I love checklists and tools that help you manage your work.
Zoning is an odd duck. Zoning is unique among codes because you might not be able to build. Period.
Every other code will allow you to proceed if you can show compliance, which is generally just a matter of money - more of it.
With zoning, no amount of money can buy permission to proceed if you don't meet the requirements. Sometimes you have to wait a year before re-applying!
I have always found that one of the key parts of getting a grip on the firm's finances is to have a good idea where the money goes. You might not need all the line items in the budget template here, we didn't; but it is helpful to start with all the possibilities and narrow things down from there.
How To Get Where You Want To Go
Yes, but No.
I'm not talking about travel. I'm talking about how you achieve goals, objectives and non-physical stuff like that. We have all had the experience of making a plan or setting a goal that proved hard to implement or achieve. Somewhere in the process, often right at the beginning, obstacles appear. Not tasks, but real ’how am I supposed to do that’ obstacles. I am going to show you why that is a good thing and not the ’killer’ that you might suppose it is.
I have been using this free graphics tool for three years. Canva is a graphic design program that anyone can use. It is drop-dead easy. Check it out here.
Canva has proven itself to be so helpful that I recently started using the Canva For Work version that has a few bells and whistles I like. $12.95 a month saves me at least an hour a month, but you won't need that. Canva is free and really powerful.
I got the opportunity to design some school buildings right out of college. They were fairly large projects taking six months to a year for the design phases. There was lots of time to recover from missteps. After a couple of these I got an admin building for a small school district. By comparison this was a three-bedroom house in scale. Before I had a handle on what the project would entail, I started focusing on the entrance and how I wanted that to work. After a day or two, the question came. "What the hell are you doing?" I explained about the importance (to me) of the entrance. "Do you even know if this is going to be 1-story or two? Does it fit the site?"
Should You Have Written Agreements
Everyone urges you to have written agreements for your design projects. There really isn't a good reason for not having a contract. However, we were rarely able to accomplish the goal of 100% of projects having a written agreement.
Our best effort to achieve this goal was to simplify the process. The two tools that we found helpful were a Letter Of Engagement, and our own Standard Agreement. There isn't anything wrong with standard AIA agreements. They aren't even hard or time-consuming to complete. But formality and exactitude get in the way.
When you are looking for work, this may seem counter-productive; but it is a good practice to evaluate every job beforehand.
Your insurance agent, your attorney, and your marketing advisor will all agree that making sure this project is worth pursuing is a good thing. The insurance agent and the attorney are looking at the potential for trouble that working with this type of client, this particular client or this project type can lead to.
Your marketing advisor is looking at the big picture of where you want to go and whether this opportunity is a step forward, sideways or backwards. The type of work you do and the people you work for speaks volumes to all your clients and potential clients. Choosing the right projects and the right clients is a key element in developing your niche and reaping the rewards that come from not being a commodity.
From a purely business perspective, a project is like a new product line. You should evaluate both before jumping on board. For a project a detailed evaluation doesn't need to take much time, especially if you have an established method for doing the evaluation. The attached form came from combining several processes that were recommended to us over the years.
The thrust of the evaluation is to uncover any concerns you have about the project or client beforehand, and then to develop a plan for addressing those concerns or "passing" on the project.
We found it works best with just two or three people involved: the person who found the opportunity and who knows the most about it, a principal of the firm, and perhaps one other senior person.
Once you go through the process a few times you will find that you want to keep the form handy as a kind of questionnaire to use with potential clients.
I’ve read recently that organizations are starting to recognize that they no longer function like a hierarchy, which comes to us from a military model that is probably 10,000 years old. Instead they recognize that a network is closer to reality. In a network each node (person) is connected to several others. Sometimes there is a client-vendor relationship. I would include boss-employee relationships under client-vendor for the sake of simplicity. Simplicity might be at odds with clarity, though. Other times the relationship is more peer-to-peer or even resource-researcher.
What nodes do you see in a smallish design firm?
It's kind of odd that you can't easily draw a network because there are very few tools that can handle it. CAD is the handiest (lucky for us), but outside the design field what would you use? Lucidchart, mind mapping, drawing tools like the Inkflow app? Because until you draw the network, it's pretty hard to think about it. That’s one reason hierarchies have worked so well - just assign people to roles: soldier, squad leader, platoon leader, company commander, etc. No need to draw it.
Mind mapping doesn't work unless your program allows interconnections - this one (iBlueSky app) doesn't. Fig 1.
Lucidchart works pretty well. Fig 2. A Lucidchart network diagram lets you use shape, color, line types, and arrow heads to convey information about your network. This might be better than CAD. Lucidchart’s toolbox makes it pretty easy to recognize all the subtle relationships in a network. (In Fig 2 I used their ’Flowchart’ shapes with one of the simple themes.)
I tried Inkflow, too, but I didn't see any benefits of drawing the network by hand, even if you can cut and paste easily to re-arrange nodes. Fig 3.
I think we are in for some really big changes when you combine this management concept, the prevalence of contract workers and the move to embrace more telecommuting. Design firms don't seem to be in a leadership position on these changes except maybe contract workers, thanks to the Great Recession. Not being a leader, though, doesn't mean you won't be affected.
I tried for years to sketch our organization; now I see that I wasn't using the right concept/tool to tackle the job.
Here is an article with an interesting comparison.