experience that gave me the confidence to start my own practice eventually and I take that same approach to my projects today.

  • http://twitter.com/designsynergies roxanne button

    Hi Bob – this is a very good overview of the pros and cons. I’ve done a little moonlighting in the past, never with a bad experience, so I’ve been very lucky. I did it because I needed the income, and I was very careful about using my own resources, and not competing with my employer. But I’ve also turned down projects that I didn’t think I could do on my own – or referred them to other people who were self-employed.

    I haven’t done side projects for friends or family in years. I try to stay away from those projects, knowing that it can go bad very quickly when people forget/ignore that you do this for a living.

    I know people who have been fired for moonlighting – both inexperienced and seasoned practitioners. I think the biggest issue is with inexperienced people who take on work that they think they can handle, and get into trouble. I have over 20 years of experience, and I know there’s still a lot to learn! I get the reasons – impatience, need more income, frustration with a work environment – I’ve been there. It’s one of the reasons that I started my own firm. But it’s a big risk, and it doesn’t always pay off.

  • Luis A. Cruz

    As soon as getting out of school and the old boss at another school department asked me to do an addition and kitchen knowingly the lack of experience in the field. He def. understood the knowledge i had at the time. Architect’s fees and the likes were the reason to go ahead and try a recent graduates. I ended up not doing it even though it could have been a great experience. It is very interesting favors & services designers/architects do for their client and as we all know for mostly friends. I think everyone gets one or two under their belt. it is the notion of doing good architecture and design as trained vs. the business of design which is not an attribute most designers have at times during their careers. A conversation can also lead toward services(favors) that in most cases can put you in doing more than desire. In the same essence, clients/friends relationship can be a hurtle if the topic of business services is not touch upon at the very early stage.

  • http://www.facebook.com/patrick.gresham.50 Patrick Gresham

    I nearly spit out my coffee when you mentioned “old friends of my family”; I know a designer that miraculously works on nothing but projects for “friends”(not a self reference- this time). As always, you mystically transcribe multiple discussions happening in various offices and place very wise advice/ observation. Your articles are a portal to the realities of architectural practice. Twice when asked if I would answer questions for a child thinking about “going into architecture” I sent them a link to your fb page and gave the instructions if they were still interested I would love to answer questions. Keep up the good work.

  • MarvinOne

    I had an opportunity to do some moonlight work for a fellow employee in our design-build company(he’s on the build side, I’m on the design side). While researching, I read about how my design firm could be held liable for my work even if they didn’t know. I called a family member, who IS a lawyer who currently works in the area of employment law – she confirmed that moonlighting for us designers COULD open up problems for our employers/co-workers. There is more to this story, but the short version is that I couldn’t do the work mostly for the legal reason.
    Thanks for sharing this post Bob, it’s one that’s really important and not always talked about.

  • Keith

    I’m not going to get into the pros and cons of moonlighting- I agree and disagree with Bob. Its up to you to decide if its worth it. Bob lays it out well enough that you should be able to make a decision for yourself.

    If you decide to moonlight, and if you don’t, you need to be requesting a retainer for your services. Especially If your dealing with a new client, a client that is not ‘known,’ you need to be requesting a retainer. The retainer should be returned with the executed contract. The amount doesn’t need to be excessive, for most residential projects I retain $500-$1000. Not much right, so what’s the point? A retainer begins the architect-client relationship on the proper grounds. Our time is valuable and we bill for our services. A retainer also can weed out the ‘tire-kickers.’ If a client is not willing to put forth monies to get the project started what makes you think they’ll pay future invoices? I’ve never had major issues with retainers… guess what I’ve had without retainers?

    Sorry Bob, may have went off on a tangent here.

  • Mark

    As a landscape architect, I monlighted 13 years ago for an older couple who were friends, and lived in our neighborhood. They just wanted a landscape plan for their home, and it was the nicest lot in the neighborhood. Having been doing a flood of commercial work, and being a plantsman, I felt I needed the creative outlet. The plan turned out great, they loved it, didn’t spend a whole lot of time preparing it (time away from family and friends), but man o man did they expect alot during construction.

    The number of site visits, hand holding, and stress was not worth the measley (sp?) 500 bucks I was paid. Since that time, I’ve lived by the philosophy that “it’s worth what you pay for it”. Everyone thinks that good design is a wha-la moment that pours forth from ones intuitive brain, or conversely, is spit out in three seconds by computer software. Either way, not really worth that much money. Besides, he’s a friend, so he’ll give us a break.

    Since then, the automated response upon inquiry, “Sounds like an interesting project. Why don’t we set up a meeting and I’ll come take a look, bring our project portfolio with references, and we can talk about fees”. It’s the rubber meets the road moment…if they’re serious, and would like serious help, they set the meeting, with my office and its resources in tow. If not, they him haw around, then say, “well, let me discuss it with Susan…”

    The installation turned out really nice, but the story doesn’t end there. After those people sold their home, they told the buyers about the really nice landscape architect that did the design and lives in the neighborhood. They buyers have called me 4 or 5 times since for free advice.

  • Stephen

    I’m just a student and it has happened. I haven’t been paid. I’ll end up in a firm. I don’t think I want to do free work. Thanks for that great post.

  • http://blog.SLS-Construction.com/ SLS Construction

    Rules of thumb for success:

    First rule: never work for friends or family

    Second rule: if you want to moonlight, do it delivering pizzas or better yet as a waiter at a country club (oh the connections you can make – to bad no one told me that till to late)

    Third rule: don’t forget where your bread is buttered, if you fail them, they may fail to butter your bread anymore — better to leave on your terms & not burn bridges you may need later

    Fourth rule: in order to go out on your own, you will need lots of money saved – plan on at least 6 months of bills & then double that for insurance & licenses (dependent on field)

  • Jwkathol

    I have done moonlight work in both architecture and construction and have been burned several times. Friends and relatives were notorious for UNINTENTIONALLY expecting more and more from me and it was often difficult to say no because a) I didnt want to disappoint them and b) if the final result was not what they expected I would hear about it for years to come. The pressure to provide superior workmanship for sweetheart compensation was quite stressful.

    • Jwkathol

      …sorry that response has more to do with friends and family as clients more than moonlighting but I think sometime the two go hand in hand. Tread lightly.

  • Collin Zalesak

    Very interesting topic. Good to know information as well.
    Thanks Bob!