An architectural practice must be well-organized and well-managed in order to provide proper architectural services to the public and to be profitable. As well, good management decreases exposure to risk and liability. (See also Chapter 3.8 – Risk Management and Professional Liability.) This chapter discusses several methods for improving the administration or management of an architectural practice.
See Chapter 3.6 – Human Resources for discussion of human resource issues within architectural practice. The focus of the human resources function is to ensure that a practice’s most important asset – its people – is being nurtured and supported through the creation and management of programs, policies and procedures that foster a positive work environment through effective employee-employer relations.
Every office, with even a modest number of partners and employees, should have an office manager responsible for overseeing the business functions of the firm. This person may or may not be full time in the position, depending on firm size, and may or may not be an architect. The office manager is responsible for ensuring that the firm operates according to the policies and procedures of the firm and in compliance with the many federal, provincial or territorial, and municipal legislation, regulations and bylaws. The office manager may have signing authority, and may be responsible for human resources, including recruiting, hiring and firing. Depending on the size of the firm, the office manager may also have bookkeeping responsibilities.
It is important to establish policies and procedures which govern the day-to-day operations of the architectural practice and to ensure that all employees are familiar with them. Therefore, policies and procedures should be documented in writing in the form of an office manual. Amendments or new information may be added from time to time. The office manual is an important tool for both large and small offices. It becomes a guide to management and staff regarding the many aspects of managing an architectural practice.
The office manual can be in many forms, including a hard-copy binder or a digital format, or can be located on a practice’s secured network or intranet. The format should suit the size of the practice.
One advantage of such a manual is that, by adhering to its policies, all staff are treated fairly and consistently. The office manual is also a valuable resource when interviewing and hiring new staff. Prospective employees are understandably interested in learning about the firm’s policies on such basic issues as working hours, overtime and vacations. With an up-to-date office manual, principals can respond to these questions confidently and in a manner that is consistent with the policies already applied to existing staff.
The office manual can also help to communicate the firm’s philosophy, goals, and, possibly, mission statement. This helps to ensure that staff are aware of the principals’ underlying objectives and what is expected of staff. Some practices require all staff members to sign and date an acknowledgement attesting to the fact that they have read the office manual and agree to its terms.
In Appendix A at the end of this chapter, the “Checklist: Information to Include in a Manual on Office Policies and Procedures” lists some of the issues to resolve and to include in an office manual.
The architect’s office is a multi-functional operation. In addition to being the centre for the operation of the practice, it also fulfills a promotional role. The appearance of the office makes a statement about the practice’s image and, to a certain extent, its degree of organization. As well, the space provides an opportunity to display examples of built projects and current designs. The first impression that visitors or prospective clients receive when they visit the office will be a lasting one. Therefore, the office should reflect the firm’s philosophy by being orderly and well-organized. The premises should also support the organization and facilitate the control of all types of documentation.
The office can be an opportunity to showcase a design that enhances the health and productivity of staff and promotes best practices in workplace and sustainable design. This includes daylighting and views; acoustics; the use of sustainable and regenerated materials; good indoor air quality; energy-efficient controls for ventilation and lighting; flexible and ergonomic workspaces; and new communication and workplace technology tools.
The busier a firm becomes, the greater the challenge to maintain an organized appearance. However, maintaining a practice’s physical appearance and building systems demonstrates professionalism and improves a firm’s public and private image. A solution is to engage a reliable maintenance person – perhaps on an ongoing, as-needed basis – to address minor repairs quickly and economically. Arrange regular office cleaning to suit the size of the firm and the level of activity in the office. Small practices may require a cleaning person once per week and may choose to have staff take on some chores. Mid-sized offices may require more frequent service, and larger offices may require cleaning every evening. Cleaning services may be part of the lease in an office building.
When engaging office maintenance firms, architects should consider the need for office security and requirements for a bonded company.
An architectural practice may have two areas of concern for security:
- security of security of data and information systems;
- perimeter security.
Security of Data and Information Systems
Securing data and information systems, including computer and network equipment and software, has become an area of specialization for information technology managers in architectural practice and computer/network systems service providers. Threats of data theft and misuse of information have increased exponentially over the past several years, challenging practice integrity. Threats originate from both internal and external sources. A breach of security can result in loss of data and intellectual property, extensive rework to recover from the loss of data, and potentially a breach of contract if the client-architect agreement for a particular project required specific security measures. The advent of cloud-based electronic data storage and distribution solutions as well as increased collaboration and exchange of data files across multiple corporate environments has complicated security. Advanced security protocols are required for both the expedient movement of data and the control of information distribution. Simple password protection of individual computers is insufficient as criminal entities devise increasingly sophisticated means to steal identities and valuable information.
See Chapter 3.7 – Technology Systems for a discussion of computer and network security.
Perimeter security refers to the need to protect the office premises from intrusion to avoid theft, vandalism or security breach. Adequate security is important to protect hard assets such as computers and laptops, as well as confidential documents and computer databases. Multiple levels of perimeter security may be required if sensitive client information, such as design information related to secured facilities or proprietary intellectual property, needs protection. A portion of the office may be designated for a specific project, and access to the designated area may be limited to select personnel. In Canada, work spaces involving sensitive government or private sector projects are often required to have additional levels of security which are prescribed by the client.
An office may be required to install a fire-rated “vault” or secured file storage for important documents. It is also common practice for principals to store copies of documents in an offsite location, such as their personal residences. Many firms choose to use a document storage company that securely stores physical and electronic records, media tapes, vital records and other assets offsite, with easy access when needed. In past years secured storage was used for housing original software, but most software programs are now purchased on a subscription basis and are updated online, making the storage of discs obsolete.
Security systems vary in their complexity and features. A minimum standard should include an electronic alarm system connected to a signal device and/or a centralized security monitoring office.
Control of office keys is a concern due to staff turnover. A practice should maintain a master log to control the distribution and retrieval of all keys. Depending on the rate of staff turnover, it may be appropriate to re-key locks on a regular basis. Many offices are replacing physical keys with access credentials, such as swipe/scan cards or fobs.
Insurance protection is not limited to professional liability insurance. It is important for firms to protect the physical assets of the architectural practice. Most commercial office insurance policies are “package” offerings, providing a broad range of protections from common threats and losses. Some of the extensions to property insurance usually available with a commercial policy package include the following:
- office contents, such as furnishings and computer hardware, software, and data;
- accounts receivable;
- exterior signs;
- personal effects of employees;
- glass coverage;
- valuable papers;
- property off premises (that is, located in site offices, employees’ homes, etc.);
- property in transit;
- newly acquired location coverage;
- crime coverage.
In addition to property coverage, the policy should include commercial general liability (CGL) protection.
The practice should consider other insurance protection, including:
- tenants’ legal liability coverage;
- non-owned automobile liability coverage;
- employer’s liability protection.
If the practice is a home-based business, a “home-run business” endorsement may be required on the home insurance policy.
An insurance broker can discuss the operation of the practice and advise on office insurance requirements.
See also Chapter 3.1 – Starting and Organizing an Architectural Practice for other types of insurance requirements
It is good practice to thoroughly document all project activities and communications. Documentation minimizes the potential of future conflicts and provides the basis for a solid defence in the event of a claim being made by any project participant or if the architect is faced with other legal action. Web-based project management solutions are available both as subscription services and as server applications. These systems provide automated archiving, security, searchability and information management.
Some of the types of documentation that the architect should maintain are described in Chapter 3.11 – Standard Templates for the Management of the Practice and Chapter 6.8 – Standard Templates for the Management of the Project.
This section discusses possible filing systems in an architect’s office for storing and retrieving this documentation.
A successful filing system provides a central location for all project documentation and communication and, more importantly, permits easy and immediate retrieval of information. The architect should consider printing file numbers on all correspondence to identify incoming and outgoing mail and e-mail, facilitate routing, and coordinate with filing procedures. See Chapter 3.11 – Standard Templates for the Management of the Practice for a sample stamp for all correspondence. Files should not be created unless there is sufficient documentation or correspondence to warrant them. If a piece of communication discusses more than one subject, it should be copied and placed in all the appropriate files.
An architectural practice will require at least two types of filing systems:
- filing of information relating to the management of the practice;
- filing of information related to the management of the project.
Information related to the management of the practice may include employee records, business and professional liability insurance information, and overall financial records. This information requires a special, and possibly confidential, filing system, organized to meet the needs of each practice.
It is also important to establish some form of filing system for marketing, promotional materials and communications which are generated in seeking new commissions. Referencing past proposals is important when pursuing new opportunities.
In addition, a separate file or series of files is usually established for each project, frequently filed by the project number. Key information should be at the start of the project file. See Chapter 6.8 – Standard Templates for the Management of the Project for a sample index of project files.
A suggested system for filing project information is based on the project’s work breakdown structure (WBS). A filing system based on the WBS is scalable and information is easily retrievable by all team participants, independent of their role in the project. The filing system should be duplicated in both hard-copy and electronic formats. For small projects the filing system may be as simple as a folder for each major phase, including:
- pursuit and proposal;
- construction documents;
- bidding/contract award;
The filing system can be scaled up by including folders for sub-deliverables and, for large or complex projects, tasks. The advantage of a WBS-based filing system is that all information about a design topic, building system, or component is collected into a single location and is easily retrievable. A disadvantage is that the person responsible for filing information must recognize the content and decide into which folder the information should be sorted.
An alternative system is to file information according to format. For example, under each project phase, folders for letters and e-mails, meeting minutes, memos, sketches, transmittals, and shop drawings would be included. The advantage of this filing system is that staff who are unfamiliar with the practices of an architectural office can file information without having an awareness of content. The disadvantage is that if information is required on a topic, such as decisions about envelope material selection, multiple folders would need to be searched to collect and consolidate all information.
Appendix B – Project Filing System at the end of this chapter suggests a possible filing format. The project filing system is intended as a guide only, and should be adapted to suit the needs of the individual architectural practice.
The architect should always be aware of the potential for claims. Therefore, records should be maintained well beyond completion of the project. Good records help to prepare a good defence. In the digital age, maintaining electronic records has become standard practice.
The architect should review the provincial or territorial statute of limitations to identify the duration for which records should be kept. At a minimum, all project records should be retained until after expiry of the limitation period for pursuing a claim for professional errors or omissions. The time period contained in the statutes of limitations varies from province to province or territory. See Appendix E – Comparison of Statutes of Limitations in Each Province and Territory in Chapter 3.8 – Risk Management and Professional Liability.
Archiving Project Records
One final task often overlooked on a project is organizing records so that files will be orderly, well-labelled, up-to-date and easily located. This is critical when information on a project is needed at a later date. Frequently, the retrieval is done by others not involved in the original project. Some firms place one copy of all final reports in the office library as reference material for future projects.
Archiving Electronic Files
It is also important to archive electronic files. The technology for storing this data is constantly changing and improving. Cloud-based storage and mass-storage devices have made the archiving of electronic files second nature. However, each firm is advised to test the backups and file storage systems to ensure that the integrity of their data has not degraded or become corrupted over time, and that older files are compatible with new software programs.
In addition to a filing system, every architectural office should maintain a reference library. This library may include some of the following:
- information on building design and architectural practice;
- technical information on specific building products (product literature and samples);
- standards, codes, and other information such as statutes and regulations;
- information and practice bulletins from the provincial and territorial architectural licensing authorities.
These materials should be stored in a central area, where they are easily accessible to the staff for daily use. However, it is not uncommon for the contemporary office, pressed for space, to insist that all resources be made available in digital format, thereby reducing the space requirement for a library. The same is true for manufacturers’ product literature.
Sample libraries are also a valuable resource, but space consuming. An office may find that it must be selective about accepting samples from manufacturers and must limit storing physical samples to those actually used on past projects and actively being considered for current projects.
A majority of product literature is now available online using web-based information systems. Product literature may also be available in formats such as CD-ROMs, manufacturers’ three-ring binders, or loose information (often gathered at trade shows or conferences, or received in the mail); however, these formats are becoming less common. Binders should be stored for easy access and identification. Some practices require a sign-out sheet for borrowing these binders. The common method for organizing product information is the use of the MasterFormat™ 50 division system with a number on each binder or piece of literature corresponding to the section number of the MasterFormat system.
See Chapter 3.7 – Technology Systems for a detailed discussion of technology systems, including computers, networks, communication and security.
Hayes, R.L. (ed.) The Architect’s Handbook of Professional Practice, 15th edition. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2014.
Franklin, James R. Current Practices in Small Firm Management: An Architect’s Notebook. Washington, D.C.: The American Institute of Architects Press, 1990.
The Society of Design Administration. Handbook of Design Office Administration. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, 1999.