Replacing the "I" in "FIRM" with "WE" - acknowledging the team

I struggled with this post, not just because I am expressing a personal frustration, but because it goes against the grain of the way of things in the architecture profession (and all creative fields), as revealed by my survey of 100 architecture firms websites.  Is that worth writing/reading about? The trigger: Last week I came across an online posting showcasing a project that I had worked on a few years ago.  It was a custom residence for a retired couple, empty-nesters, expatriates.

As their Project Architect, I got to know them pretty well over the course of the year that I worked with them, and deliberated over all the details of their dream home.  Naturally, when I saw the finished photographs of the house, I had an awesome sense of pride and achievement.  They had really made it their home - with carefully arranged furniture, pictures, and accessories.  I could "see" the clients using these spaces - kicking back in her reading nook, the two of them enjoying a home cooked meal on the deck, their family huddling together by the fire on the covered porch, etc.  It felt good.

The post was all praise for the house and “the firm”, with a glowing testimony from the client about how the design process was enjoyable and how their home is everything they wanted and more.  But, as I finished reading, an uneasy feeling started setting in.  I could not put my finger on it.  I went about my day, and after a while, it occurred to me.

The issue: There was no mention of me - The Project Architect!  The one who did 87% of the work*, the one who was as invested in the project as the client, who lived in the trenches, who sweated the little stuff and the big.

*The work - what Project Architects do: A Project Architect oversees the entirety of the project and works closely with the client from start to finish.  Depending on the size and structure of the firm, as well as the size and scope of the project, the Project Architect might be the only one doing all the work or will direct a team of architectural staff.  As in many small firms, I was solely responsible for all aspects of the project - developing the design; educating the client and coordinating their needs with what their budget can deliver; making sure that it can be built as drawn; that it complies with building codes, land development codes, and neighborhood guidelines; producing clear construction drawings and specifications that a builder can use to do his job (bid and build); managing outside consultants (structural engineer, interior designer, lighting consultant, landscape designer); conducting all meetings; and while the project is under construction, site visits, respond to RFI's (request for information), approve shop drawings, etc.  The whole shebang.

For that matter, there was no mention of any of the other professionals who were instrumental in bringing the project to life - the interior designer, the landscape architect, the builder, etc.  Instead, it was as if "the firm" had waved a magic wand with an invisible hand and the project came to fruition.

Project Timeline - Project Architect involvement

The story ends the same way for all projects that I have put my time and expertise into.  So, I wondered.  Is this an isolated phenomenon, specific to "the firm" or is it common practice?  After all, my name is not on the door.  I do not pay the bills/ worry about making payroll/ shoulder the liability.  I get that.  But, I do my part!

Is this just my ego talking?  Perhaps.

Am I the only one who has the audacity to want more?  Probably not.

What do architecture firms showcase? I did a quick survey to see how many firms explicitly acknowledge their (project) team members.  And by quick, I mean I looked at 100 websites of architecture firms that I am familiar with, mostly local, mostly small.

Architecture websites - a survey

Every firm has an online portfolio, of course; displaying professionally photographed pictures of the project, painstakingly listing awards and publications; but not one identified project team members.  And even if this is not a true reflection of the firm’s day-to-day work culture and how they treat their employees, it sure sets the bar pretty low.

Why would publications and the general public care who comprises the "we"?  They are the invisible minions who are not talked about.  This is the formula that gives rise to the "starhitects" and "starchitecture firms".

The reasoning is probably what everyone I talked to suggested - the client hired "the firm", and the work was done under the purview of "the firm", who paid the project architect and the architectural staff to do the needful, and therefore the credit goes to "the firm", not the individuals who did the work.

Well, isn't that just a cop out?!

Acknowledging the work of your collaborators does not take away from the firm's accomplishments.  For a profession that is obsessed with “errors and omissions”, this seems like a big omission.  If you are an architect or have ever worked with an architect, you know that a fantastic design is only one piece of the puzzle.  The execution of said design is just as critical for the success of the final product.

Sharing the spotlight: I was most impressed, and encouraged, by the following unique acknowledgements of individual contributions.

1) Mel Lawrence Architects lists former employees.  Because really, the fact that a team member has moved on does not negate the value they added to the team or project.  Also, read their note of thanks to all the people who usually go unmentioned.

2) MF Architecture lists outside collaborators, who have contributed to the success of their projects.


But that’s it. 2% that went above and beyond.

“I strongly believe in a collaborative design process. I think pure, singular, and original authorship is not only unobtainable, but not an interesting way to go about making new things. Our rule is everyone brings their differing talents, voices, and opinions into whatever project they are working on. We have small, intensely creative teams that work on projects from beginning to end.”

Architect Michael Hsu

I’m sure you are familiar with the long list of credits at the end of a movie.  Or heard Oscar award winners thank a number of people, including their inspiration, spouse, and children, until the music starts to play and they are escorted off the stage.  "I couldn't have done it without you," is a common statement.  It’s not that they can’t thank their spouses and kids for their support when they kiss them goodnight.  They do it on stage, in front of the whole world.

So, here’s my plea. As architects, we take great pride in our creations, and we make sure we showcase them, wherever possible, in the best possible light.  Take as much pride in your people.  (If you don’t, maybe you need a different team!).  But if you do, showcase them.  Give them credit.  Acknowledge their hard work and their tireless efforts.  Thank them for their dedication.  Not just at their yearly performance review.  Do it in front of everyone.

Share the glory.  Pay it forward.  And your team will take you to new heights.