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What It Takes to Become a Freelance Architect

Becoming a freelance architect presents challenges similar to those that an entrepreneur faces when starting a business. It’s not really an easy path, and it’s not for everyone. Some people prefer to find employment and build a career within architecture firms, going up the organizational hierarchy. Others choose the independent path of freelancing, potentially growing their business into an architecture firm of their own. It is merely a matter of choice, but it is very important to make an informed, conscious choice because this decision may affect your entire life. In this article, we’ll explain in depth what it takes to become a freelance architect.

Experience and licensing needs

If you’re a licensed architect in your state, province, or country, and if you have several years of experience and are comfortable with taking on freelance work on your own as an architect, then technically there’s nothing standing in your way, and you can skip the rest of this section. 

If you’re a junior or intern architect, or a recent graduate in architecture, the rest of this section can help you understand your options and how to proceed.

Depending on where you are in the world, it takes a number of years and milestones to earn the title of Architect. In Canada, for example, after earning your degree in architecture, you need to complete the Internship in Architecture program by working under the supervision of a mentor – a licensed architect – whom you’ll learn carefully from. The internship is around 3 years, and after that, you must undertake and pass an examination. After those milestones are completed, you’ll finally be a licensed architect within your province. 

Rules and regulations vary from one country to another, and in many countries, the process is less complicated. However, even if you do earn the title of architect right after you graduate with your Bachelor’s degree in your country, it would be almost impossible to get a client to hire you as a freelance architect to take lead on a project without earning at least a few years of experience in the market.

So, if you’re just starting your architecture career, it’s best to find employment in an architectural firm before you go on to become a freelance architect. You need to learn the practical, real world aspects of architecture projects. You need to be exposed to dealing with clients, producing the details, material selections, plans, elevations, sections, schedules, and much more, not to mention the coordination between different trades, such as structural and MEP engineering to have fully functional and efficient designs. This can only be mastered through experience. Take your leap into freelancing only after you are confident enough that you can provide the required quality of work.

However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t do freelance work in the field if you don’t have several years under your belt. You could offer up your skills after work hours in architectural visualization, BIM modeling, CAD drafting, model making, technical writing, quantity surveying, or any other support function that other architects need, as long as you adhere to the professional laws and regulations of your state, province, or country.

Market research and assessment

Before you take any leaps forward, take a to look around. What options do you have? What services are in demand locally? Nationally? Internationally? Use your years of experience and available market data to generate insights about the market, and find the right opportunity and tackle it at the right time.

What kinds of architectural services are you looking to offer? Do you want to go into a niche and become the Green Guru? The Skylight Expert? The Façade Professional? The BIM master? Or do you wish to specialize in certain types of buildings or structures? 

Do you want to work for individual clients? Or other architecture firms? Or both? Do you want to work within your locale or find work online through platforms and marketplaces? These are all critical questions you need to answer for yourself, as the answers will help guide your entire business plan and strategy.

A great way to start without taking on too much risk (such as leaving your job) is to start your freelancing path on the side, or moonlighting. This way you can start informing your contacts about your services and start building your professional network and client base. You can start with small jobs and work your way up until you feel comfortable with leaving your job and taking the leap to full-time freelancing.

Setting up your business

Once you’re ready to kick off your freelancing career, make sure to understand your local, state, or country laws and regulations around working as a freelancer or a self-employed professional. You may also need to check any requirements stipulated by the official organization that regulates the practice of architecture in your area. We won’t dive into these details here as they differ from one place to another, but we recommend that you do your research and that you ask other architects you know about the process. Once you’re legally set up to work, you can set off on your entrepreneurial path.

Marketing plan – find clients and impress them

Based on your market assessment, you should now have a good understanding of what you can and should offer, and how to go about offering it. Your next challenge is to find clients or businesses to hire you, and here are some important tips to guide you.

Set yourself up with the basics

Website and email

Nowadays, it’s astonishingly simple for you to build your own website, set up your domain, and get an email address for very cheap, and within just a couple of days. Website builders are so easy to use, and they enable non-tech people to build their own websites and fill them up with content fast. It’s such a simple thing to do and it boosts your personal brand by giving you a professional image.

Portfolio

If you have your own portfolio of projects you’ve worked on, prepare a pdf document which you can easily share online, and also add it to your website’s homepage or portfolio page. Make sure that you own the intellectual rights to share the projects and claim them as your own, or get permission from previous firms or clients you’ve worked with. Your portfolio is your most powerful, and in some cases the only tool you have to gain a client. Dedicate considerable time into perfecting it. It’s worth it.

Logo and brand

If you like, you can create a logo for yourself and use it on your website and business card. It adds a nice edge.

Business cards

It’s always useful to have a nicely designed business card on hand when you meet new clients and business owners. We suggest having a few on hand at all times.

Market yourself

Use your personal connections

The very first step in your marketing is to spread the word among your own contacts, friends, and family. Spread the word, post on social media that you’ve now started working as a freelance architect. Often, your first clients are from your current connections who already trust you.

Build your network

Building and expanding your professional network is key. You should aim to meet new people at events, seminars, conferences, and architecture exhibitions. Research companies in your area, figure out who the decision makers are, and try to find a contact that might get you a warm introduction to them sometime. The more people you meet, the more exposure you’re giving yourself, and the more chances of getting a new working relationship. 

Build your personal brand

Using social media like Linkedin, Twitter, and Instagram, you can leverage your personal brand and post thoughtful and valuable content to your followers. If you do this regularly, it can slowly build up and become a very important asset to your business as a freelance architect.

Create accounts on freelancing platforms

There are many online marketplaces for freelancing. Most of them are generalist platforms, such as Upwork, Freelancer, and Fiverr, and some are more specialized. Houzz is made for home services and may be a good platform to attract individual clients. Handiss is specialized in enabling connections between architects, engineers, technologists, and business owners in the AEC industry. So if you’re looking to work with other freelance architects and firms, it’s a great platform to make connections happen.

Write a blog

Blogs are very powerful tools for online visibility. Start your own and fill it with meaningful content that resonates with your professional identity and niche. Writing content on your blog can boost your personal brand, add content to your website, and provide you with more to share on social media.

Contribute to other blogs and podcasts

As you grow your network, reach out to other architects and architecture firms, bloggers from the industry, and podcasts to establish rapport. Look for meaningful ways to contribute and see if they’re interested in having you as a guest author on their blogs or podcasts.

Execute well – the best way to market yourself is to let your work speak for itself. If you earn the trust of your clients, they’ll be more likely to tell others about your services and refer you to them.

Other tips

Be competitive with your rates and improve your negotiation skills

Quoting and pricing is tricky, and it depends on a lot of factors. If you’re quoting on a freelancing website, you should consider that the client is getting many other offers, and therefore you should provide a very competitive rate without underpricing your services. If you’re making an offer to a company or a client directly, and not through an online marketplace, then you can probably be less aggressive with your pricing, and work on convincing your client to hire you through the content of your quote and by persuading them in your negotiations. There are great online resources and books you could read to up your negotiation skills. We’ve seen so many amazing architects with so much to offer who end up losing bids because they couldn’t build a positive relationship with their leads and prospects.

Build a team

You will come across many projects that you can’t handle all by yourself. You might need to work with structural engineers, MEP engineers, or maybe other architects to split the load. You’ll therefore need to build a network of professionals that you’re comfortable working with on short notice. This is common in the industry as companies and individual professionals work together on different projects, and build long term relationships together. You can definitely start building this close network by looking within your connections, and if that’s not enough, a Handiss account lets you browse freelance professionals you can reach out to on a project basis. You can find licensed professionals in your area, or global talent you could use to outsource certain tasks for your projects, like architectural visualizations and drafting work.

Keep up with important industry trends

What’s hot and what’s not? Always be on the lookout for new materials and software programs that are being used. For example, now is a great time to get familiar with or specialize in sustainable and energy efficient design and Building Information Modeling. Watch out for companies on the rise, what projects are being bid on, and use that information to reach out to useful connections.

Train on the latest software

Mastering software tools is crucial for your freelancing career. Training and practice will enable you to be much faster and efficient while executing your designs, which in turn will allow you to price more competitively since the project will need less time to complete.

The costs and rewards of freelancing and entrepreneurship

Starting a freelancing career is similar to starting a business, and that’s why it’s an attractive career path. Some architects want to start working freelance, but have ambitions to establish a brand and grow into a more sophisticated architecture firm with tens of employees. Others want to keep it small, maintaining a freelance business as self-employed professionals.

If you’ve never started a business before, then you’re in for some excitement as you shake up your life. Venturing out on your own to do your own thing brings with it a mix of emotions. Excitement gets infused with fear. Feelings of independence, self-reliance, and empowerment get clouded by a hint of sweet uncertainty. You’ll need to forget about the feelings of stability and security that come from receiving a monthly paycheck with benefits, at least for a while, as you set up your new career as an independent architect.

It’s a costly and rewarding endeavor. You may end up working harder than you did at your full-time job to get ahead, and at times you might not generate enough income as you pass through lows. It’s definitely a roller coaster, but roller coasters are as fun as they are scary, and once you get to a point where you’re making a consistent stream of revenue from several clients, you’ll be rewarded with an amazing feeling of accomplishment.

Handiss is where architects, engineers, and technologists connect for freelance and contract work. Sign up for free to get hired or to hire professionals from the AEC industry.

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