Should Architects Moonlight?

Moonlighting is something that literally ever architect has done at one time or another in their career. There are a handful of reasons why an architect would consider moonlighting, but I honestly believe the main reason (as in 99% of the reason) is financially based.

I have written about architects and moonlighting only once before on this site – a pretty ripe subject really, but considering this is article number 819, you could probably conclude that a) I don’t have strong feelings one way or the other, b) feel like this topic has so many variables to it that my myopic opinion on the subject isn’t worth discussing or c) I am too jaded to talk about this topic rationally.

The betting person would go with what’s behind door #3.

I do think this is a topic worth discussing and I am going to toss a few things out there for your consideration without getting into my jaded past. There are a lot of positive ramifications that come out of moonlighting work – the most obvious is money – so for the sake of time, let’s just assume that extra money is, for the most part, a good thing and let’s avoid that consideration for now. I do feel like I am in a somewhat unique position to talk about moonlighting because this site gives me such visibility that I receive emails from people from all skill and experience levels regaling me with tales of both their positive and negative experiences with moonlighting. To sum up, the short-term gains are always awesome and the long-term gains are rarely what that individual is hoping for.

Should Architects Moonlight

For the most part, I am not a fan of unsanctioned moonlighting but to put it simply, I don’t think there are any real positives other than financial short-term gains, and considering the potential pitfalls, even those can be dubious. Here are some of the main arguments I’ve heard supporting moonlighting:

I work in a large firm, how am I going to get project management experience doing toilet partition wall details?
Join an A.I.A. committee or donate some of your time to any of the number charities that could use an energetic future architect, get involved with Hearts and Hammers or Habitat for Humanity – the list can go on and on.

I am a super designer but no one here cares, I need to take on work so I can express myself and get my name out there!
While I am not a fan of competitions, you can always enter competitions if you want to introduce the world to its next greatest architect. The upside here is that if you are actually fortunate enough to place, you’ll some recognition, maybe some cash and if the grand prize winner, you’ll get your opportunity to actually create some real architecture.

My office doesn’t pay me enough to survive, I need to take on extra work to pay my bills.
Okay, I don’t have a great argument for this one. Even though my default answer is to tell you to go find somewhere else to work, that might make me appear inconsiderate to the working conditions wherever you are. I can’t help but think that if the firm where you work doesn’t value you enough to pay you your worth, what does it say about how you feel about your worth by staying? There is also the possibility that you aren’t worth what you think you are – either way, some additional research on your part should commence.

The people who want to hire me think I’m great and are willing to pay me what I’m charging.
That’s great … but I would ask if you are charging the correct amount. Most young energetic future architects will readily admit that they don’t understand billing and office management so it might seem like a fortune to get paid $35/hr for drawing up house plans. Do you understand or know how many hours you will have to spend preparing the drawings? What time from your friends and family you are forfeiting? What about taxes and social security or are you just not going to worry about that? Something in the neighborhood of $12.50 of your $35 should be going to Uncle Sam so you need to consider how important your gains are for $22.50/hr. Considering that a conservative estimate of 5% of the emails I receive are from people asking me how much they should charge for moonlighting work, I am comfortable claiming that most people don’t actually know what to charge.

Another consideration for those considering moonlighting work is to take a look at your client. Are they hiring you because they are your neighbor or your Aunt? Or are they hiring you to moonlight the project because they are looking for a lower cost provider? The latter will always make the worst client because they obviously don’t place a lot of value on your time or the services you provide. They might not have the financial resources suitable for the services they need (which essentially puts you at risk for not receiving what meager fees you are probably charging) otherwise, they would probably go a more traditional route of getting architectural services.

Okay … I might be wrong in that last paragraph. It is completely possible that the people asking for you to help them with a little moonlighting work are looking for some help and simply can’t afford to go a more traditional route by hiring a full-services architectural firm, but they actually do value the services you can provide. As a moonlighter, you might offer all the possible advantages of a full-service firm, but without the overhead of a more traditionally structured firm, and as a result, can charge a reduced amount for your service.

But do these clients realize that they will be receiving a reduced amount of your abilities? Let’s be honest, you can’t work on their project during regular business hours, the time during the day when you are supposed to be working on your “real” job. So you come home at night and start working on job #2 for the day. It is unlikely that you’ll be in top form and even more unlikely that the project will progress at the speed that it probably should. I suppose there are some trade-offs that the client would accept knowing that this is your working situation, although I can tell you that most clients seem to forget that you are moonlighting their job when push comes to shove, and they’ve grown tired of you trying to live your life while they are impatiently waiting on their addition/renovation drawings.

I personally don’t have any experience with that last paragraph, but I can look at the articles I write for this blog and tell you which ones have my attention and which ones don’t … which is the main reason I don’t charge people to read them.

You should also be aware that while architecture firms can’t technically be held for work that employees do on their own time, as with all legal matters, there’s the written policy and then there are the nuanced interpretations. If the work you plan on moonlighting is similar to the work you perform where you work, the work may be construed by the client (and the client’s attorney) as being produced under the supervision of the firm, thereby exposing your firm to liability by association for any of your negligent acts. If you use firm resources, like copiers, Fax’s, CAD equipment, advice from office peers, if you are in a decision-making position at your firm, and the firm doesn’t have a policy against moonlighting, your firm’s tacit approval of the use of these resources suggests that the firm benefits from and condones the moonlighting. With liability claims being what they are, principals at firms should think twice before allowing employees to use firm resources for any outside endeavors.

I can appreciate that anyone with the endurance to read this post might leave thinking I am bitter towards moonlighting, maybe because I took on one major moonlighting project in my youth and was completely hosed in the process. I do not encourage moonlighting in my office – they are busy enough with their real job and from what I know, we pay them what they’re worth (salary, provide insurance, healthcare, vision, dental, 401K, etc.). If they’ve got some spare time, we want them to volunteer and develop connections and obtain new skill sets that improve their value in the office. Finally, if someone in my office wants to work on a project for their Aunt or some friend of theirs, we let them bring it in, run point on the project, all while trying to protect them from making an unrecoverable mistake. However, if you work at a firm that specializes in tilt-wall warehouse buildings and you would like to tackle a different project type, I think the best course of action is to talk to your firm and let them know what you are trying to do. I can’t imagine that they would see this as a conflict of interest – who knows, maybe you’ll get the support that will allow you to put your best foot forward.

Moonlighting seems to be an inevitable rite of passage if you are an architect. My hope is that you are the architect that has positive results from the process, but 25 years of expeprience tells me that it isn’t going to work out the way you had hoped.

Best of luck,

Bob signature FAIA


This is the 28th entry in a series titled “ArchiTalks” and the topic was “Moonlighting”

When I started #ArchiTalks, I wanted people to discover that architects have different experiences, backgrounds, and objectives. Despite architects all getting lumped together with a handful of broad stereotypes, we are all onions … we have many layers and not all of them smell good.

If you would like to see how other architects from around the globe responded to today’s topic of “Moonlighting” just follow the links below.

Lee Calisti, AIA – Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
moonlighting more than an 80s sitcom

Jeff Echols – Architect Of The Internet (@Jeff_Echols)
The Ironic Blasphemy of Moonlighting and what Architects are Missing Out On

Lora Teagarden – L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
Moon(lighting) changes with the seasons

Collier Ward – One More Story (@BuildingContent)
Moonlighting

Jeremiah Russell, AIA – ROGUE Architecture (@rogue_architect)
hustle and grind: #architalks

Michael Riscica AIA – Young Architect (@YoungArchitxPDX)
Moonlighting for Young Architects

Stephen Ramos – BUILDINGS ARE COOL (@BuildingsRCool)
Architects do it All Night Long

Brian Paletz – The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
Starlight, moonlight – tick tock

Jeffrey Pelletier – Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
Is Moonlighting Worth It? Probably Not, But We All Try.

Kyu Young Kim – J&K Atelier (@sokokyu)
Dancing in the Moonlight

Keith Palma – Architect’s Trace (@cogitatedesign)
The Howling

Jim Mehaffey – Yeoman Architect (@jamesmehaffey)
Moonlighting: or Why I Kept My Dayjob.

Tim Ung – Journey of an Architect (@timothy_ung)
An Alternative to Moonlighting as a Young Architect

Mark Stephens (@architectmark)
Architalks 28 Moonlighting

Gabriela Baierle-Atwood (@gabrielabaierle)
On Moonlighting

Ilaria Marani – Creative Aptitude (@creaptitude)
There is no moolighting. It’s a jungle!

Jane Vorbrodt – Kuno Architecture (@janevorbrodt)
Crafted Moonlighting