Sometimes it seems like you have very little say in who your clients are.
I think you have a lot of say in who your clients are, but it isn't easy to connect the dots. An architect's education is woefully lacking in the knowledge that would be helpful.
The early work experiences of most people do not help with the understanding that you need, either. Let me share my insights. Maybe it will help; maybe not, since I can't claim to be an expert. In fact I came to whatever understanding that I have after too many years of cluelessness.
The first thing to realize is that everything that you do is connected to who your clients are. Both personally and professionally. Personally: whether you socialize, with whom, how. Professionally: business stationery, office location and looks, how you dress, marketing efforts, everything your business does.
The community you are a part of won't tolerate a mystery for long. They will take these clues that you leave, and build a story around them that they file away. Perhaps just for the sake of gossip. It is the same need to label things and put them in boxes that you see depicted all the time.
So you can 'be yourself' and see where that takes you; or you can decide where you want to go and 'modify yourself' to fit that future. Both courses can be frustrating. The 'be yourself' option is frustrating because you never seem to be getting anywhere. Because you don't have a destination in mind, you don't see any progress. The 'modify yourself' option is frustrating because you don't see any progress in getting where you want to go. It's the 'are we there yet' syndrome.
This 'modify yourself' option does have one advantage, making decisions is much easier because you can evaluate options under consideration against where you are heading. Issues seem to solve themselves. The best way is, I think, a third option: recognize who you are and decide where you want to go. It's the 'be yourself, but consciously' option.
I've done all three. One of the things I've learned is that you won't like where you are in your career if you don't like the arena you are in. That is mostly a people-problem, a client-type problem. Here's what I know about different types of clients. There are fewer client types than architectural niches. Maybe selecting a client type will help zero in on a niche. Clients come in two basic designs and various models. Design No. 1 is FOR-PROFIT. Design No. 2 is NON-PROFIT.
For-Profit client models include Corporate, Commercial, Industrial, Residential (mostly), and Developers of all kinds. The fees that For-Profit clients are willing to pay are directly related to how they see themselves. High-end organizations that are image-conscious want to work with high-end design firms and are willing to pay what that entails, including an expanded scope of services. Commodity oriented organizations pay commodity fees and treat you like a commodity. Developers and other low-end clients will want a 'deal', meaning they want to pay less than a commodity fee. Since you need to be profitable, you have to provide less than Basic Services. Usually Construction Administration is the first thing to go, maybe Bidding as well. With For-Profit clients, you will usually be working with a project manager rather than a committee. For-Profit clients know what they want, make timely decisions, and do their homework. But to put it in a nutshell, For-Profit clients don't fit a mold.
Non-Profit client models include Institutional, Governmental, Charitable Organizations, Community Organizations, and Educational (mostly). Non-Profit clients generally pay standard fees for a Basic Services scope of work. Charities are an exception, and they expect a discount or some pro bono work, perhaps because funds are so dear. But they don't like the idea of reduced services as a way of getting this discount. Since Non-Profits see themselves as stewards of the money entrusted to them, you are much more likely to find a building committee in the role of project manager. There is also a shared risk-taking aspect to the decision to use a building committee. Generally Non-Profit clients don't agree on what they want (committees!), they make slow decisions, and they want you to do their homework (because they are often volunteers). There are exceptions, public education entities generally have a facilities program that is cut and dried, but a bit heavy on red tape, like any governmental organization.
Where you can go as an architect or architectural firm is pretty unlimited. Hopefully some client characteristics appeal to you more than others. The thought process that brought you to the profession is just 'step one'. You have years to define who you want to be as an architect, but it will take another conscious thought process. I think that you do yourself a disservice to just put one foot in front of the other without a destination in mind.
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