How To Win Work
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How To Win Work

The architect's guide to business development and marketing

Jan Knikker

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eBook - ePub

How To Win Work

The architect's guide to business development and marketing

Jan Knikker

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About This Book

You are a great designer, but no-one knows. Now what?

This indispensable book, written by one of the most influential marketers in architecture, will demystify Public Relations and marketing for all architects, whether in large practices or practicing as sole practitioners.

It bridges the distance between architects and marketing by giving practical tips, best practice and anecdotes from an author with 20 years' experience in architecture marketing. It explains all aspects of PR and Business Development for architects: for example, how to write a good press release; how to make a fee proposal; how to prepare for a pitch. It gives examples of how others do it well, and the pitfalls to avoid. In addition, it discusses more general aspects which are linked to PR and BD, such as being a good employer, ethics for architects and the challenges when working abroad.

Featuring vital insights from a wide variety of architects, from multinational practices to small offices, this book is an essential companion to any architectural office.

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Does this situation sound familiar? At a birthday party, a fellow architect boasts about an exciting new project they have recently acquired. Upon further enquiry, they reveal that – in fact – they slaved over a concept sketch or perhaps managed to coax their client into a commission with a free design to secure the project. These rather intensive and resource-exhaustive periods of unpaid work are not unusual for architecture practices. Yet architecture is not the only discipline to suffer this. It is a scenario common to other creative industries, such as advertising or fashion. Sometimes, working for free can prove a useful strategy to acquire significant long-term projects. It also gives both parties an opportunity to ‘test drive’ the working dynamic. Nevertheless, it renders the creative work produced worthless. Most egregious is the fact that designers wilfully subject themselves to this exploitation. By surrendering time, energy and resources without pay, designers reinforce the widely held, but very wrong, assumption that creativity and ideas are free.
Figure 1.1 MLBS Architects’ Guggenheim Helsinki proposal, one of 1,715.
Figure 1.1 MLBS Architects’ Guggenheim Helsinki proposal, one of 1,715.
The infamous Guggenheim Helsinki competition of 2014 is perhaps the most striking example of the devaluation of the architectural idea (Figure 1.1). Some 1,715 architecture teams submitted complex and creative designs without payment for time and talent. Assuming each practice worked 200 hours on their designs and that these hours were each worth £60, this adds up to an investment of over £20.5 million for a project that may never be realised.
When Sheela Maini Søgaard started at Bjarke Ingels Group as chief financial officer, the practice was overextended by unpaid work. She immediately put an end to this, with the intervention of common sense: ‘She got them paid. Recognising that the architecture industry was rife with free work, Søgaard brought what Ingels calls a “f*** you, pay me” attitude.’ According to the Danish starchitect, Søgaard introduced a sense of business that did not kill creativity but, on the contrary, she was essential in creating an ‘uplifting atmosphere conducive to creativity’.1
However, for many practices, this is an enviable position to be in. It takes time, dedication and discipline to establish this attitude. Many architects feel pressured into a competition because there is always a fellow architect willing to work for free, especially if there is the possibility of an eventual commission. In general, UK-based architects interviewed for this book reported that they were not willing to work without pay. Although more than a few uttered the caveat ‘unless…’. All things considered, it is entirely understandable that ‘that one project’ or ‘that one competition’ is so compelling and prestigious as to justify working without a commission.
As a creative profession, architects are often the first to see the potential of a given project. Enthusiasm quickly outpaces the business case, and they want to design instantly. For some architects, this initial unpaid work can form an integral component of the acquisition process. The savvy players of other disciplines negotiate terms with their clients as a matter of course. Architects should adopt this same attitude. Even if negotiation is a loathsome process, establishing payment terms for work is without question entirely justified. Cafés do not hand out free cappuccinos, with the assumption you might purchase a second if the first entices you. The customer receives their cappuccino upon paying for it. Architects should be paid for their work.


  • Take time to calculate your chances. Architectural competitions vary in their structure, often according to the country in which they are taking place, but more often than not they have poor conditions. In Germany, for example, architectural competitions often consist of 30 practices competing, with only the first 5 receiving a (small) fee. The remaining 25 effectively work without compensation, producing the same amount of work as those shortlisted. One means of countering this is being selective and beginning with a worst-case, rather than best-case, scenario. Consider how much of a loss you are prepared to suffer and make a probability calculation. A 1 out of 30 chance of winning is a very poor statistic (just over a 3% chance of success), while 1 out of 4 (25%) is a fair chance. Surprisingly, a lost competition can generate a positive PR boost. However, statistics also come into play here. The 4 finalists’ projects are more likely to be published than the remaining 30. In the case of the ill-fated Guggenheim Helsinki competition, many practices experienced a positive surge in PR by publishing their project. Committing to a clear and decisive strategy facilitates impartial decision-making, leaving less to chance and more to choice.
  • Request a symbolic fee instead of working without a fee. Many architects request a symbolic fee rather than working entirely without compensation. Quoting a figure in the realm of £2,000 to £10,000 serves as an effective means of testing if a particular client has serious intentions and whether they value architectural work fairly.
  • Reduce the scope of work for unpaid services. Strategically reduce the scope of the deliverables for unpaid service by providing fast hand sketches, or volume studies, without defining details. Entice a client’s imagination with a few strategic images and figures to acquire a full commission.
  • Negotiate follow-up conditions. Accept the unpaid work only on the condition that the client retains your architectural services should the project continue. A simple letter endorsed by the client in this case is sufficient.
  • Negotiate a next project. Enquire whether the client will commission your services for other projects, should this one not be successful. Be wary of setting a precedent with a potentially large client of initially working without a fee. Consider strategically whether it is worthwhile to initially work without a fee.
  • Negotiate a bonus. Commercial project developers, in particular, appreciate it if you take a risk by making an unpaid sketch. By negotiating a success fee or bonus you can receive payment if the project continues.
  • Emphasise your flexibility. Ensure that your client understands that free work is an exception. It is important that the client realises that your work, in this particular case, is a gift.
  • Solicit your own work by approaching the right parties with your ideas. With unsolicited proposal work (unpaid) it is possible to generate your own commission. If you identify a vacant site with potential, you might sketch a concept for its revitalisation and approach a developer. This kind of active acquisition works for some architects. However, as in all things, balance is key. How much time is it wise to invest and what happens if this does not have the desired outcome?


The pursuit of a larger, humane ideal is often the inspiration for architects’ work and practice. They create spaces for people, so design often aims to enhance quality of life, community benefits and user experience. This implies that architects are socially concerned and, further, that we can reasonably assume they treat their workforce with the same deference they do the future occupants of their buildings. Sadly, this is not always the case. The architectural profession is one of the lowest-paid professions requiring a university education and the combination of low wages and frequent overwork exacerbates discontent, cutting short many promising careers.
In fairness, this is a condition that is often cemented in the early days of a practice. Founders fully dedicate themselves to establishing the firm, and experience considerable success as a result. Once they hire their first employees, excessive work defines their company culture. This serf-like attitude is adopted by both owners and employees. Harsh competition justifies evening and weekend work, taking its toll on personal life.1 As a business model, this lowers costs and makes it possible for young architecture practices to compete, offering a price comparable to that of a developing country, where working 100 hours and being paid for 40 is typical. This ruinous working culture ideally subsides once the practice becomes more settled; however, in many practices these old habits die hard.
There is a certain glamour in this lifestyle, and many young architects see this sacrifice as a rite of passage. The cycle perpetuates when they establish their own practices with this ethos. There are countless reports online of the abuse that takes place in starchitects’ offices, but this is just as common in small practices. Across the board, it is morally wrong to base a business model on the excessive work of poorly paid employees. Increasingly, the industry has been taken to task for the flaws of this parasitic model. In 2019, the naming and shaming of architects who do not pay their interns resulted in a public outcry, to the detriment of several high-profile architecture practices’ reputations.2
It is clear that architecture is not an easy business to succeed in, but at the same time, reliance on the unpaid work of employees as a business model is not a sound solution. There is a demonstrated link between poor business practice and exploitation; if the fee negotiated with a client for work to be done falls short of professional standards for time and effort required, the burden often falls on staff in excessive overtime.
The almost vocational dedication to what is commercial work can cause strains in an architect’s personal life. Recall the scene from the film The Devil Wears Prada (2006) where Andy tries in vain to explain to her friends why she cannot go out with them, and they wonder what the big fuss is about some dresses. This happens in architecture. Even if the architect you work for is world famous, this fame is only relevant in your bubble and your friends and family might wonder why you dedicate so much hard work to ‘just a building’. In this case, the indentured architect’s struggle is two-fold: labour is hard and offers poor compensation, and personal life suffers as you endlessly fall short of expectations, repeatedly having to apologise, explain and defend the lifestyle.


  • Get paid. Easier said than done, but implement controls and sufficiently schedule deliverables to ensure that you receive payment for the full services you provide.
  • Plan ahead. Planning your work well will ensure success. Endlessly exploring options can be a wonderful means of innovating but fail fast, iterate rapidly and commit to efficiency.
  • Involve clients in decision-making. Avoid working in a black hole. Involve the client more frequently to expedite decisions and reduce unnecessary workflow.
  • Make communal decisions. Plan the overwork together with your employees. Be there and do the same hours as your employees, or more.
  • Enhance secondary benefits. If you cannot pay your employees for the full services they provide, seek out opportunities to make their lives easier, by offering other employment benefits. Maybe share some of the perks of your professional life with your employees – think about taking them to interesting meetings or site visits. It will be great for morale and motivation.
  • Be open. An open discussion and transparency between you and your employees is important. You can discuss future ambitions and agree that the current work style is a means to an end – an investment in a future without overwork.
  • Be grateful. Be aware that people work overtime voluntarily and that this is a gift of a precious resource. Be grateful and respectful of this.
  • Do better. Although you might have endured abuse yourself as a young architect, do not perpetuate this tradition.


In architectural education around the world, architecture students learn to be well-rounded design professionals. They learn to design anything from private residences to public buildings; from skyscrapers to airport terminals; they conduct academic research and typological studies. When released into the real world, they are quickly confronted with a tender system that favours firms with built experience, experience that recent graduates and young firms do not yet have. Regulations demand that architecture practices provide evidence of realised buildings of a similar typology, so they favour the large firm of practised architects. Only if an architect has built five town halls in the last five years does the (often) public client believe that town hall number six can be successfully executed.
This system is problematic because it stifles innovation and articulates the lack of connection between academia and the practice of architecture. With a broad experience in architecture practices accumulated over the last 21 years, it is my belief that in practice, academia rightfully educates future architects as homo universalis, with a well-rounded exposure to designing different building typologies. Acquiring this dexterity is important because it allows architects to think beyond a single typology. It forces students to be flexible and – as architects are often the central coordinating point in complex projects – it helps them manage diverse stakeholders, from contractors to public participation professionals.
When MVRDV was founded, its first project was a 10,000m2 office building for a Dutch public broadcasting corporation (Figure 3.1). The three young founding partners had some experience working in other practices, but did not yet know how to technically realise a building. They devised a project that would become famous through its innovative concept; they realised it by gathering experts around them who knew how to make a building. Of course, they made mistakes that another more experienced practice would not have made: acoustics were pr...

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