Up, down, and up again

by rheselbarth@solagroup.com

At a time when my career should have been starting in the early 1990s, I found myself once again unemployed due to a depressed economy, and unsure of what I was going to do next. On the eve of my last layoff, I came home to a surprise party planned by my wife and family to celebrate my passing the Architectural Registration Exam. Later that evening I had to tell my wife I was laid off again; I wasn’t sure of what her reaction was going to be.


I had always dreamt of having my own architectural firm and being self-employed. My wife’s advice was, “You can continue looking for work with other firms or look for work on your own.” My family agreed. So, with the support of my wife and the help of my family in November 1991, in the unfinished basement of our home, the firm of Michael Buss Architects Ltd. was born.


Primarily I was a home designer. The size of the project didn’t matter; it was the type of project that interested me. Whether an addition, whole-house renovation or new custom home, I enjoyed working on them. Each one served up a unique set of problems, and a unique set of solutions. My firm grew rapidly from one employee to nine using up every square foot of space in my basement. In 1999, I started providing construction management services for clients who wanted to build homes by themselves.


I knew the building boom wouldn’t last forever. My firm however, was producing more home plans during the first years of this recession than it had since the start. I knew other architects were beginning to struggle, yet I was still busy. In 2005 I bought a building that was going into foreclosure finally moved out of the basement.


By this time I finished remodeling the office, work was starting to slow down and I feared losing everything. As the downturn continued I had to downsize, reluctantly letting most of my staff go. I had laid off people before, but this was more personal; these were the people that had been with me for years, some more than 10 years. They had been around when my children were born, my wife and I had attended their weddings; we were family. The office felt like a morgue, the new big space I had renovated was now empty.


Looking for new work was far more tiring than the actual work, and the salary wasn’t there. I had saved for downturns but actually living off the savings was depressing. I had done everything right. I worked hard, provided the best product and the best service I could. To watch it disappear every month was beyond cruel. However, projects trickled in so I stayed positive, and I looked for ways to reinvent myself. I achieved LEED-AP and became a NAHB verifier. I studied building technology and educated myself as much as possible.


Thankfully good relationships with past clients who now needed office remodeling, tenant finish-out or new office buildings started to provide business. Ironically, these would have been projects I wouldn’t have had time to take during the housing boom yet it was these very projects that brought the firm into a new era. They were challenging, but they gave the firm more confidence to survive this prolonged downturn. My commissions changed once again.


As previous clients decided to renovate their homes, I was the first person they called. Being their second time around in the building process they wanted to be more involved in the construction so I started managing their projects from concept to completion. I was building again.


Today, I have a staff of four. What I miss most is having a personal assistant, the company lunches, and the noise of the plotter running endlessly. What I’ve learned, and will continue to do, is to keep a balance of residential, commercial and construction management work. I will “stay the course” and continue to provide great customer service and build client relationships. But most of all I will continue to have a positive outlook. I hope my son will eventually join the firm as he has decided to study architecture. As for the office, an increase in staff to pre-recession size is on the back burner for now.


I started my company after a night of celebration with family and friends. They are still with me along with many more friends that I have met along this journey. They have sustained me through the difficult times. And I am reminded of words from my first boss and college mentor, Moe Doyle, who once told me, “Being an architect isn’t what you do but who you are. Designing and improving the spaces people live and work in is a great way to spend your days.” I feel lucky to continue doing this.


Michael Buss is President of Michael Buss Architects, Ltd., an architectural firm specializing in custom homes, remodeling and commercial projects. A licensed architect with an Architecture Degree from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and has more than 30 years experience in the construction and architectural fields. He is a LEED AP and a NAHB Green verifier.

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