Customer Portrait: Jonathon Zilka brings passion and adventure to architectural design

November 16, 2011


Portland, Oregon based architectural designer Jonathon Zilka runs his own business creating drawings for builders and homeowners. Jonathon has discovered that he can easily compete with larger firms by being small, therefore, being able to offer a personalized service that’s hard to compete with. As he says, his business “really does have a self‑perpetuating life of its own once you make the commitment.” Jonathon also shares his thoughts on his favorite buildings, how he determines a building is a success, and how he gets paid faster.

How did you get started in architecture?

I discovered a love of design at an early age whilst helping a woman flip houses. She would buy homes in the hills of Los Angeles and turn them around. I learned a lot about buildings from doing that. She helped me develop a love of well designed spaces and appreciate elements of even plain homes like patios or gazebos. When I moved back to Portland I started buying my own houses and went to school to take architecture seriously. At 25, I moved to Australia and spent the next ten years taking it on as a lifestyle and an occupation as part of the team at Philip Cox.

What has been the biggest surprise you’ve had so far as a business owner?

I think that the surprise is that when you really take your own life and your own business in your own hands, it blossoms or expands without really all that much effort. People like to have contact and work relationships with smaller people and smaller businesses and personal businesses rather than going to a company. Part of it financial as I obviously have lower overhead and less pressure to make a big fortune off of one particular client. The other side of it is that it really does have a self‑perpetuating life of its own once you make the commitment that you are the business and you’re not relying on somebody else to write your checks.

Do clients come find you or do you have to seek them out?

These days, a website is just critical. People don’t necessarily hire you off your website alone but if they do get wind of your name by some means, then the website can really seal the deal if it’s good. Of course they can always be better. I don’t know if i know anybody that doesn’t have a disclaimer about their website saying “Well, it’s still in progress” or “Needs to be updated.” I just think these days nobody gets work without having a proper website.

Also, I sometimes stop at job sites or have gone to meet‑and‑greet type things. I give my card around to the different people that I talk to. It probably isn’t the person that you talk to that hires you, it’s the person that they hand it to. For example, I haven’t done a lot of advertising as architecture is kind of a hard thing to advertise. But I do whatever I can to hand my cards out.

If you’re looking at a building or if you’re looking at a kind of design, what do you look at first?

If you’re talking about a style of architecture, I’m really drawn to curved structures because I know how hard they are to build and how hard they are to design, not to mention how hard they are to get built. The money required to build anything that’s not grid‑like really shoots through the roof. I really respect anybody that can build these curves  and get somebody to pay for the extra costs incurred. I have a tremendous amount of respect for people like Frank Gehry and Le Corbusier and Gaudi, and all the people that use a lot of curves.

What I look for in a building, for a successful design is, primarily, the use of it. I look at the people that are using the structure. I look for wear and tear on things, because there’s nothing worse than designing something that doesn’t get used. The whole success of it is that the people that are going in and out of the building, that are using the building every day, using the building to its fullest.

It’s really important to me to see that. Those types of things are really generated by the type of light that filters in from outside, the proportions of the space, the type of materials that are used. It’s a very tough thing to achieve, but you really know it when you see it, when a place is really well used and looks comfortable, and looks natural in its environment.

Are there any examples of that? Any perfect examples that really achieve that look?

The Gaudi buildings in Barcelona, mainly the apartment buildings. Then there’s the Sagrada Familia. As far as buildings that are really successful in everything I like is the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building. Those are buildings that have an amazing amount of use, because they’re just such successful buildings. They look great, and they feel great when you go inside, everybody wants to use that building. There isn’t that much difference between that and another building, except that the design was magically produced to create this desire for people to be there.

Portland Building - Wikipedia

The Portland Building

There are lots of  good examples in every city. You just have buildings that attract people to them. Here in my city we  have a building in Portland called the Portland Building, which is Michael Graves‘ building. There’s actually a lot of controversy about it, but the fact is, it attracts people to it. People want to be there because it’s got something special, it’s got a personality, it isn’t just a black box. People are drawn to it.

You’re also an accomplished fiddler, how does that fit into your life?

Music has become a big part of my energy or having a good outlet for doing things that are outside of architecture. Because the fiddle is a very complicated instrument it feels good to be able to perform in public, and to make a few dollars out of it as well. But mainly the collaboration that I have with other people, and the social aspect of it. The artistic aspect of it has really been a nice eye‑opener and a nice contribution to the complications of life. It just has a different texture that I didn’t have before I was good enough to perform.

FreshBooks may or may not be known for some wacky things. What’s the wackiest thing you’ve ever done?

Quite a lot of things actually. But I guess one of the more crazy things I did was when I was in Colombia on a vacation and me and two other guys tried to walk across a part of the Andes in tennis shoes and street clothes. We didn’t have any real hiking gear. It wasn’t a super‑high pass, but it turned bad. My shoes fell apart and the other guys that I was with had to be hauled off the mountain on a donkey. It wasn’t death‑defying, but it was really dumb.

Do you have any tips on how to bill clients so you get a prompt payment?

I try to invoice as soon as possible after I deliver a drawing or put the invoice with the drawing so that it puts the understanding that we expect payment. I think that FreshBooks is a great idea because I’ve always had kind of a boring invoice. I basically made it in a word processing program. I guess it looked OK, but since I discovered FreshBooks (or as I see it, the power of professionalism) I think that really does make people take notice of your invoice.

Client also like working with an individual person, but when it comes to payment, they tend to want to treat you like a corporation. You have to be more personal about the invoicing as well. Make sure that they understand that you’ve got bills to pay and you are not in the position to hold it out for a long time. Get it to them as fast as you can so it doesn’t lay around for days and they go, “Oh, put it in the to‑do pile.” I’m especially on their mind when I’m right there handing them the invoice. That’s the only technique I have discovered that I can use to make it happen.

What’s next for you?

I want to enter more competitions for either sculptural or public place things like monuments or special sites that aren’t necessarily big buildings but are unique in their design. For me the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC is just a really fabulous design. It’s simple, and that would be the kind of thing that I would like to try more of and hopefully win some of those design competitions. There’s a lot of them out there. The big one lately has been the 9/11 Memorial. There was stiff competition for that, of course, but I didn’t enter it. But that’s the type of thing I’m drawn to now.


about the author

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