Designing a Beautifully Organized Architecture Company


If you missed Episode 1, where we sat down with Architect Michael Riscica, founder of Young Architect, the recorded session is also available to you here. Episode 2, featuring Ray Brown, co-founder and chief mentor at Archibiz, is also available as a recording.  

Many talks highlight incredible work and great successes that architects have, but the path through profession is never as straightforward as starchitects may have you believe. It is through those more challenging moments, the mistakes we make, that we learn.

With that in mind, in our third episode of the series, we sat down with Steven Burns, FAIA, NCARB, Chief Creative Officer at BQE. An expert in both architecture and project management, Steve has spoken with hundreds of architecture firm owners and helped guide them on their way to a running a more efficient (and more profitable!) practice.

A truly global audience attended the live event — architects from Ghana to El Salvador to Indonesia tuned in — and Steve responded to a number of stimulating questions posed by attendees. To reach an even wider audience, the recorded session is available free on-demand! Click the button below to watch now (note that you will need to register to access the recording):

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In the talk, Steve Burns outlines his colorful career trajectory — from his creative beginnings as a sculpture major at Syracuse University to his growth as an architect abroad, working for SOM, to his eventual return to the United States, when he opened his own small office in Chicago. In his distillation of these experiences, he reveals one of the mistakes that he made as a young architect: the assumption that architecture and architects were distinct from managing partners and people who were always on the business side of running firms.

“Suddenly I started to realize the value of the managing partners and the project managers at the firm — people I used to make fun of because they were seemingly always getting in the way of making good architecture — because I was suddenly in the position of having to run a business, and I had no business skills.”

Through the process of growing his own firm, Steve came to realize the importance of both understanding and embracing the relationship between design and business when it comes to architecture.

“I have a basic philosophy that project managers are not actually Project Managers and that we shouldn’t even use the term. There is a new trend in business of calling people Business Managers, but the way I look at it is that the Project Manager is really the CEO of their own little business. In our world, that business is the project,” Steve explained. More than a shift in title, Steve’s point is that Project Managers should be given the accountability and the tools to make a successful business. Responsibility is empowering. 

“Some firms are really protective, and the firm owner might say that he owns all of the information and data, and that the employees just do their jobs. However, you can’t really do a good job if you haven’t read the contract with the client or if you weren’t a part of the process of negotiating the fees and you don’t know the fees are going to be distributed across the project. If you’re just told ‘Go do it,’ then you’re really working blind.” 

The implications of this more holistic, entangled view of design and business are far-reaching. For architects and designers who are skeptical, the special attention to the business side of an office can vastly impact the quality, execution and types of projects that the firm works on and, therefore, the architecture that it produces.

“If you don’t have a successful business, you don’t have a sustainable business, and you don’t have the ability to serve your clients, and that just puts yourself in danger. I look at a business as a design problem, let’s design a really beautifully organized company.”

Steve sold his Chicago office in 2007 in order to dedicate himself to this very quandary. To this end, he leaned into software, developing tools to make the running of architectural business and projects as painless as possible. Just as CAD or your BIM software helps architects to design and construct a building, BQE software is a similar technology —as elegant as the stuff CAD does — that provides a structure and framework to help Project Manager delivering projects. 

“I’ve literally spoken with over 3,000 different firm owners in my years working with software side of the business, and I’ve been on-site in over 200 different firms, and I’ve seen all good and bad practices, I’ve made more mistakes than any one person should have in life themselves, so I’ve seen a lot of wrong things, I’ve done a lot of wrong things I guess, so I do have a good font of information that we can dig into today.”

Throughout the talk, Steve draws on these experiences, elaborating on various ways of thinking about Project Management more holistically — not just the art of management but also the art of business. He weighs some differences in Project Management for a small firms, and thinks about the blind spots in traditional architectural educations. At the heart of this idea is the belief that by running a smooth business, designers will have more time to do what they love and what their clients hired them to do.

If you missed Episode 1, where we sat down with Architect Michael Riscica, founder of Young Architect, the recorded session is also available to you here. Episode 2, featuring Ray Brown, co-founder and chief mentor at Archibiz, is also available as a recording.  


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