In The Architectural Space, Bigger Isn't Necessarily Better
Being small, specialized, and agile, can give you a distinct competitive advantage.
Having been bold enough to set up an architecture practice in today’s economy, David Lessard and I, as the founders of H+A, had to consider how our business could be scalable, how to build sustainable recruitment strategies, and, to a degree, when the business training is lacking, how lateral thinking and problem-solving skills can be just as effective. We looked at all the tools available to us, from market intelligence to smart technology, and employed a marriage of international best practice with real regional knowledge for a dynamic that competes with some of the biggest names in the market.
David and I both came from established practices, and understood well how larger organizations are slow to adapt to change. We created something with different values based on deep knowledge; a versatile and responsive business that is quick to adapt and uniquely client-focused. Being small, specialized and agile, can give you a distinct competitive advantage. The H+A approach is all about differentiating our practice and showcasing our unique skills to boost our profile and appeal, and deliver real benefits to potential clients. Here’s how we went about realizing this:
1. Challenge the status quo We wanted to subvert old notions of how architectural practices operate. There was a distinct gap in the market for a specialized firm with a sophisticated knowledge of healthcare and hospitality design, so we focused on creating a definitive business model that centralized the customer and delivered differentiated value.
2. Provide turnkey solutions We understood early on that our customers needed deeper advice on operations, funding, and the overall life cycle of their buildings, so we crafted our model in response to that. By developing expertise in these areas, we now have a front row seat with our clients, and this translates into making the right decisions from day one, and avoiding costly abortive works.
3. Understand the client’s needs Besides designing beautiful buildings that are simple to build, cost-effective, sustainable, and user-friendly, we have a substantial focus on the client’s goals and objectives. This unique positioning has set us apart from the very beginning in what is a highly congested and competitive field.
4. Develop knowledge-based expertise Establishing your philosophy in such a changeable economy will keep you on a steady path, no matter which way the wind blows. All our strategy is based on the belief that our work will have a significant and positive impact on people’s lives and wellbeing. At the heart of that is the vast body of research that we undertake both on a macro and micro level, which involves understanding our sectors, our clients’ operational model, be that a hotel or a hospital. Expertise is always based on research and learning, and for that, there are absolutely no shortcuts.
5. Keep the end consumer always in mind The human experience of a space is undeniable. If it is an existing building that is being developed, we embed our staff into the facility, working with their employees on the frontline to fully understand the challenges they face. We carefully study their workflow, and explore how we can improve efficiencies through the process of design. This includes an assessment of how people engage with technology, to determine whether we need to bring in ergonomics experts and systems to improve the way people are working. Fundamentally, it’s crucial to connect all the dots, so it’s possible to get an overview of the full ecosystem working in harmony.
6. Deliver real value Operating in a competitive environment, it’s important to understand the client’s needs, and to build a model that not only addresses them, but anticipates them– this is where the real value lies, and for us, it’s with the design and delivery process. As all architects in the Middle East are fully aware, one of the key concerns for the client is both the cost and the speed of delivery. We combined international best practice and real regional knowledge to trial and test extensive software solutions that could meet our clients’ needs. These programs work with integrated cost and design models that respond in real time, meaning the clients have the comfort of tracking their projects, ensuring they’re developing to deadlines and budget, and meeting quality requirements.
7. Empower your clients This is the key to keeping them happy, based on wisdom honed from a combined 45 years of project experience within architectural practice. We employ data from past projects, current projects, and experiences and hard-learned lessons to show clients why they should follow a certain path. Telling isn’t merely enough, you have to demonstrate.
8. Make technology work for you We make extensive use of our building information modelling software, integrate many other tools into the system, which means that we work faster, with less project risk, and with more accuracy. With a small team, you need to be as efficient as possible. Our goal is to keep building these smart delivery systems, that not only surpass what the larger organizations are doing, but to deliver end value to clients that is real and measurable.
9. Be prepared to learn every role in the business Running a startup in whatever field you operate in requires a multitude of diverse skills. You’re forever changing hats and having to be an expert in everything. As a Managing Director, you need to be prepared to segue way from one role to another: financial planning, R&D, mentoring, designing, problem-solving, and business development.
10. Create a competitive employment strategy You can’t operate in a vacuum. The right team with the right attitude is essential, and to lure the best people to work for you, you need to counter with something the larger firms can’t. If you’re not able to offer higher pay, and the stability of working for a big established firm, then be progressive. We offer flexi time, exciting projects, hands-on experience, a learning-based culture, one-to-one mentoring, and dynamic organizational structure where everyone is part of the team. Stock options are one way of ensuring the team has accountability and longterm commitment. Tangible rewards, especially in smaller practices like ours, should be the result of effort, attitude, and commitment.
11. Lead by example Of course, when you’re at the helm, it’s important that your own leadership skills are in check. Leadership to me is about excellent communication– being authentic, transparent, and leading through example. None of us are perfect, but we always learn from our mistakes, and embrace these lessons for the future. To run a successful company, you need to trust your team, and empower them to make decisions like owners.