Business In the Cloud: Building a Virtual Architectural Firm

Virtual Architecture Firm
 Peter S. Macrae

Peter S. Macrae, AIA, NCARB

Principal, Macrae ARCHitecture, LLC

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB).

Like many of you, I was impacted by the 2008 recession. My firm was at a precipice, and as a result, we had to reduce our staff. We felt badly about having to let go of many bright, competent, and creative people.

Then the epiphany arrived: The world had changed so much in my 32 years as an architect, but the architectural practice model hadn’t. When I started working, architects were mostly men bent over their drafting boards, covered with T-squares, lead holders, triangles, and protractors with piles of diazo-prints strewn across the layout tables. I can’t tell you how many times I hit my head on that balanced-arm lamp. The new practice reality is that today, emerging professionals are no longer dialoguing across their workstations. Instead, they are wearing ear-buds and virtually sharing ideas and drawings—all digitally. When my wife reminded me that we were supposed to be spending our 60s traveling, a national architectural virtual practice model became an economic and personal opportunity.

The first thing I did was talk to my attorney and accountant. Having 36 state accreditations through the NCARB Certificate was a huge asset. After establishing the legal and financial foundation, I then set out to collect a flexible and talented staff. To diminish fixed costs such as payroll and health care, we decided that each employee would be an independent consultant or a “solopreneur.” And from day one, we had a positive cash flow, and I am able to conduct business between sips of coffee in a café in Columbus, Sydney, or Paris.

The Benefits of a Virtual Practice

Presently, we have nearly zero fixed overhead expenses. Contrast this with a traditional bricks and mortar firm, which has to navigate fixed costs such as rent, employee payroll and benefits, computer hardware, infrastructure, and printers. The virtual architectural practice model is far more flexible. In fact, it is all but recession proof since it can grow and shrink with market fluctuations. I never have to “fire” anyone because our employees are independent businesspersons. Our entire practice is cloud-based; therefore, we do not have to buy and maintain servers, expensive programs, or equipment. It’s all paperless, stored and retrieved virtually. I can complete most of my work with a cellphone or a laptop, and we use a local print shop to process, sign, and seal drawings. All of our expenses are directly billed to projects, and are not only reimbursable, but profitable with markups.

We have learned that the virtual architectural practice model is ideal for millennials who prefer flexible work arrangements: Parents can raise children and work from home, while the recreational-minded can go for a hike or a swim in the middle of the day. Of course, virtual firms need project managers, interior designers, drafts-persons, engineers, 3-D modelers, and a host of other collaborators. Team members are assembled only if needed for a project. Currently, we have grown to six teams that work on various project types around the world. Last year we completed 150 projects nationally and also collaborated on select projects in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Mexico.

An Incubator of Solopreneurs

We are in business to do business. With each project, I analyze what is required, then assemble the resources and talent from across the country. I saw very quickly that I needed to empower my employees. Indeed, my solopreneurs manage themselves. Their income is consistent if they work efficiently and effectively. In particular, I ask my contractors to help identify future projects, and then we develop them together—sharing the risks and rewards. It’s a “win-win” for all of us, and we are all paid when we receive remittance from the clients. Moreover, I only perform the tasks for which I am most suited, and I delegate the rest to the most qualified. For example, architects are often asked to perform countless site visits. But, if an electrical engineer or a contractor is better suited for that particular task, I send them instead. The client benefits because of diminished costs and delays.

Surprisingly, there have been few tech challenges with a virtual practice. My firm uses a variety of online resources such as Skype for meetings and Dropbox or WeTransfer for project collaboration. In fact, my personal time is spent more constructively. I do virtual networking at flexible times and, amazingly, I have not had to do any marketing since initiating a virtual practice—we have gone “viral.” We are not limited to small projects, having recently collaborated on projects as large as $30 million.

One of the things I am most excited about is how our firm mentors aspiring architects. College students work for us at a lucrative hourly rate, using their unique software skills that they may not be able to apply to actual building projects in the university setting. Plus, each student builds greater independence while earning Intern Development Program (IDP) experience.

Going virtual has been the best decision of my career. We have creative and highly skilled collaborative consultants. Solopreneurs have enjoyed consistent, meaningful, and lucrative ventures, realizing powerful independence for all participants. With a virtual architectural practice model, the world is now our marketplace.

 Peter S. MacraePeter S. Macrae, AIA, NCARB, has 38 years of experience in architectural design, project management, and business development. His focus is on the acquisition and design of environmental projects, both nationally and internationally. As principal of Macrae ARCHitecture, LLC, he has led the design and development of several large-scale, mixed-use master plans in several states. His projects have won numerous national design awards and have been published in a variety of national and international publications. Peter currently serves on several nonprofit boards and the Ohio Department of Education’s curriculum evaluation board. He holds an NCARB Certificate and is registered in 36 states.

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