An Opinion Piece On Ownership Transition

June 29, 2020

An Opinion Piece On Ownership Transition 

by Joel Ives, AIA

Reprint from the Architects League of Northern New Jersey LEAGUELINE 

When I was asked to write an article about ownership transition and/or retirement, I first thought that Leagueline had asked the wrong person, even though my New Jersey architectural license is dated October 1972.

I guess I subscribe to the Gilbert Seltzer School of architectural practice! In case you don’t know, Gil, at age 105, had an office in West Orange, N.J. and is probably the oldest practicing architect in the country.  I worked with Gil in the late 1960s while I was employed by the U.S. Corps of Engineers and Gil was an architectural consultant.

It’s hard to summarize this topic in a few words but, my observation is that architectural firms, often with talented charismatic principals, appear on the scene with outstanding buildings, and gain success in our difficult profession but, at some point in time, there is always a choice for the organization to fade away or, to evolve.

Early in my career, I worked for Emory Roth & Sons, one of the largest architectural firms in NYC at the time; they no longer exist!   I also worked for Smith Smith Haines Lundberg and Waehler. They were established in 1885 and evolved to become HLW, currently one of the major architectural firms in the country.  Two of the largest architectural firms in NJ Jersey during a good part of my career were The Hillier Group and Frank Grad & Sons.  These firms no longer exist although Bob Hillier who had built one of the largest architectural firms in the world with 300 design professionals has reinvented his practice and now leads a highly regarded boutique firm, Studio Hillier.

An interesting aspect about being in architectural practice so long is that I often get inquiries and referrals for new commissions as a result of projects that I completed 25 or even 35 years ago while leading “The Ives Group, Architects/Planners.” I recently received a call about a department store that I designed in Alabama more than 40 years ago while my firm was “Joel Ives AIA Architect.” When I search Google Earth for some of the projects I designed around the country, I am dismayed that some of the structures that I was so proud of at the time they were built, no longer exist. So, my recent visit to the Acropolis in Greece was reassuring since it was built about 2500 years ago. However, it also made me think that I still have a love of architectural history and design that has continued through the years.

So, my advice to architects who love their profession is not to retire! Keep at it as long as possible. Embrace new technologies and only work with honorable people you like, trust and respect. Surround yourself with a talented and impassioned staff and with licensed colleagues who can continue if you can’t.  And, choose your clients carefully!  If you want a guideline on “Ownership Transition” turn to the Architects Handbook of Professional Practice.

Otherwise, I would point out that research has clearly shown that brain function declines rapidly as soon as people stop working.

It has been said that architects don’t really mature until they are in the 50’s.  Frank Lloyd Wright worked up until he was 91.  I.M. Pei worked into his 90’s. Frank Gehry is currently age 90 and is going strong.   

So, my conclusion may not be what was expected for this issue of Leagueline on “Ownership Transition.”  I am suggesting that you should not retire if architecture is still fulfilling for you and, you still have a passion to design buildings. I for one am currently creating better architecture now, than all the successes in the past. 

Satchell Page was a baseball pitcher and a Negro League legend. He played baseball in the majors into his 50’s, longer than anyone in history. He said, “I ain’t ever had a job, I just always played baseball.”

I sometimes think of this quote when people ask about the jobs I’ve had during my lifetime. Adjusting the words, I respond, “I just always was an architect.”

So, now I can go back to a busy architectural practice.  I am in various stages of the design of a tuna-fish processing plan, an Alzheimer’s facility, a town pool, a synagoguea church and housing for military heroes. For now, this is a lot more fulfilling than spending my days on a golf course in a southern climate. I may have to think about replacing my third architectural seal. The first two were worn out after sealing many thousands of drawings.

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