nothing small about small

I am not a person who generally takes on the role of “language police” when it comes to architecture. Debating terminology and titles is just a sporting event, but a recent article by Aaron Seward in Architect Magazine had a few of us with our “noses knocked out” (as my British mother used to say) with his “editorial slip.” In the course of a larger article dealing with code issues, he casually used the phrase “small-time architects working on minor buildings.” Several of us responded online and in writing and I will admit a sincere apology appeared online and on the AIA Small Project Practitioners Blog. The online version of the article has been edited. However, I must use the opportunity to discuss the thoughts it generated as I pondered this adjective “small” as it relates to either architecture firms or architectural projects.

Although I understand the context of the article and what it implied in an honest sense with no permanent offense taken, I must pause for the sake of intellectual jousting to respond to those who may not offer the same degree of respect to all members of our profession. Remember 79% of AIA Member firms have 10 persons or less so let’s not be condescending in any comments related to ‘small firms’ or ‘small projects’. Even with all of that, I am not interested in being defensive, but actually the opposite. We must be willing to accept many realities that ‘small projects’ bring which may be proportionately more challenging than a large building. However, I also have many positives to celebrate being an architect with a small firm who works on small projects. Yet as I too can’t escape the innocent use of that word, I’d like to clarify that those who have hired me and those who use the buildings I design are by no means ‘small’ in any definition of the word. Your project is equally as significant as the tallest of buildings. In some respects even more.

Before you may respond with exceptions to my points that follow, I am not stating that these are the absolute rules. Neither should one imply that if I share one observation about small firms or small cities that the opposite is true for large firms or large cities. I am just stating my perceptions and experiences of the challenges many of us have as small firms in small cities. No complaints, I love where I live. I’m just supporting all of us who have chosen to work in these regions and how our small victories should be celebrated with more enthusiasm than when NYC gets a new skyscraper or Washington DC gets another museum on the Mall.

Budgets – Yes, all projects have budgets that must be respected and met. However, on small projects there is little or no economy of scale involved from a cost or material use standpoint. Space is at a premium. For instance, a small office may require a similar amount of area given over to stairs, elevators and bathrooms as an office many times larger. Therefore more of the available area is taken up by support features. This is especially critical when the space is being leased and the owner wants to maximize the leasable area without being burdened by complying with the code. This could be a subject all to itself, but when we discuss proportionate costs, small projects seem to be more difficult to solve. After the entire budget is spent on code items and support features, there is nothing left for anything inspirational, let alone functional.

Building Codes – This is another category that has disproportionate effects on the budget and feasibility of a small project. As mentioned above, two required stairs could eat up most of the usable space. Accessibility is another challenge that I’ve struggled with my entire career. It is a real challenge to find resources to renovate small existing buildings when accessible features like ramps, entrances, larger bathrooms, and even elevators are involved. We all support their inclusion, but a fifty-foot long ramp on a $50,000 project is a major difference proportionately than a fifty-foot long ramp on a $50M project. Other issues like dealing with fire separations, fire alarm systems and any other life safety feature poses real challenges if not impossibilities with the smaller project. There are almost no exceptions within the code for the small project. Do we wonder why it’s so hard to get them built and have small businesses invest in architecture?

Public awareness and knowledge of architecture – In response to the “small town” slur, it seems true from my limited and distorted perspective that there is less awareness of architecture and exposure to different architectural expressions in a small town since there is just less architecture and people are more likely to be indigenous. A large city for instance is filled with buildings everywhere and of all scales and time periods. So it is more likely for residents to walk past a great new museum, library or other inspiring work thus broadening their world of vision without showing an interest in the subject. If you are surrounded with Ryan Homes,  the local strip mall and the 1950’s school (in desperate need of renovation) where your kid attends, then it becomes more difficult to have a wider palette of architectural expressions accepted.

Projects and Staff – Small firms must operate lean and everybody is involved in everything. I happen to enjoy this part. However having to manage multiple projects simultaneously requires architects to be efficient, organized and extremely busy. There is simply less time and fee to explore any particular design feature.

Less publicity in magazines – I may take it on the chin for this one. However in all of my years of reading and collecting architectural journals my perception is that there is a large emphasis on star-architects, large firms, large projects and large cities. It’s the small firm, small project and small city that gets the ‘feature’ once or twice a year.  I know they claim that good architecture is good architecture regardless and that’s their focus. However, once you’re a star, you could sneeze on a napkin and they’d publish it as good architecture. (I hope this doesn’t blackball me from the major journals now.)

Big Impact: Let’s not be so blue. I’ve chosen my path so I’m not complaining. I have some benefits that I could never have had when I worked downtown in a larger city. I generally recommend to my students to return to their homes or move to a smaller community and work to make a difference somewhere other than NYC or L.A. There is a large world out there distant from architects and architectural services. They need great architecture too. Since there are less projects going on at any one particular time, a new building or renovation of a building downtown gets noticed by everyone in town. This is something I certainly enjoy and appreciate.

Flexibility of schedule – As a one person office whose studio is part of my home, I enjoy a great flexible schedule. It allows me to teach part-time and spend a tremendous amount of time with my son. It’s important to remember that there are a variety of rewards to this profession besides a paycheck.

Connectivity – I find that in my world I get to be connected to all types of people and economic levels. That’s not meant to be derogatory; it just means we work with more small business owners and homeowners and less Fortune 500 CEO’s, university presidents and government officials. I appreciate the social aspect of my work and being able to be connected to my clients and the contractors who build my projects. In addition to the personal connections, there is a greater involvement with more aspects of the project. As a sole proprietor, I am connected to all aspects of the project. In small firms all team members get to contribute to all aspects of the project. It’s real collaboration.

This is my perception. Tell me I’m wrong, that’s fine. I have no beef against larger firms or larger anything. I am for all architects. However, when someone doesn’t offer the same level of respect, even with an innocent slip, something needs to be politely said. If we truly do our jobs as architects, we’re all big.

photos are from gmarcelo’s stock photo gallery on Stock.Xchng (used under the Standard Restrictions)

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nothing small about small

10 thoughts on “nothing small about small

  1. That fellow’s “small” comment generated a substantial post here.
    As to your “tell me I’m wrong” challenge, I must pass. I can’t disagree with any of your points.

    Please keep up the good work, in your practice and in your blogging.

  2. I have to say as a “small” office in a largish city, it is the “smaller” clients who ultimately appreciate their projects the most. Like you, I find smaller projects frequently provide larger challenges and more satisfaction!

    1. The size of the city where the project is located is more relevant than where the architect has his/her office. But people who live in smaller towns have a different perspective and expectation about architecture that keeps the architects who design for them off of the radar.

  3. Jane Griswold Radocchia says:

    why did I never join the AIA?
    They have no idea what I do, that it is important, or that I can even make a living working on old houses.

    1. They’re trying to fix that gap with the CRAN committee which we have a component of in my chapter. It will be what we make of it, but it will be awhile until it makes a difference.

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