Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of survivor stories as told by the survivors themselves. These brave builders and designers will share their stories of struggle and ultimately survival, as a method of therapy for them and to let their peers know they’re not alone in their challenges.
I started my firm back in 1980, when mortgage rates were in the double digits and architects weren’t hiring. I was young, enthusiastic and ready to conquer the world. My story is probably similar to principals of other small, residential architectural firms.
I started a firm focused on energy-efficient solar design. As interest in solar work faded, our work became more conventional and had steadily grown in size and reputation. I enjoyed my work, our office staff and clients. I felt I would gradually reduce my role in the firm as I reached retirement age, although I always insisted I would work until I was 80 as long as I still enjoyed it.
In 2007, Styczynski Walker & Associates, our architectural firm, was starting to feel a slowdown. We felt the firm was well poised to survive a slowdown with a diversified mix of clients and projects, including custom single-family homes, additions, renovations, commercial projects and a design/build program which was just starting to gain traction. Having survived multiple recessions starting from the early ’80s, we were prepared for a slowdown but never expected the drop off the cliff we were about to experience.
At the time, we had 10 to 12 employees, a nice 3,600-sq.-ft. office in Chicago’s western suburbs, and a track record of steady growth over almost 30 years. Personally, I had learned to delegate responsibility, allowed several staff architects to control their own projects, developed numerous quality control systems and worked at broadening our client base. The most ambitious project was to build a home for my family that was also part of a luxury home tour and would be utilized to promote our design/build capabilities.
As many in the industry know, the collapse of the housing and financial markets devastated the residential market. As it all unfolded, I felt I was in an uncontrollable free fall. By the time things bottomed out, we were at about 20 percent of the income levels we had before the crash. Privately funded projects disappeared, accounts receivable became uncollectable, we couldn’t afford to pay the office rent, and I had to lay off much of my staff for the first time. I have always thought of my office staff as family and I can vividly recall many sleepless nights, staring out in the darkness trying to figure out what to do.
I made many mistakes — using all of my retirement money to help fund the firm and keep the office operational. The emotional attachment to the firm clouded my business judgment. The best advice I was given after the fact was whatever happened in the past was history and I needed to look forward toward the future.
By June of 2009, I had reduced our staff to four individuals in addition to myself. Everyone agreed to work reduced hours and agreed it was better than being unemployed. We set up an office in my home, utilizing a garage area where I used to keep a couple race cars. My hobby and passion for racing cars was put on hold. My wife returned to work to help make ends meet, and her long-arm quilting room was converted to our conference room. Our home now felt more like a bed and breakfast than a private residence, but again, my staff was like family and we needed to cut costs and adapt to survive.
Focus on positivity
The market had definitely changed. It felt as if our architectural services had become a commodity. Fees were severely undercut; we took on a multitude of smaller projects to survive and were fortunate to have a few new homes, additions and commercial projects. During the lulls, we used the time to develop new marketing materials and looked at new ways to gain enough market share to meet our financial goals. Although to be honest, budgets and the business plan had to be adjusted on a monthly basis. At times I felt I should just shut down the firm and drive a bus for a living.