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Then and Now

A veteran church designer, and current project facilitator, shares the business sense he's gained throughout the years -- invaluable advice to help your firm thrive successfully over the years. An absolute must-read.

By Jerry L. Halcomb, FAIA   •  April 12, 2017 9:37 am EDT

Tags: architecture, business, love, teamwork,

THEN: After 41 years with the firm I founded, I sold my majority stock in the firm. Our architectural practice specialized in helping churches and faith-based organizations across America succeed through master planning and facility design. I always said I didn’t believe in retiring, but because I wanted to see the firm continue and to sell internally, I decided retiring was the right thing to do.

Looking back, there are a number of things we did that I would recommend [to other up-and coming and practicing architects to consider], including:

Start young in life:

You have less to risk and time to start over if you did happen to fail, but don’t accept failure.

Add partners:

Each partner had skills that supported the others. It would be good to have an additional “rain maker” to help bring in work, as well as being a partner that one day could buy your stock.

Be persistent:

Failure is not an option; be persistent.

Put family first:

Put family first and consider your staff as “family,” as well.

Specialize:

It wasn’t long into my practice [that] I was blessed to be hired to do a church project, and I knew that was what God had for our firm. Church projects involve auditoriums (theaters), education, recreation, and hospitality areas of practice. Specialize in a project type you enjoy doing and have experience in. Doing this will be fun and [help you] secure new projects because your experience in this field will exceed that of other firms.

Hire good staff:

Typically I hired staff in areas where they were better than me, and that wasn’t hard.

Hire a fantastic financial CFO:

It made a major difference and it was the best hire I ever made. We didn’t have non-payment issues because of good communication and timely invoicing (monthly).

Hire consultants that can grow with you:

Examples are MEP, structural, acoustical, etc., that work well together and use compatible software.

Hire a good CPA and stay with them:

Include him [or her] in your planning.

Hire the best attorney:

Preferably, an attorney that understands architects and architecture. Hire and build a good relationship with your professional liability agent. A good relationship will help keep you out of trouble.

Remember, there will be slow periods:

About every 10 years there will be a dip in the economy and work will be slow. Keep principals' salaries low and make up when you can pay bonus.

Don’t cut fees to get work:

This could lead to inadequate fees to do the job correctly and could lead to lawsuits.

Write good contracts:

Use AIA agreements as much as possible and have them reviewed by both your attorney and insurance agent.

Building relationships is great marketing:

Get involved with professional, community and church organizations such as AIA, CSI, your church, Rotary, etc.

Don’t burn bridges and build a good reputation:

End all projects and relationships with no outstanding unresolved issues.

Speak and write whenever possible:

This will help your "specialist" image as an authority with your project type.

Some agreements to have in place:

* “Non-Compete” agreement

These are hard to enforce but help.

* “Loan Sharing” agreement

“Buy/Sell” agreement stating who can buy stock. The agreement should cover death, disability, retirement, termination, divorce, etc.

* “Stock Evaluation” method

It was good for us to do this quarterly to be more accurate when something triggers it. Consider including goodwill value, adjusted book value adjustments, valuation date, how the stock is paid, what happens if the firm doesn’t have the funds, and will the firm buy insurance on the shareholders.

* “Transition” agreement

I sold majority stock internally to a “rainmaker” partner so the firm would continue. Many firms that sold externally changed or went out of existence.

The above things helped make our firm a success and allowed me to sell my stock to help with retirement. I have seen so many firms struggle to shut down their [businesses] and have nothing from it.

NOW: However, after retirement I still want to help churches and faith-based organizations, so I founded my consulting firm as an owner’s advocate doing preemptive planning (pre-design services) and/or project facilitator services. I have consulted with over 15 clients to date. No, I did not plan to skydive or be a "Walmart Greeter," even though I am sure I would make a good one.

Preemptive planning services can include demystifying the process, helping form the planning team, [performing] stakeholder interviews, needs assessment, growth planning and helping develop the program (scope, schedule and budget), or just visiting with the owner to give initial advice. The most interesting consulting was for a world-wide ministry in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where I helped with a 10,000-seat worship center.

It is not every day a church has the need, opportunity and ability to expand, remodel or relocate its facilities. Buildings are important as they facilitate ministries and support church growth. It is critical to make good decisions and get the “right space,” in the “right place,” at the “right time” without losing staff and ministries. Many times the owner and staff don’t have the experience building and/or don’t have the time to dedicate.

Project facilitator services can include helping coordinate owner responsibilities, team meetings, monitor project progress and pay applications, monitor scope, schedule and budget, and oversee the close-out process. Currently, I am serving as project facilitator (owner rep/project manager) for a new Pre-K thru 12th-grade Christian School relocation.

Over the years, as an architect, I really didn’t want an “Owner Rep” because I felt like they would come between the architect and owner. In the role of project facilitator, my goal has been to bring the architect and other disciplines together with the owner in lieu of standing between.

There is so much more the owner has to do above the architect’s typical scope. Items can include security, cabling, zoning issues, various civil issues, owner FF&E items, moving, and on and on.

An owner’s advocate with architectural experience can help make educated decisions, save time and money and help ensure a successful project.

Jerry L Halcomb, FAIA

President, Studio H Consultants

214.674.4307

JHalcomb@studioHconsultants.com


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