AIA New Jersey’s Suzanne Sowinski, AIA, Addresses the Largest Sustainability Challenge in the Architectural Profession

March 29, 2019

AIA New Jersey’s Suzanne Sowinski, AIA, Addresses the Largest Sustainability Challenge in the Architectural Profession

 

 

 

I am the president of a fifty-plus person architecture/engineering (big A/little E) firm based in New Jersey, with two offices in Pennsylvania. Over the years, I’ve overcome many challenges, a significant one being a female in a male-dominated industry. However, my biggest challenge has been designing and maintaining a consistently profitable business.

I founded Sowinski Sullivan in 1996. From almost day one I have worn many hats, doing many things that I did not want to do or did not know how to do. I learned very early on that architecture is a business. And in order for our doors to stay open, I needed to put at least as much effort into the business side of this endeavor as the design side. Regardless of how much work you have or how many awards you receive, if you cannot manage the business—and make a profit—you can’t be successful or sustainable. And when your profit grows, it can be shared with staff to improve their quality of life in and out of the office.

To some, internal operations might seem like a waste of time and a distraction from what architecture is all about. In the twenty-five years, I have been in the profession, my love for architecture has grown from the beauty, functionality, and details to also include the business of architecture. The two together form a mutually dependent critical union.

As I have led the firm to improve the operational side of the business, the key, I found, is to tackle one problem at a time and to make one refinement at a time. A simple problem like staff not inputting their hours in their timesheet might not seem like a big deal, but if you can’t send out an invoice because you don’t have timesheets, you can’t get paid. 

Each small improvement we have implemented to our processes and procedures has enhanced the operational side of the business, which in turn, has improved our design process. For instance, a few years ago we began holding an internal kickoff meeting at the start of each new job. Having the project team in one room reviewing the schedule and project scope, determining the software and specifications requirements, identifying external team members and contacts, and making sure the contract has been signed ensures that the necessary information is gathered, the administrative details are in place, and staff understands what is expected of them. The kickoff meeting has improved operations, for example, by making billing easier and improving file management. It has also benefited our design process and outcomes. During the meeting, we review the mistakes and missed opportunities from prior projects to anticipate and avoid potential pitfalls.

Despite the need to develop and embrace my business focus, I have not lost my connection to the design side of architecture. I make a concerted effort to stay involved in the firm’s projects to keep my creative side alive. At this point, I am more of a design critic to staff while also making sure they have a signed contract!

The sustainability of your business is just as important as the sustainability of our planet. Both are a strong passion of mine that I work at each day.

 

—Suzanne Sowinski, AIA, LEED AP, GGP, ENV SP

President and Director of Sustainable Building for Sowinski Sullivan

 

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