What are the different types of architecture firms?

I can’t believe it’s been well over a year since I wrote the posts What Kind of Architect are You? and What Does My Journey as an Architect look Like? I have had this third post outlined since I wrote those posts and it’s about time I finished and shared it—especially because there’s a fourth post that needs to reference this one. And that post has a deadline, sort of. To recap the other posts, I talked about the three primary and three secondary archetypes that I see in the architecture profession. I also described my own journey. If you haven’t read them, or read them recently, go read them and then come back. They are some of my best posts.

I want to finally look at how these archetypes and personal journeys fit within a firm structure. As you might remember from the previous post, I talked about how instead of being a point on the graph of archetypes, we are really each a vector. That vector (with its corresponding origin, direction, and magnitude) tells us not only about our interests, but also how we relate to other architects. If you take all the employees in an architecture office and plot them on the same graph, you start to see the overarching personality of the firm and also how well the individuals within the office align—and whether or not they have a shared vision.

What are the different types of architecture firms?

Instead of classifying the different types of architecture firms by stylistic preference, firm structure, or by one of the six archetypes of individuals—which certainly all apply and are worthy of discussion—I want to look at how different groups of individuals affect the health and stability of a company. Let’s go from good to bad to difficult.

A firm might be composed of a variety of individuals at different points in their careers, but if they are all heading in the same direction, then their diversity becomes a strength. Each employee and boss agrees on where the firm is heading and what is of value. There might be Pragmatists, Poets, Artists, and Builders. Or whatever combination of archetypes. What matters is the direction of the vectors. All agree that the goal of the firm and the body of work point towards the same shared firm vision.

The opposite, yet equally strong, position of a shared firm vision is a firm with a shared baseline. In a firm like this, the individuals might all have different interests. Each might be pulling in a different direction. But their common origin allows them to communicate with each other. A firm like this might show more diversity than a firm with a shared vision, as this firm is exploring more directions. The danger though is over time the individuals become too disparate. And the result is chaos.

We’ve all seen firms like this. Maybe we’ve even worked in firms like this. A collection of individuals, each in their own spot, each going in whatever direction interests them. Two individuals might both self-identify with the Artist, but be heading in completely different directions. That in itself isn’t so bad, but when they are part of a large disorganized system, they may focus more on others going in the same direction than with each other. This is a firm that might do too many project types, have too many fee structures, lack a common design philosophy, etc. These firms are messes and rarely fun to work at.

The proverbial black sheep: everyone else is unified and heading in one direction and there’s the lone iconoclast. The one individual who is perhaps part of the pack, but going elsewhere or maybe completely outside the firm’s baseline and vision. This situation is a great opportunity or a disaster in the making.

I often see this situation in the plight of the embattled BIM Manager, of someone trying to pull the firm in a new direction while everyone else thinks she’s obsessed with the wrong things. If this out of sync individual is just an Architect in Training or someone without much power, the casualty might just be her happiness or job. If the outlier is a leader or owner, it can tear the firm apart. Employees frustrated by this individual might leave while others might join him, fragmenting the firm. Conversely if the firm recognizes this difference, or if the individual does, this can be a great opportunity—if both sides have trust, openness, and communication. In this happier scenario a firm has access to a lone visionary, to someone willing to go against the norm to discover something new. This unique direction could be about design theory, prospective clients, new project types, potential revenue streams, different marketing routes, etc. A firm that sees this and supports this person is not only opening themselves up to success, but is also probably a great place to work.

Never Static

Of course these diagrams are just idealizations and momentary views. Rarely are firms so cleanly codified. A firm might contain a cluster of chaos, a grouping of shared vision, and a few outliers. Or an architecture firm might have both a common baseline AND a shared vision. More importantly healthy firms are always in flux. Individual employees are always growing, learning, and moving along their own paths. So a firm with a shared vision might push too far and fragment, or worse: stagnate. A firm with a common baseline might turn to chaos and need to be rescued by a concerted effort towards developing a shared vision. Or a shared vision might might get too oppressive or not align with a new hire.

Either way, as with the previous posts (which you should reread) these diagrams and concepts are about awareness. What type of architecture firm do you work at? And how do you fit in? If the situation isn’t healthy, can you affect change? Or does this knowledge help you realize that it’s time to jump ship…for another firm or for the grand world of self-employment?

Follow Shoegnome on FacebookTwitter, and RSS feed for more on being an Architect in the 21st Century. And if you haven’t guessed, at most of my jobs I typically felt that I was the red vector in the last diagram…


  1. Kayleb Holden June 26, 2014
    • Jared Banks June 27, 2014
  2. Andy Harrison February 12, 2016
    • Jared Banks February 12, 2016

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