The Pro’s and Con’s of Moonlighting

Bob Borson —  April 21, 2010 — 5 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.

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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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  • http://woodworking-books.org Woodworking Project Plans

    Biggest project I turned down had a $2m renovation budget.

  • amr

    You did get burned didn’t you? I understand the pain though. I now work for myself after 7 years with two firms after graduating and moonlighted throughout that period with the consent of both firms. I have also walked away from projects where the client has bartered a fee reduction to unacceptable levels.
    All my fee proposals are done on a fixed fee (with conditions) rather than an hourly rate. Though hourly is also offered.
    In the initial meeting with the client I tend to ask 500 questions and gain some insight into their psyche and my gut instinct then tells me whether we will have an ‘harmonious marriage’ or not.
    Hasn’t failed me yet fortunately.
    Biggest project I turned down had a $2m renovation budget. They already had a design and just wanted my level of detailing as they had seen some of my construction drawings for another project. Their design was appalling. I could not put my name to any drawings with this concept already done and told them straight up. Told them they needed just a draftsman to draw their vision and that ‘I would be wasting their time’.
    At least we parted ways on good terms.
    I have only ever completed one project without a fee proposal. For an ex employer (pre architect days). Not only did I design his beach house, but I built it as well. All without even a budget. A rare project indeed.
    All we did was shake hands when I agreed to design it, no money was ever mentioned. Fee or budget. All I did was bill him for my time, both for design and construction supervision and he paid me and all the trades without question. Such trust and honesty was amazing. As I had worked for him, I knew his level of integrity.
    I am licenced to build as well by the way.
    I tutor students at university and at least half ask for advice on doing design concepts for friends and relatives etc. My advice is always agree on a fee before starting. Preferably a lump sum for each stage, that way you also learn how long a project takes at each stage and learn to manage your time without any bill shock at the end for your client. You may come out in front, you may not. But either way you will have learnt something and if there is a next time you can adjust your fee accordingly if need be.
    No different to the real world really.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Amr,
      What I know now versus what I knew 15 years ago are separate matters. Since I geared this piece towards younger more inexperienced moonlighters, the possibility that they do not know their own worth is very likely; this means being able to establish a fixed rate for any portion(s) of the work is probably a dodgy proposition.

      I’ll also say that in my situation, I felt more disappointed than burned – I did get something positive out of the experience and I don’t dislike these people either. To this day I still feel bad for my friend and the position he was put in; hopefully not too many of us are up close and personal with the fact that your Dad didn’t keep his word or pay his debt.

      Thanks for reading my post and for taking the time to contribute.

  • amr

    You did get burned didn’t you? I understand the pain though. I now work for myself after 7 years with two firms after graduating and moonlighted throughout that period with the consent of both firms. I have also walked away from projects where the client has bartered a fee reduction to unacceptable levels.
    All my fee proposals are done on a fixed fee (with conditions) rather than an hourly rate. Though hourly is also offered.
    In the initial meeting with the client I tend to ask 500 questions and gain some insight into their psyche and my gut instinct then tells me whether we will have an ‘harmonious marriage’ or not.
    Hasn’t failed me yet fortunately.
    Biggest project I turned down had a $2m renovation budget. They already had a design and just wanted my level of detailing as they had seen some of my construction drawings for another project. Their design was appalling. I could not put my name to any drawings with this concept already done and told them straight up. Told them they needed just a draftsman to draw their vision and that ‘I would be wasting their time’.
    At least we parted ways on good terms.
    I have only ever completed one project without a fee proposal. For an ex employer (pre architect days). Not only did I design his beach house, but I built it as well. All without even a budget. A rare project indeed.
    All we did was shake hands when I agreed to design it, no money was ever mentioned. Fee or budget. All I did was bill him for my time, both for design and construction supervision and he paid me and all the trades without question. Such trust and honesty was amazing. As I had worked for him, I knew his level of integrity.
    I am licenced to build as well by the way.
    I tutor students at university and at least half ask for advice on doing design concepts for friends and relatives etc. My advice is always agree on a fee before starting. Preferably a lump sum for each stage, that way you also learn how long a project takes at each stage and learn to manage your time without any bill shock at the end for your client. You may come out in front, you may not. But either way you will have learnt something and if there is a next time you can adjust your fee accordingly if need be.
    No different to the real world really.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com/ Bob Borson

      Amr,
      What I know now versus what I knew 15 years ago are separate matters. Since I geared this piece towards younger more inexperienced moonlighters, the possibility that they do not know their own worth is very likely; this means being able to establish a fixed rate for any portion(s) of the work is probably a dodgy proposition.

      I’ll also say that in my situation, I felt more disappointed than burned – I did get something positive out of the experience and I don’t dislike these people either. To this day I still feel bad for my friend and the position he was put in; hopefully not too many of us are up close and personal with the fact that your Dad didn’t keep his word or pay his debt.

      Thanks for reading my post and for taking the time to contribute.