… if you set up your own architectural practice. But it’s not all brainstorming in the back garden, flexible hours and creative control. Emily Wright asked five young architects how to go it alone.

It’s a Wednesday afternoon in late June, and Britain’s young architects squint at yet another unsolicited email, stretch their aching backs and glance at the blinds lowered against the glorious sunshine. Meanwhile, in a garden in Brixton, five happy exceptions to this rule are floating a frisbee through fat clouds of barbeque smoke.

All five are here because they set up their own businesses and chased the dream of independence, creative control and, of course, flexible working hours – useful on days like this. And all five have gone some way towards winning their bet. Nick Cross and Max de Rosée of Nick Cross Associates started with an invoice of £2000 and a sideline in dog sitting and built up to a turnover of £100,000 in two years. Julian Hakes of Hakes Associates turned a competition win into a £800,000 business, begining at the ludicrously young age of 24, and Pascal Scheurer and Holly Porter have successfully nursed their infant practice through its first 18 months.

All five agree that starting their business was exhilarating, but all agree that it’s tough being a hopeful unknown in an industry where reputation means everything. So, if you’re thinking of embarking on a great adventure of your own, what advice would our young pioneers have for you?

Surface to Air partners Pascale Scheurer and Holly Porter enjoy the garden party with Max de Rosée (standing),

Surface to Air partners Pascale Scheurer and Holly Porter enjoy the garden party with Max de Rosée (standing), Nick Cross’ partner

Photo: Tim Foster

Age is not as important as you may think. Scheurer set up her practice, Surface to Air, at the age of 29, but she says youth can be an advantage. “Once you start creeping into your 30s, financial ties and other responsibilities can get in the way. When you’ve got a mortgage and kids, you’re less likely to give up that monthly pay cheque.”

The first thing to do is forget you’re an architect – you’re running a business. Before you start, get some advice from an accountant, a friendly bank manager or an old hand. Scheurer suggests finding a mentor who’ll give up an hour or two of their time each month to talk business in return for lunch. “We used a family friend but there are online services that are often free and reliable – the Business Link website is a good place to start,” she says.

Most of all you need a business plan, some idea of where your income’s going to come from – and a fallback plan just in case. And you don’t have to take it from Scheurer. Simon Foxall of The Architects Practice has just written a book for the RIBA on the subject. He says: “Quite a lot of young practices work for other architects when they’re setting up; other people teach.”

You need to register your new status with the Inland Revenue within three months and keep careful accounts of all you spend as well as receipts. Most high street banks offer special advice packs for new companies.

To practise as an architect, you need to be qualified and registered with the Architects Registration Board. The ARB requires you to have insurance up to £250,000, so you’ll need to approach a broker – or preferably several, as quotes tend to vary. The good news is it’s not likely to cost you much. “When you’re starting, your risk levels are very low – usually you don’t get sued for a few years until you’ve built something and it starts leaking,” says Foxall. The RIBA can help you arrange low-cost insurance through its scheme for new practices, he adds.

Cross tucks into the food as Julian Hakes takes a call on his mobile.

Cross tucks into the food as Julian Hakes takes a call on his mobile.

Photo: Tim Foster

Now you’re ready to go into business, you have four options: you can set up as a sole trader, a partnership, a limited company or a limited liability partnership. Business Link or the DTI’s Small Business Service can help you choose which is best for you.

There are few rules governing sole traders and partnerships, although Foxall says it’s a good idea to draw up an agreement covering how you will work and share out profits. Limited companies are becoming more common in architecture – they limit your personal financial exposure, but you have to register with Companies House and send them your accounts every year for anyone to inspect on their website. LLPs are a cross between a partnership and a limited company – they are relatively new but proving popular. “It relates to the scale of your ambition,” says Foxall. “If you know you’re going to be running a large company in five years, it’s not a bad idea to set up as a limited company from day one.”

For the first six months, we dealt with all of our clients using the payphone on the wall, feeding in 10p piece after 10p piece

Julian Hakes, Hakes Associates

Although a moderate fee income will go a long way when you start out, especially if you work out of your home, don’t underestimate the cost of set-up expenses such as business cards, stationery and especially software.

Julian and Cari Hakes, who started Hakes Associates when they were both 24, struck an interest-free credit deal with computer supplier Dell. “You have to spend at least £10,000 or it’s not worth their while,” says Julian, now 33. “Software is a big investment – a licence costs £6000 initially and £1000 a yet to maintain. We made the mistake of leasing it for a while but the costs spiralled.”

Location, location, location

You’re going to need a base, even if it is the spare bedroom. For the first six months, Hakes Associates’ home was an empty room at a Cambridge hall of residence – the pair taught there after qualifying. “We dealt with all of our clients using the payphone on the wall,” laughs Julian.

It’s cynical but your address does matter.

“If you’re in the centre people will think you’re affluent and getting work,” says Porter. Cross’ business cards boast an office on London’s Harley Street, although he is quick to add that it isn’t as grand as it sounds. “It’s actually my old flat and it’s a windowless dungeon.”

Photo: Tim Foster
Photo: Tim Foster

So you’ve got a base and a business plan, but how do you go about actually winning work? According to RIBA president Jack Pringle, who set up his own practice when he was 29, it may not be as hard as you think. “For the first year, you’re in a honeymoon period when clients want to give new practices work, but after that you’re on your own,” he says. He also offers a familiar-sounding yet valuable bit of advice: “You have to develop a service culture: clients are right whether you think they are or not.”

The Hakes entered open competitions as students to build up their presentational skills and a portfolio – and ensure they had some form of income. “The clients and the panel were judging the ideas, not your reputation,” says Julian Hake. “Competitions give you the luxury of anonymity. Make the most of having nothing to lose.”

“You never know who’s going to call next,” says Cross. His practice has designed offices for film production companies and has several residential schemes in the pipeline, but last year it nearly ended up designing a karaoke parlour. “You don’t turn something like that down because it’s not what you do.”

Because however hard you’re working, it still has to be fun. “The first week after you start your new practice is probably the most exhilarating week of your life – it’s a bit like when you first drive a car,” says Pringle. “It’s not for everyone – you have to have nerves of steel – but if it’s for you, go for it.”