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Getting Freelance Work as an Architect

When seeing the word, “freelance,” another term comes to mind - “side hustle.” It’s the buzzword of the decade, and for good reason. The rewards born out of freelance work are plentiful, especially for architects. Pursuing these opportunities could jumpstart a new business venture, flex a muscle you normally don’t in your traditional 9-5, or provide extra income to pad your bank account. We’re mapping out a guide on how to get freelance work as an architect, so it adds more value to your life, personally and professionally, without overextending yourself. 

Our Black Spectacles Resident Architect, Chris Hopstock, who started out as a freelancer for us by the way, provides some enthusiastic insights into the benefits of freelancing.

“It's a great way to gain broader experience - on a freelancing project, you'll have to work out a contract, handle billing, interact with your client, and deal with all of the management activities that are typically left to more experienced architects at firms. It can seem daunting at first, but it's a great way to gain management experience, which will definitely help your career trajectory and may even provide some valuable experience for taking the ARE.” He said. 

There are a lot of pros to taking on freelance work as an architect, so let’s extrapolate on each of them:

  • Income. You can take on outside projects in addition to your full-time job for extra cash, seek out these freelance jobs to fill a gap while you’re between positions, or piece together multiple jobs to create a substantive salary. ZipRecruiter states the current national average for Freelance Architects is $62,975, with some making upwards of $109,500.
  • Experience. Are you getting put on the same types of projects within your firm, but want to explore other avenues? Find some freelance postings that allow you to spread your wings and add new skillsets to your portfolio. In a 2020 Black Spectacles Report, How Architects Thrive in an Uncertain Job Market, we had architects discuss varying project types and what to look out for to build your resume while maximizing your pay. Hopstock said, “For me personally, I was working solely on large-scale, luxury residential projects at my day job, so I really enjoyed freelancing on single-family homes and renovation projects as a change of pace.”
  • Flexibility. Let’s say you take the route of building a full-time career with freelance projects. As your own boss, you have much more autonomy than working at a firm. This gives you freedom with your schedule, design choices, and communication styles with your clients. 
  • Contacts. Taking on a host of designs will increase your contact list, which is an invaluable addition to your network, whether you’ll need a new job in the future, want to amass a loyal client base to start your own venture, or desire to build partnerships in the future. You know what they say, it’s not what you know, it’s whom you know. Again, Hopstock cosigns this idea of freelance work being a jumping-off point for your own firm, “Finally, if you feel stuck in your current job or role, it's a really empowering experience to find work for yourself and be your own boss, even if it's just after hours. Maybe it will lead to the start of a small firm!”

You’re convinced, the allure of an added personal revenue stream has you on “team freelance.” What do you do next? You discover the best freelance jobs out there, and this is how you do it:

  • Job boards. Because Black Spectacles sees the need to create more networks and opportunities for architects, we’re launching the professional network for architects and firms, called Spectacular. Our job board will be launching later this year, so stay tuned! Other online job boards like Upwork and Freelancer give you an opportunity to discover and be discovered. Additionally, make sure your LinkedIn profile includes the title “Freelance Architect” so when others are filtering for that, your profile populates. In addition to job boards, Hopstock suggests establishing a google business account, “I found most of my freelance work on Upwork. I also have a google business account, so when people search 'architect' in my area I am the number one page they'll see. It helps that I am in a rural area with no other architects nearby!” 
  • Network. Ask around (ethically)! Don’t poach existing clients from your current job, or compromise relationships with your employer or colleagues. Use your personal and professional network to see if people are in need of residential projects, help with outside work, etc. In a recent ARE Live on Practice Management, Mike Newman reviews how to gracefully start accruing clients for your own business, again, ethically. 
  • Think outside the box. Freelance projects aren’t all, “Make a mother-in-law suite in my basement.” There is a job market that requires the skills of architects that are not design-focused. *hand-raise* Black Spectacles has world-class architects leading our educational content because we know the importance of investing in experts in the field (like Chris Hopstock). Meet our team of Virtual Workshop Instructors. If you’re interested in joining this team or pursuing other freelance work with Black Spectacles, apply!

Your irons are in the fire, you’ve put out the feelers with your friends, family, and colleagues, and posted your spruced-up portfolio to job sites to let people admire your work and hire you. But, working without the protection of a firm can be scary; how do you cover your own, ahem, you know?

  • Determine your rate. Like anything else, look for comps on the market. See what other architects with your expertise are demanding, and assess what style of projects you want to attract and their market value. Whatever you do, do not sell yourself short. 
  • Know what you can give. If you’re working full time for a firm already, don’t overextend yourself so that any or all of your work suffers. Aside from the productivity loss, personal wellbeing is paramount, and feeling overwhelmed because you elected to take on more is a tough pill to swallow. Hopstock agrees, “Time management can certainly be challenging when freelancing with a 'day job'. It's important not to take on more work than you can handle. You should also be upfront with clients that this is a side-gig and that you may only be available during the day while you're on a lunch break.”
  • Sign a contract. There are plenty of resources readily available through the AIA or your local AIA Chapter with regard to legal tips and advice. 
  • Do not give work away. Adhere to the terms and conditions of your signed contract with your client, and do not hand over your drawings and renderings until you have been paid. 
  • Do you keep it secret? Hopstock has a unique and valued perspective on disclosing to your employer that you’re working on a side hustle. “I'd say this depends on the situation between you and your employer - different employers have differing attitudes towards their employees freelancing. Some employers realize that it's a great way for their employees to gain extra experience, while others can view it as a threat to their employee's level of engagement in their work at their day job. I'd say to feel the situation out and be sure to check your employee manual for any guidelines.”

Increased freelance work for an architect is an empowering development in our job market. Many people see freelancers as creating their own hours, less disciplined than a more structured work schedule. We’re here to eradicate that stigma - work is work and experience is experience. Use the resources and tips we’ve outlined, heed the advice of our Black Spectacles Internal Architect and you’ll be well on the way to increased autonomy, a healthy bank account, and an expanding skillset.