small projects :: time management

Troy Hill Concept Sketch 1

I enjoy being a small practitioner. I’ve only worked in small offices. I live in a small town.

There is nothing small about what I do or who I am. Perhaps we need a new adjective, yet don’t offend easily and I don’t care to be politically correct. We can keep the term.

Troy Hill Concept Sketch 2

What is it like to be a solo-practitioner working on small projects? Several months ago a friend whispered in my ear to share a glimpse into the development of small projects. The first topic is time.


For this topic, I’ll use a current project. For my business minded friends, I’ll admit I missed the mark on time management. The work was more important, but that’s another topic, another day.

I’ve shared recently about a small, 350 square foot bedroom/bath addition to a 1920’s house in Pittsburgh. Let me interject, this is even a small project for my office. Perhaps this makes the story more relevant.

Site Diagram

My client is astute enough to hire an architect; they wanted something more than more space. They needed a first floor bedroom to have in place for when they might really need it, but also wanted something special that they (and I) could be proud of at the end. I gave that to them and to quote a good friend of mine, I gave them a “machine in a garden” too.

How did we get there?

Small projects require quickly developed concepts. The fees only permit a few hours to conceive of an idea and present it for approval. It takes real skill (and a bit of luck) to present an idea that gains approval without multiple iterations and revisions. I believe in iterations, but in practice (as opposed to school), time is money.

In other words, there is no time for relentless studies, multiple study models, or endless formal manipulations. Being adept at efficient concept development comes with time, practice, a keen listening skill and confidence in one’s ability. On the other hand, what most people need to understand is every project requires certain drawings and documentation to explain it to a client and explain it to a contractor. Small projects still take time.

There is no way to do it any quicker and yield a result of any value. I wish more people understood this.

To illustrate how few hours are allocated for each phase, let me share a bit of personal information. For this project, I budgeted about 20 hours for Schematic Design. Within that time (less than three full days of work), we had to meet the client, field measure critical dimensions, analyze the site and program, develop ideas, document and present them. For this particular project, I even had help from my friend Jeremiah for Schematic Design. To be honest, we went over this a bit, but what we had to do in less than three days, several weeks are given to students in architecture school to get this far. That doesn’t happen in practice. To be honest, we actually spent 33 hours, but since that included time to coordinate and interview three different contractors, we were permitted to bill for the additional time.

Schematic Floor Plan

I mentioned one must be adept at developing solutions. Again, I believe in an iterative process, but with experience, one can become proficient at testing multiple ideas and in a small practice, each idea isn’t developed with a full set of drawings and a model. Quick sketches will do. If we’ve listened well in the early programming meeting, asked the right questions and have confidence in our proposal, we can put forth a strong concept, gain client approval and survive as a business.


Just to complete the story, we allocated about 65 hours to get through Design Development and Construction Documents. I’ll be honest, I really missed the mark here – but that’s mostly my fault (or obsessive personality) and due to additional time meeting with the contractor for budget reviews. Based on that, we were permitted to bill a few additional hours. However, to stay within our own budget, that gave us less than three weeks (yes, three weeks) to develop the project in detail and produce very detailed documents (17 sheets) that are currently being used for construction. I’ll admit a banal addition stuck on the back of a house could be done quicker, but I don’t believe it fair to compare that type of project to this.

Exterior Details

Cladding Details

Now that it’s under construction, I have to be really careful with how much time I bill for contract administration. Yes, the client permitted additional billings earlier, but they’re also concerned about the total fee. It’s about clear communication.

If you follow my office on social media, you’ll see how this develops.

Small projects…not for the faint at heart. We do it every day and aim to elevate them above the norm.

Perhaps others could have done an addition in less time, but I doubt one as complex as this with a tight budget and this many details could be done in less time – and done well. Perhaps that’s just me. To me, it’s all about the work.

The next topic, budget.

small projects :: time management

7 thoughts on “small projects :: time management

  1. Interesting take. One point – I don’t know where you went to architecture school, but, during my tenure at Auburn, I do not recall ever, and I mean ever, having three weeks to design, draw, construct a model, etc. of anything akin to a 350 SF addition townhouse!! However, on the flip side, I have spent four weeks on relatively small renovations to a classic minimalist house I just purchased for myself. So maybe you have point. I think good architects tend dismiss the management aspect during design. It’s too important to get it right. And when you are your own client – FAGETABOUTIT!!!!

    1. Well Doyle, in my more than 12 years teaching at Carnegie Mellon University, we had many projects of a small scale last for more than three weeks. We do a project in first year that takes the latter half of the first semester that’s comprised of a 20′ x 20′ x 20′ cube in a landscape that is 80′ square. For the student’s first design project (ever), it takes all of that time to lead them through, develop a narrative and site strategy and then ultimately develop the presentation drawings and model. Three weeks is really not that long – and since they’re not getting paid or billing someone, they’ll put in more hours in three weeks, than even you and I do in practice. In later years, they’re expected to develop much larger projects in brief time periods.

  2. Drishti Desai says:

    Dear Mr Calisti,

    I am a fourth year architecture student from India, and I have recently started to understand how to merge the abstract projects we make at school with the practicality of a real world project. This post certainly helps me further with it.
    I am writing to you to thank you for the wonderful inspiration that you’ve been, to architecture students everywhere, helping us to understand every single aspect of the profession and to develop a passion for fixing the minutest details until every project reeks of perfection.

    Thank you
    Drishti Desai

  3. dwmarc2014 says:

    Tis fine. But next time don’t chisel yourself & the owners out of the extra 2′ feet of space behind the bed that would have made this room much more comfortable. The added cost would have been negligible. BTW, methinks you are a credit to the profession. But sometimes one doesn’t see the forest for the trees.

    1. Kind words indeed, so thank you.

      We’re agreed on the size, but there was no more room to go. We got a variance to extend closer to the property line to the north (long shot), the driveway was the border to the south (hence the angled walls), going to the east just made the room awkwardly narrow. We actually had to have the concrete truck come into the neighbor’s yard since it wouldn’t fit up the driveway. I thought they’d have to use shovels to dig the foundation and wheelbarrows to get the concrete from the street. It’s a great story.

  4. Andrew says:

    Interesting post. I’m enthralled by this subject in general. Small projects
    deserve architects too. But I haven’t seen many business models that deal
    with this very well. Usually a big project brings in the dough and allows
    you to play on the little one. Bad business if you ask me.

    Interesting to look at your details. Simple profiles for Windows and other
    techniques to save time. And limiting iterations for owner review. There
    must be so many other efficiency-based decisions that allow you to make a
    small project profitable.

    I have a book that I love – from the 70’s – and includes FLW houses in 9
    sheets, morphosis house in 2, etc. It’s hard to detune from the big house,
    dozen wall section doc model with hefty fee to be able to lean down and
    provide good design and good service packaged and priced well. Would love to
    hear more posts about this subject in general

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