A guide to architecture firms

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Introduction

The terms architecture firm, studio and/or practice can all be used to describe a company and place of work that employs one or more licensed architects to practice architecture.

But what does it mean to work in an architecture firm and what should we expect when looking for one?

There’s nothing that we like more than finding out from other architects what their firms are like, and what’s good and what’s bad. So here we will delve into the mechanics and workings of an architecture firm, and discuss what makes them such exciting places to work.

Architecture firm meaning

As mentioned above, the term architecture firm indicates that the company working under the title offers and procures architectural services and work.

In the United Kingdom, however a firm tends to resemble the larger band of companies, whereas ‘studio’ addresses companies of approximately 20 employees or less.

That aside, a firm can be structured in a variety of ways via either partnerships, limited liability partnerships, corporations, or simply as sole practitioners.

An architecture firm must employ licensed architects if the term architect or architects features anywhere within its title or description. However in some countries, an unlicensed individual is permitted to offer architectural services without a license, as long as they do not use architect or architects in their description.

Who’s in charge?

We touch on the structure and organization of an architectural firm here, however each company will have a principal or principals who are the sole proprietors of the firm, and may depending on its size share the responsibilities with partners and directors who will often be shareholders.

Organization

Small firms with approximately 5 to 10 or less employees will often have no formal organization or structure and will be solely run and maintained by the owners/principles. However due to nature and amount of work involved from both an architectural and business point of view, employees (if they choose to) can gain valuable experience by helping with additional elements of the firm, that others in larger companies would not get exposed to.

Medium sized firms of 10 to 50 employees, start to develop and be organized via departments and teams that are overlooked and managed by a senior members of staff.

The teams can be divided by such elements as experience, project type, output and administration, and sometimes even by state/county or country.

Large firms of 50 and above employees will also often have multiple practices located around the world. This not only means that they can obtain work worldwide, but also that due to the time differences of its different locations a firm can be globally working 24/7.

Atmosphere

As with architecture itself, the atmosphere of a firm plays a large and important role in its success by striving to provide an inspiring and comfortable working environment for its employees and visiting clients.

Architecture photographer Marc Goodwin from archmospheres has caught this beautifully, by documenting some of the world’s largest firms and capturing the distinctive working environments and atmospheres of each company.

Documented by both Dezeen and Design Boom you can see how varied each firm is, but how they all provide bright, comfortable and in some cases green spaces for their employees to work within.

…and this apparent no matter what the size the firm is, or how many people it employs.

We have many examples and further inside peeks into the environments of architecture firms here on our pinterest account.

Layout

The layout of firm is highly subjective and interchangeable, as well as heavily influenced by the number of employees.

A small firm will have a small kitchen and toilet for its employees, a meeting table, and then of course a row or bank of desks with computers.

With a medium sized firm you can expect to find more staff facilities, an admin desk / department, an assigned meeting room, library, model department, separate offices for principles and even more desks!

Large practices, will have all the above at a much larger scale often spread across multiple floors of a building.

Some of the larger medium sized together with the larger firms, will have their own staff and client hospitality departments hosting refreshments and eating facilities.

Types of firms

Mush like any industry, there are a large and varied amount of architectural firms out there, and the below hopes to illustrate the wide variety of creative environments that exist. Whilst also demonstrating the vastly different approaches to management the principles have.

There is no one size fits all, and ultimately people generally gravitate towards the environment that suits them best and enables them to express their own creativity.

Sole practitioners

Sole practitioners tend to work from home or a small office, and take on small projects such as extensions, refurbishments, and small one-off houses.

As the name suggests they work on their own, which whilst that may sound lonely, it gives them ultimate flexibility and freedom.

Some architects are striving towards the next step, and moving to larger premises to employ a small team of staff, and others are very happy where they are.

Small boutique firms: 

These studios consist of 2 to 5 people, working in a small studio or sometimes an off chute of the principles home.

Moving on from a sole practitioner, on average they resemble an up and coming practice that is gradually taking on new and larger projects, whilst looking for the next step.

Medium sized design firms: 

These firms often consist of two to three principles and/or partners, and by this stage they have developed and carved out a good niche in the architecture market and specialize in a certain sector.

Simple management structures will be in place with a small ladder for staff to climb.

This environment often consists of a close-knit team of young  likeminded people.

The big names: 

These are the Zaha Hadid’s, Rem Koolhaas’s and Norman Fosters of the architectural world, and where a lot of architecture students and young architects dream of working and aspire to be.

Whilst these companies have many long standing members of staff, there is also a high turnover, with a lot of young and aspiring architects looking only to have the practices name on their CV.

The name doesn’t come for free however; you’ll be required to work long hours, and so it requires full commitment!

Co-owned: 

This is a relatively new way to structure an architecture firm but one that breeds a cooperative and healthy working environment, by making everyone accountable and able to directly influence the firms success.

Each employee will have a share in the company and therefore its profits (as well as its loses); this helps to share responsibility and creates a very vibrant learning atmosphere for young architects.

Large international firms: 

These firms will have locations all over the world and will employ hundreds of people.

They will have a strict and robust systems and methods of working in place, with a well-structured hierarchy of staff and management positions.

They often pay the highest salaries that come with good benefits, however if times become hard or projects start to slow down, they are ruthless in letting people go, with little to no loyalty to its staff.

You can expect to work on a large variety of public and commercial projects, with opportunities to work and travel overseas.

Family run firms:

A family run firm is often passed down through and at least two generations. They tend to pride themselves on family and loyalty values, and aim to look after their staff, which as a result will often consist on several long standing members.

Creatively speaking they aren’t often at the top of the game, but will go above and beyond to get the work done.

Firm locations

Firms can literally be located anywhere and the chose of location is down to the individual/s. Many reside in cities with the vibrance and good transport links, and some choose to locate themselves away from urban life in rural areas.

…There is something to suite everyone

What makes a good firm?

Aside from choosing a firm that produces the work and architecture that you are interested in, we think the most important aspect of a firm is its people and like-mindedness of the individuals.

Ultimately (like it or not), the people you work with are the people you will spend the majority of your time with, and so it’s important that you like (most) of them.

Thirdly, as described above, the atmosphere and working experience can really help to breed a creative and fulfilling environment. Luckily it is normally easy to establish if it’s a right for you, when you attend the interview.

…Architecture firms are varied, creative, ever-changing, bespoke, dynamic, and vibrant environments to work within; there is not one firm that is the same. …and we hope it stays that way!