Top Ten Reasons to be a Residential Architect

Bob Borson —  April 5, 2010 — 22 Comments

1. Personal relationships with clients

Working on residential projects allows for a personal connection that simply doesn’t exist on commercial or civic projects. The distinction might be based purely on the fact that residential projects are not developed for profit. When I work with a developer, the bottom line is really the client because that’s what driving the decision-making process. Residential work is motivated by the individual who is paying for the work – it’s their money and the level of emotional/ personal involvement is proportional to that end. I have written other posts that explore this concept in greater lengths, one is title ‘Clients and Online Dating’ (here) if you are interested in reading more.

2. Involvement of the client in the process

I also have another post that discusses the traits that make a great client (here). Most of the traits are more readily available with residential projects because of the personal and emotional involvement clients demonstrate when it is for their own benefit. We do quite a bit of commercial work for individuals who originally came to us as residential clients – they liked the experience of working with us, enjoyed the methods at which we problem solved (which for the record are not intrinsic to residential vs. commercial) and asked us to take on a project type that was not in our typical base of expertise. Interestingly enough, my experience with these clients is dramatically different with them in the role of homeowner than when they are in the role of developer.

3. My role in the process

I learned a long time ago that I enjoy working on projects where I am involved in the entire process. Starting with initial programming meetings, through design development, construction drawings and construction administration, I enjoy them all. The size of most residential projects lends themselves to this level of involvement.  While this might be more the result a the size of firm rather than project type, my experience has shown me that residential firms need individuals that can wear several hats at once far more often than large firms (regardless of project type of size).

4. Length of projects

This is one item that I debated leaving off the lists as a positive. A very high percentage of our residential projects have a higher cost per square foot construction cost than our commercial projects (the biggest separator being land costs). The general timeline in our office for starting a project and getting through programming, schematic design and design development is around 3 months. Once the project enters the construction documents phase (unless we have a client who constantly makes changes – which all are guilty of to some degree) we can typically get a high quality competitive bid set of drawings issued in 2 to 4 months. Construction generally runs around 9 to 14 months on our projects but here is a good rule of thumb:

  • A really top-level contractor, on a project with high-end level finishes, can only average about $25,000 a week (slightly lower end might be around $18k – $20k). Take your budget and divide by the approximate level of your finish out and you will get a pretty good approximation of how long your period of construction will take. I learned this rule from a great contractor years ago and have been amazed at how often it works out.

All told, most residential project take around 18 months to two years from start to finish and the amount of time required from my level of involvement seem to be just the perfect amount to keep me motivated and focused on the project. Some commercial projects are in the works for years before they break ground. They stop and start, get put on hold, pull them back out of the drawer where you have to review them for code changes from when you put them in the drawer, etc., shift directions due to constantly changing external factors. It can be an exasperating experience and I’d just as much try to avoid that nonsense as much as possible.

5. Opportunity to Teach

This can mean several things; for some, it’s a balance between their professional working lives and teaching at an institution of higher learning. For others, like me, I have the ability to work with younger architectural interns at my office and help guide them along their process of becoming an architect with quality skills (at least I hope). Since residential practices often require each individual to wear several hats, interns are given responsibility early and are frequently asked to demonstrate proficiency at a faster rate than they might be at a larger office. This puts me in a position to  try to help the interns who work with me understand what they are being asked to do, rather than simply sketching it out and telling them to put it into cad. I enjoy this aspect of my job probably as much as any other and I have found out that I’m pretty good at it. The opportunity to teach people has helped me stay on my toes knowing that anyone could walk into my office and ask me “why?” and I’d better have an answer.

6. Opportunity to Learn

The ability to work on projects that have a relatively short life span in our office means that we can experiment more frequently. I wouldn’t want to come right out and say we get things wrong, but I will say that we can get things better. Personal evolution is a strong reason to work on smaller projects – at least those whose start to finish is measured in months (like 18). I’d like to say that I am not terribly influenced by trends but I know better. I have been able to track my own predilections over the last several years as I have come to know what’s important to me in the architecture I create but there are constantly evolving technologies along with the availability to new materials, I am always looking for the opportunity to marry the appropriate material with the appropriate project.

7. Flexible Hours

Let’s get this one out-of-the-way up front; you work a lot of hours as an architect, 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration right? Except who among us ever has ever stopped at 10% of the hours in a work week? With a practice that’s focused on residential work, most of our clients have jobs that are not associated with the designing and construction of their building. As a result, we frequently meet on a schedule that meets their needs, which includes a lot of night and weekend meetings. A positive spin on that is the ability to be flexible with my time during most regular business hours. I have been able to attend all the school programs for my daughter and I work in the school cafeteria serving food once a month. I know all the kids in her class and they all know me and that’s the way I like it to be. I have a friend who is a partner at HKS and he just reached 2 million miles on American Airlines at 37 years old. While I know his paycheck is far greater than my own and I am happy for his success, I feel that I am better compensated.

8. Ownership

To be direct, residential practices tend to be driven by the talents and personality of a small few, typically the person whose name is on the door. The “Sole Practitioner” category represents the highest percentage of licensed architects in this country and I have been searching for some statistic that tells me what market sector these practices focus on. What I do know would suggest that they are residential practices and I know that of the times I have thought through starting my own practice, the focus would be on residential work. The reason I went to the firm I am currently at 8 years ago was to get quality experience in this building type so that when I did go out on my own I would be prepared (turns out I like the people I work with and they like me).

9. Part of a Community

This is also an area that could have several different meanings. A majority of our projects are concentrated in a geographically small area, something in the neighborhood of 10 miles squared.  That community knows who we are and we have taken lengths to get to know who they are. At my office, we use a credit card that has a rewards program for business purchases and at the end of every year; we turn all the points into cash reward cards and donate them to the local elementary school to buy things that the local independent school district can’t provide. I am very proud to say we do this but it’s really to two partners in the firm – it’s their points.  These rewards could easily be turned into several nice vacations for their families but as a part of that community, they don’t spend any appreciable time thinking about what how those rewards will benefit others in more need.

10. Good for my Ego

I feel constant gratification for the work I do and the time I spend on projects for others. These people are paying me for my time but they know that I am just as invested in the success of the project as they are – and as a result, I feel appreciated. I speak with far too many people who either don’t like what they do or work for a paycheck to take this appreciation for granted. When I have visitors come in from out-of-town, I generally arrange for them to take a tour of some of my projects and the homeowners are always excited to show people their house. This goes on for years after the project has been completed. The homeowners always go on about how great their house is, how much everyone likes it, how important I was to the process – it’s a great feeling and seems to be fairly unique to our profession and more specifically to residential architects. I am friends with everyone one of my clients. Eventually, they aren’t my clients anymore, they are simply my friends.

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To say I could elaborate on this list of reasons is an understatement. I hope you will leave a comment to contribute to the discussion. If you are already an architect who is thinking about getting into this market sector, check out this book by my friend Michael Malone titled “The Architect’s Guide to Residential Design“.

even better

  • Mahmood

    I see that most of the architects switch between firms and they work for more than two or three firms through out their life, it really worries me and seems unstable. What are the reasons behind this? or is it just the nature of a normal architectural career.

  • Carl Leckie

    I’m still curious, what is the average pay for a residential architect, how many years of school? I’m wanting to build out of recycled materials, and use self sustaining resources as much as possible, to help people save in the long run.

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

      the answer to that question is geographic. Read this post and follow some of the links within, particularly the one to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics – there you will find (for free) the most current salary data available.

  • Lewis

    Great post, as always. I just wanted to mention that a lot of the conditions above are true of Interior Architecture as well. Some base building/more traditional large scale commercial architects (uninformed ones) look down upon it because of the interior aspect, but really, most of the urban commercial market is the interior fit-out of one or more floors of a larger urban building, and is just as rigorous and complex as base building. The scale is just different, really—the site is your building, not a stretch of land—and your interaction with clients, materials, and detailing is more intense.

    For someone reading this who would prefer a more urban lifestyle, that would be a good choice that would incorporate a lot of what you mention above. We encourage a high level of client involvement, the length of the drawing process is about the same (though the length of construction is much shorter–only ~14 weeks, typically), the quick turnaround is good for honing your skills, and you absolutely must be able to perform in all the roles and tasks involved in a project’s lifespan. The hours are not as flexible, but then again you don’t have to meet clients outside of working hours either. I’d say there’s a little less connection to the community in the sense of connecting to a town or a residential neighborhood, but an urban center has its own sense of community to which you become more and more connected, and after awhile you come to know the city pretty well. Your distance radius can, though it is not always, and does not have to be, pretty tight as well–there’s a lot of space in all those skyscrapers, and it’s constantly changing as leases turn over every 10 years or so. You also have the chance to work with your favorite clients again (or steer clear of the bad ones) due to lease turnover as well.

    Just my two cents for anyone looking for a slightly different spin on what you argue so convincingly is so great about residential—especially
    anyone who wants a quicker construction turnaround, less weekend or evening work hours, and a more urban home base.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jamieson.taylor Jamieson Berry Taylor

    i didnt read all of it all the way through – but as a residential designer up here in michigan (working on my license!) i simply would not want to be in all other profession – its humbling because i never get it right the first time but uplifting because the client gets to add some much to the process that while i am busy creating a ‘residence’ they are making it a ‘home’

  • http://www.facebook.com/ken.parsons.71 Ken Parsons

    Hello Bob…
    Just “discovered” your blog. As a fellow architect, and one who vastly prefers the residential side – make that the CUSTOM residential side of our profession, I applaud you for putting this out there so eloquently. I do some commercial work, but I find it to generally be much more like a “job” than my residential projects. It is great to see accomplished, established architects like you forgo the somewhat seductive “money side” of production commercial work and focus on things that truly make a difference in the lives of our clients.
    As many posts below allude to, this has been a rather disastrous four years for us… but still, I have managed to get by (albeit with greatly reduced expectations and deferred dreams). every time I get to that point of “well, I’ll find something else to do… something that PAYS better”, etc… I think of what that entails, and remember why I left corporate architecture nearly 20 years ago. There are always people looking to improve their homes, build new homes, rehabilitate and restore buildings, create new experiences for themselves and their families, even in these tough times. In spite of many mistakes along the way, I have maintained a viable small firm. I encourage young – and not-so-young – people who have discovered they have a passion for design – especially personalized residential design – to GO FOR IT!
    Bob, it is good to hear a common voice out there in the wilderness… Good luck.
    Ken

  • Brian

    judging from some of the houses (McMansions etc) I see I think one reason is that its not hard to look good

  • DreamJewels

    Hi Bob!

    Thanks for writing a really informative post about architecture. I am a 42 year old mother of a 7 year old daughter and I have a husband who usually travels on business a couple of days a week. I am used to a flexible schedule that allows me to care for my daughter around her school hours. When I was young I always wanted to become an architect but then felt defeated before I began when my mechanical drawing teacher in the 7th grade told me how awful I am at drawing. Unfortunately I listened to him and believed I couldn’t possibly ever be could at architecture. Now I wonder if it’s something I should pursue at this time of my life. I’m thinking going back to school would put a huge drain on my family’s finances and with the economy affecting architecture negatively I wonder if it’s crazy to consider it. Sorry if I’m all over the place but your tone is so caring and thoughtful that I thought I would reach out to you for an honest opinion.

    Thanks,
    Kate

  • Ogllala

    …GOOD MEDICINE…

  • Cam

    Thanks for the response. Found some interesting stuff re this topic at architectasdeveloper.com. Doesn't matter what business you are in if people aren't buying what your selling then you need to sell whatever they are buying. If that means broadening the skill and risk base by becoming a developer and keeping yourself employed then I guess that is what you gotta do. Thanks again Bob. Really enjoy your writing.

  • bobborson

    Cam,

    Given the veracity of the situation, you are asking questions for which there are no obvious or easy answers. It would be easy for me to dole out opinions or advice from my ivory tower but that would kinda make me a jerk. I have endured pay cuts over the last two years in this horrific economy and it has made my lifestyle tough – I don't mean no more caviar, I'm talking about care for my daughter and making mortgage payments. Through it all, I haven't ever thought about leaving the field of architecture but I have opened my eyes a little wider and cast my gaze a little further just so I don't wake up and find myself doing something just to pay the bills.

    Everything you love demands some sort of sacrifice – it think it is a Cosmic litmus test to verify your dedication and resolve. I don't think (if you love architecture) that you should leave – things will get better, just a matter of when.

  • Cam

    Hi Bob,

    Love the blog. Enjoy it and pass it to my wife for a giggle some times – she appreciated the karma post.

    Here's my question / request / demand / order /declaration (watched Star Wars tonight) … how do architects make money by selling skills no one wants to buy at the moment?

    Times are tough and if you have a wife and first child on the way it does not seem to be a smart idea to pursue something for which there is currently little demand – no matter how much you love it. Teaching is one option (if you can get it), selling your services from a very low cost base is another but I guess I am curious about how many architects effectively end up employing themselves by doing their own developments. Even though this isn't the safest route at the moment either. Any thoughts?

  • Molly

    Thank you so much for your quick response. I really appreciate your help as the time to apply to colleges is approaching quickly! The last few years I have been really intrigued with architecture (especially residential). I would love to know what books you would recommend and where I should start- I'm off to look at sketches : )
    Thanks again,
    Molly

  • bobborson

    Hi Molly,
    I am glad you like the site, hearing that makes it worthwhile. As far as your questions are concerned, I draw pretty regularly as part of my job. It is the process I use to explore different possible solutions. No, you don't have to be very good, just good enough. I have some posts here on the sie that show my sketching abilities and you can judge for yourself how far you might be from becoming “good enough”. Technology has made a difference, I would say fewer and fewer graduates come into the work environment with the ability to sit across the table from a client and communicate with them through sketching.
    I wouldn't worry too much about taking the proper courses in high school. In some regards, the less you know the better. The college you attend will want to break you down and build you back up the way they want you. Let me know if you have any other questions. I also have a list of books in my library that are good ones to read – I can point you to a good starting point.

    • Joe

       Hi Bob, I am also interested in studying architecture. Could you tell me which books do you recomend? 

      Thanks for your time,
      Joe

  • Molly

    Hi,
    Although this is an older post, I have just found this post (and your blog) today. It is very good. I am really intrested in architecture and have a few questions.
    How often do you draw?
    Do you have to be really good at art and drawing? (Has this factor changed with technology?)
    Also, do you have any suggestions when it comes to high school courses and what classes someone should take who wants to major in architecture?
    Thanks, Molly

  • Rob

    Nice list.
    I agree. This list could be “translated” into many disciplines e.g. Catering, Web Design, Author among a few.

  • Rob

    Nice list.
    I agree. This list could be “translated” into many disciplines e.g. Catering, Web Design, Author among a few.

  • http://www.concretedetail.com/blog Rich Holschuh

    Bob – As I’ve come to expect, this is a great list: well-thought out and provocative. I scroll down through the compilation and there are little light bulbs (LED’s?) of recognition flashing all the way through. I’m not an architect, but in a small way the process I go through with my clients as we design and flesh out a given artisan concrete project has many parallels (though shorter and less intense!). I felt the same way when I perused your list of great client traits. Nice!

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob

      Thanks Rich,

      I am sure one of the reasons these lists become so popular are the similarities people across multiple disciplines find. I think this is very true with the lists I have prepared – to make them so specific as to be useful to only those interested in becoming a residential architect would require them to be their own chapter in a book titled “How to be a Residential Architect” – oh wait, that book has already been written! What is really great about these lists is the conversations that typically evolve. I am not surprised that you have a viewpoint close to mine. I would expect anyone in a design related field who work on projects that require the resources (money) from an individual – as opposed to a representative – to have similar experiences.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, I appreciate it.

  • http://www.concretedetail.com/blog Rich Holschuh

    Bob – As I’ve come to expect, this is a great list: well-thought out and provocative. I scroll down through the compilation and there are little light bulbs (LED’s?) of recognition flashing all the way through. I’m not an architect, but in a small way the process I go through with my clients as we design and flesh out a given artisan concrete project has many parallels (though shorter and less intense!). I felt the same way when I perused your list of great client traits. Nice!

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

      Thanks Rich,

      I am sure one of the reasons these lists become so popular are the similarities people across multiple disciplines find. I think this is very true with the lists I have prepared – to make them so specific as to be useful to only those interested in becoming a residential architect would require them to be their own chapter in a book titled “How to be a Residential Architect” – oh wait, that book has already been written! What is really great about these lists is the conversations that typically evolve. I am not surprised that you have a viewpoint close to mine. I would expect anyone in a design related field who work on projects that require the resources (money) from an individual – as opposed to a representative – to have similar experiences.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, I appreciate it.