downtown mulvane

I started writing this post months ago and put in on the shelf. Now that it is year’s end, I’ve been thinking, frustrated, and thinking again. Posts over this past year from some of my favorite bloggers and virtual friends are getting at the reality of being an architect. By the way, it is not like those days in architecture school where we would spend most of our time “designing” when in reality, most architects spend very little time “designing”.

To me, this ‘reality’ of being an architect is exemplified in the overlooked small firm. There are hundreds of important tasks that need to be done to manage a project and often the time allotted to designing can’t be savored because the reality of practice insists on efficiency and quick, smart moves because “time is money” and fees are low. Those working in a small firm must master this multitude of tasks simply because there is no one else to delegate these tasks. I often feel they are overlooked in the media for making the real difference in the architectural community. Even though we gravitate towards these design journals for inspiration or even a diversion from the day-to-day, they can potentially do more harm than good as they often venerate the usual suspects that alienate us as architects from the general public. Architectural Record just published their yearly Design Vanguard showcasing up-and-coming firms (which are typically small firms). I wouldn’t want to do away with this promotion of young firms yet I’d like to see something solely American and something that more people (other than architects) could relate to and interact with easily.


I’m not here to promote myself by any means but offer credit to the countless number of sole-proprietor architects and architects working in very small firms who juggle a litany of tasks that frequently go unnoticed. (According to various sources including an AIA Firm Survey from 2012, 91% of architecture firms have less than 19 employees and 81% have less than 9 employees). I’ll go on to give extra-credit to those who are balancing work with their personal lives, architects who have given up or avoided the lure of the big city and big name firm because they’ve chosen to make more time for their families and/or contribute to a small community. Yes, you may be able to do this successfully if you work in a big city and/or for a big firm (I’m not being ‘exclusive’), but I am impressed at the architect who lives in a small town who is active in their community and finds time to drop off their kids at school or perhaps pick them up daily. These architects may be working on less visible or less glamorous projects simply to pay the bills yet they sacrifice for something far more important. Furthermore, their projects may mean far more to the clients who hired them than the clients of large corporate projects.

I admit that a large cultural institution or similar major public project can be the catalyst for change in a city’s rebirth and by no means am I minimizing the contributions of any group of architects. But one great project in a small town can have more impact on it than another project in the vastness of NYC. I’m simply seeking balance and rooting for the underdog.

Instead of giving so much magazine space to another star narcissist, let’s feature architects in a more accurate light so the public can find a better way to relate to us. (***gasp*** would that sell magazines or magazine advertising?) In other words, let’s give press to these unsung (majority) heroes making a difference in their communities offering design to forgotten areas that really benefit from the thinking and planning architects offer. Wouldn’t it start to benefit the practice as well as make architects more accessible to the general public?

So what do you think? Am I off base? Am I inaccurate? How can we measure who is really making a difference? Interview the clients? Interview the users? I’d love to hear your stories.

Main Street Adams County Iowa

top photo is from swopedesig’s stock photo gallery on Stock.Xchng (used under the Standard Restrictions)

click on subsequent photos for source


12 thoughts on “overlooked

  1. I’ve spent a large part of the past year designing projects for clients and friends in my community. 2 of these returned long standing eyesores to the contributing tax base. Awards, no. Community improvement, yes. Professional satisfaction, immeasurable!

  2. You my blogging friend have hit the nail on the head. I began working for myself in 2010 and have struggled to make connections, network the business community and shamelessly self promote my services. What I have found is that while it is true that you must give something to the community (with no expectations) in order to receive, the community sees architects as wealthy, expensive, overhead and typically respond that they don’t need a new flashy building. The trade magazines focus solely on the starchitects and do nothing to promote a realistic image of the everyday architect. I have been involved with numerous small projects, one of which is a renovation to a private residence that updates accessibility for the handicap owner. That project provided me with personal satisfaction knowing I helped someone. If the AIA truely wanted to help the profession it would focus on promoting the myriad of services that architects can provide besides designing sculptures that serves as buildings.

  3. Enoch Sears says:

    Yes Lee, you are way off base. Just kidding. Actually you pulled some of my heart strings causing me to reflect on the decision to eschew big city life in favor of proximity to family.
    I do doubt that most students going down the path of architecture have the foresight to make and understand the effects of these decisions early on.

    1. I am typically way off base, but it comes with the territory. I hear more and more these days of how students are incapable or have the foresight to make these decisions. I tend to agree and see adolescence and immaturity hangs around far too long in our American culture. I can’t say I made my life choices with wisdom and forethought, but I also (with the help of my wife) was able to correct the path I was on frequently when it got off course. As for the media, well, they’ll always be an evil that none of us can resist.

  4. I rarely read the ‘zines, for as you, Lee, allude to in the blog, who has the time as a sole proprietor, doing a myriad of tasks? The local small city economy has been atrocious the past four and half years, and the lure of the big city bucks sometimes beckons, ” if only I could do the stint in NYC for a two year tour, well “. But then it always comes back to, if I am true to the original living intentions, as it has taken decades to arrive here, it is so hard a freedom to let go of by being sucked into mindless pace, the lure of money requires.

    There is the confidence the Cosmos backs us, the little ones (architects), to do the big things the ma earth requires of us, this moment, for the grandchildren’s’ grandchildren sake …..the modular, the net zero plus city, the nobile mobile, the railway express, … the list is endless, time short, chances slim, the hope unparalleled ! Great Works to all of you …. 2013 and following !!

    1. Thanks for sharing your perspective. I wouldn’t want every architect to leave the big firm and big city. In fact without them, so many things would never happen. My primary point is to give attention and kudos to the thousands of architects who lead a quiet, peaceable life in a small town and a small practice. Their contributions are priceless.

  5. Lee, you are writing about me, and for that I thank you. It’s as if you read my mind and wrote my story in this post. I work solo and have some neat projects but many ordinary ones. I call myself a problem solver because the project may not be glamorous but it’s HUGE to the client because it has positively improved their lives and I get a buzz seeing happy clients delighted with their finished project, no matter how humble or unworthy of the journals. It often does feel like I’m “toiling” and I get discouraged and wonder about going back to the big firm in the city. But I’ve been there, done that. And though I haven’t replaced my old salary (getting close) at 3+ years in, I get my daughters off to school, pick them up, have a much better family life and my wife has stated repeatedly how much better it is than when I used to leave at 7:30am and come home at 7pm. She is adamant, as am I, that this is a significantly higher quality of life for our family and young kids. I am also spoiled by running my own firm because it’s so much fun, despite the many challenges. Most of my work is in my immediate community and has come from friends, family, PTA connections, my kid’s school and local contractors.

    So thanks for this post, it really resonated with me. I recently discovered your blog and I’m enjoying the posts and your POV. I also appreciated your extensive interview on Enoch’s website. Thanks for sharing your story.

    1. Thank you Cary, I needed the encouragement today. It’s almost midnight and I’m still up working as my family sleeps. It’s what we do in exchange for the perks. I’d love to stay in touch and learn from each other. It seems you have some nice work on your site.

      1. Good on your for staying up late and getting it done. I’m doing the same. Thanks for the nice comments. Soon I’ll update my website with newer projects…I’ve been having professional photos taken because a lot has happened since I posted much of what’s on the site. I’d love to keep in touch and I’ll be a regular reader here at think|architect. Nice work on your site also, BTW – some beautifully designed and resolved projects, such as your own house. Very inspiring to me.

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