Tags: scalingstart a firm
Episode 204

Starting and Growing a World Class Residential Design Firm with Mette Aamodt

Enoch SearsJul 7, 2017

Today's incredible guest is Mette Aamodt, co-founder of Aamodt / Plumb, a design firm focused on high-end residential design. Mette Aamodt is also the founder of the slowspace.org, which you'll hear about in part 2 of our interview.

In this episode you'll discover:

  • the mindset architects need to embrace if they want to make the ‘big bucks'
  • why “doing good work” isn't enough to get you hired … and what you need to do instead
  • the biggest challenges Mette faced in the early years of their firm

Resources for today’s show:

Aamodt / Plumb

Interview Transcript and Members Only Resources:

[DAP errMsgTemplate=”SHORT”]

Mette Aamodt: Architecture has lost its value and its meaning in our society, and we need to do better in promoting the value of architecture.

Voiceover: Business of Architecture, episode 204.

Enoch Sears: Hello, I'm Enoch Sears, and this is the podcast for architects, where you'll discover tips, strategies, and secrets for running a profitable and impactful architecture practice. I'd like to invite you to discover how to double your architecture firm income, and create your dream practice of freedom and impact by downloading my free, four-part architecture firm profit map, as a podcast listener, you can get instant access by going to freearchitectgift.com.

Today's podcast is sponsored by AIA Advantage partner, BQE Software, the makers of Archioffice. Archioffice is the only office and project management software designed specifically for architects. It helps you manage people and projects while you focus on designing great architecture. Whether you're working remotely on on-site, Archifoffice allows you to monitor the status of your projects and tasks, and send out invoices in an accurate and timely manner. Get your fully functional 15-day trial of Archioffice by going to businessofarchitecture.com/demo.

Today's incredible guest is Mette Aamodt, co-founder of Aamodt/Plumb, a design firm focused on high-end residential design. Mette co-founded Aamodt/Plum with her partner and husband, Andrew Plumb. Mette Aamodt is also the founder of the slow space movement, which you'll hear about in part two of our interview. In this episode, you'll discover the mindset architects need to embrace if they want to make “the big bucks”, why doing good work isn't enough to get your hired, and what you really need to be focused on in addition to that, and lastly, but definitely not least, the biggest challenges Mette faced in the early years of her firm. With that, here's today's episode.

Hey, Mette, welcome to the business of architecture.

Mette Aamodt: Hey, thanks, Enoch. Glad to be here.

Enoch Sears: Absolutely. It was a little bit over a year ago, I was walking down the street with Peter [Toohey 00:02:11], who's also been on the show, mutual friend of ours, architect out of Baltimore, and he said, “Enoch, you absolutely have to get Mette and Andrew on the show.” Here we are, so we can say, “Hey, Peter. It took me this long to convince Mette to come on the Business of Architecture.

Mette Aamodt: Oh, sorry, was I supposed to invite Andrew?

Enoch Sears: No, no, that's okay.

Mette Aamodt: That's okay.

Enoch Sears: We'll have that for another episode.

Mette Aamodt: Okay, okay, yeah, sorry. He's off to a meeting, but next time. Next time.

Enoch Sears: Tell us about your firm. Tell us, how long have you guys been in business?

Mette Aamodt: Actually, we're ten years this year. Ten years. We're recording this now in May? Ten years this month.

Enoch Sears: Wow, congratulations. What date? Do you remember the exact date?

Mette Aamodt: I don't know. It was something with a seven, so let's go with either May 7th, or May 17th.

Enoch Sears: Okay, awesome. It's literally this month is ten years?

Mette Aamodt: Literally, this month.

Enoch Sears: Wow, that's cool, okay.

Mette Aamodt: Yeah.

Enoch Sears: That calls for celebration.

Mette Aamodt: Yeah, we're going to have a little party in another couple weeks.

Enoch Sears: Okay, cool. Cool. Tell me about the genesis of the firm. How did this come about?

Mette Aamodt: A friend of ours, actually Andrew's college roommate, came to us with a project, and he wanted to do what was essentially a dream project for us, and do a beach house. He said, “Do you want to design it?” We were both working in firms, and said, “Of course we want to design it.” Andrew left the firm that he was working at, and I stayed plugged into my corporate job for a little while longer. We started working on this house, which was phenomenal.

We got pretty much through design, and then we were approached by another friend who liked the design we were doing, and wanted to do a house as well. We said, “Okay, that's great. Good enough for us.” I quite my job, and we found a little office space, and just kept going. Kept going, and for at least the first five years, thought, “Okay, we'll just do this as long as we can. We'll just see where it goes.” One project led to another, led to another. After a certain amount of time, we said, “Okay, we're really doing this now. This is going to work. Let's go all in.”

Enoch Sears: When you got that second project and decided to leave your corporate job, what were you seeing that made you feel comfortable making that leap and that decision?

Mette Aamodt: Well, it was a big project, so I knew we had a couple of years of work, just on those projects alone. That was ten years ago. I was in my early thirties. We figured we could always get another job. Actually, this happened right before … This was 2008, right before the great recession. Things were still booming, and everything was going well, and then the bottom fell out, but we were okay, because we had our projects, and we were working on those, and nothing happened. We just figured it was worth a shot, and that we really had nothing to lose.

Enoch Sears: Okay, awesome. Tell me, what were the biggest challenges in the first five years of your firm?

Mette Aamodt: Oh, God. I remember spending at least a year or more banging my head against the computer, trying to learn QuickBooks, trying to learn all these accounting terms that I had never heard of before. I was doing all of that myself. I had a bookkeeper, but I still had to figure out how to do it. What is accounts payable? What is accounts receivable? What's a profit and loss statement? All of this was totally Greek to me. I remember just spending hours and hours trying to figure out, and teach myself this software. That was really challenging.

In the beginning, the leap to hiring our first employee, that was kind of a big, take a big gulp moment, because once you do that, there are a lot of other things that kick in. You have worker's comp, and you need to have a peril system. It just sort of takes it to another level. Whether you have one employee or 100 … Well, maybe not 100, but at least one to ten, you have the same issues. Once you make that leap, that was a big threshold. Once we made it, it was fine. We figured out all those systems, and we found people to help us, accountants, lawyers, and stuff like that. We got all our people lined up pretty early.

Enoch Sears: Okay, so one of the big challenges at first was learning all of that financial mumbo jumbo, the accounting terms, the QuickBooks. Oh my goodness. There's just so much there. In addition to that, before you brought on an employee, was there anything else that you remember really struggling with in those first couple years of building the firm?

Mette Aamodt: We weren't really building the firm in the first couple of years, to be honest. We had to figure out the invoicing and the QuickBooks and stuff like that, but we weren't building the firm. We were just heads down, doing our projects. We were focused first and foremost on doing the best possible job we could do, and what was it going to take to get these projects done, and what was it going to take to do them in the best possible way?

We weren't really thinking about systems, and business. We were just kind of getting by with what we needed. We needed to set up and LLC, so we figured out how to do that. We needed to send invoices, so we figured out how to do that. It was kind of one step at a time. I remember buying a stack of books like this, on how to start a business. I never read them, of course. I read many other ones later, but those were just like, silly ones. I remember the title of one of them was, “Oops, I'm in Business,” and that's kind of how it felt. We were suddenly in business, and we were figuring out all these things literally as we went. There was no conscious building a firm, it was just trying to keep our heads above water.

Enoch Sears: It sounds like you had some breathing room there, for the first couple of years. You wanted to focus on just delivering an exceptional project. What was it that made you look at this firm you were running at the time, and decide that it was time to hire on some staff?

Mette Aamodt: We hired staff just as we needed for the projects, to get the work done. We tried to hire the best staff we could, and we ended up with some great people. I would say it wasn't really until those initial projects had finished up, and we had started to get some publicity, but we were getting a little slow for work. It wasn't really until that point where we really figured out, we needed to learn how to hustle, and we needed to learn how to bring in a steady stream of clients and projects, and that was really when the shift happened, when we realized that actually just getting a dream project is not enough to start and maintain a firm.

It's a good start. You have to have that, and we did a great job. It got published. It got awards and all those kinds of things. The second project, great project. The third project … But it doesn't just take off from there. In some cases, maybe it does, but it didn't for us. It didn't just go on autopilot after that. Then we really had to figure out, “Okay, what are we doing here? What does it really mean to run a business? What is this thing called marketing? How do we get more clients?”

Enoch Sears: Tell me about your evolution from that point to where you are now. Tell me some of the lessons you've learned along the way, and what you feel that you've grown into.

Mette Aamodt: Really early, I don't remember what year it was. At some point, when I knew that we needed to figure out about marketing, I just started Googling marketing for architects, and I found you guys, and the Architect's Marketing Institute. At the time, that was the only show in town. That was the only thing I was seeing. I didn't really know where to start, so it gave me a really good … I had been reading some books, some business books, and everything that Architect's Marketing was talking about, resonated with some of the stuff that I had read. I was like, “Okay, this makes sense to me.”

I just went all in and I just tried to learn as much as I could about that. That was really the key at the beginning, learning about how to talk about ourselves. It started me thinking a lot about actually how we practice architecture and about how we differentiate ourselves from all the other architects out there doing very similar things, because we learned as we started going to interviews that our design was not a differentiator, our high quality design.

If we were at the table, we had already been vetted, and we had already been selected, and we were among a group of just a couple of architects, all very good designers. The difference between them was a little bit lost on some clients. It wasn't really about that anymore. Who they decided to go with wasn't about who was the best designer. Sometimes, it was about who spoke to them about the process that they wanted to use for their construction, or it was who did they feel most comfortable with, or who made them feel like their budget was enough money for their project, or whatever. Every time it was something different. It wasn't about the design quality. We realized we needed to understand these other aspects, and we needed to really think about how we wanted to be different from everybody else.

Enoch Sears: This concept of differentiation is so incredibly important. What have you learned about that? How have you been able to use that in the way you present your work?

Mette Aamodt: It allowed us to seriously think about specializing. This is something that, for Andrew, it took him much, much longer to come around to the idea, but we finally understood that specializing in homes is a good thing, and it doesn't necessarily close off other opportunities. We do other projects if they come along, but we're really very good at that. We're experts at that. It helps us in multiple ways. We can demonstrate our expertise to clients, but we can also develop a certain kind of efficiency in our process that allows us to be more profitable.

Every time we'd switch to a new project type, the learning curve is huge and steep, and we've done private residential, we've done public housing, we've done office interiors. Each one of those things has its own rule book. Well, I wish there was a rule book. There isn't, but it should have its own rule book. The specs are totally different, the bidding process is totally different, it's a completely different animal.

By focusing on one area, you get really good at that, and then you can actually go much deeper into it. We can get really, really good at doing something. It was about going very deep into one area, and about recognizing the benefit, not only to our clients, but also to ourselves, and to how we could live our life, how we could live a well-balanced life, where we weren't working all the time, because that's a very important value to us.

We have a family. I have MS. We leave work at 5:00. This is kind of one of the rules we set out at the beginning. By specializing, it allows us to really capitalize on the knowledge that we've attained over time, and really use that and leverage it in a much better way.

Enoch Sears: You just kind of threw in there that you have MS. Why don't you explain to our listeners what that is and what that means for you?

Mette Aamodt: Oh, sure, yeah. MS stands for multiple sclerosis. I got it in architecture school, along with my degree. I say that a little tongue in cheek, a little bit not, because the stress of architecture school definitely put my body over the edge. I'm the kind of person that internalizes all the stress. I'm a type A person. I was at Harvard. Everyone else was type A, too. Everyone else was superb, the best in their class, and there we were, a whole bunch of high achievers, and we were all being told we sucked. We were like, doubling down, working extra hard.

It's a long program, almost four years. Halfway through, I was having pain that nobody could really diagnose. By the end, I was finishing my thesis, and I went blind in my right eye. It was the kind of thing where I was in the middle of thesis, and I was just like, “Oh, I must just be tired.” The kind of things you say to yourself when you're like, half delirious. I was like, “I'll go to the doctor after my final review.”

That was a classic, optic neuritis … My eyesight did come back, but that's a classic sign or symptom of MS. That's how I ended up at a neurologist, and I ended up getting that diagnosis right after my graduation. At this point, I was already completely burned out and fried, and so I was already looking for jobs that were going to let me work a 40-hour week, and learn as much as I could, but I didn't want to be in the grinder anymore. This kind of confirmed it.

For a long time, I kept it a secret. Andrew and I, we were already together at this point, and I didn't want to tell the person who I was going to go and work for that I had this diagnosis. I didn't know what it was going to turn out to be. I didn't know what kind of effect it was going to have on my life, so I actually kept it a secret from, call it the general public. All my friends and family knew, but I kept it a secret professionally for about 10 years.

Then, it wasn't until we were comfortable in our own firm, and I'd had it long enough to feel like, “Okay, I think I've figured out how to manage this, and I can kind of see the prognosis.” You don't know at the beginning if it's going to be a quick decline. It's going to go on a downward trajectory. There's going to be more and more disability over time, but is that going to be a steep slope, or is it going to be a very gradual one? I can affect that by how I manage my stress, and manage my life. If i can reduce the amount of flare-ups, I can reduce the amount of disability that accumulates over time. That was kind of a given.

Graduated from architecture school, I had my diploma and I had my diagnosis, and I had to figure out how to make these two things go together that typically don't go very well together, because the 80 hours a week, working as an architecture, is not uncommon, especially when you start out. I realized that we had to kind of figure out a different way to do this. We still wanted to do work that we loved, and we still wanted to make a good living, and we wanted to have a good life. That was this trifecta that everybody kind of said, “Oh, yeah, that sounds really nice.” Like, pipe dream, pie-in-the-sky kind of thing.

That's what we wanted. We were going to figure out how to do it.

Enoch Sears: Mette, how do you feel that this challenge has made you a stronger person?

Mette Aamodt: God, yeah, definitely. How? Not so much anymore, but for the first five years, I lived with pain every day. You don't take things for granted anymore. When I was in pain, I would see other people, and I would just immediately think, “I wonder what they're going through.” It just gave me a lot of empathy, and it also forced me to really remove negativity and stressors, things that people from my life that were kind of bringing me down, or just things in my life that were bringing me down. I didn't want that. I had enough stuff that was already bringing me down, so I didn't want any other things to bring me down.

Just figuring out how to slow down, how to do less but do it better. Say no to things. We still have a family, we have two young kids, and they take an enormous amount of energy. How do I do that and run a business, and have MS? It's been trial and error, for 10, 15 years, of trying to figure out how to do that with the sort of very … I didn't have a choice. A very sort of persistent trying things, failing, and trying again.

I feel like it's still something that, I still have MS. It's never going to go away, and I still have symptoms on a daily basis, but I feel very lucky to be in a place where I'm managing it, and I'm still able to do most of the things that I want to do. I can't do all of the things I want to do. Regardless of what happened with my diagnosis, if I ever tried to do all of the things I want to do, I would probably have had a heart attack anyway. I wanted to do so many things. It really forced me to prioritize, and throw away my checklists and my to-do lists, and say, “Okay, I'm never going to get to the bottom of this to-do list. What's really important?”

Enoch Sears: You've had to set these boundaries in your life due to this, whatever you call it, this blessing, this disability, this challenge, whatever, there's all sorts of things about that. What's the secret to creating these boundaries, because I know that a lot of people, we all struggle with how our tasks fill to the allotted space we have for them. What would you say is the secret that you've learned about managing your time and having that balance?

Mette Aamodt: You just have to … There's no “you just have to”. There's no silver bullet. There's no one secret. There's no one secret. It's actually hard work. It's actually hard work editing out all of the noise, all of the noise of life and all the various requests on your time, interesting opportunities, things like that. It's very difficult for anyone who's curious and interested to say no to all these things. I probably should say no to more things. I need to say no to the vast majority of things that cross my desk, or cross my table, in my life. That's kind of a bummer, in a way, but you have to change your mindset about that, too, because you have to think about, “Okay, if I'm saying no to that, what am I saying yes to?” Well, I'm saying yes to hanging out on the couch with my kids and being goofy.

The kind of stuff that, it's not specific and tangible, but it's … I'm saying yes to being in a good mood and not being tired, is what I'm saying yes to. Being a better friend. For me, I get very tired very easily, so I had to say no to these things. When I get tired, I get grumpy. When I get grumpy, I'm a bitch. That's not good for anybody. I have to be on the offensive to say no to these things, and remember that if I don't, the people around me are going to suffer, because they're going to have to deal with me in a very not-ideal state.

Enoch Sears: When you were in Austin, we had the Architect Business Development Summit there in Austin, you gave a very emotional … I would say it was a captivating presentation, but one of the themes in there was that you've been very intentional about saying no to certain kinds of projects, and only accepting certain kind of projects. You said that that put you in some compression. It made it harder for you guys. Tell me about that, because I've talked to so many architecture firm owners, and just the other day I had one telling me …

This guy called me and he's trying to price-shop me. He just wants me to do some plans, and I feel like I have to take that project. What are your thoughts on that, as it relates to owning a world-class design firm?

Mette Aamodt: I think you definitely need to follow your instincts, and if you have red flags about clients, like that, the price shopping, you should definitely say no. I think that the amount of effort we end up putting into a project is just enormous, because we always want to do a good job, so if that other architect is anything like me, if I say yes to something, I'm going to do a great job, no matter what happens. I make a promise, I'm going to follow through on it.

When you say yes, it takes two seconds to say yes, but then you've committed yourself for two years' worth of a relationship or an engagement, or whatever. You've got to be really careful. On the other hand, you need to stay alive as a business, and keep the doors open. Lately, I've been really thinking that it's much better to stay small, as a firm. Right now, we're four people. Andrew, and myself, and two other excellent people.

I'm not interested in growing right now. It's funny, because I feel a lot of pressure to grow. One of the metrics of success that I think people are always asking me, “So, how big are you guys now?” As if the size of our firm correlated to our success. I realize that if we grew, I would just have to take on a lot more projects that I didn't want to take on, because I needed to support the staff. Instead, I know that the best clients for us, they're very few and far between. I'd rather stay small and lean, and wait for the great projects, than grow big and then have to keep that machine churning, and just kind of take in everything.

I don't know. If you're a self-practitioner, you don't have the option with that, but if you're a firm of a few people, you can decide what's the right number, and what are you trading, by taking that project on.

Enoch Sears: I was interviewing Mark Kushner, who is a mutual friend of ours. We both know Mark. I was talking with him. He's a great entrepreneur, a great architect, runs a great firm with offices, but one office in New York. He comes from a wealthy family. His family has a wealthy background. I asked about that. I said, “Hey, Mark, did the fact that your family had means, do you think that affected your life as an architect, or your success?”

He said something really interesting. He said, “You know, Enoch, it wasn't that they were going to invest money in my business, or they were going to bail me out, or anything like that, but what it did give me is it gave me a certain amount of confidence, because I knew that if anything happened, and I came on rough times, I could always go back and live with them, and I wouldn't be on the streets.” He said, “That confidence allowed me to have, and take a lot of risk that I think other people might be hesitant to take.” I'm just curious to get your take on that.

Mette Aamodt: Yeah, that's interesting. I'm sure that's true. I don't come from a wealthy family, but we had a rough year, and my mom bailed us out, and helped us. That wasn't something I knew was going to happen, because we're not wealthy by any stretch, but I was thankful that she did.

I think that makes me understand why a lot of people teach, or why a lot of people diversify their practice, in a way, not necessarily by having different project types, but by teaching, or by doing something else on the side. Actually, Andrew's going to start teaching in the fall at Harvard. We thought about that too. “Hey, maybe that's a good idea, to have some other sort of income stream, that's stable and consistent, just to give us a little bit of cushion to kind of weather the storms.” We had always thought that way as well, and we tried to maintain a pretty healthy cushion in our bank account for the business, just so that we don't have the stress of worrying about making the next payroll.

It's great to set yourself up in a way that allows you some freedom, so you don't have to take everything that comes. If you can do it. We can't all be that lucky.

Enoch Sears: In a sense, we live in America, and even if you fall on hard times, you're not going to starve.

Mette Aamodt: You're not going to starve. I don't know. There were some starving architects during the great recession. I don't know. Some of your listeners might be like, “Uh.” I think things got pretty rough.

Enoch Sears: I know they did. For me, if there was a starving architect, I was probably one of them, because I had to have two side jobs. I was throwing newspapers in the middle of the night. I was doing substitute teaching, because I moved home where there were no jobs. It was decimated. I think that we all have the survival fear in our head that drives us to either succeed and do things, like this kind of animal instinct that we don't want to perish. The question I'm curious about, and I'm curious in your take on this, is does that desire to just survive sometimes prevent us from building, saying yes to the kind of projects we don't want, at the exclusion of maybe some other projects that we do want?

Mette Aamodt: Yeah. I totally agree. I think so, and I actually think there's some weird psychology within the architecture profession that makes that particularly difficult. I don't know what it is, but we're a pretty risk-averse bunch. Don't like to go out on a limb. In general, we go for pretty much any project that comes along. Don't want to rock the boat. Maintain the status quo. “Okay, let's just all get along” kind of people. Very nice bunch, but generally pretty risk-averse.

For those of us who started businesses, we're actually entrepreneurs whether we know it or not. What's that great book, that great book that says you can start out as a technician. The E-Myth, The E-Myth. The E stands for the entrepreneurial myth. I recommend that book highly to any architect who is thinking about, or has started their own firm, because you think that you're just going to hang a shingle, and you're just going to go about doing your architecture, but on your own. You're not going to have a boss. “Oh, great. That's awesome.” You actually need to be an entrepreneur.

To be an entrepreneur, you need to be comfortable with some risk. I don't know. I don't know about other businesses, but I'm pretty sure that entrepreneurs that play it safe, they don't make the big bucks. There's a problem there between us architects, and what we need to do. How we are naturally, and what we need to do in order to be successful. We need to be risk-takers. We need to go bold. We need to put ourselves out there. We need to have opinions and speak them, loudly. We need to risk people not liking us, and all that is very difficult.

Enoch Sears: Mette, you were with us in the Architect Marketing Academy, maybe one of the second co-hort I think. You've been working with the Architect Marketing Institute for a long time with me and Eric Bobrow, Richard Petrie. You said you went through that process, you learned through that. What would you say were some of your biggest take aways from working with us in that program?

Mette Aamodt: I mean, I learned so much. It was Marketing 101. It really got me thinking, and thinking in ways, not just about marketing, but about business, that I have never thought about before. I went through the courses. I actually went through them twice. I was trying to wring out every juicy bit I could out of the whole thing. I really drank the Kool-Aid and the whole nine yards.

What is the one or two take aways? Number one, marketing is important. We're running a business here. That seems kind of obvious, but it's not. What's the other thing? Figure out what's special about us, about you. Figure out what's special and what's unique, and play to that. Play to your strength, and go for it.

Enoch Sears: You say “You're running a business here,” and you say it just sounds kind of simple, but what does that actually mean to you when you say, “Hey, we're running a business here”?

Mette Aamodt: Yeah, right. We have an organizational structure, that we have systems and processes that we follow. We're a small firm, like I said, four people, but we have this mindset of a big firm, big corporate mindset. We have a pay structure. We have benefits. I'm the CEO. we have an organizational chart. We have job roles. We have standards. We have CAD standards. We have systems for setting up drawings.

A lot of small firms, because I've worked for them, even big firms, sadly enough, each project has their own set of CAD standards. Each project's project manager runs it in a slightly different way. Each time we're kind of re-inventing the wheel, and so if they lose a lot of efficiency that way … Efficiency sounds like a bad word for a boutique architecture firm, but actually, what it allows us to do is spend more time on design, because we're not spending all that extra time reinventing the process, reinventing the wheel from one time to the next. We have more time to spend on the stuff that we love.

Recently, Andrew's come up with kind of an overall system for our initial design meeting. I think there's like four or five design meetings. The first one is the big picture. For every project, he knows what he needs to present, what decisions he needs to get made, what materials he needs to produce for that first meeting. The second meeting is space, light, and form. Here are the types of drawings we're going to produce for that, here are the types of decisions that we need to get out of the clients for that.

It has taken so much guesswork and stress out of the process for him, that he's like, happily sketching all day long. He's got this Microsoft Surface computer, with the pen, and he's sketching on that thing. He has tons more time to design, because he's not fretting about, “Oh, what do I have to produce for this next meeting?” He knows exactly what he needs to produce, and he can spend that time being creative. That's a win-win for us, and for our clients.

Enoch Sears: That is truly awesome. Mette, in addition to the firm, you're also heavily involved in promoting a new movement that kind of aligns with your thoughts and your values, and we're going to jump into that in our second segment, but before we do that, let's just wrap up this conversation. If you could give me two, three, or four key take aways from these past ten years, big lessons or big pivots in your business that you really felt helped streamline things, helped make things easier or better, key take aways. Feel free to think about this for a minute, because I know I'm asking you this on the spot. What would those things be?

Mette Aamodt: Actually, I'm just going to regurgitate an answer I gave the other day. I was at Harvard, and I was a guest critic on the review for a class that, man, I wish they had had when I was there. It was called “The Practice as Project.” It was about setting up your architecture firm, and coming up with your business plan. This was the final review, so they were doing a mock RFP, and they were presenting themselves to a client for selection, whatever.

at the end of the whole thing, after we'd seen all of the reviews, I said to them, I said, “Guys, hey, most of you are just doing the same thing that architects have always done.” Either it's like, a man and a woman team, and, “We're architects X, Y, and Z. We are thoughtful, and we listen to our clients.” The same kind of thing that everybody says. I said, “You know,” I said, “A good analogy, for practice today, is if you think back to the turn of the century, the turn of the twentieth century, 1900, and a man or a woman of means wants to get a new dress, or a suit. They go to the tailor, or the dressmaker. They bring a few images with them that they've pulled out of magazines. The tailor takes their measurements. They go away. They do a few sketches. They come back, the show them the sketches. ‘Oh, great, yeah, that looks good. I’ve got a few comments.' They go away, they come back, they have a new dress or suit. That's exactly how we're practicing, still, today, and it's been more than 100 years since the fashion industry has moved on, and we're still doing bespoke suits.

There is so much room of innovation in the practice of architecture, and the slate is clean. It is blank and wide open. Guys, just think outside the box here. Think about other industries and how they're doing things. You could innovate. There's a million ways you could innovate, and you would be so cutting edge if you thought about it on the side of practice, and not on the side of design. There's just so much room there. You could be the first one to do it this way, or that way. I don't know what, but just do it differently.

Business as usual, one of my mantras is like, however I'm going to do it, I'm not going to to do it the way that other architects do it. I know how that works, and actually, it's failing us terribly. We're losing market share. We're down to the dregs of the bottom of the barrel, competing on price. We've got these few crumbs left. The way we've been doing it is not working, so just find a different way. Try a different way of doing it. Study other businesses, read business books, great business books from real business people. Just try to do it different.”

Enoch Sears: Real business people as opposed to, dot dot dot dot …

Mette Aamodt: Well, as opposed to us. We're not real business people. We don't have a clue, right?

Enoch Sears: You had a interesting post on Facebook. It should have been six months ago or so, where you were talking about the process of going through this … You were going for a project, and there was some undercutting happening, or something like that vaguely strikes my memory. You talked about going to the dregs, and getting down to the bottom, and how we're just cutting each other's throats and everything. Talk to me about your perspective on that. What do you mean by that?

Mette Aamodt: There's some statistic already that's like, only 2% of buildings worldwide are designed by architects. Already, we're fighting over the last crumbs. The juicy projects these days are going to the [star-chitects 00:44:22], or the celebrity architects, the ones that are really well-known. Take away all the juicy projects. The high-budget project, probably put that in the juicy projects category. It just sort of trickles down further and further and further. You've got clients, a lot of potential clients throughout the country that don't think they need an architect, and don't really understand the value. We're not making a good case for that.

Whatever is left, it is very little. That story that I posted … We had this project. We were already working with this client, and we they decided, “You know what? Instead of renovating this house, we're going to tear it down, and we're going to build new.” We said, “Great, okay. We can help you with that.” We gave them our fee, which was actually the same rate. It was 15%, and I'm happy to share that. It was the same rate we were charging them for the renovation. We said, “Okay. Same rate on this budget.”

They kind of balked. Then they went shopping around and they found this other guy, a very well-established architect, late in his career. He's got plenty of jobs, and most of what he does in institutional projects. He said, “Yeah, I'll do it for 10%, because this is just fun for me.” He basically told them that he's going to subsidize their project with his other, more lucrative projects. Man, that was unfair. That was so incredibly unfair. Seriously, guys? Yeah. He admitted 10% is not even a fair price, because he admitted that he was going to lose money on it. It was sort of like, wow. It's just pathetic.

Enoch Sears: What do you think the antidote for that is? What's the fix?

Mette Aamodt: What's the fix? What's the fix? The fix is the slow space movement. Architecture has lost its value, and its meaning in our society. We need to do better in promoting the value of architecture and quality construction, and the built environment, because most people, they may not know what an architect does, or they may not be able to afford it, but even people who do, they don't necessarily want to wait or go through the process, so they're happy to just take what's already out on the market. I'm thinking about single family homes or whatever.

Their choices are extremely limited. It's only what developers build, and it's mostly McMansions, which I call junk space. It's called the McMansion for a reason, because it's like the McDonald's of architecture. We know it's crap. The general public doesn't necessarily know it's crap, but it is crap. We need to tell them that it's crap. It's like they're eating McDonald's every single day, and it could be so much better.

Because architects are pretty timid, well I am, but other people are not necessarily going to stand up and protest, and say, “No, this is bad. This is wrong. Here's why it's bad for you.” I think we need to start doing that. I'm happy to be the person out front with the bullhorn, and saying that if other people will gather around. I know all the other architects are nodding their heads, saying, “Yes, I know it's crap. It's awful. Look what it's doing to us.” It's [All-Clad 00:49:00] and PVC. This is horrible. PVC is a known carcinogen and neurotoxin. Vinyl siding is the worst thing for people and the environment, and it looks horrible. We all know it. Why are we spec'ing it? We just have to stand up for ourselves.

Enoch Sears: That is a wrap, thank you for listening today. If you're looking for more time, freedom, impact and income as an architect, get instant access to my free, four-part architect profit map by visiting freearchitectgift.com.

Today's podcast is sponsored by AIA Advantage partner, BQE Software, the makers of Archioffice. Archioffice is the only office and project management software designed specifically for architects. It helps you manage people and projects while you focus on designing great architecture. Whether you're working remotely or on-site, Archioffice allows you to monitor the status of your projects and tasks, and send out invoices in an accurate and timely manner. Get your fully functional 15-day trial of Archioffice by going to businessofarchitecture.com/demo.

The views expressed on the show by my guest do not represent those of the host, and I make no representation, promise, guarantee, pledge, warranty, contract, bond or commitment, except to help you conquer the world.


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Enoch Bartlett Sears is the founder of the Architect Business Institute, Business of Architecture and co-founder of the Architect Marketing Institute. He helps architects become category leaders in their market. Enoch hosts the #1 rated interview podcast for architects, the Business of Architecture Show where prominent guests like M. Arthur Gensler, Jr. and Thom Mayne share tips and strategies for success in architecture.


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