Residential Architect: breaking the circle

02
Nov
2004

Residential Architect: breaking the circle

how do you say goodbye to a partnership and reinvent a practice?

Life is short, people sometimes say, to convey the idea that you should do what makes you happy. But now that we’re living longer and retiring later, the opposite is also true, though the meaning is essentially the same: Life is long, so look ahead and pace yourself. Rather than being too single-minded about it, there’s probably time to test out new ideas, dreams, and directions. Or, as T.S. Eliot poetically put it, “there may be time for a hundred visions and revisions before the taking of a toast and tea.”

That’s more or less what Christopher Hays, AIA, was thinking a year ago, when he left a satisfying partnership at William McDonough & Partners, Charlottesville, Va., to do something he’d dreamed of since he was in seventh grade: head up his own architecture practice. “Architecture is a long, slow profession,” he says. “It’s easy to get on a track that may be interesting and exciting, but how that relates to a long-term vision is something that’s important to continue to gauge against. Life is long, and there’s opportunity for many kinds of professional experience.”

That sentiment is very 21st century. This is not our parents’ workplace, where management-level employees strove for tenure or partner status and then toiled away until they retired, out of loyalty or for fear of starting over. Today, many architects who are part of a firm’s inner circle eventually reach a personal turning point and decide to move on. There may be personality conflicts with the other principals; perhaps they want a different kind of practice or a different focus, or they’re simply relocating to another part of the country. Regardless of the reasons, starting over is a journey that’s exhilarating in its freedom yet is logistically akin to a divorce—sometimes psychologically, too. So how do architects extricate themselves from the tentacles of a firm and go on to invent a new professional life?

With partner-level turnover increasingly common, smart firms have devised exit agreements that make things easier for everyone. Spelling out issues such as the formula for cashing out of a firm and the rules governing competition for clients and employees can minimize 11th-hour lawyering, which threatens to sour relationships. Even so, those contracts are rarely written with the best interests of the departing partner in mind. “Everybody signs one, not because you think you’re going to leave, but because you want to keep the other partners from leaving,” says attorney Paul Lurie, of Schiff Hardin, in Chicago. “They get signed for good business reasons, but you still need to look at the implications of the restrictions and negotiate the terms when the time comes.”

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