Practice Management Q+A With Cathi Colla

What systems do you use and would recommend for day-to-day administration of your practice?

Our practice philosophy for any system/ software is to apply the KISS principle (keep it simple, stupid). Any new system/strategy should be questioned before adopting – will it achieve what we need.  Is it specific to the task? Is it simple to implement?

The administration of the studio is based on the principles of file management, systems and processes learnt whilst working in larger practices much earlier in my career. Fundamentally this comes down to logical, highly organised, documented, and searchable file storage to ensure ready access for future reference.

Our everyday architect’s tool of choice is Archicad for design, drafting and documentation. After already having used AutoCAD, Microstation, then MiniCad, Archicad was adopted on instigation of the practice as the software promised to allow for block modelling of site and context (as a means of analysis) at the beginning of a project, subsequently leading into design response through analysis and form making and testing. The bonus of this software currently is that it has developed into more sophisticated presentation outcomes as well as efficient documentation.

To schedule our time we use Merlin and for time recording we use 1time. We use Word and Excel for most other documents, including letters and invoicing. More recently we’ve taken to WordPress, Mailchimp and Hootsuite for our online presence and marketing collateral.

What do you now know about running a small business that you wish you had known when you were starting out?

I started the practice in response to having being burned out from working for two consecutive busy practices (one – a single large project for three intense years; the next – working on multiple projects on any single day).

There had to be a better way to practice architecture, be creative – and have a life!

  1. Being a business owner enables you set your own pace and your own agenda – be that a prolific creator, industry contributor, or enabling you to practice architecture whilst being the primary carer of a young family.
  2. You add the value to each project – and experience the highs and lows of every commission, client, and planning application – it all comes down to you and your experience. The value to your client comes from your leadership, your passion, your team and your diligence.
  3. Nurture your network and surround yourself with like minded people that share your passion and understanding for building a business. Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions of your peers, friends and family who run a small business. Share your stories and challenges.
  4. Each project will be better than the last.
  5. Each project will have different challenges and rewards.
  6. Be confident – architects are great at understanding the big picture.

What are your top three tips for running a successful small practice?

  1. Get organised – both in the studio, and at home. Being organised provides greater efficiencies and fewer stresses.
  2. Get fit and find a passion besides your work. Once my kids were old enough I took up cycling more regularly (often cycling over 150 km/ week). Being fit focuses the mind and your efforts AND I’ve met some amazing people outside of my usual circle of buddies.
  3. Don’t do it alone. Recently I was in an accident and broke my arm. This made me quickly realise how vulnerable we are as small business owners. Without a functioning arm it is difficult to function – to drive, to compute (drafting, administration, billing), or even speak on the phone (whilst taking notes). Build your tribe and your network. Do the ‘bus test’ – if you were disabled (or worse) what would happen to your practice, and/or who could fill your shoes whilst you recover?

(4.) And a bonus tip – Look beyond the realms of architecture practice. Whilst it’s great to understand how other architects obtain work, keep clients happy, and get wonderful projects built, architects are often insular with where they seek business acumen. Look to, speak with, and read about other professions and industries to improve the way we can run a business to be more efficient, better managed, and ultimately more effective with the way we provide professional services for our clients – and nurture our industry.

Tell us a little bit about your practice

Cathi Colla Architects is a purposely small, client focused, architectural practice.

The practice began during a fantastically inspiring, creative and experimental period of full time study (fine art), whilst teaching at both RMIT and Melbourne Universities. During this period we employed a student part-time, with a typical commission being a schematic design for alterations and additions to an existing home.

The practice really took off with a commercial project offered to me a month after my second child was born. Thanks to my husband taking some long service leave I was able to embrace the challenge of balancing a gutsy project whilst maintaining domestic bliss.

Today Cathi Colla Architects continues to focus on residential architecture. We prefer to provide full architectural services for each commission, and ideally have only three projects active at any given time. All to ensure we have the time, the energy and the passion for each client’s project.

Learn more Cathi’s practice by visiting her website: