Being an architect no longer means a fixed workstation, face to face meetings and site visits. Online collaboration makes working remotely easier than ever. I am the co-founder of Cunningham Heavin Architect’s, a start-up practice based in the UK and the Republic of Ireland and well, wherever I am.
My five tips for working remotely as an architect would not be possible without a lot of preparation. Having Professional Indemnity and Public Liability insurance in place, registering the company, obtaining a physical address or Post Box, setting up a bank account and ensuring all the necessary QA processes are in place to work remotely is critical.
Here are my top 5 tips that made this model of remote working over the past year a success.
1. Finding Work
Client choice is important and having the right contacts is even more important. My London clients have similar design aspirations to our practice's approach and our design meetings through Skype for Business was no obstacle. Before you go, Network! I found the client for Keith Grove over a Friday evening cocktail in East London.
My business partner is based in Ireland which allows us to be diverse and obtain clients and new jobs in a traditional manner. She deals with the face the face meetings while I do concept, planning and tender drawings for these projects in the background. If you are lucky enough to have a like-minded business partner that is up for you taking off around the world, I recommend this option. It allows you to diversify in location and project type, which we hope will help us through economic uncertainty in the long term.
Meeting young like-minded English speaking business owners is important. Get to know the people around you, especially those who don’t see digital and remote collaboration as a barrier to a successful project. I met one of my clients from an Air BnB encounter. We stayed in an apartment in Ho Chi Minh City for a couple of months and made new business this way. You can see the concept design for the roof-top bar here on our website.
Contacts are not the only way to win work. Archdaily, Architect's Journal, Architectural Review, RIBA Competitions, and many others are great ways to source open call competitions for interesting work. Chose wisely. I continually refer to RIBA Starting a Practice for advice on all aspects of winning work.
2. Location is Critical
In the past year, I have spent 6 months in Vietnam, 1 month in Cambodia, 4 days in London, 2 weeks in Ireland, 6 days in South Korea and 7 weeks in Japan. I am currently on a flight from Sapporo to Bangkok to spend 1 month in Laos and 1 month in Thailand.
For me, Vietnam was the ideal location for a start-up business. Cost of living is low so the pressure to win work to cover overheads and salary is less critical. You can choose work you are interested in, instead of work just to pay the bills. Japan was a bit more complicated as 4g for tourists wasn’t readily available and pocket wifi was very expensive. Remote working in Cafe’s is less common so it was difficult to find a suitable cafe with power for my laptop. Japan is much more expensive than Vietnam or Cambodia so we needed to be more creative about how to save our money while seeing everything we wanted to see.
Before I departed, I did research into apps, software, hardware and 4g data sim cards that would make working remotely easier.
My One Plus 5 dual sim smartphone is my office on the move. The camera is fantastic quality, it allows me to have a hotspot for my laptop, check emails, use video calling and speak to my business partner and clients in the UK and Ireland
Having data wherever you are, allows you to work when and where you need. You can pick up lightening fast 4g data for under 5 USD a month in Cambodia and Vietnam. I had to be more organised before long train and bus trips in Japan as pocket wifi was expensive and public wifi couldn’t always be relied on. Downloading all the necessary cad files and documents before you go is a must.
Office 365 Business Premium proved the best option for us. The Outlook and One Drive Package is an affordable and essential part of running an architecture practice from the cloud. It is accessible online and has the necessary apps for my phone to allow me to access files and emails from wherever I am.
Skype for Business and, more importantly the screen sharing option is critical to successful collaboration with clients.
A printer and scanner take up a lot of space in your backpack so I downloaded the free Evernote App to scan and document my sketches and diagrams. It is a fast way to pull together a design proposal on the move.
Our budget for software is limited so Revit will have to wait. We use SketchUp, because it is free and easy, AutoCAD LT and the Adobe suite have monthly subscription options but an annual commitment tends to get you a discount. Finally, don’t forget to pack your roll of sketch paper.
4. Be flexible and Be Transparent
You are working across time zones so flexibility is the key. You might not always work 9-5 but two hours lunch breaks, relaxed morning coffees, long weekends and working when and where you want compensates. Be flexible to your client's needs. You might have to have meetings on Saturdays and Sundays but days off during the week compensates. I made my clients aware of my intentions to work on the move. Transparency is critical to keeping your clients happy.
5. Your Office is Everywhere
Coffee shops, buses, bullet trains, sleeper trains, planes, cabins in the jungle. You can work anywhere. I completed a planning application on a 12-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur to London. I built our website using SquareSpace in a mountain cabin on Kyushu in Southern Japan. I drafted an outline specification for tender on an 8-hour bullet train from Tokyo to Hokkaido. It is possible to work wherever you are with a bit of preparation.
Prior planning and having enough money to see you through the peaks and troughs of income is important. If you chose your country wisely, the cost of living is less important. If you have always wanted to go to more expensive designations like Japan, Australia or New Zealand, consider a work away programme like WWOOF. We spent three weeks on a rice farm in Southern Japan and two weeks on a glamping site in Hokkaido, working 4 hours a day for food and accommodation, allowing me plenty of time to run my business.
These five tips on working remotely were critical to my success so far. None of this is possible without prior planning and preparation along the way. Be prepared to get it wrong. Be prepared to fail sometimes. It challenged the way in which I work and allowed to me to realise that working in a fixed location is no longer always necessary.