Memphis' next generation of architects make a place of their own

After working for some of Memphis’ largest firms, a new wave of young architects are making a name for themselves.

As the economy has strengthened, so has construction spending and lending, creating more work for architects in general, and more opportunities for young firms.

The latest American Institute of Architects (AIA) report shows the national billing index for U.S. architecture firms has shown gains for seven months straight, and the Southern region has experienced a steady monthly increase for six years now.

“During these robust times, young architects are more willing to take a chance on practicing for themselves,” said this year’s president of AIA Memphis, Brian Bullard, owner and principal at UrbanARCH Architects.

Like any entrepreneur, architects start their own firms to set their own hours and be their own boss, but it really comes down to being able to choose their own projects.

“When you work for someone else, you get relegated to certain tasks,” said Tim Michael, who cofounded Designshop with Scott Guidry in 2013. “I didn’t feel like we could really be intimately involved in projects. Now, we are involved from the initial client communication down to handing the keys over.”

Some architects, such as David Anderson, specialize in certain types of projects. After working with custom residential home designer Doug Enoch for 15 years, Anderson started his own, one-man, custom residential design shop in 2014: David Anderson Architect. Others, such as Designshop, like to pursue a mix of residential and commercial projects.

No longer associated with a major firm, new architectural startups have to figure out ways to attract clients, ranging from a strong personal brand to a thick Rolodex.

Anderson has actively built his brand on Instagram, with more than 4,000 people following his work, but other one-man shops, such as Warren Architecture, founded by Peter Warren in 2012, still has a website that is “coming soon” six years later.

“There’s a lot of trepidation to go out on your own, but it comes down to the individual and how involved they are in professional associations like AIA Memphis,” Warren said. “Since day one for me, I’ve been quite busy with project workload that marketing has been neglected. I just go from one project to the next. I’m busy. The larger point being: There’s a support network among architects and contractors, and an enormous amount [of work] comes from referrals and not marketing.”

Michael and Guidry have been in the Memphis market for decades. The two worked together at Archimania for 13 years before starting Designshop.

“While our firm is young, we are not,” Guidry said. “We worked 20-plus years at other firms. Through those 20-plus years, we built relationships we didn’t realize we were building.”

Designshop expected a slow start-up period when it first opened its doors in 2013, but instead, the phones started ringing immediately: “I heard you left to start your own thing. Do you need work? I’ve got this project … .” 

Their first project was a humble one — creating a little red barn based on a child’s drawing — that led to Designshop winning the Children’s Museum of Memphis’ Grand Carousel project.

“On paper, we were the least qualified firm, but the board saw our passion,” Guidry said.

Designshop pursued a local performing arts center project, but since the firm had not yet designed one, the client went with another firm.

“We’re willing to do the research to figure out what [the client needs] to know,” Michael said. “When we go after a school, because we haven’t done 15 schools, people think we can’t, but we are going to pour in the research it takes and give you a unique version of a school.”

The firm recently began work on its first school project, winning over the leadership at Parkway Village’s Mid-South Christian College by presenting a different take on a college administration building.

The school asked for traditional red brick with white columns and lots of windows, but the firm didn’t go that route. The result is a modern design with a front porch that encourages students to interact with the community and vice versa.

Due to improvements in education, training and design software, small firms can accomplish a tremendous amount of work. With the large firms in Memphis still thriving, as well, AIA’s Bullard said the cross section of firm types and sizes is evidence of Memphis’ robust design scene.

“The uptick in projects and the fact that small firms can keep up with larger demands has created a situation now where a client simply has more options to choose from,” Bullard said. “Given this increase in options, the client must carefully consider which firm or individual has the right talent and expertise to successfully accomplish their goals and to overcome the unique challenges of each specific project.”

While operating as a sole proprietor enables architects to be more nimble, it can also be lonely.

“Being in a creative field, I do miss the collaboration and bouncing ideas off of someone, but to see something from start to finish as your vision is rewarding, too,” Anderson said.

Eventually, Anderson plans to hire a few employees. Same for Warren.

“Working with colleagues ultimately yields better work,” Warren said. “It’s headed there; [it’s] just a question of when and how.”

The architecture industry uses the term backlog to describe work that’s committed but not yet executed. A large firm would need a backlog of decent-sized projects to make a hire, but Warren is pursuing a new model, in which he collaborates with other architects and designers on a project-by-project basis.

He recently partnered with Christopher Schmidt of CS Studio on The Pet Hospitals’ new location in Lakeland, in which Warren took the lead on the exterior and Schmidt did the interiors. 

“Throughout the history of firms here, there have been many splits, mergers, closings and startups,” Bullard said. “I believe the recent increase in new firms is simply a natural progression and seems to be as normal to our industry as it is in the medical or law professions.”

From managing day-to-day business operations to designing and documenting projects, any of these architects will tell you it’s a handful.

“Younger architects, what really sets us apart: The partners at our more established firms have adult children,” Warren said. “We have little kids. So, put all that together — trying to run a small business with little kids — it’s never a dull moment.”

But, plotting your own course may have rewards that outweigh the “handful” moments.

“You can operate under the radar and do your own thing,” Michael said. “There isn’t the unnecessary pressure of being something you may not need to be.”

 - by Michelle Corbet