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How to start your own architecture firm: a practical guide

The likes of Foster & Partners and BDP might dominate the industry press, but it’s actually thousands of sole practitioner and boutique studios dotted across the country that form the bedrock of the UK’s architectural profession.

According to research from the Architects Council of Europe (ACE), more than 4,250 of the UK’s 7,000 or so architectural practices comprise of a single practitioner. So if you want to stretch your creative muscles and become an entrepreneur, building your own business is achievable.

But what does it take to go solo? Well for one thing, alongside a (hopefully) bigger share of profits come vital responsibilities: not least, finding work — and keeping everyone satisfied, including clients, staff, and the tax man.

Here are our tips on how to ensure your architectural firm begins with the firmest possible foundations.

Check your contract

As a practising architect, it’s easy to feel like your work is your own, and not the company’s. So, when you start out on your own, naturally you want to take advantage of the contacts you’ve already made. However, be sure to double-check your contract because you may find the following:

If your plans could fall foul of your contractual restrictions, it’s worth taking advice from an employment law solicitor at an early stage. While they shouldn’t be ignored, these types of clauses could still be challenged — as they might be too restrictive to be enforceable.

The right legal advice should give you a firm idea of what is and isn’t doable, letting you plan accordingly and avoid disputes in future.

Step one to designing your business: the plan

Think of the business plan as your new firm’s first ever blueprint. This document keeps you on track as you piece your practice together — and is useful to reference when convincing partners, investors (and even clients) to join your team.

Key areas to cover include the following:

Premises and equipment

To keep costs down, and if you have space, there’s a lot to be said for operating from home in the very earliest stages. If a home office works for you, take a closer look at mail forwarding and virtual office facilities (a great way of drawing a line between ‘business’ and ‘personal’).  

For a small but growing architectural practice, collaborative workspaces can also be ideal. These are usually fully-serviced, so you have the certainty of a fixed usage fee each month. These tend to be ‘pay-per-desk’ arrangements and it’s usually possible to scale up when more space is needed. If other firms operate out of the same building (e.g. designers and engineers), this can also be great for networking.

To keep initial spending at a minimum, check whether leasing equipment is more cost effective than buying outright. CAD modelling software is a good example: where four-figure price tags are standard for a basic outright ownership licence. However, with a subscription (“Software-as-a-Service”) arrangement, you pay a per-user fee each month or year — and upgrades are included automatically, which is a more startup-friendly model.

Essential paperwork

When you go it alone, you’re essentially the accounts manager, HR manager and operations manager rolled into one. Admin-wise, here’s what to focus on at the beginning:  

Choice of business structure

You don’t have to set up a separate legal structure for your business — you could simply trade as a sole trader. This means that there’s no legal distinction between you and your business.

That said, even for very small architectural practices, setting up a limited company is still often a better option. It’s a straightforward way to formalise the rights and responsibilities of multiple people involved in the practice — and it gives the business a level of professionalism, helping you win more work.

Even if you don’t intend to operate under the company right now, you can very easily set up a architectural practice as a company and keep it ‘dormant,’ even if it’s just to reserve your company name.

If you’re interested in setting up as a limited company, we’re on hand to help. We’ll ensure you get the right business structure for your company — in addition to helping you set up a registered office, mail forwarding, and much more. For a hassle-free set up and all the support you need, head over to our company registration packages page to discover what options are available.

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