6 essential tips for architecture firm success, with Robrecht Vermant from BURO 2018
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In 2004, Bart Coenen started an architectural firm.
The firm grew steadily and in 2018 Bart joined forces with Alexander Maes and Robrecht Vermant, for a trifold management approach.
The name “BURO 2018” refers not to its founding date, but to the postal code of the neighborhood where the office is located; Zurenborg (Antwerp) in Belgium.
Today the office employs 11 professionals, including interior designers and architects, enabling the firm to offer a 360° service to clients.
The firm is known for its quality minimalist design with high attention to detail and materials.
Today we talked with architect Robrecht Vermant, director at BURO 2018, about running an architecture firm. His 6 essential tips for architectural firm success can be found below.
1. Define your niche, and stay true to it
Many architects offer the widest possible range of services in order to attract the widest possible target audience.
This is not an efficient approach.
If you try to appeal to everyone, you end up attracting no one at all!
BURO 2018 made a number of choices from Day 1 and has always stayed true to them.
They focus on private projects, new construction, and renovation.
They focus on a minimalist style, with a modest ratio, and sleek details, in short, very contemporary architectural forms.
They aim for a full unburdening of the customer, by following up projects from A to Z; from preliminary design to finishing interior touches.
“There is a huge demand for this. More and more clients would tell us, "I have a busy job and want to focus on that. I'm looking for an architect who understands what I want, and who will take full ownership of the project."
By having a clear focus, which also extends to the website, BURO 2018 attracts a certain profile of clients: clients with a realistic budget who are looking for an expert in the field of quality minimalist design.
Choosing a specific niche does not limit you. Quite the opposite actually: it only makes you more attractive to your ideal prospects.
That also means you have to say no occasionally, e.g., to a small farmhouse, or a small renovation project located too far away.
Saying no to a prospect is not easy, because you naturally want to bring in new projects and grow.
But you also want to get appreciation and satisfaction from your work, and this means you need to work for the right clients and say no to others.
“Connection must be a mutual thing. There are styles we would never even get started with.
Most importantly, try to be good at what you love to do. And if you choose a style or architectural vision, stick with it, go for it, and don't sell your skills to clients who are only interested in your drawing ability. Over the long term, it’s the best decision you can take for your own satisfaction.
Budget must be equally clearly communicated. If the amount doesn’t match the requirements, we make sure to state it clearly right at the start of the collaboration.”
2. Keep track of your projects’ performance
At BURO 2018, they work with a rate per square meter.
“Once the design is ready, the permit has been submitted and the area does not change, we can prepare the budget for our services.
Working with a rate per square meter has the advantage that this rate does not depend on the choices made at a later stage. The choice of a particular contractor, for example, does not have any impact on our fee, neither does it change anything if the customer chooses a very expensive shower tap for example. The fact that our fee does not depend on the choices made means that the customer will perceive our advice as objective and will be more inclined to follow it. This creates mutual trust, which is the basis for good cooperation.”
The budget is known right at the start of the project, and BURO 2018 keeps track of the number of hours worked per project. They can also keep a close eye of the profitability of their finished and ongoing projects.
“We work with a time tracking system. If an employee works 3 hours on a certain project, then they will register this, as well as the task on which they worked, e.g., preliminary design.
This gives us an overview of how ongoing projects are doing. If for a project that is in a certain phase the number of hours already performed is higher than expected, you can take a closer look at that. How did that happen? Is it the contractor? Is it a difficult project? And so, you can try to step in if necessary.
After the project is completed, we do post-calculation and so we get a view of the profitability of completed projects.
When it comes to renovations, we do not work per square meter, but we charge a percentage of the effective costs. The reason for this is that, unlike new construction, renovations often involve changes and adjustments that have a significant impact on our time.”
3. Marketing: it’s all about customer satisfaction
BURO 2018 does little conventional marketing but focuses on customer satisfaction.
“When our customers are satisfied, they talk about it with friends and family, or pin something on Pinterest. Advertising by our customers is so much more authentic than us doing our own promotion. That is why we focus on offering the best possible service to our customers.
Our website, which is where our achievements and projects in progress are beautifully presented, is another channel that can attract new customers.
4. Good site management is crucial
As part of the strategy to fully unburden the client, the architects of BURO 2018 visit their sites regularly.
Frequent site visits help to spot irregularities early on in the construction process, so they don't escalate into major problems.
“As soon as something relevant is established or agreed upon, a site report is immediately created. We strongly insist on this in the office, for several reasons.
Discussions and even legal disputes do unfortunately happen occasionally in the construction industry. It’s a fact we cannot escape or avoid. When that happens, the site report is the very first thing to be consulted.
You can have solid agreements with contractors and trust them to respect them, but when it comes down to it, it is the written agreements that count.
A good site report, with clearly documented observations and agreements is the most appropriate tool for this. In absence of any reaction to it, it is considered 'approved'.
Therefore, we also put the handed over documents in the report, e.g., when the stability plans are handed over to the contractor, again, to avoid any further misunderstandings and discussions.
We also regularly work with separate contractors for different tasks such as roofing, windows, woodwork, electricity etc. In doing so, we also organize the planning, coordination, and agreements between all parties.
The more parties involved, the higher the risk of misunderstanding or miscommunication, which translate into costly mistakes and frustrating delays. Clearly written site reports, describing who should be where and when, and what should be done, are essential.
We also write a report during the kick-off meeting detailing each task, no matter how small. For example, when we’ll measure the windows. That gives us the chance to mention everything that deviates from the specifications and to refer to the detail.
We recommend that our employees complete the site report immediately after the site visit and send it through ArchiSnapper. The site report is a proper communication tool on its own, and it replaces many separate emails and phone conversations.”
Pictures speak louder than words
A site report between architect, general contractor and stability engineer can sometimes become a bit hard to digest.
Nobody likes to read long paragraphs of text, and contractors are no exception. They often don't have the time for it. This increases the chance that certain things will be missed, which can have costly consequences.
A brief, to-the-point and visual report with photos is often more effective than long blocks of text.
“A good report should include pictures: a circled picture works very well to convey a message quickly and clearly.
And because not every contractor reads our plans the same way, we often add remarks on floor plans in our reports, to clarify matters and avoid misunderstandings.
We use ArchiSnapper for site management and reporting. It works really well for us.
It allows us to add annotations, indicate things on a floor plan, reopen the previous report and update it, assign someone to a pending task so everyone can view their assigned responsibilities, and more.
And we are now also starting to use ArchiSnapper in our wider planning.”
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5. With customers: set your boundaries and charge for additional work
Managing customers is not an easy task. They can change their mind (dramatically), dispute an invoice, be slow to respond to requests etc...
BURO 2018 also struggles with this sometimes, for example, agreeing too quickly to changes requested by the client, which often takes a lot of time not previously factored into the project.
“During the preliminary design phase, we take the time that the client needs, simply because it takes time and iterations to have a clear vision of what the client wants.
Once the permit has been submitted and the offer has been signed off, this comes to an end. From that moment on, if the client comes up with a drastic change, then we as architects have to set our boundaries and charge for out-of-scope work. In every sector, that kind of work is paid for, so why would it be any different for architects?
As another example. When a contractor fails to complete his work and as a result the client refuses to pay the invoice for our services. That is not the architect's fault and then we, as architects, must again stand up for ourselves and ensure that we get paid for our work.
We do not want our job to be downgraded, with architects just signing off on a design. We know many colleagues do not do that – fortunately.
Sometimes people come to us with a quote from another architect for an amount that is only a fraction of ours. We stay on top of things, and we stick with the clients who don't consider our work an unnecessary expense but will appreciate it and see the value in it. Those are the good collaborations, which bring us pride and pleasure.
The difficulty here is that the job of an architect is not always very tangible. You pay a contractor €20,000 and you get a beautiful wall in return. With an architect, the output is not as “clear” for some clients.
However, the value we generate as architects is substantial: good design, energy efficiency, sustainable materials, identifying and correcting errors on site... you name it. As an architect, you have to choose the clients who will understand that added value.
Not everyone can afford to turn down a client. But it is crucial to turn down bad projects whenever possible, and to focus on the right projects with the right clients.”
6. With contractors: build long term relationships
As an architect, you are paid by the client, yet this does not mean that the client is always right.
“We really try to build relationships with our contractors. We don’t see them just as a supplier, from whom we’d try to get as much done as possible on a given project. We see them as experts and part of the project team.
Discussions occur on every job site, but a project can take up to several months or years, and we also work with those contractors on other job sites. So, we always try to stay honest in discussions, and don't automatically take the side of the customer. If the contractor rightly highlights that the work is outside of the initial project scope, I'm going to defend that in front of the customer as well. If the customer notices that you are always honest with him, he will appreciate this and will also follow you in other conversations and discussions.
When we analyze our projects after completion, we find that problems often arise when we work with new contractors through acquaintances of the client, and who may not be familiar with our ways of working.
That’s why we like to work with contractors who have already completed several projects for us: it works very well! They know that there may be more work for them in the future, and this creates a bond of trust. The contractor sees our cooperation as a broader perspective than this one specific project. This long-term thinking makes him take that extra step which is necessary for certain adjustments or corrections. Of course, we also remain open to new collaborations.”
Work with the right contractors for the right clients on projects you love and are good at. Your work will get appreciated, and you'll get compensated to the level of the value you bring in as an architect.
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