200 Small Practice Architects and Engineers Explain Their Biggest Challenges and Opportunities

200 Small Practice Architects and Engineers Explain Their Biggest Challenges and Opportunities

What challenges do small architecture and engineering firms face and where are the biggest opportunities? Deltek asked 200 professionals to find out.

Architects and engineers are often caught between multiple pressing concerns like doing the best work for their clients, keeping up with technology, managing risks, and making the right moves to ensure profitability. These pressures are even greater for small practice professionals, as they might have more responsibility for how the business is run – and how it performs.

To learn more about how small practice architects and engineers balance these challenges and move forward, Deltek surveyed over 200 industry professionals working in smaller firms.

The research covers various aspects of small practice firm management, but four key trends stood out for me. In this blog, I’ll be covering these trends and what they mean for architects and engineers around the globe.

1. Technology Can Help Solve Many Day-to-Day Problems

Some of the most important figures in the survey are around the issues architects and engineers tackle across their business and the projects they work on. When asked about day-to-day challenges running their businesses, it seems at first glance like there’s little common ground:

  • 36% say keeping up to date with the latest software and technology is one of their top three most pressing challenges
  • 35% say the same about communicating with clients to manage expectations or iterate on ideas
  • 34% say managing risk and having the right contracts in place
  • 34% say tracking time and ensuring all time spent is invoiced correctly
  • 32% say communication and collaboration with other project stakeholders (like general contractors)

Some respondents to the survey also mention troubles with sketching, performing site inspections, and adopting BIM.

The one common thread across all these process challenges is that technology can help solve them. If the 36% of architects and engineers struggling to keep up with the latest digital solutions can solve that challenge, they can implement tools that will help them overcome their obstacles across communication, risk and contract management, and time tracking.

2. Collaboration, Communication and Coordination Create Project Challenges

When we asked architects and engineers to rank their top three project challenges:

  • 38% say managing the quality of deliverables is one of their top three challenges
  • 38% say office and project site coordination
  • 36% say sharing project files with stakeholders (internal and external)
  • 34% say managing project document workflows
  • 33% say managing project email
  • 32% say project collaboration for deliverables
  • 31% say managing submittals and RFIs
  • 30% say administrative workload

While the most common project challenge focuses on quality, the rest involve coordination, collaboration, and managing documents. It’s no surprise to see these challenges ranking so highly, especially considering how many respondents also reported using manual processes and spreadsheets to manage their work; a significant 70% of respondents say they frequently track workloads and expense management manually.

Again, the right technologies can help by automating and digitising previously manual processes. And once you streamline processes, you can win back valuable time you can reinvest into projects to improve the quality of deliverables as well.

3. Adopting New Technologies Isn’t Always Straightforward

While technology solutions can help solve many of the industry’s most common problems, it’s never just a case of throwing money at an issue. The architects and engineers we surveyed were very aware of the obstacles they faced in adopting new technologies:

  • 62% say staying up to date with the latest versions and keeping up with technology changes is one of their three top technology challenges
  • 54% say they don’t understand what technologies they can apply to their projects
  • 49% say they lack time to invest in learning about and adopting new technology
  • 49% struggle to prioritise which technologies and tools are most applicable to their day-to-day challenges

While there’s nuance across these answers, in my mind, we can see a common theme around knowledge and education. The tricky thing is, a small practice may not have a dedicated IT person that can build this technology knowledge.

So what’s a small practice to do? I think the easiest (and least time-consuming) way to get up to speed is to read industry-focused publications that deal with technology. That way, you know you’re getting information that’s relevant to architecture and engineering.

There are plenty of great resources out there focused on different regions and disciplines, but great places to start include:

4. Growth Opportunities Are Diverse – But Many Firms Are Focusing on Client Experience

While there were plenty of questions about challenges and obstacles, the survey also investigated future opportunities for growth. It asked about the top three growth opportunities architects and engineers could see and found:

  • 66% identify improving the quality of execution to deliver a better client experience as one of their top three growth opportunities
  • 50% plan to invest in innovative technologies like mobile, 3D printing, and virtual or augmented reality
  • 48% intend to streamline processes to avoid errors and time lost on manual input
  • 46% want to develop or enhance corporate sustainability practices
  • 46% see breaking into new niches or specialisations as a way forward
  • 44% will break into new markets to find new growth opportunities

Again, we see many challenges in the middle of the pack either directly related to technology or at least adjacent to it. I was surprised to see that comparatively fewer firms see new niches and markets as key growth opportunities.

What doesn’t surprise me is that delivering a quality client experience tops the list. However, the fact that it’s the most common answer by such a wide margin is intriguing.

One thing I can see, though, is how many of these opportunities could lead to others. New technologies like virtual reality, applied carefully, could create a superior client experience. Likewise, firms that double down on sustainability can turn that into a niche, similar to the many eco-design companies that are seeing success today.

Get Even More Insights from the Full Report

In our research, we found many challenges facing architects today. You may recognise some of these problems among your own. Being aware of the common issues that your peers are seeing and the solutions available can give you the insights you need to prepare and move forward with confidence.

Take a look at the full report to explore the top challenges small practices like yours are facing today, and where your peers see opportunities for growth – now and in the future.

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