On the Side

On the Side

Moonlighting has been around since the dawn of work, and architects are certainly no strangers to the phenomenon. From large, high-profile firms to small offices with just a handful of employees, architects often take unofficial jobs on the side to pay the bills, to climb the corporate ladder, or to simply find a creative outlet beyond the desktop of their workplace.

Many claim that it has always been part of the culture in the architecture world, while others say there is a rise in moonlighting due to the downturn in the economy and heightened competition in the architecture job world. Firm jobs are still vital for most financially. But with boring CAD duty a rite of passage, and salaries not rising with the cost of living, working at a firm is often not enough. For young architects, moonlighting may feel like the only way to get ahead.

Tom Newman, of Newman & Wolen Design, said that wherever he had worked before opening his own firm had had no-moonlighting policies—but that never stopped anyone. “I did it and everyone else did it,” he said. “It was the only way to have some creative control and get through the drudgery you dealt with every day.” But he also admitted that it was the years hunkered down in large firms that gave him the backbone and experience necessary to eventually open his own firm. “You certainly don’t get a lot of practical experience squeezing out small garage renovations on the side, although you may make a little extra money doing them,” he said.

Tom Newman of Newman & Wolen Design in Culver City worked on the Nitkin (above, left) and the Ross (above, right) houses while he was employed at a larger firm. TOM NEWMAN 

“Even though I had an excellent experience at my firm, I still took on extra work to either pay bills or pursue more creative projects,” said a 26-year-old architect who preferred to remain anonymous. He graduated from the Yale Architecture program and then went directly to Kohn Pedersen Fox, where he worked for two years on a $400 million commercial project. He admitted that moonlighting was prevalent—the other day, he watched an architect a few cubicles away working on a rendering for another job. He maintained there is really no other way for young architects to hone different skill sets. “As a young architect in a large firm, you never deal with the clients or the contractors,” he said. “How else are we supposed to learn project management?”

Benjamin Ball started working on the installation Maximilian’s Schell in Silverlake while still with a small firm in Santa Monica. He quit three months before the exhibition’s opening and then co-founded Ball-Nogues Studio. BENNY CHAN



Benjamin Ball, an architect and co-partner of Ball-Nogues Studio, moonlit for nine months while working at a small architecture firm in Santa Monica. He spent most of his nights and weekends working on Maximilian’s Schell, a massive, vortex-shaped installation made of mylar that was showcased at Materials & Applications, a gallery in Silverlake, a few years ago.

“I had to quit three months before the opening so I could devote myself fully to the project,” he admitted. “But for the first nine months of development, I had to keep a full-time job.”

Nogues, his partner, worked for Frank Gehry and admitted that he shied away from moonlighting while working for the large firm, except for once—when Gehry himself set him up with some outside work.

“Claes Oldenburg needed some additional help while he was working on the Disney Concert Hall,” said Nogues. “If I remember correctly, I think I worked on an enormous flute.”

Mohamed Sharif, president of the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design and an associate at the Santa Monica firm Koning Eizenberg, added that moonlighting is even more prevalent now in LA due to the surge of single-family upgrades in the last five to ten years, providing plenty of small jobs, most of them done on the side.

Despite its prevalence, moonlighting can often be a source of serious anxiety and burnout, especially for those doing it without permission.

An architect who works for a small firm in Silverlake who preferred to remain nameless said that moonlighting was a source of constant angst for him. “I think in my firm they like to imagine that the focus is always on them and that there is nothing else going on in anyone’s life,” he admitted. He would often run out at lunch time for client meetings, and for the last two years said he worked consistently until midnight, even on weekends, to get all of his work done. “I think the office job is the necessary evil. The other jobs on the side are the creative outlet,” he said.

Many moonlighters admitted that the schedule is enough to put them over the edge. “Trying to hide the fact that I have three other projects going on the side, as well as a 60-hour work week with my firm, is crazy-making,” said a young associate who works for a large firm in Santa Monica. “Carrying around extra clothes and putting my make-up on in the car has become routine.” 

Firms, meanwhile, take very different approaches to moonlighters. Some encourage it as a useful tool for younger architects, while others often see it as tantamount to cheating.

Steve Kanner of Kanner Architects, based in Santa Monica, has been in the business for 27 years, and admits to moonlighting’s prevalence. He uses it as an incentive. “I get at least a few calls a month for work that isn’t right for this firm and I’m happy to pass it along to our newer architects,” he said. He did admit that he is careful in terms of liability, and always writes a letter divorcing Kanner Architects from responsibility. “I think to limit architects and put them in a box is counterintuitive. Allowing architects to work on other projects if they have time creates more passion for the work, and ultimately a happier employee.” He was quick to add that he has never felt taken advantage of in the process of giving an employee additional work.

When Ball and Nogues are in a position to hire employees for large projects and installations, Ball openly admits that he prefers to hire moonlighters.

“I guess I’m the guy that the large, more corporate firms hate,” he said. “But since we can’t offer full-time work, we like to hire people that are working in other places who can bring cutting-edge skills to the table,” he said. “If I were working in a large firm drafting toilets all day long, I think I’d really like to work for me,” he added. 

But for many new architects working in larger firms, the no-moonlighting policies that most employee handbooks clearly point out are enough of a deterrent to stay away from taking on other work at night or on weekends. And in many firms, there is simply a strong internal voice in the workplace that clearly does not support the idea. A senior associate at a large firm based in Los Angeles who preferred to remain anonymous because “this can be a touchy subject” said:

“Our firm does not encourage moonlighting for all the obvious reasons; it distracts from the work in our very busy office. We do, however, encourage staff to mentor younger architects and architecture students through teaching, jury participation, review of students’ work, etc. Teaching is the exception, as we feel it helps individuals to grow, and adds to the growth of our office as a whole.”

It was the pursuit of an academic career that kept Jennifer Siegal, the founder of Office for Mobile Design (OMD), from moonlighting. “I always had excellent employers and I never felt comfortable taking on other work outside the firm,” she said. “Any extra time I had was spent teaching or publishing.” She was quick to point out that if architects sign on with a firm that has a no-moonlighting clause or stipulation, it’s important to stick to it. “This is a business where it’s important to have a level of trust with an employee. If that trust is broken, there’s really no going back.”

Hraztan Zeitlian, director of design at Leo A Daly, is against moonlighting but understands the need, and so developed a creative think tank called Struere where he could develop creative ideas, including competition entries for the Hilal tower in Jeddah, Saudia Arabia (above) and the Czech National Library in Prague (top).COURTESY STRUERE


Hraztan S. Zeitlian, AIA, director of design at Leo A Daly, understands the impulse to moonlight, but is against it. In his opinion, once you are working for a firm and take on other jobs for profit, you have crossed a line. Prior to joining Leo A Daly, he started a “think tank” for his more creative, not-for-profit architectural pursuits, called Struere ( where he spent outside time developing incredibly experimental schemes. His proposals for a library in Prague and a high rise in Saudi Arabia have won awards from the AIA Los Angeles and the Chicago Athenaeum. 

“I think this is a very non-traditional way to advance architecture,” he said. “Other than academia and a handful of boutique firms, there are very few places to do highly experimental work. We need to encourage experimentation, but find honest ways of doing it,” he added.