Sunday, 31 March 2013

It's time to ask for help

As we approach the end of the financial year, it seems a good time to talk about business matters. Running a practice is difficult , especially a small one, or even as a sole practitioner - the way that many architects start out. Some may blame inadequacies in architectural education for their problems, but actually the demands are enormous: designer, manager, marketeer, business strategist, office manager, all rolled into one person. Even the most able would struggle. But there is a solution, or at least help at hand.
I have been talking to professionals and their consultants recently about these issues. And there is one common strand - the best way to succeed is to ask for help. Some of this help may be paid: an accountant, an IT expert, possibly some admin and, at some point, some business training or even consultancy. But there are also a lot of people who will provide advice for free. These may be your peers, those a little ahead of you in experience, or chosen mentors. Most people like to be asked, and like to help. And now of course it doesn't have to be a phone call - you can ask questions on Twitter, or in forums on LinkedIn. The only guarantee of failure seems to be believing you know it all, and not asking for any assistance. Just remember, if you do get help, and your practice does succeed, be willing to 'pay it back' in future by helping someone else. Being too busy is not an excuse.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Life isn't always simple

In the run up to April Fool's day, it is worth remembering that even the wisest can make errors of judgment sometimes. Step forward veteran PR Giovanni Forte, who despite having moved away from this area of work was tempted by one last trio of charming clients, who had a brilliant idea for a modular home.
Despite her savviness and experience, she was strung out for months by these gents who didn't have the wherewithal to pay, as she details amusingly on her blog.
It is worth reading for enterntainment value, and brings a few surprises. The first is that Forte was actually paid in the end, which the saga does not lead one to expect. The second is that, especially in hard times, it is perhaps not surprising that 'charming' and 'chancer' share the first three letters. And finally, as always in these cases, there is astonishment about the amount of work people will put in to not paying what was probably a fairly modest debt. Wouldn't they - couldn't they - have found the money in the first place and saved themselves the trouble? One has to accept that they probably rather enjoyed this process. Incomprehensible to me.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Should the UK learn to be more like Denmark?

There is a fascinating nugget buried in the AJ's story about the go-ahead for BIG's waste incineration plant. One might argue that the whole story is fascinating. A celebration of a waste plant? With a ski slope on top? It looks like one of those endearingly mad student projects that will never be built - and now it is actually going ahead.

This remember is not just a ski-slope on a waste plant - it is one that blows smoke rings to show how well it is doing.
But it has been delayed. And it is the reason for the delay that is the real eye-opener. There was a desire to increase the capacity with subsequent repercussions for the design. This despite the fact that 'Denmark already imports waste to support the country's other incineration plants'. So, while other advanced countries are struggling to cope with their waste, Denmark is actually importing it to generate more energy.
This comes just a few days after the country generated 104% of its total energy demand through wind power. It was shown on this live graphic which shows at any moment what is happening with the country's energy. It is in a complex relationship with its neighbours, but is a net exporter of electricity.
And what happens when it produces too much wind-powered electricity? Well, it either reduces its import of hydropower in Norway, says sustainability expert Kees van der Leun, or in the extreme Norway can use the excess energy to pump up the water levels in its hydro, releasing it later. 
There are obviously complex issues involved, but it does seem as if we could learn a lot from Denmark.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Canada House and Toyo Ito in the pink

I was amused to see that the top news story on the AJ's newsletter this morning was about plans to revamp Canada House in London. The building is certainly prominent, sitting on Trafalgar Square, and it will be a great opportunity for an architect to win work. But the story was actually published on Friday, and is it really bigger than Toyo Ito winning the Pritzker Prize, which appeared on the listing below it?
The reason it amused me is because Christine Murray, the editor of the AJ, is Canadian, and I wondered whether either she had decided to give the story prominence, or a member of her team had done so to please her. Possibly not, of course, but it is a reminder that news, both for the people who write it and the people who read it, is not an entirely impersonal set of values.
We are all particularly interested in things that relate to our working lives, our region, our friends or our hobbies. Nobody puts on their hat marked 'architect' and ceases to be a human being. It is well known that in surveys respondents always complain about gossip and sensational news, yet that is the stuff that they look at and talk about. Apparently there was considerable discussion at MIPIM last week about BD's agony uncle Matthew Barac's response to a question by an architect contemplating an affair with his boss's wife. That shouldn't surprise anybody.
And journalists, like architects, have personalities and interests and prejudices. They know they are there to serve their readers, but of course a little of their own preferences creeps in. And jolly good too. Who would want a news service generated by some kind of automaton?
And just in case you think you are above such things ... If you read the story about Toyo Ito, you doubtless considered whether you thought he was a worthy winner or not, and looked at the images of his buildings. But I bet you spent a little time at least looking at one of the portraits.

And thought, what is that shirt?

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Good housing should be robust enough to cope with alteration

How many people - how many architects? - live in Georgian or Victorian houses? Plenty. Many of those houses are in conservation ares, and some are even listed. But even the listed ones will have been altered prior to achieving that status. If nothing else, they will have had bathrooms added, and probably the ubiquitous back extension. And the AJ has published tens, probably dozens, of glazed back extensions to create spacious kitchens on old properties. So I found it hard to sympathise with the residents of the Stirling Prize winning Accordia scheme in Cambridge who have, says the AJ,  applied for Conservation Area status to prevent others living there from tinkering with the design. Somebody has put a cat flap in a window. Somebody else has stained a shed. Didn't the fools know it's not meant to be stained? Who could create such vandalism where uniformity previously reigned? The sort of people who did this presumably:

Oh, but of course that is colourful charming Notting Hill isn't it? The point about good housing is that it is robust - and that owners and residents will want to put their own stamp on it. Accordia has been universally acclaimed. It is evidently much loved. But it is a collection of individual houses - not a housing tower, not a set of student residences, not a hospital. People will want to put their imprints on it. If it can't cope with the odd rattan blind or new house number, then it isn't up to much. It's time to get over it and get on with life.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Don't be afraid of the obvious

I had lunch with an accountant today (and I bought him lunch, even if it was only a Costa sandwich). We were talking about what architects need to know when they were setting up their own practices. Although he was obviously well informed and canny, his prime piece of advice was a statement of the absolutely obvious. 'You have to invoice,' he said, 'and if they don't pay by the due date you have to chase the invoice. Don't just imagine they will pay it.' This advice evidently came from his experience of dealing with architects who don't do that. We have all, I think, been foolish financially in different ways, in our personal or working lives. Those statements of the obvious are really useful, and show the intelligence of the person who remembers to make them.