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A Day in the Life of an Independent Professional


By Danyel Barnard



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Higher Education Planning

Hours per week:

Typical working hours:
8:30 to 5:30

Main current clients:
Singapore Management University, Tufts University, New York University, Kutztown University (Pennsylvania)

$75 to $85 per hour

Earnings (in a good year):

Favorite business readings:
The Economist

Favorite non-business readings:
Architecture Magazine, The New Yorker

Best way he gets clients:





  Q & A

What was the worst project you ever worked on, and why?

A major Ivy League university. The faculty tend to be imperious prima donnas who are reluctant to work together to gain consensus.

What was the best project you ever worked on, and why?
City University of New York Business School Campus (Baruch College). A brand new campus situated in mid-town Manhattan. It was the ultimate challenge: a high-rise (15 floors) campus taking up an entire city block and that included all the academics, campus center, performing arts and athletics facilities.

What do you say when people ask about "your job"?
I'm an independent architect who specializes in planning and organizing higher education facilities. I have freedom, but no security.

What is your guiding philosophy?
To always be flexible, adapting my skills and expertise to the particular needs of each client.

If you could be anything other than what you are now, what would it be?
To be more responsible for the design of buildings, rather than just the planning of them; or, in other words, not to be quite so specialized.





It takes 24 hours to fly from Boston to Singapore, and most airlines offer an average of ten movies per flight to help passengers pass the time. Architect Tony Blackett, who's made the trip twice in three months, hasn't watched a single one -- he's got too much to think about. Earlier this year he began the biggest project of his career.

Planning the Singapore Management University, an urban university for 16,000 students, is Blackett's first international project. It's a workout. "Essentially, we need to define and develop a new urban campus -- the equivalent of starting Boston University or New York University from scratch," he says. In addition to the regular architectural challenges, such as integrating modern structures into a designated area of a historical district, he's grappling with a legion of political ones. "Everyone, from local architects to the city planning authority, wants a piece of the pie," he says. Of course, to an IP, that sort of politics is old hat.

Master of the Master Plan

An IP since 1989, Blackett specializes in the pre-design stages of university planning, which means that he's responsible for the conceptual phase that leads up to the formal design. He often focuses on developing the master plan that will later guide the main project architect. The most significant aspect of this task is defining the number and size of the various buildings, deciding how they will be arranged, and then compiling a detailed list of design components. "University campuses are large and complex," says Blackett. "It's a challenge to incorporate a whole gamut of functions -- education, living, research, recreation -- into a defined area." When he worked on the business school for the City University of New York, for example, he had to figure out how to organize all the university functions within a single Manhattan high-rise.

Because the new university will focus on undergraduate business studies, the planning team in Singapore turned to the University of Pennsylvania's well-known Wharton School of Business for advice. Blackett had worked on the master plan for Wharton; that's how his name came up. "In terms of business, the U.S. is king of the world, so American-style business schools are a hot item," he says. "Wharton is always ranked as the number one or two business school in the U.S. -- it's like the Holy Grail of a 20th century religion. Everyone wants to emulate them." Blackett's other past projects include plans for Harvard and the University of Chicago.

It took the Singapore committee many months to compile a short-list of three architects who would be seriously considered for the job. Finally, the chairman traveled to Boston to meet with Blackett. "In this case, I was uniquely qualified for the job. My experience was so closely aligned with the project -- but that's unusual," recalls Blackett. The chairman essentially gave him the project at that meeting, so it felt a bit anticlimactic to Blackett when they followed up with email officially awarding him the project.

The initial trip to Singapore involved getting to know the "scene" by visiting other universities and talking to faculty about how they work. With the information he gathered, Blackett began writing a position paper about how the various components of an American-style business school might work in that context. The second trip involved a series of workshops at which everybody with a vested interest in the project -- from local businesspeople to the arts community -- learned how the different groups envision the new university. Moving forward, Blackett's next visit will include thrashing out all the design guidelines with the local planning authority. "This is a good job because it will go on for years," he says frankly.

The British Invasion

Trained and licensed in England, Blackett came to the U.S. in 1972 to work in urban planning. At the time, he knew virtually nothing about American education, never mind the details of American college campuses. "I didn't even know what credits or electives were," he says. Today, Blackett is one of a small group of architects in this country who specialize in university planning.

At the beginning of my career, I never envisioned that this is what I'd be doing. Like many independent professionals, I just fell into a job, and my specialty evolved from there.

"At the beginning of my career, I never envisioned that this is what I'd be doing," he says. "Like many independent professionals, I just fell into an assignment, and my specialty evolved from there." Blackett's first and only regular job in the U.S., working for the Boston Redevelopment Association, ended in 1989 when he was laid off for being "aggressively uninvolved" in city politics. He's been independent ever since. His first solo project involved planning the medical campus of Tufts University, and from there, he says, "everything grew."

Since then, Blackett has worked hard to develop his specialty and build credibility. "I didn't really go after other types of jobs, and I tried to consolidate my experience," he says. To find prospects and land jobs, Blackett relies mainly on referrals from key contacts at architectural firms that specialize in campus planning. "I have created a niche and gained a reputation over the years, so I do very little marketing." Still, architecture is an extremely competitive field, and each job requires an extensive interview and presentation process. "When you go through the standard process, you might get one job out of every five prospects," he says, "so it's always better to get jobs directly through contacts."

Each project has a different scope and involves different skills, and Blackett's title changes accordingly.

Each project has a different scope and involves different skills, and Blackett's title changes accordingly. Sometimes he's a "space program analyst," hired by a major architectural firm; other times he's a "development advisor" or a "university planning specialist." It depends on the job -- and on his mood. While Blackett is officially part of a team for many projects, the bulk of his work is done independently. "It definitely gets lonely working on your own," he says. "I still miss having colleagues around, but at least I have a whole network of professional friends who I can call for advice."

Blackett bills his clients by the hour because it's "easy and straightforward." He also bills at different intervals, depending on the project. While he recognizes that people who want to make money usually have to risk it first, he prefers to keep his capital expenditures to a minimum: like most IPs, Blackett has experienced the "feast or famine syndrome" and likes to keep a cash stash.

To survive the slow periods, he takes on smaller projects, like "feasibility studies," which determine whether a proposed plan, such as converting an existing building into a research facility, is workable.

Although he's not a fan of conferences (mainly due to the effort it takes to "put on your work persona," he says), Blackett attends the major industry events organized by The Society of College and University Planners anyway. "A lot of business is generated at the conferences, and if you give a presentation there, you begin to set up a national reputation," he says. Writing articles for industry publications also helps him improve and maintain his professional visibility.

Blackett's advice to other IPs: make sure your office is centrally located. "When you're an independent professional, you have to do everything yourself," he says. "I work at home, but the post office, coffee shop, and travel agent are all within a one-block radius, and that makes everything more manageable."

Spoken like a true urban planner.

September 30, 1999
Primary editor: Eric Gershon
Illustration by Lawrence San
Production by Keith Gendel

We'd love to hear your comments about this article!

Danyel Barnard is editor of experience magazine [sic]. This is her first article for 1099. If you like, we'd be happy to put you in touch with her, or with anyone named in this article.


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