"The practice is still hand-to-mouth," the 34-year-old Lehrer said. "But we are living off the income in a reasonable fashion. All my work is residential, and that can be tricky. It takes a lot of hours, and is very much at the whim of the client and his circumstances. In a year or two I hope to be over the hump."
Living on Enthusiasm
Sheer enthusiasm keeps him going, Lehrer said.
"To me architecture, for all its hassles, still grabs me as the most romantic of all callings."
Eric Kahn, 29, and Ron Golan, 31, work out of a converted beauty parlor on a run-down stretch of Washington Boulevard in South Los Angeles. Since going into business a year ago, they have shared less than $10,000 in fees, from a commission to plan the interior of a company that makes videos in Larchmont Village, and from the design of a master bedroom suite addition to Kahn's parents' house in the Pacific Palisades.
"We have sufficient savings to last us another six months or so," Kahn said. "But we'll survive. We're confident we can do good work. Being our own masters, with no dependents, we can put everything we have into our work."
Kahn and Golan, who met as students at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, rented their $450-a-month office space before receiving any commissions.
"The video office was a referral from another architect," Golan said. "The total project budget was under $50,000, including furniture, and we spent hundreds of hours doing it."
Selected to exhibit a range of their design ideas in the 1986 national competition of New York City's Architectural League, Kahn and Golan said their models and sketches were an attempt to return architecture to the level of idea.
Said Kahn: "The reality of architectural practice involves so much compromise that we find we need to refresh our minds with investigations of pure form."
Tougher for Women
The struggle to make it as an independent is even tougher for a young woman because architecture remains a male-dominated profession. Despite the increasing number of women architecture students, no current superstars and few top professionals are women.
But these facts do not faze Polly Osborn. Since graduating from the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Santa Monica (SCI-ARC) a year ago, she has established an office in Santa Monica, been commissioned to design several houses and hired one full-time assistant as well as a secretary one day a week, she said.
"True, I'm scraping by on a personal income of well under $1,000 a month, but I bunk in with my boyfriend and live frugally. Life is exciting. I'm so happy I set up on my own right off the bat," she said.
Architecture is Osborn's third profession. Now 38, she entered SCI-ARC after working as a photographer in New York and in the Napa Valley, and as a "human potential" trainer.
Prejudice From Contractors
Osborn said she has encountered no prejudice from clients but said some contractors can pose problems.
"Some are openly crude. One told a client that a woman was fine for picking out curtain patterns, but not for the tough stuff of supervising the building construction.
"More typical are the people who wonder why there are not many more women designers, especially in the residential field. They feel we might be more sympathetic to the challenges of domestic architecture."
Indeed, a client's character can be crucial to a beginning architect's frame of mind.
Need 'Courageous Clients'
"A designer starting out needs courageous clients," Bielski said. "The kind that like to take chances. After all, he or she would feel much more secure going with an established office. On the other hand, they know a young architect will give them heart and soul. We really earn our fees."
Developer David Green, for whom Bielski designed two single-family homes on a Woodland Hills lot, said the young architect "did an outstanding job. It was a very difficult site, and Janek gave the project much more time and care than an established architect would have been able to do. You can say we both came out of the experience feeling very good."