Starting from Scratch 9

Summary: I was doing everything right. Or so I thought.

I graduated from Texas Tech University with a bachelor of architecture in 2000. After moving to Dallas, I started the interview process and within two weeks landed my first job with a small firm that designed a lot of different types of facilities. This firm would expose me to diverse working experience while providing a nice family-like atmosphere. After rising in this firm that was like a family to me for eight and a half years and over 100 projects, I was laid off. I had never been fired from a job in my life. It was an odd experience. The economic recession had finally hit home after months of viewing it on the news. My wife’s reaction was a mixed bag of anger, panic, and fear. If I wanted to support my wife and two small children, there was no time to waste in finding income.

Getting started
Looking for a job now is like running a marathon. There are hundreds of people trying to get the one job available, so I decided to focus on starting my own practice instead. The idea of my own architecture practice didn’t really scare me. At one point or another, I was responsible for every stage of project delivery at my previous firm. In fact, I was the architect of record for many projects. The first thing that I needed to do was create a workspace at my home—I cleared out the guest room closet. Our savings were for living expenses—not a startup—so I sold my truck for a little capital. With the money from the truck, I had enough to purchase AutoCAD LT 2009. I was now ready to practice a guerrilla-style architecture firm out of my closet.

Keeping the office in the closet
Since I had allotted myself a very small work area at home, I needed to find ways to maintain that. My first thought was: “How can I run lean and mean?” For one example, I turned to an MEP engineer I know who took his office paperless. They seemed to find a great deal of success with this approach while using their office space more for working than storage. Since I don’t have a server or external hard drive, I looked at using online services that remotely store data, but I couldn’t afford the monthly fees. Luckily, I found a local reprographics company that offers a service that allows me to store and distribute documents on-line while only paying for prints. So they became my electronic flat file room. Additionally, I found a Web site called The site provides access to electronic versions of building codes (ICC, NFPA, ASRAE, ASTM, etc.), which allowed me to pocket the money that I would normally spend on physical copies. Plus, I managed to keep the office in the closet while maintaining a guest room free of a shelf full of reference books.

Getting mobile
Next, I wanted a mobile office. The idea of working anywhere outside of my closet or a Starbucks appealed to me. So I traded in my old phone for a smartphone—a Blackberry Curve. Of course, my wife hates the fact that I am now addicted to my Crackberry, but, as I have explained to her, it takes time to put a picture and special ringtone for everyone in my address book. I suspect she’s just jealous because I can update my Facebook status with my phone and she can’t. Seriously, though, getting my e-mail pushed to my Blackberry is great for me because it allows me to respond almost instantly to a pressing matter. Sluggish e-mail responses are a pet peeve of mine.

Getting clients
The first thing I did to get clients was join every social and professional network on the Web I could—Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, LinkedIn, Plaxo, Merchant Circle, and Jumpup. Several of my old friends turned out to be in positions in which they could offer me small projects. The work was nothing that would get me the cover of Architectural Record but it was more satisfying then what I had been doing at my last firm. For once in my career, I could design without that cloud of doubt hanging over me—that thought that any minute my boss would see my design and change it. After a few projects and some decent solutions, my confidence just started to grow. “Why haven’t I been doing this longer?” I asked myself. “This is why I wanted to become an architect in the first place.”

Getting paid
Since my first clients were friends, I gave them a steep discount on my fees. The low cash-flow was, and still is, the hardest thing to share with my wife while simultaneously trying to assure her that I am going to make it on my own. That’s not to say she doesn’t believe in my ability. We just need a steady income that exceeds our bills. It’s a simple enough equation, but it is the biggest stressor in owning my own firm. So, while my practice is still getting off the ground, I picked up a part-time job as an adjunct instructor at a local college. I was surprised by how much fun I would have teaching, and, as a bonus, the position allows me to teach at night and work during the day. At the end of my architectural career, I would like to teach at a university. I can be an old teacher smoking from a pipe and wearing corduroy pants and a blazer with elbow patches.

When I was approached to write this, it was presented to me with hesitation. But I didn’t hesitate. I think it is important to tell my story and share what I have learned. In my past there were people who told me: “To stay competitive in the market, don’t share your expertise. You don’t want to create your own competition.” Or, if they didn’t say it directly, they certainly acted that way. I can understand that, but I don’t agree with it. When architects don’t share, I think they ultimately hurt the profession and themselves. Our profession is already shrinking, and in this economy we are losing more. We need to retain the best and brightest. If my journey helps another talented architect to survive this recession and stay in the profession, then it was worth it. It is not about competition, it is about our profession. There will soon be enough work for all of us. We just have to learn to stick together.

Plus, in writing this, I hope to get more business.

This article was originally published in AIArchitect.

About Jeramie Rittiluechai

I am a registered architect and have been running my own firm since 2009. In my practice, I want to focus on environmentally responsible design (LEED) while utilizing the latest technology to achieve it (BIM). The increase cost will be managed with my partnership that handles the construction. A design/build approach can reduce the overall cost and time from the traditional construction approach. I am hoping to find like mind clients to explore the possibilities.

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