Building A Foundation

Building A Foundation

It is often forgotten that the architect is responsible for more than just the way a project "looks." Therefore, it is wise to count the architect as a key decision maker, and important that you be on their radar whenever a job is on their boards that has need for your services.When it comes to the people who specify the products and services you sell, regardless of the type of installations you are involved in, any number of people or groups come to mind. Of course, there is the client, as in most cases they are the person or group that brought you in to bid in the first place. It's their building or venue, and at the end of the day they have to live with the installation after it is finished. In most cases you have to deal with a general or sub contractor, as they sometimes hold the key as to who gets the job in our part of the world. More often than not, depending on the scale and scope of the job, there may be a consultant of one sort of another or an acoustician or interior designer under whose jurisdiction your part of the job falls. In many cases there is an facilities director or plant manager, IT manager, video production director, music director, or some other department head within a large organization who feels they have the knowledge to specify part of the installation or perhaps they simply have budget approval. There may be a Board of Directors, Building Committee, City Council, or other group whose muster you must pass. And, from time to time there may even be the client's brother-in-law, cousin, next-door neighbor, or the client's significant other or children who merit input due to their status in the grand order of things.

One essential but frequently overlooked constant, particularly when the job is new construction or a major renovation, is the architect. While some approvals lie elsewhere, it is often forgotten that the architect is the central figure in a construction job, responsible for more than just the way a building or project "looks." If that were the case, the job could be done by anyone with artistic talent. An architect, however, is more than that, and is responsible for more than just making sure the building looks pretty. In case you may have forgotten, architects bear the ultimate responsibility for the safety of the building and those who use it. That includes more than just the structural integrity, but life safety systems, adherence to building codes, compliance with ADA requirements, and much more. While some work may be farmed out to specialists, at the end of the day it is the architect who stamps the plans and carries the responsibility for the building.

Bearing that in mind, it is surprising that all too many systems contracting firms are unaware of the architect in their sales planning. This is the person or firm that specifies the total design and most, if not all building systems. With that comes the power to call for anything ranging from speakers and video displays to life safety systems. Furthermore, architects determine the way data, audio and video are physically accessed within a space-in equipment closets and beyond.

Looking at that, it is wise to count the architect as a key decision maker. If that is the case (and it is), how, you may ask, do you court architects and architectural firms so that whenever a job is on their boards that has need for your services, your company is the one the call first? As with any group or profession, architects are not a monolithic group, and given that creative talent is at the core of their craft you will likely find as wide a variety among their styles of doing business as you will in the design of their buildings.

Find The Focus
For example, as with other professionals, there are large architectural firms, local medium sized firms, small office groups and sole practitioners. It is all too easy to presume that a firm's size determines the scope of their jobs, but that is not the case. It is not uncommon for a three to five person office to handle large commercial, health care or lodging industry jobs, either as the main architect of record or as a specialist assisting with a key part of a larger project. Indeed, while many architects have a general practice, some specialize in specific project types, such as houses of worship, retail, residential (large scale multiple dwelling units or smaller single family custom or production housing), educational, health-care, lodging, and even theaters, arenas, and other entertainment venues. If your business has a special focus, look to the general architectural community and seek out firms whose projects match your own specialty.

A first step should be to contact your local chapters of the American Institute of Architects, the AIA. While not all architects are AIA members, most large firms include AIA member architects and many sole practitioners and small firms are also comprised of AIA members. The AIA is a national organization with over 80,000 members, headquartered in Washington, D.C., and this year it is celebrating its 150th Anniversary. Beyond that, there are local components in all 50 states, which, in turn, are further subdivided into local chapters throughout all but the smallest states. This is worth noting, for as you target your activities on architects through activities associated with, or sponsored by an AIA chapter, it is important that you do a little ground work first (see "Chapter One" sidebar).

Involve Your Vendors
Don't be afraid to involve your vendors and the information you have from them, particularly if it is in an area where up-to-date knowledge may be hard for those not in our field to come by. (Though, again, be very careful not to let the presentation become too much of a commercial!) If something such as a pair of speakers or an iPod dock also finds its way into meeting as a door prize, that couldn't hurt either.

Looking further, the information you receive from your vendors to effectively run your own business can, by extension, help you win business controlled or originated by architects. While all firms have some library of product data, unless they are involved on a regular basis with audio/video/data distribution or display and the other trade areas you work in, and these days everyone has access to internet data, your greater detail of product knowledge can be of great help in assisting an architect with specifying, for example, the proper screen size and type for a large venue display and the projector to go with it. Vigilant to balancing that fine line between helping someone who can bring you business and giving away too much for free, find a way to use your knowledge and the information you have to provide specification data that might be common to you but obscure to the architect. After all, if the copy of a cut sheet you send someone is for a product that you are the prime local supplier of, what's wrong with that if it is right product for the job?

Show It Off
Another interesting way to get the attention of local architects might pop up from time to time when you are involved in a truly unique project that is likely to be of interest to the architectural community. We're not talking about your everyday installation here, but something that is typically in a building that is new or which has undergone major renovation. The guiding factor here is that if it is significant enough to otherwise get attention in the local newspapers or media, you could be on to something. With the cooperation of the main contractor, who probably shares your interest in getting the attention of the local architects, and of course, the building owner, consider arranging a tour of the building as a meeting for the local AIA chapter.

Along the way you'll get to point out the features and systems you were involved with, and it certainly wouldn't be out of line to hand out business cards. Although it is clearly more in the category of a "once in a lifetime" project, I was able to get a tour of the Hollywood Bowl a week before its re-opening after a complete re-building a few years ago that was conducted by an AIA Chapter. As you might expect, I had many questions about the sound system both on-stage and in the Bowl, itself. However, the architects in attendance did as well, peppering the representative from the company responsible for the front-of-house line array with a wide variety of questions about what he did, how he did it and which components were used. It's hard to say if that ever resulted in any new business, but association with that type of high-profile project certainly made an impression on the attendees for both the products and the people and company that provided them.

Keep It Simple
If all of this sounds too daunting, there is nothing wrong with a lower level form of promotion. Mailing lists of architectural firms are available for purchase, and there is nothing wrong with starting your outreach by preparing a simple and to the point brochure that introduces your company and its services. Nothing wrong with that, but it clearly lacks the personal touch so important in business relationships. Remember that in many cases what we do as electronic systems contractors may be as mysterious a craft to architects as the totality of their involvement with building projects is to some of us. Going a bit out of your way to create a plan for reaching out to the architects in your business area, and perhaps even beyond can yield great dividends. Build the relationships, and the partnerships that result in building the structures will follow.

As a special closing note, it's not only contractors who need the help of architects. Our thanks to Leslie A. Nathan, AIA, Executive Director of the San Fernando Valley Chapter of the AIA for her assistance in the preparation of this article.

  • According to the American Institute of Architects (AIA), architecture firms employ approximately 190,000 people in the U.S. Employees at architecture firms break down accordingly:
  • 35% of employees are licensed architects
  • 10% of employees are intern architects
  • 12% of employees are nonregistered architecture designers
  • 4% of employees are architecture students
  • 15% of employees are other design professionals (engineers, landscape architects, interior designers, etc.)
  • 18% of employees are technical and non-technical staff (marketing, human resources, accounting, administration, MIS/IT, etc.