Adding Value to Architectural Firms: Roles & Responsibilities

We talk with numerous building products companies frequently. They tell us adding value and selling to the architect are among the most challenging sales and marketing processes they face.

Interacting with architects is not like selling to a distributor or an LBM dealer; it's much more complex and nuanced. The majority of manufacturers struggle to sell to architects because they use the same sales team that sells to distributors/dealers, and in most cases, without any additional training. To engage and sell to the architectural audience, it's essential first to understand who they are and their role in the firm. In subsequent content, we delve deeper into how to sell and market to them.

by the numbers

The architect is a unique and concentrated profession. The NCARB (National Council of Architectural Registration Boards) estimates the number of licensed architects in the US around 130,000, while the AIA (American Institute of Architects) states that their membership hovers around 92,000 (about 70% of architects are AIA members).

What's the pipeline? There are approximately 25,000 students in architecture programs across the US in any given year, distributed across 136 institutions. Compared to other five-plus-year degrees, there are 130,000 law students at 203 accredited law schools (do we need that many lawyers?) and 91,000 medical students in 154 programs. Engineering students (of all forms) take the prize at 622,500 across 393 institutions.

Those 25,000 architecture students can take a couple of education paths. The first is a "Bachelor of Architecture," a 5-year degree that is evaluated and accredited by the National Architectural Accrediting Board and contains the required academic coursework to pursue an internship, and eventually, licensure. The second path, "Bachelor of Science in Architectural Studies," is a 4-year degree that contains part of the coursework required for licensure but must be followed by a 2-year Master's degree for one to pursue licensure; a total of 6 years. Some of the most innovative and most creative students I knew in college were in the architecture program, and it's a long and challenging road to get that degree. Comparing the hours of testing between professions is also telling. If you took all six division exams required for the Architectural Registration Exam back-to-back, you would be there for nearly 25 hours. In comparison, the bar exam for lawyers is 12 hours. For doctors, the US Medical Licensing Exam (taken before beginning rotations) is 7 hours.

Interesting note: Many famously successful architects of the past, like Frank Lloyd Wright or his mentor Luis Sullivan ("father of modernism"), would not be able to call themselves architects today. None of them completed the very first step of acquiring a formal and accredited degree in architecture.

license and registration, please

Why would an architect get licensed and go through the accreditation and CEU credits each year? It's a status thing, and more importantly, those licensed can typically charge more for their services. I couldn't find data on how much more they can charge, but it is common knowledge that certified architects get paid more for projects. It's also sometimes a filter process for prospective clients, as being licensed is important to many clients, so licensed architects can qualify for more RFPs. Hence why CEUs are a time hassle for them but also very important for their accreditation.

the organization

No matter the architectural firm's size, most of them have a similar set of positions in the organization. Of course, the more minor the firm, the more roles performed by a person.

Here is a list of the common positions within an architectural firm. (Note: position names or responsibilities may be slightly different depending on the firm, and not all roles are present in each firm.)

Principal/Partner: The firm's leader(s), responsible for establishing the firm's business goals and strategic direction (strong vision, types of work, specialization, growth, personnel development). This role oversees overall operations (think COO) and is ultimately accountable for its top and bottom-line business success. In many cases, they do select project work as well to stay sharp and in the game.

Business Development: Ultimately, this role is responsible for establishing/nurturing ongoing industry connections, bringing in new business, and leading the RFI/RFP process. They don't necessarily have an architecture degree, but when they do, it goes more smoothly. Usually, all of the leadership team has some new business role, but this position takes the lead on the process. Like any new business role, their ultimate responsibility is to qualify leads and convert those leads into clients. They are also responsible for ensuring the firm's brand is well represented, working with the internal marketing team to always be "on brand."

Marketing: This role gets the firm's brand out into the appropriate places in the market. They help the new business team write proposals and coordinate the firm's message and deliver it to key audiences (for example, communities and developers). They maintain and cultivate the website, create thought leadership content, and generate case studies to showcase the firm's work. Some larger firms may also have a Graphic Design role dedicated to supporting the marketing team and technical artist role.

Project Manager: Once a project is secured, the project manager takes the lead as they are now the primary liaison between the client and the firm. Their ultimate goal is to complete projects on schedule, within budget, all while ensuring client satisfaction. They coordinate all administrative and technical tasks, including but not limited to determining the scope of work, proposal preparation, and final contracts. They also work closely with the lead architect and the production managers to align to the final construction documents.

Lead/Project Architect: This role leads the vision of the project. They work with and present directly to the client on technical and design solutions. Internally, they work now with and supervise the teams' innovation and technical delivery. They also work closely with the Project Manager to execute project plans.

Production Manager: This role/department is focused on creating and coordinating the all-important construction documents, the bible of the project. This role can make up the most significant percentage of the firm's staff and effort due to the complexity and importance of the details. Many graduates start on this team in the firm as it's a great learning ground.

Designer: This role is responsible for the design process, meaning the visual aspect of the environment that results in how a building appears and functions. They help determine the experience of the domain (i.e., colors, textures, surfaces) and the functionality of each space within the environment (i.e., furniture, space planning). The designer works with the lead/project architect to ensure they stay aligned to the lead architect's vision.

Librarian: This role had gone by the wayside during the 2008 recession. But, the library remains an important asset within the firm. Even with virtual sampling growth, architects eventually need an actual physical sample for most design elements; differences in digital screen resolution can never be trusted. This role is responsible for working with key category vendors to maintain the samples needed for the architect's and designer's quick reference.

Technical Designer: This role is responsible for the technical building design; they have expertise in determining and detailing the technical intricacies of the environment both outside (building envelope) and in. Think structural, noise, or fire, for example.

Specification Writer: Sometimes this role is performed by the architect (in smaller firms) or a third party. Larger organizations typically have a dedicated spec writer. This role reviews team-provided project information/drawings and then translates them into written project specifications, working in programs (i.e., Master Spec) to create the final specifications. They perform product research, provide technical assistance to the team and sometimes assist in material selection. They also maintain relationships with vendors to gain access to technical information or material options.

Construction Administration: This role/department is focused on the execution of the information and documents created by the production department. Their goal is to ensure the project is built according to the construction documents by reviewing submittals, visiting the job site, and ongoing involvement in the process of construction.

Renderer/Technical Artist: This role is responsible for the creation of the presentation-level graphics for the firm. Using the technology/software applications employed by the firm, they create a visual world that brings the firm's projects to life, either for case studies for the RFI process, website or for presenting the vision to the current client.

Digital/Technology Lead: This role is responsible for design technology (i.e., BIM technology, Regenerative Design, Visualization, AR/VR). They also develop and incorporate data collection and query for purposes of design intelligence, automation, simulation, and downstream exploration for artificial intelligence. These technology platforms and data are used by the rest of the organization to serve clients better and create unique work.

the final word

An educated sales team is a more confident and successful one. So, manufacturers that train their sales teams to sell to this unique group will see the best results. As you engage with architectural firms, one error is in only having one contact. So, make sure to have multiple contact touchpoints within the organization, as a broader influence on different decision-makers will always set you up for success.

Secondly, make sure you understand their roles, and what success looks like for each of them. The more knowledgeable you are, the more relevant conversations you will have, and the more quickly you can help them achieve their accountabilities. Lastly, these firms are dealing with thousands of products and quick decisions; time is the most precious commodity. So be responsive, be there precisely when they need you. If you do these things well, you will add value that will drive their loyalty to your products and brand.

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