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Building Community Matters: A Young Architect Reflects on the Risks + Rewards of Starting His Own Firm

Why Building Your Community is Essential For Starting Your Own Firm

By Beau Frail, AIA, RID, NCARB

Editor’s Note:

Beau Frail, AIA, RID, NCARB is the Principal Architect of Activate Architecture, a design firm based in Austin, TX, that collaborates with communities, cities and clients to create socially engaged, sustainable and beautiful spaces. Beau has managed multiple complex adaptive-reuse projects in downtown urban cores, led public interest design charrettes and developed outreach programs with cities promoting affordable housing. Beau served on the Texas Society of Architects’ Board of Directors and on the AIA National Associates Committee as the Regional Associate Director for Texas. Beau’s civic engagement includes serving as a Design Commissioner at the City of Austin and as a founding member of the Open Architecture Collaborative Austin chapter. Beau was honored with the 2016 Associates Award from the American Institute of Architects and the 2018 AIA Austin Honor Award for Community Service. In his own words, here’s his reflection on making the leap to starting his own firm. 

When I decided to start my own architecture firm a couple years ago, there were many unknowns that made the path forward seem daunting and anxiety-inducing. How would I land my first projects? How would I write profitable contracts and bill my yet-to-be clients? Despite the risks and unknowns, I knew I wanted to begin a new venture to create a firm that better aligned with my values and to work on more social impact design projects. Looking back over the past two years since starting Activate Architecture, I’ve come to realize how important my professional community has been and continues to be to the success of my practice. 

Austin Outpost winning design “Dynamic Paths” by James Garza and Rick Sanchez.

Austin Outpost winning design “Dynamic Paths” by James Garza and Rick Sanchez.

Building Your Community: Laying the foundation for starting your firm

For me, networking is less about making as many connections as possible and more about building my community by creating and sustaining professional relationships that are mutually beneficial, based on a shared experience or passion, and can contribute to my personal growth throughout my career. I am intentional about where I invest my time and choose organizations and events that align with my values and career goals. While working at other firms, I focused on gaining leadership experience through managing projects and taking on other responsibilities like organizing the materials library and scheduling lunch-and-learns, which vastly grew my knowledge of product reps and consultants.

Volunteering at Community First! Village to build micro-homes for the homeless. (Photo by Jessica Mims)

Volunteering at Community First! Village to build micro-homes for the homeless. (Photo by Jessica Mims)

Volunteering was a great way to build leadership skills in areas of interest that the firms I worked for didn’t offer. I am passionate about social impact design, which is why I joined and eventually chaired the DesignVoice committee at AIA Austin, which leads community engagement and outreach efforts. The projects I helped lead through Design Voice, like the Tiny Victories competition that provided micro-home designs for the homeless at Community First! Village, contributed to growing my skills in social impact design. My work with Community First has led to more opportunities, such as designing an accessible micro-home with other volunteers from Open Architecture Collaborative.

Community First! Village Micro-Home (Rendering by Open Architecture Austin and Audrey Vilain)

Community First! Village Micro-Home (Rendering by Open Architecture Austin and Audrey Vilain)

Volunteering has also been an instrumental platform to help kick-start my firm: the first project referrals I received actually came from colleagues I volunteered with. I also serve on the City of Austin Design Commission, which I can thank in part to volunteering for an event with the future Chief of Staff for one of Austin’s City Council members. 

This installation was setup during SXSW Eco and was a collaborative project that led to future opportunities.

This installation was setup during SXSW Eco and was a collaborative project that led to future opportunities.

Leveraging Your Community: It takes a village to start a firm

The road that leads to running your own firm can seem a steep and lonely hill at times. I relied on close friends and colleagues who had started their firms within the last five years for guidance and advice. Having lunch with colleagues, posting questions to the AIA Small Firms Roundtable and EntreArchitect Facebook groups, and reaching out to my fellow entrepreneur friends all helped inform the daily decisions that set the groundwork for establishing my own practice. Of course, getting my license was a critical milestone and building up at least a few months worth of savings also set me up for a smoother transition.

Pulse ideas generator by Activate Architecture (Courtesy of Beau Frail).

Pulse ideas generator by Activate Architecture (Courtesy of Beau Frail).

Pulse ideas generator by Activate Architecture (Courtesy of Beau Frail).

Pulse ideas generator by Activate Architecture (Courtesy of Beau Frail).

My business plan is relatively simple: be flexible yet firm. I am flexible in the type of work and scale of projects that I take on, yet I am firm in communicating my value as an architect and requiring compensation accordingly. Early last year I reconnected with an architect in Florida who I previously interned with, which developed into a mutually beneficial contract position helping her firm on new projects. I kept my schedule flexible so I could travel to Florida every other month to spend time in her office while I worked on developing my own projects in Texas. Having a stable source of income during a time of transition is very helpful—whether that’s a teaching position, contract work, or renting out your place on Airbnb. These opportunities provide the stability that allow you to continue to pursue your major career goals. I also believe sustaining connections with mentors and colleagues is an investment in your community and future successful collaborations. I also continue to intentionally expand my network to include professionals outside of architecture, which can lead to unique opportunities for a growing business.

Making an Impact Through Your Community

It’s also important for me to seek out leadership development in social impact design, including applying for the Association for Community Design Fellowship and the AIA Design Justice Summit, since I want my practice to include this type of work. While it’s necessary to focus on work that pays the bills, and securing paying community projects can be challenging, I’ve found that if a project seems inspiring and exciting to work on, it’s imperative to make time for it. I use the strategy of collaborating with other designers on pro-bono projects to make those commitments more manageable for our team and less taxing on our donated time. I also limit the amount of pro-bono or low-fee work I take on at one time, so I can give my best to nonprofit clients while also meeting my financial needs. Just one well-served project and client, including pro-bono and small commissions, can expand into multiple future opportunities and grow immeasurably beyond its initial impact. 

Attending the AIA Design Justice Summit in New Orleans. (Photo by Michael Mantese)

Attending the AIA Design Justice Summit in New Orleans. (Photo by Michael Mantese)

A recent social impact design collaboration I’ve helped lead is the Austin Outpost design competition, which is creating a pop-up LGBTQIA+ Community Center in Austin. Partnering with the non-profit QWELL Community Foundation and a group of volunteer organizers, we hosted a design charrette, which ultimately developed five unique designs. Attending the AIA Design Justice Summit last year offered the opportunity to secure grant funding for the design competition, further illustrating how important investing in your passions and building your community can be. 

This installation was setup during SXSW Eco and was a collaborative project that led to future opportunities

This installation was setup during SXSW Eco and was a collaborative project that led to future opportunities.

Building a network of supportive colleagues, mentors, and collaborators is the best investment I’ve made in my career. Seeking out these networks and spaces to have honest dialogues with peers has been vital to the success of my growing practice. I’ve found opportunities for this from volunteering with AIA committees and attending events such as the Young Architect Advocates Symposium organized by Hunter Douglas Architectural at the 2018 AIA Conference. At this symposium, I connected with other young leaders who inspired me and challenged me to further advance my goals in social impact design. 

Having access to professional relationships that can be leveraged for my career development has been a rewarding outcome to building my community. Sustaining and leveraging a network helps more than myself—as these relationships are mutually beneficial and the impact we will have in our communities is magnified beyond what we could accomplish alone. I value building community as the keystone to my career as I’ve found that these connections lay the foundation for my personal growth, project opportunities, and strengthened community bonds. When we collectively build our communities, everyone sees the benefits.

Beau Frail, Principal Architect of Activate Architecture, speaking at AIA Grassroots. (Photo by Sam Kittner)

Beau Frail, Principal Architect of Activate Architecture, speaking at AIA Grassroots. (Photo by Sam Kittner)

Check out other features by young architect advocates, selected for a roundtable hosted by Hunter Architectural: explore architect Stephen Parker’s journey from student leader to design advocate, and read about women in design and construction, from Zhanina Boyadzhieva and Juliet Chun, co-founders of the Girl UNinterrupted Project.

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