Should architects design as well as build the projects they work on? Francisca Alonso thinks so. Ten years ago she started her architecture firm AV Architects in the Metro DC area. She found that the great relationships she had created while designing her clients' projects turned sour in the hands of a contractor. Instead of handing off the project, she decided to build her clients' projects. Watch this video to find out why she says offering construction services was the best thing that happened to her architecture firm. Now they offer to build their architect projects, not just design them.
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- Visit Francisca Alonso's company at AVArchitectsBuild.com
- Visit the website of Francisca's brothers and late at MelvinVillarroel.com
Interview Transcript and Members Only Resources:
Enoch: Francisca, it is good to have you on our show today.
Francisca: Thank you. I’m really excited to be here.
Enoch: Yeah. We’ll we’ve talked a bit, and I know this going to be just definitely one of our best interviews yet. I think I saw you first on LinkedIn or Twitter. You’re active in the social media and on the Internet, right?
Francisca: Yes, I am. I think it’s a big component of branding your business.
Enoch: Okay. Now, reading up on your story, Francisca, one thing that I was really interested in that I’d like to get in to a little bit is, if we can, let’s go back in time and talk about your father. I’d like to just spend a little bit of time on that. I really liked reading that story. It’s on your website, people can go look at it – AV Architect Builders.
First of all, what is the URL of your website so that people can look and see a little bit more about you?
Francisca: Sure. It’s www.avarchitectsbuild.com.
Enoch: Okay, great. So, on your website, you mentioned a little bit that your father is a prominent Spanish Architect. I went and looked a little bit about his story, read how he started out in Chile, and then moved to Spain. So, can you talk a little bit first about who your father is, and what he did, who he was? Let us all know a little bit about him.
Francisca: Sure. Well, my father was born in Bolivia and my mom is German. They both met in Chile. He was a professor at the Architecture school at Catholic University in Chile and also had his own practice, and my mom was a student there. They met and got married, and had four kids, and I’m the second one of those four.
He was working in Chile as an Architect, but the economy was pretty bad there in the 70s. There was a lot of political uproar. He was actually doing clothing design. He partnered up with a good friend of his, and they were doing designs, sort of, like a really high-end department store.
So, he wasn’t doing Architecture. He was doing well considering the rest of the country, but he wasn’t doing Architecture. In his travels to Europe to look at designs, and purchase textiles, and so forth, he came across this small area in the South of Spain in [Andalusia 00:02:29] and fell in love with the area, and just called up my mom and said, “Pack your bags, and bring the kids, we’re moving.”
Of course, my mom was like totally shocked because they had just built a house for themselves. In her world, it was all perfect, but in my dad’s world, it’s all about Architecture. It always was all about Architecture. He wasn’t doing that, so he felt that he wasn’t complete.
Enoch: Okay. When you say he was “all about Architecture,” what does that mean?
Francisca: He passed away two years ago, but sometimes I talk about him in present because I feel like he’s still here. He loves Architecture, and loves design, and loves buildings, and just had really a huge passion for the profession. It’s one of those, you know, you meet people that have a passion for what they do, and it just comes out of them in pretty much everything they do.
Enoch: Did you realize that as a child? We’re you saying, “Okay, I can see that passion in my father,” is that just in retrospect?
Francisca: I didn’t look at it as passion. All I could see is that he was always happy – that, I think, a two-year-old can perceive. A two-year-old can perceive happiness; a baby can perceive happiness. One of the first things they do is smile, right? Happiness is something that’s in the air just like unhappiness is in the air. Happiness is in the air.
No matter what our situation was: because they had nothing, and then they were fine, and then they went to Spain and then they had nothing again. We had our moments of nothing, and I sure remember that. Then, we had our moments of a lot. Regardless of all those material things, I can speak for me and I know my brothers and my sister feel the same way, there was a deep sense of content in our household at all times. I associated that with what he was doing, which was Architecture, designing buildings, houses and buildings.
So, I figured he loves what he does and he loves it so much that no matter what happens he is still happy.
Enoch: That gives me goose bumps. Seriously, when you talked about happiness, I’m like, “Wow, and that is just so true.”
Francisca: Yeah. We just felt that. I remember him. My dad was not a big talker. I’m a big talker, my mom is, and you know how some people are just more talkative than others. When he said something, usually everybody, kind of, stop talking.
Enoch: What is he going to say?
Francisca: Right. One of the things that I remember from very early on is that he would say to my mom, “I’m just having so much fun with this project.” But, he wouldn’t use the word “fun.” “I just enjoyed it so much. I can’t believe that those fools pay me.”
I grew up with that line ringing in my head that he was having fun working. So, work wasn’t really “work” for him. It was a lifestyle.
Enoch: Okay. Then your family moved. I can definitely see your mother’s point of view. She’s in Chile to have a nice life, a nice house, and then her husband says, “Hey, I want to move to Spain.”
Enoch: So, then you guys moved to Spain and started out with zero again. Tell me a little bit about that and how he built up his firm up. What happened after that?
Francisca: Well, he had to get his license and his paperwork in Spain because he wasn’t native to the country. So, that was not easy. My mom had the four of us under the age of seven, so she was dealing with that. He basically started feeling out where the networks were. It was a very small town, but it was very touristy – a lot of people from Europe were vacationing in that area. So, he started figuring out that that was his network.
I think the big break was a competition that he won to do a hotel. Hotel Puente Romano, which is still there in Marbella, is one of the top hotels in the area. He won that competition. I think that was his big break because they got to design this beautiful hotel that then got a lot of publicity.
My dad was very focused on the indoor-outdoor transition spaces. Typically, in the 70s, in that area all hotels were these big, tall, thirty-storey towers with no outdoor spaces, and are just kind of an eye-sore in the landscape. He started bringing in this new Architecture that was saying, “Well, we have all these space, we really shouldn’t build more than three floors. We should take advantage of the views.”
I think his view of the land, and his perspective on Architecture just resonated with people. So, he started building a clientele because he was offering a unique, different product that wasn’t there.
Enoch: Tell me his name.
Francisca: Melvin Villarroel.
Enoch: Villarroel, yeah. You can go see that website. Your siblings currently own and run that firm in Spain to this day.
Enoch: Lots of fun projects. I went and looked. They’re doing some fun stuff down in Panama and almost around the world. I saw something in China?
Francisca: Yes. They’re doing a lot of work in Shanghai now because things are a little bit tough in Spain, so you have to go out of your borders.
From an article talking about your father, you said that he wasn’t doing what he was passionate about, so he left everything behind to build something better. Now, how has that view of passion shaped your own life and your choices?
Francisca: I think it’s had a huge impact because I was always looking for something that would just mean something to me, that would make a difference in the community, and that would make me happy. So, I just don’t want a job. I mean, I do want a job…
Enoch: Yeah, there are two schools of thought. One school is you go to work and work is separate from play. You just put your head down and get to the end of the thirty years. I’m exaggerating, of course. That is not black and white like that. Then there are the people who are like, there’s a big, strong push to follow your passion; that you can find actual joy in what you’re doing at work. You need to try to search for that in your life. Have you found that?
Francisca: Yes. I found the perfect balance of work/life integration. Believe me, I say, very easily and it’s a work in progress, and it’s a [battle 00:10:16] everyday. I think for us women it’s a huge challenge to be professional women, even if you were not working or running a business just to have your own time, as opposed to everyone else’s time if you are a stay-at-home mom. That’s the duality there.
In our case, me working to find that balance, that integration is a challenge. I’ve taken all the challenge because I want it all. I want to have a family because my mom raised us. That’s my first passion. also want to have a career, and I want to make a difference in people’s lives with the power of Architecture and good design.
To have both is not easy. One day I was having a moment, and I just said, “You just can’t have it all.” But as one good friend of my dad said to me at one time, “Well, actually, Francisca, you can; just not all at the same time.” That sort of hit me because he was totally right. If you can manage to balance things out, and stagger them, and just always have that big goal in mind, I think it takes a lot of pressure off the daily routine.
Enoch: Now, when you were growing up, you did not have this dream of becoming an architect. What was it like when it clicked and you said, “I think I want to do Architecture”?
Francisca: I didn’t want to be an architect because I wanted to do something different. I’m one of those people that are always looking for different ways to do things if everyone is going in this direction. I have kids now and I totally see how the two of them exactly do that too. Nuts! But I relate because I think I was the same. So, when everybody was doing one thing, I tend to want to do something different.
Architecture was such a big part of our lives in a very positive way, but I wanted to try a different path. I wanted to be an attorney; I wanted to just go down a different route. My sister is the same thing.
So, when my dad sent us to go to college here, because he had family here and he really wanted us to have a well-rounded education, he said, “So, what are you going to do?” He knew my brother was going to study Architecture, but he didn’t know about me or my sister. I said, “Well, Dad, I don’t really know. The one thing I do know is that it’s not going to be Architecture because I really need a break from that.” He said, “Oh, well, whatever.”
He never really pressured us. I felt like we were pushed in to Architecture through osmosis. He never really took us to the office and showed us what he was doing or anything like that, which people might think that, that was what he was doing all day long, but he wasn’t. He was just enjoying himself and we were just watching him, basically.
When I was in college, I took this class called “Thinking with the Right Side of the Brain.” I don’t know if you read this book, but there’s a book called, “Thinking with the Right Side of the Brain,” and it’s a great book. I had read it when I was nine because my dad gave it to me. It talks about how the brain for architects, it’s one of those professions where you use both parts of your brain very evenly – the artistic side and the mathematical side.
As an artist, you may use more of the artistic, as an engineer you may use more of the mathematical. But, as an Architect, you really need to combine both parts of the brain pretty much throughout the decision-making process of design solutions.
So, I saw this class, and I told my sister, “Take this class because this is going to be an easy A since we know this book, right?” It ends up that we were spending all of our time in this elective.
At the end of the class, the professor said to me and my sister, “You guys should look in to Architecture because clearly that’s your passion.” I just looked at her and I said, “Did my Dad call you?” She said, “No, I don’t know who your dad is. All I know is that here is a list of all the Architecture schools in the area, and that’s where you should be looking at,” because she knew we were undecided major.
So, I applied to Catholic University where my brother was, my sister did too. Then, I faxed my dad the acceptance letter. The rest is history.
Enoch: Yes, and you met your husband there. He is also an architect, correct?
Enoch: So, you were just surrounded by Architecture.
Francisca: Yes, pretty much every day.
Enoch: Your kids, what do they think about it? Are they sick of it?
Francisca: No. I think when you’re a kid and your exposed to that, you just don’t know any different. My kids they see me working and they see me talking about business. In fact, our oldest son is thinking about going to business school.
I think I also do spend a lot of time on the Architecture aspect of our business, but I spend probably more time on the business aspect. That’s one of the things that I never thought that I would be spending so much time on. I thought if you run a business, you’re just going to be designing all day. I do remember that my dad told me one time, “You have to get really good at designing because you’re going to have very little time to do it when you run your own business.” I spend probably 8% of my time designing.
I went to him and I asked him, “How do you come up with these so fast?” because they do huge projects. He would figure out this master plan in a very short time, it just would come out. He says, “Years of experience. You have to get really good at it and be really fast because you’ll see that 90% of your time is spent running the business.” At that time, it really didn’t resonate. Today, that we are running this business, I completely get it.
Enoch: When you say “Running a business” what are we talking about? What are the two things that take the most time on the business side?
Francisca: Well, I think finding clients is the top one. Finding the right client, right? As you start growing and you start niche-ing yourself, you realize that your types of clients are these group of people. So, you want to target them because they are the ones that are going to benefit from your services. That’s a full time job.
To find those types of clients, to nurture the ones you have that are your ideal clients, and to consistently be doing business development. That’s a whole category in itself, right? Marketing your brand takes up a lot of our time. In today’s world, that is a huge component. You and I would have never met if we wouldn’t be out there marketing our brand, correct?
Francisca: So, it’s a whole different world today, extremely competitive. There are just a lot of people out there doing the same thing. If you want to be different, if you want to distinguish yourself, you have to work at it every day. That’s another full time job.
If you have employees, taking care of them, and making sure that all that is sinking. That takes up a lot of our time too. Educating ourselves, we have to be on top of what’s new. We do construction, so new materials and methods is something that we have to be constantly on top of.
I’ve mentioned three or four things that I do that have nothing to do with design but are huge components of the success of our design-build company.
Enoch: Correct. How long ago did you start the firm? When did you start the firm?
Francisca: 2001, we started AV Architects. Then, in 2003 we launched AV Builders.
Enoch: Okay. Tell me about the early days of AV Architects. Tell me about that moment when you thought, “Okay, I want to start doing my own thing.”
Francisca: I want to start doing the building, is that what you’re saying?
Enoch: Well, no. I’m talking about the Architecture. Let’s go back, AV Architects, before you started building. Tell me about the time when you started, your first project basically, and how you decided to go in to business for yourself.
Francisca: I was looking for a way that I could manage my own time. I wasn’t thinking that I was going to be an entrepreneur, or a business owner, and all these terms that now I use every day. I wasn’t really thinking that. I was trying to figure out how can I work, make money, be an in Architecture, and be with my kids.
I worked for a big company in [Fairfax 00:20:25] for three years, and I worked for a small company down town until my son was nine months and he didn’t want to stay in his little carry-on for eight hours. My boss told me I could take him in the office, so I would take him with me. He would just stare at me for eight hours. [Inaudible 00:20:44] until he was about six or seven months. Then, he wanted to move around. God, forbid, right?
Enoch: Yeah. You were brainwashing him, Francisca. You were brainwashing that poor child.
Francisca: Yes. He was just looking at me, and I would make paper in to little balls, and throw it at him, and play, and I’ll be drafting in the computer. So, that was great. But, at one point, I just had to cut him loose, and it wasn’t going to happen in the office. I went back home and I just started brainstorming, thinking how can I work in this profession and still be here with my kids when they come back from school?
I thought the best way to do it is to do my own projects. I think I accepted the fact that I was going to be on my own and that maybe we weren’t going to be doing big projects. So, I accepted the fact that it was going to be small. In fact, when I took this job – The Deck – a lot of people looked at me and go, “You’re doing a deck?”
Enoch: So, tell me how that first job came to be The Deck. That was your first project?
Francisca: [Inaudible 00:21:50] over across the street. They kept coming over to hang out with us. They would see our three-tiered deck that we had that we had built for ourselves. They kept telling me, “Why can’t you design this for us?” At one point I just said, “Well, I can.” “Well, then, tell me where to sign and get to it.”
So, I did that job. I think maybe other people would have said, “No, I can’t do a deck. I’m not a carpenter. I’m an architect,” right? But, I took the job because I wanted to do something that was related. I’ve never done a deck again, okay, so it’s not like we became deck builders.
Enoch: Like a deck specialist.
Francisca: Right. Not that it’s a bad thing; it’s a pretty good industry. But, I wasn’t scared of taking smaller things just to get experience and to get my feet wet with the big picture in mind. I think maybe that’s something that holds people because they think, “Well, I can’t do this right now because that’s not what I was trained for.” I decided to just take it. With that then came this smaller addition that I also decided to take for the same reasons. Then we got this really large project.
I think it all kind of fell in to place simply because we were more and more prepared to take on bigger jobs.
Enoch: Okay. So, at this time, your husband had a full time job working for the GSA?
Enoch: Which is the General Services Administration?
Enoch: Overseeing Federal projects?
Francisca: Right. He actually had an internship with them when he was in college on his last year. So, when he graduated, they offered him a position there full time and he took it.
Enoch: Okay. Now, along the timeline, you say there was a point where you decided you wanted to do something on your own. Then, there was a point where your neighbor came over and said, “Hey, we want a deck.” Which of those came first or did they sort of happen concurrently with the timeline there?
Francisca: I wanted to do something on my own. When this opportunity came up, I just took it. I thought that this is it. This is my chance to do something.
Enoch: Okay. That was how you kicked off the business. This was in 2001, correct?
Enoch: Okay. So, for that first year, how many hours a week were you spending on the actual business?
Francisca: I think I was spending probably like twenty hours a week. They were all at night, late at night.
Francisca: Simply because I had no handle on how to manage my time. There are all these things that are coming at you, and it’s all new, right? There’s no template for anything. So, there are ten variables, and you’re trying to solve this puzzle. As we all know that is not an easy task.
Francisca: So, you sort of start going through it. It takes a lot of time. I was working for three years. I would say I was working until 2:00-3:00 in the morning every night.
Enoch: Well, 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning and waking up at what time?
Francisca: Well, you know, with little kids you are up pretty much all the time.
Francisca: So, I’m very lucky that I actually don’t require a lot of sleep. I have friends that if they don’t have their eight hours, they just can’t see straight. I take after my dad. I don’t think he slept more than four hours a day. I know it’s probably not very healthy, but personally, I don’t need a lot of hours of sleep. So, I could work late and I knew that there was a brighter future. That sort of kept me going all the time.
Enoch: Okay. So, was there a point where you said, “Okay. I have this business figured out and I feel like it’s a real business now.”
Francisca: It wasn’t in the first three years. I think that point came about probably in the fifth year once we started going in to construction and we actually had some processes developed.
Enoch: Was that feeling because you were then making a certain amount of money? What made you feel like, “Okay, this is a real business, I’m established now”?
Francisca: It was because, yes, we were making some tangible money, something that we could actually spend and not just pay our bills. It was also because I had a better handle of my time. I knew how long things would take and I could manage that in my week.
I think at the beginning, you don’t know what things cost; you don’t know how long things are going to actually take you; you don’t charge enough; you don’t allocate enough time. So, you’re working overtime for quite some time until you figure out how long it’s going to take you, how hard it’s going to be, how much you should be charging, and you have certain processes set up. That takes experience, and it takes time, and it takes just doing it, I guess. Right?
Enoch: Absolutely. Was the five-year point where you were actually making a decent salary, or was it sometime before that in just terms of money/finances?
Francisca: We reached it at the five-year point. Primarily it’s probably because I wasn’t working on it full time either. I didn’t have any employees, so I was doing everything from designing, to getting the client, to drawing it, to the bookkeeping, to the figuring out what’s going to be on the website, to marketing material. Every role, every hat that the business had, I had it. My husband was helping me, but I was pretty much doing the core of it.
Enoch: When you say he was helping you, it was on the side of his current job?
Enoch: Did he do that after his work hours? What year did he join the company?
Francisca: He has maintained both positions throughout.
Enoch: So even today he still has a full time job with the GSA?
Francisca: I think that gives us the opportunity to grow it in a more conservative fashion because we had that security.
Francisca: It may not be the business model for a lot of people, but it works for us because of our situation. It gives us the opportunity to be safer and just more long-term. I mean, there are so many businesses that start with a bang, and then three years later go under. So, here we are in this last ten years. We’ve grown from a 100 thousand, to 300 thousand, to 500 thousand.
Now, we’re building our spec house. I think out cautiousness has allowed us to do this successfully.
Enoch: Great. Now, let’s talk a little bit about architect Design-Build. First of all, do you have your architectural license?
Francisca: Tony has the license. I’m an associate.
Enoch: Okay. When was it that you guys decided to pivot in to building and not just design services? Tell me about that process.
Francisca: It was in 2003. We were doing the drawings and we would basically do the design. Tony would stamp the drawings. Then we would deliver the drawings to the client and assist them with finding a contractor to build the project.
Then you basically are in a supervisory position during construction. You’re just doing construction administration, right? You have no leverage over the construction process or the product because you have no contractual agreement with the contractor.
I don’t know, maybe in commercial projects it’s a little different because there are more checks and balances, but in residential, there is pretty much three people. There is the client, which could be one or two. Then, there is the architect and the contractor. So, it can get pretty ugly if they’re not all in the same page. Unfortunately, very rarely are they in the same page simply because we look at things completely differently than contractors and builders do.
Enoch: Absolutely. Well, you know, Jonathan Seagull tells a really wonderful story, a little anecdote, and I’ve heard you express something similar. We’re the architect; we turn over the plans to the client. They’re happy and they have stars in their eyes. They are thinking this is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Then, the contractor comes in to the picture, and six months later they’re thinking, “Oh, my goodness! These drawings are horrible. This architect, I can’t believe… What was I thinking?”
Enoch: So, did you see some of that?
Francisca: Yeah, we saw a lot of that. It just seemed like it was such a shame because we had invested so much time upfront with the client trying to create this perfect solution for them. The construction process is so much longer than the design process, and there is so much more money at stake, that it’s so easy to just completely kill the design because there is more time to do it and there is more money at play. Of course there is more risk for the client. So, it’s impossible for the client to not simply just be at the mercy of the contractor. With that, we are at the mercy of the contractor too.
If I wanted to get a referral from this client, if the contractor didn’t deliver what he said he was going to deliver, it was going to be highly unlikely that I was going to get a referral. Since we live on referrals, that was sort of the problem for me.
That there would be all these changes at the job site; we have these specific materials of lights, and flooring, and roofing material. Then, I would get to the job site, and there would be a whole different array of stuff there. Of course, most clients don’t know the difference, but we know the difference. When we ask the contractor, “Well, why did you change this?” he would say, “Well, the client approved it.” The client approved the change because she or he doesn’t know the difference. But we do. So, it was this conflict all the time.
I quickly realized that if we wanted to deliver the product the way we had envisioned it, we had to get our contractor’s license and basically become design-build.
Enoch: Was that the primary factor to go in to design-build or was it something else when that light clicked and you said, “Hey, let’s start doing design-build”?
Francisca: The major thing was that most design-build companies here where we are, I would say 95% of them, are run by contractors. They do not have any architects on staff. Only the top 5% that do really great work typically have architects on staff. Most 95% of them, they do not have architects on staff. They may have a designer here or there, but it’s really contractor driven. Yet, they call themselves design-build.
So, I figured if they can do that without having stepped foot in Architecture school or design school, why can’t we do “Build” since we’re the creators of the project? It just seemed like that was the thing to do.
Enoch: So, it’s like a natural progression.
Enoch: You just came to a point where it seemed like a natural next step.
Francisca: Right. I figured if they can do that, and they’re doing it successfully, we should be able to do it too and do it very successfully because we’re looking at it from the other end.
Tony went to a convention in 2003. There was an attorney there that thought a seminar. He called it “Architect-led Design-Build.” I remember that night very freshly that Tony called me and said, “You wouldn’t believe this seminar that I just attended.” It was basically this attorney talking to these 400 architects saying, “People, you guys need to get in to construction if you want your product to be what it wants to be at the end of the process.”
Enoch: Okay. I was going to ask you if you recommend other architects pursue this path. It sounds like you just answered that question ahead of time.
Enoch: Okay, absolutely.
What would you say to architects that are thinking about going in to Architect-led Design-Build? Could you go talk a little bit more about it? Say you’re sitting down with someone who’s considering it. What are you going to tell him?
Francisca: Well, I think first thing is to get rid of the fear because a lot of architects fear going in to design-build because they think that there is so much liability in construction. Of course there is liability in construction, but there is a lot more liability in stamping a set of drawings and then hoping that things work out. I mean, the contractor’s warranty is a year. The architect’s warranty is, what, ten years, right?
Enoch: [Inaudible 00:37:05] I think, yeah.
Francisca: So, if you look at it that way – Wow, right? You are much more liable as an architect handing off drawings than as an architect keeping the drawings and building them yourself.
First there’s that aspect of design. You’ll be able to control the whole process till the end. There won’t be any finger-pointing because you can’t point at yourself. You have to take care of it, right? You will learn so much more. I feel like I’m a much better designer today than I was ten years ago simply because I’ve actually watched foundations being poured, walls being framed, trusses being installed, and metal plates being welded every day. I’m at the job site and I see it.
So, now when I’m drawing it, I just don’t draw a line, I actually think about it in terms of build. That gives you a lot of leverage as a designer. Most of the greatest architects were engineers too. Why is that? Because they really understand the materials and methods. It makes you a much better designer.
Then, there’s the liability factor, which I think is the fear of architects. When I talk to other architects about doing construction, the first reaction is, “Wow, that’s a lot of risk.” I think it was Steven who said it’s actually less risk because you are controlling the process to the end, and you’re making sure that it is going to be built the way that you had envisioned it. So, it is less risk to become design-build than to just do the drawings and hand them over.
Enoch: Okay. So, from the financial aspect, is it more profitable?
Francisca: Much more profitable. That’s the good news.
Enoch: Okay, that is good news.
Francisca: Much more profitable, like at least seven or eight times.
Enoch: Well, frankly that’s one reason why I personally started Business of Architecture, it’s because it seemed profit for architects is very elusive. It’s a hard cat to catch. It seems like we’re constantly chasing our tail trying to maintain those few extra dollars at the end of a project. Does that change when you go in to building at all? Does that dynamic change?
Francisca: Completely. First of all, another reason why it’s so valuable is that you are able to design a project within budget much easier than if you’ve never built something because you have a very good understanding of what things are going to cost. When the client is flying in fantasy land – and of course, we love that land, right?
Enoch: Love it.
Francisca: You fly with them and your project has quadrupled in budget. Your builder brain brings you back and tells you, “No, you can’t do that. If their budget is X, we’ve got to float around the X.”
Really our goal is to design buildings that are going to be built. I don’t think any architects dream with having flat files with all these houses in it and show people all their drawings, right? We want to build it. Whether it’s us, our builders, or the client with another builder, we want our design to be a structure. So, the goal is to get it built.
How are you going to get it built? By giving the client a solution that is real, and within the budget, within the timeline, and that is buildable. Well, there’s no easier way to reach that goal than to actually become the builder.
Enoch: Okay. I just want to go back to your early years really quick and ask you about client acquisition. What have you found to be your best sources for finding new work? I know you’ve done a lot of networking, you’re involved with BNI. I can see your networking chamber, all that. What can you tell us about finding work?
Francisca: I think there are probably multiple resources that I use. As a woman, I have a lot of leverage because most of our clients are couples. As we all know, women make most of the buying decisions in the home. They decide what’s going to be, where we’re going to live, what schools the kids are going to go to, whether we’re going to add on or re-do the kitchen, or build a new house. Most of the time that decision comes from the female, and the guys usually have to just kind of go with it. They want a happy household, right?
I have leverage by networking in women circles. I’m a huge fan of entrepreneurship, and so I love networking with women entrepreneurs. So, that’s one of my circles where I can help them with the business feedback. Then, I’m in the circle of my clients. That’s one of the circles. Then, I’m also in other business circles that are just men and women. I get a lot of leads out of those circles too.
Enoch: Okay. So, those circles do provide leads for you.
Francisca: Yes, they do. They also give me a lot of knowledge which makes me run the business better and more cost-efficient. All that leads to profit. The reality is that it’s not so much about getting more and more clients. It is about getting the right clients, charging what you need to charge, and delivering what you need to deliver in the fastest way possible.
The builders, they have that figured out. They have a couple of things they haven’t figured out, which we can do much better. You and I both know what that is, right? But, the efficiency, they have that figured out. I think I’ve learned a lot from that industry by being around them – the builders.
Francisca: There is a certain level of efficiency that, I think as architects, we don’t focus on that. We can design, and design and we love what we do, we can do it until midnight. If they don’t pay us, it is okay. We’re still having a good time, right?
Francisca: Well, I kind of got away from that a little bit and become a little less generous with my free time.
Enoch: Sure. From Architect-led Design-Build to now developing. You mentioned that you and your husband have bought a property. Tell me a little bit about that and what’s going on with that.
Francisca: Yeah, that’s was the goal, I think, in the back of our minds all along. We just need to go through all these process to get there. Ideally developing your own projects is really a dream. To be your own client, to have the funds to do it and to take it all the way through – I can’t imagine that there is something more exhilarating for an architect than that. We finally are at a stage where we can do that. I think we just couldn’t be any happier. It’s another world in terms of the financing aspect of it. It’s like we’re starting another business.
Enoch: So, land is purchased right now, Francisca?
Enoch: Land is purchased, you own the lot?
Francisca: Yes, we own the lot. We purchased it. The house has been designed already. We collaboratively did it together, Tony and I. It’s been drawn up. Most of the [Inaudible 00:44:01] process is complete. We’re waiting for a couple more tweaks, but we’re about to demo the house, the teardown this week, and hopefully start construction next week. So, we’re there, which [Inaudible 00:46:14]
Enoch: In the middle of it, yeah. Did you guys pay cash for the original property, or did you get a loan?
Francisca: We paid cash 30%, and the rest we financed.
Enoch: Okay. Basically what they call an investor-industrial property loan.
Francisca: Yeah, a conventional loan.
Enoch: A conventional loan.
Enoch: That gives me a good understanding of the finances right there. You paid 30%. Did you try to leverage any of your architectural drawings as to get credit for that, for part of that 30%, like Jonathan Seagull talks about doing?
Francisca: No. I didn’t. I should have. Next time.
Enoch: Okay. You knew about that because I think you said either you or your husband did go in to Jonathan’s seminar in DC, correct?
Francisca: We actually heard the interview that you did online. We were going to sign up for this eight-hour course that he has.
Enoch: Yeah, his online course that he has. I think last time I checked it was about $500. Great investment. I did it. After you take a look at that and listen to it, I’d love to get your input on if you learned anything from what he teaches in there. He shares performers and all of his numbers.
Francisca: Yeah, we’re definitely going to do it. We just need to carve out those eight hours. That’s why we haven’t done it yet. I mean, he made so much sense in that interview, and you asked some really good questions. For both of us, it was very eye-opening.
Enoch: So, what were the good questions? Knowing what you know now, what are the good questions?
Francisca: Well, I think the whole concept of doing it, of becoming your own developer. It just seemed like a good idea. Once he explained why, it just became so real.
Enoch: A light bulb just went off.
Francisca: Yeah, completely. Exactly. It’s like when you asked me about becoming design-build. Like so many people are scared because of the liability and all of that, but once you actually do it, you realize that actually you’re better off with this arrangement.
I think Jonathan made all those points by explaining why it is so fundamental, and why it is so powerful to develop your own projects. He also gave some real tools about how to do it and how to start small. That’s how we started our business also very small and kind of being conservative.
Enoch: Sure. So, this is a spec house. This is the house to tear down. You’re going to go ahead and improve that property. Then, what sort of marketing plan? Do you have a real estate you’re going to be working with to sell the property?
Francisca: Yes. We have a realtor that we’ve already hired and the house is listed. I think it’s a better way. Obviously, it’s more expensive to do that than to do it yourself, but I’ve also have learned over the last ten-plus years that we’re only good at so many things. Even though you think you’re saving money, you’re actually not saving that much money because you’re not good at everything. Some people that may be cheaper than you can actually do a better job.
That’s something that I learned with experience, because I felt like if I did everything on the business, if I did the accounting, the marketing, the branding, the website, you know, updates and everything, I would be saving us money. Well, you really are not because we are good at two or three things, not fifteen things. We should be focusing on those two or three things.
Enoch: When we talked previously, you told me that you have been studying business really deeply, I believe not formally but informally, in terms of getting your hands on as much information as you can over the past three years or so. You’ve made an offhanded comment to me that generally, like you said, architects we love to design and then we forget about the business side sometimes. What are maybe the top three mistakes you see architects in general we’re making just because of our natures in the business side?
Francisca: There’s an organization called the Entrepreneur’s Organization. They’re global. It’s called EO. I joined that organization several years ago. That’s taught me just huge amounts of information about running a business.
I think one of the biggest eye-openers was to really look at your balance sheet, your profit loss on every specific project. I don’t think as architects we tend to look at those numbers the way financial people do. I think Jonathan made a point about that too.
If you’re not looking at those numbers on a daily basis, you’re really not going to be a profitable company. Once I started looking at that balance sheet with the financial eye as opposed to my designer eye, things became real, uncomfortably real because you realize, “Wow, I’ve actually worked this much time on this project, and I’ve made this money.”
I was talking to a CPA, and he was looking at this balance sheet and he goes, “So, are you a for-profit or a non-profit?” This is like four years ago. I felt really insulted. I looked at him and I was like, “What do you mean? Of course I’m a for-profit.” “Well, you’re not making a profit. For being a non-profit, you’re paying an awful lot of taxes.”
Francisca: So, I was like, “Okay, sit down.” It sort of really hit me. I don’t think we have those types of conversations. As a business owner regardless of whether it’s architecture or whatever it is, if you really want to run a business, you’ve got to understand the balance sheet, and the finances, and the profit-loss, and how much money spent to get a client. Most people that run very profitable businesses focus a lot of their time on that aspect of the business.
Francisca: I’ve basically turned my focus and gone in to that aspect. Of course, we do the design, but like I said, 10% of our time, 90% is figuring out how to get the ideal clients and how to manage it so that we have a profit at the end of this journey.
I don’t know if you know but, my background personally is in making websites that can actually bring in clients, making the things that architects can do to their websites that can actually bring in leads. Most architects I think have the experience, and I did before also, that websites are useless actually for bringing in new clients. That basically they are just as a portfolio piece to show your work. What I’ve discovered over the past five years is that it’s not the website itself; it’s actually how you design the website and the things that you put on the website that can make the difference between bringing in clients and having a lead-generator.
When I saw your website, Francisca, AV Architect Builders, instantly, I’m like, “Wow. Whatever Francisca did, she has it down. She has several of the elements that architects generally leave off of their website that they need to have to be able to bring in new work through the Internet.” So, I wanted to ask you a little bit about your website – and we can finish on this note – how you came about focusing on that and where you learned those schools, and if it’s bringing in any work for you.
Francisca: Yes. The website has been as most websites, a work in progress. This is our third or fourth version since we started. Like you mentioned, the first two websites we had were mainly a portfolio of work. The irony of it all is that if no one finds it online, then it’s really not a very good portfolio because you’re just going to send someone, a prospect to your website so that they can look at your portfolio. By then, they’ve already met with you and you’ve already showed them your work. So, it’s sort of useless, right?
What you really want is you want people to find you. That’s the whole purpose of the website. You want people that don’t know you. Not in your tight circle that you’re loyal to, but for people that do not know you from anything to find you when they’re at midnight desperately looking for an architect to build their home. So you want to be that answer.
Well, if your website doesn’t do that, it’s really useless. This website that we have now has been completely redesigned, rebranded with that point in mind. I think a lot of the times too, architects design websites that are very architectural and have a lot of beautiful images. They’re almost tailored towards other architects not really towards clients. Our clients are not architects. If they were, they wouldn’t be hiring us, right?
So, they’re different. Most of our clients are people in the financial world, they’re very mathematical, they’re lawyers, and they’re doctors. They’re anything but architects. So, you have to understand what these people are like, what triggers them, and design your website as if you’re talking to them. That’s what we’ve done with this website over the last two years that is working so much better than the other website simply because it’s designed and tailored around our ideal clients.
Enoch: Great. So, when you say it is working better – I know you probably look at the analytics to be able to tell how many people are visiting your website. I think you found this website two years or so with the new design. What kind of increase in just general traffic have you seen? Have you seen an increase in traffic?
Francisca: Yeah, we have a huge increase, like more than thirty times.
Enoch: That’s amazing. That’s incredible.
Enoch: Then how many leads would you say you generally get from your website that call you after being involved and finding you through the Internet?
Francisca: Well, it varies. Some weeks more than others, but I would say that we get about seven to ten phone calls a week. That doesn’t mean that they’re actually the right clients. But, they are people that are on our website, looking at our projects, and think that we’re the right fit for them or maybe they just want to inquire. We also have a whitepaper that you can download about the benefits of a design-build company. I get a lot of traffic through that.
I think there are people all over the country that maybe will never hire us, but they would like to know if they want to do a project on their house. Why would they want to use an architect-build company? Why they wouldn’t an architect and then go find a contractor? Like what’s the process like? What are the benefits for the client?
We have a whitepaper that explains the seven critical differences of this business model as opposed to other business models. A lot of people download that. I think they just download it because they want to know.
I think the purpose of the website is to educate the consumer. We have a radio blog also that you can listen to. The whole radio blog is about how to find a piece of property, how to set the house on the piece of property, how to start laying out your spaces, how to pick finishes. So, a lot of these people that download and listen to these shows, they may not hire us but we’re educating them and we’re giving them tools to hire whoever they want to hire. To me, that’s just as valuable.
Enoch: Sure. With this radio blog, what is that?
Francisca: I started it with the objective of preparing for this house, the spec house, that we’re doing. The radio blog is called 360 Homes Living. The concept behind that is that this house has this 360 Homes concept, meaning that it’s designed in a very holistic, well-rounded, all sides are being integrated, and then the whole thing is integrated to outdoors.
A lot of the homes in this area are sort of you know flat design, like the front is designed and the rest of the house just kind of falls apart. There’s the whole curve appeal design, right? You just do the face and the rest is kind of looks like it belongs to a different community.
With our ten or twelve years of experience of remodeling, I basically integrated all those weaknesses that we saw in these cookie-cutter homes, and resolved them in this 360 home. The blog radio show talks about all these different aspects of the home with this 360 home concept, just like the videos that we have that you’ve seen. Some of the videos they kind of reiterate the same thing.
Enoch: You bet. I highly encourage the people that are watching this or listening to this to go and check out your website. It does show that you guys are leveraging, and you’re doing some interesting stuff there with the video, like you said you have some whitepapers in there. It’s very interactive, and it’s very much tailored to taking people who visit your website for the first time and then helping them to know you. Because just looking at your website, I felt like I knew you before we talked.
Francisca: Oh, that’s great.
Enoch: I think that’s one of the major things that we can do with the Internet that we couldn’t do ten years ago.
Francisca: Right. I mean, it’s so powerful if you use in that fashion.
Enoch: Well, Francisca, it has been an honor talking to you. It’s been a great pleasure. I knew this interview was going to be great and it has been. You’ve touched on a lot of the experience of a woman and a mother in architecture, architect design-build. What a wealth of experience.
Francisca: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure to be here.
Enoch: Sounds like a rich life.
Francisca: Thank you.
Enoch: Well, Francisca, let’s keep in contact. Once again, thank you for joining us in Business of Architecture.
Francisca: Thank you. Bye bye.
Enoch: Okay. Goodbye.
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